American Idol Top 30 Performances of All Time: No. 2, Kelly Clarkson, “(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman”

That hat & tie tho

That hat & tie tho

When did you know?

Depending on your ear, there’s quite a few Kelly Clarkson performances you’d call the moment you knew she was a star and trying to pick one that everyone likes is like trying to nail down a pizza order at a party with 100 people. No one’s gonna agree what that one is.

There are some older performances on the Top 30 that make it because of what they meant to the history of the show; Clarkson’s different. The problem with Clarkson is you can run through almost all her Idol showings and make the argument they belong on the list. In terms of raw talent, she’s the best contestant Idol – or any other singing show – has had (sorry Glamberts; Adam’s great, but he had a professional stage background before coming to Idol. Clarkson was a waitress who sang for fun).

What makes Clarkson’s performance of Aretha’s “(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman” the choice for the second-best performance in Idol history is what it did both for Kelly and for the show itself. If she sings this in the final round or in the Top 3, it’s place in TV history is undeniable. It would be “the moment.”

It was sung a little early in the show – but this is, at least for this guy, the moment everyone should have realized Kelly Clarkson was going to be a legend.

THE SITUATION: This was Idol before it was Idol. There wasn’t strategy because there was nothing to go off of. There were no instruments, so there really weren’t crazy covers or stripped down versions of pop/hip-hop hits. This was all vocals. Stage performance didn’t matter much. Just stand up and sing.

There’s no place for Aretha in today’s Idol. We haven’t seen anyone who can sing it vocally and contestants who take on big songs and miss are usually send packing ASAP.

But this was different. If you look at the first season song selections, it’s huge ballad after huge ballad. It’s big vocals or GTFO.

Kelly was slowly picking up steam as a fan favorite on Twitter Facebook MySpace baseless speculation and pop-up internet sites because blogs didn’t quite exist yet. Producers had given upside-down mop Justin Guarini and pop-punk teen Ryan Starr a lot of screen time. Tamyra Gray was the balladeer of choice because of her voice and because she appealed to a demographic producers wanted in the show.

Clarkson was an afterthought. She was a good story but not a pop princess.

And then she came out on stage, dripping sex, and mic dropped in front of everyone.

HIGHLIGHTS: You can tell someone is crazy hot if they look crazy hot in a pixelated, non-HD YouTube clip. If you didn’t like the button-up half-shirt with tie and hat look, leave now.

For a 90-second performance, there’s like four moments where you’re just like

So once she comes out and you pick your jaw off the floor (I’m not even kidding about this wardrobe choice; probably my No. 1 All-Time look in Idol history unless someone pulls an MTV Awards L’il Kim. Google that, kiddos) her voice hits and it’s perfection. There’s a tempo, but it’s not rushed. There’s a calmness in her voice, strange because A LOT of Idols with better credentials than KC have gagged in a similar spot. She lets the song build and then hits the first big note.

When she starts finishing off the “because you’re the key to my piece of mind” you know what’s coming but you don’t expect it to be this good. She doesn’t oversing the chorus. She just nails it, but things are about to get better.

Holding the note on the “oh baby/what you’ve done to me” is the best transition Idol has ever had. No one, and I mean no one, has carried a note as perfectly as Clarkson did that night. I’ve listened to this version every time and every time she hits it I just close my eyes and sway side to side and get lost in it. The only better three seconds you’ll have is when you lose your virginity. The power and poise in that note alone sends chills through your soul and if you don’t get them, get yourself to church because that is God speaking directly to the people.

That second verse is ridiculous. She gains confidence and you can see and here it. She breaks out a little Haley Reinhardt growl before that was cool. There’s so much attitude and then she hits the high note – which no one, and I mean no Idol contestant, should ever, ever, ever try and do – on the “you make me feel so alive” before getting back to a deeper note with some oomph in it.

And then some rando rushes the stage, gets a hugs and hands her flowers.


You need to smoke after listening to that because it’s that good.

WHY IT’S HERE: When the list was originally completed, I started writing. The process took far longer than I thought because I didn’t see myself writing 1,000-plus words for each performance, but if you’re going to do a Top 30 American Idol Performances of All Time list, you have to do better than a slide show. Just like high school math – you gotta show your work.

When I hit the Top 10, I wanted to rewatch performances to make sure I was happy. I wasn’t. I loved them in the Top 10, just not necessarily the order they were in.

Originally, “Natural Woman” was No. 8 with “A Moment Like This” at No. 2. I listened to them both and realized that while “A Moment Like This” was a crowning moment for Clarkson, not to mention the American Idol brand, it wasn’t the vocal or performance “Natural Woman” was.

I listened to each song that was ahead of it and it kept moving up in the ranks. Clarkson’s vocal is so good it surpasses every great performance in the Top 10. Song choice plays a huge role in this, but Clarkson’s ability to sing it as good as Aretha is undeniable. If she was a contestant on Season 14 and sang this, “Natural Woman” would get a huge bump on iTunes, the video would have gone viral and Harry Connick Jr., Keith Urban and J-Lo wouldn’t be able to give it the due it deserves because they praise everyone to the high heavens and that’s without seeing something as good as this.

Clarkson’s vocals that season are all on point, but this performance is what American Idol producers had to imagine as the ideal way to win the show – pick a song people know, look like a star on stage and sing the ever-loving crap out of it.

No one has gotten on the Idol stage and sung as well as Kelly Clarkson did that night and, barring a minor miracle, it’s something that will never change. You can’t beat perfect.

PREVIOUSLY: No. 3, Phillip Phillips, “We’ve Got Tonight”
NEXT UP: The masterpiece by the man who should have won