The first season of American Idol was a pop culture sensation the likes of which we rarely see. The British import that combined a singing competition with the ruthless business savvy of Simon Cowell's quest to manufacture the nation's next pop idol gripped the nation by its throat and had many of us versed in terminology like "Big Band Night" and "Jim Verraros." As the season wore on, uproars over Cowell being mean to the contestants gave way to an intense investment in the contestants themselves. When early-season favorite Tamyra Gray was voted out (instead of the clear choice for elimination, Nikki McKibbin), the outrage gave Idol an irreversible hold on our cultural imagination. Most importantly, it paved the way for a new fan favorite to invest in: Kelly Clarkson. Clarkson was the girl-next-door from Texas who'd proven adept at genres as diverse as Motown, Big Band, and diva pop. After McKibbin was finally slayed at top three, Clarkson moved into the finals against an overmatched Justin Guarini, though there was still plenty of reason to worry that the cute boy would amass enough votes to beat the talented girl. And so we sat on the edge of our seats on finale night, most of us hoping that Kelly could pull it off.
But it wasn't just Kelly Clarkson's coronation that made the initial American Idol finale so compelling. It was her performance of the winning single, a typically treacly ballad called "A Moment Like This," that will be forever embedded in the memory of anyone who saw it. The pageantry! The emotions! The tearful breaking! And then … Nikki got involved. For this crowning performance that was nearly usurped by the show's big villain, we're breaking it down beat by beat:
Prologue: Guarini Defeated: You'd think that the most important moment of the Idol finale would have been the moment that hosts Ryan Seacrest and Brian Dunkleman (aw, Dunkleman's last episode!) announced that Kelly had defeated Justin for the Idol crown. It wasn't, but that doesn't mean it isn't worth making note of Guarini's good show of being thrilled for Kelly. Is it because he knew that, win or lose, he had that guaranteed From Justin to Kelly paycheck waiting for him down the road? Regardless, Justin's last few minutes in the center of the national spotlight were spent being a gracious loser, so good for him.
Then it came time for Kelly to perform the winning Idol song, "A Moment Like This." This was the song that would be released as Kelly's first single, the song that would capitalize on American Idol's momentum and start making the show some serious money.
"What if I told you… ?": That Kelly even gets the first five words of the song out before her voice breaks was probably a small miracle. The biggest moment of her life just happened not one minute ago, Brian Dunkleman is probably still not fully off the stage yet, and her emotions are in overdrive. Not to mention the fact that the lyrics of this song are so absurdly tailored to her current moment, it could basically be called "I Can't Believe I Just Won American Idol."
"Love has come here and now…": Kelly recovers beautifully and powers through to the chorus, at which point she stoops to touch the hands of the screaming children in the front row, bringing full circle Kelly's season of fan adoration, during which she was also, at one point, gifted a teddy bear by one overzealous fan during her performance of "Natural Woman."
"I can't believe it's happening to me… ": Kelly almost makes it to the end of the chorus, but perhaps with the "I can't believe it's happening to me" lyric hitting especially close to home, she breaks again, letting out a "WHOOO!" and fanning her hands to her face to dry her tears in time for the second verse.
"I'm sorry!": Perhaps realizing that she's gonna end up breaking all over this minefield of a song, Kelly precedes the next verse with an "I'm sorry," a gesture so sweet and ultimately unnecessary for her fans who were incredibly eager to forgive any lapses in composure.
"Something so tender… ": Once again, Kelly proves to be a resilient queen, pulling herself together just enough to growl her way through "something so tender" in a way that's kind of hilarious given the softness of that particular lyric. Given the circumstances, though, it plays like Kelly bearing down extra hard on the vocals in order to keep herself from bubbling over into tears.
"Can we make this dream last forever?": Ever the pro, Kelly ends the second verse by casting her eyes to the upper levels, making sure to captivate literally every person in the room and draw them all in to the collective "we" in that lyric.
"Could this be the greatest love of all?": At this, the single cheesiest lyric in an admittedly cheesy song, we should talk about the song itself, which was written by Jörgen Elofsson and John Reid and produced by Stephen Ferrera and Steve Mac. It was in contention to be the lead Idol single with another song, "Before Your Love," which was written by elite songwriters Desmond Richardson and Cathy Dennis. Both were actually released as a double A-side single, though "A Moment Like This," perhaps due to Clarkson's memorable winning performance, would be by far the better known song. Unfortunately, "Before Your Life" didn't include a blatant cribbing of lyrics from a Whitney Houston song, so it never really stood a chance.
"So let me tell you this… ": Kelly takes a soft pause just before the final chorus, which gives the TV cameras time to linger on her tearful mom in the audience.
"For a moment—": Just as Kelly is about to belt out the chorus, she breaks again, swallowing her lyrics and starting to actually cry. As does everyone in the theater. As does everyone at home. Just a nation of weeping Kelly voters.
"Like this!": At the big final-chorus crescendo, a cascade of sparks falls down to the stage behind Kelly, and a phalanx of backup singers emerge. Let no one ever accuse American Idol of failing to imbue a moment with sufficient bombast.
Enter Paula: We get our first glimpse of Paula Abdul at the judges' table, tears on her face and perfecting the seal-clap that would become one of her trademarks on the show.
Enter the Vanquished: Just as the song is wrapping up, Justin Guarini and the other Idol finalists take the stage, a nice moment of solidarity, but one that unknowingly opens the door for a sabateur to enter...
"Some people wait a lifetime…": As her fellow contestants embrace in a group hug, Kelly prepares for one final delivery of "some people wait a lifetime for a moment like this." Her emotion-choked voice falters again, which is all the opening Nikki McKibbin needed to lean into the mic and belt "LIKE THIIIIIIIIS!" like she was still asking America to dial that toll-free number to vote for her.
The final, lasting moment of Kelly's coronation song was the second-runner-up braying the finale when Kelly was too overcome by her victorious emotions to do it. Look at the other face in the frame, Christina Christian, at the same moment. Christina gets into the spirit of the moment, as all the finalists coming together to back Kelly up vocally, but she doesn't lean in and she doesn't belt the line. She supported, while Nikki grabbed for the spotlight. Just an incredible pop culture moment, but also a teachable one: talent wins out, but it must always be on the lookout for treachery.
People are talking about American Idol in our forums. Join the conversation.
Joe Reid is the Managing Editor at Primetimer and co-host of the This Had Oscar Buzz podcast. His work has appeared in Decider, NPR, HuffPost, The Atlantic, Slate, Polygon, Vanity Fair, Vulture, The A.V. Club and more.