Kelly Clarkson
Credit: Kelly Clarkson: Tony Duran

Forgive Kelly Clarkson’s recent guest appearance on ”American Idol.” Perhaps she was distressed by the war in Iraq — or by the eight new wannabes vying for her crown — but the wholesome Clarkson looked like she had swallowed Christina Aguilera and was regurgitating her all over the stage as she performed ”Miss Independent,” the first single from her new album, Thankful. It was an unfortunate makeover from the Aretha-beltin’ white chick we elected last September, the woman whose tears during her winning rendition of ”A Moment Like This” were so heartfelt, grown men cried along with her. (Oh wait, was that just me?)

It turns out that without the unsettling visual cues (the ”Solid Gold” dancers, the hair extensions), ”Independent” is a kickin’ tune, even if its title doesn’t aptly describe the album’s creation. Judging from the liner notes and thank-yous, Clarkson had input from almost every person who voted for her, from ”AI” mastermind Simon Fuller to Aguilera, who had a hand in ”Miss Independent,” to teacher Mrs. Glenn. Maybe all this collaboration explains the disc’s five-month delay.

But enough nit-picking. Clarkson had access to top talent for her debut — Babyface, Diane Warren, Clive Davis — and she deserved it. Her voice, at times raspy, at times beautifully sultry, is a potent reminder of why America embraced her. Clarkson glides through octaves with the masterful control of someone who’s been doing this for decades. And her range is awesome: In a dozen tracks, she owns pop (”Just Missed the Train”), R&B (”Thankful”), country (”Low”), and gospel (”Anytime”), and has enough stamina left to take on her strongest competitor, Tamyra Gray. The duo’s spunky ”You Thought Wrong” is the best diva dustup since Brandy and Monica’s ”The Boy Is Mine” in 1998.

Such a genre-busting act is no doubt hard to market — which probably explains her unfortunate Aguilera drag. (Clips from her upcoming ”Grease”-like film look equally misguided.) Hopefully, Clarkson’s management team will simply exploit her abilities (which include songwriting — she helped pen some of the most promising tunes) rather than her image. If not, it’ll be enough to make a grown man cry — again.

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