By Lanford Beard
January 22, 2012 at 06:07 PM EST
Mike Coppola/Getty Images

Kelly Clarkson is the kind of girl you want to root for.

It was interesting that she chose to begin her Radio City Music Hall concert last night by flashing headlines telling the story of her career (and life) lowlights: “Album Leaks Again,” “29 & Still Single,” “Losing Sponsors,” “Failure,” “Fat.” This graphical re-telling of some of the digs she’s faced since winning American Idol 10 years ago was not a plea for pity. It was a call to arms, a reminder — we’ve all been there, and Kelly has gotten us out of it.

Moments later, when the drums dropped and Clarkson’s dynamic voice fired up on her “I am who am, we are who we are, and we’re worth it!” anthem “Dark Side,” she immediately had everyone in the 6,000-seat venue on her side. (As if they weren’t there already.) Indeed, it seems like the writers of those smear stories and the boys who inexplicably keep breaking up with Clarkson are in the vast minority as people who aren’t full-tilt Team Kelly — at least inside Radio City this Saturday night.

There was plenty of sparkle coming from Clarkson’s seemingly endless supply of glittery tops last night, but even 20-some rows back, it was clear she also had a sparkle in her eyes. Early in the night, she admitted, “I’ve been flipping out all day” about performing at the venue for the first time. “I’m going to be, like, that annoying cheerleader all night long,” she laughed. “I’m so excited!” That didn’t stop her, of course, from embracing her inner rocker grrrl in the first quarter of the set with hopped-up power single “Since U Been Gone,” fan favorite “Gone,” and the very personal song “You Love Me,” which she explained she’d been trying to get off her chest for the better part of the last decade.

Of course she couldn’t get through the night without dedicating a solid chunk of her 25-song set to the ballad-busting pipes that launched her career. From a mini-medley of songs from her first four albums (including Love Actually‘s “The Trouble With Love Is” and All I Ever Wanted‘s bouncy participation tune “I Want You”) to a gorgeous Glee-evoking a cappella intro for “Already Gone” and the audience-buoying “Breakaway,” Clarkson’s voice was in stunning form that defies time’s toll and the realities of the road.

Throughout the night, there were plenty of nods to her influences past and present as she performed covers of songs from Florence + The Machine (“Heavy in Your Arms”), the Broadway musical Funny Girl (“My Man”), fellow Idol winner Carrie Underwood (“I Know You Won’t”), and the late, great Etta James (“I’d Rather Go Blind”).

The last was a fitting tribute from a girl whose performance of “At Last” was one of the first steps in her very public journey to fame. Clarkson gave a howdy to role model Reba McEntire, who was in the Music Hall last night, by performing her first self-written hit “Because of You.” Also acknowledging her country love, Clarkson performed her Grammy-nominated “Don’t You Wanna Stay” duet with Jason Aldean.

As the evening began, so it ended: Clarkson chose a double-shot of “What Doesn’t Kill You (Stronger)” and “My Life Would Suck Without You” to close her official set. After returning to the stage for her encore and receiving ecstatic cheers to a stripped piano version of the 2007 rocker “Never Again,” Clarkson couldn’t help herself from letting the crowd in on a secret: “I had a hair on my arm the whole time, and it was driving me crazy, but I didn’t want to ruin the moment!” She quipped, “I’m rockin’  it so hard my hair is falling out. What?!” Then, like your wry best friend: “Reason number 337 why I’m single.” Without a beat, she went straight back to performing her “sassy song” “Mr. Know It All” and keeping fists pumping until the very last minute with her first single ever, “Miss Independent.”

For better or worse, Kelly Clarkson is a girl who knows who she is and where she comes from. The irrepressibly dorky, supernaturally talented down-home diva we met so many years ago has remained consistent through break-ups and body changes, the ebb and flow of public opinion, and so many other shifting tides these last 10 years. As the song goes, “What doesn’t kill you….” No one who left Radio City last night had any doubts that Clarkson has emerged from her first decade of fame much, much stronger.

Read more:

Kelly Clarkson pulls off national-anthem hat trick with slated Super Bowl appearance

Kelly Clarkson on the soundtrack of her life: Read her exclusive EW interview here

EW Review: Stronger