There are good live performances, there are powerhouse live performances, and then there was whatever pristine level Kelly Clarkson reached while belting out “Piece By Piece” on American Idol on the night of Feb. 25. Returning to the show that crowned her as the first Idol in 2002 as its final season winds down, Clarkson opted to sing “Piece By Piece,” a piano ballad about the mistakes of her absent father and the path that she and her husband will never follow with their children.
Immediately, the performance contained a special glow, a feeling that this ballad was a seminal moment for the pop star best known for uptempo hits like “Since U Been Gone,” “Stronger (What Doesn’t Kill You)” and “My Life Would Suck Without You.” First, current Idol contestants were shown with tears streaming down their faces; then Idol judge Keith Urban was captured with moist cheeks. Clarkson had to pause the song multiple times to collect herself, and even apologized at the end of the performance (“I’m super pregnant and hormonal!” she explained), but her take on “Piece By Piece” earned her a standing ovation that lasted longer than a minute—and over the past few weeks, much more than that.
The Idol performance of “Piece By Piece,” released a year ago on Clarkson’s full-length of the same name, immediately went viral and made the song the biggest hit to date from the album. “Piece By Piece” roared to No. 8 on the Billboard Hot 100 chart after the performance, with 210,000 downloads and 3.1 million streams in the following week, according to Nielsen Music. The song is still in the Top 20 of the chart, and is growing at radio, making “Piece By Piece” far more than a one-night blip on the radar of pop fans.
“We have a lot of artists doing a lot of TV shows, and the truth of the matter is, it’s extraordinarily rare that something like this happens,” says John Fleckstein, executive VP of RCA Records. “In the world of instant gratification, the song was already out there, [and] it wasn’t anywhere on the charts, but it was so resonant on TV that it immediately spiked. That evening we were all immediately calling each other and emailing each other within our company remarking about how quickly it was moving up the charts. By the next morning, it was in the Top 10, and we were on the phone at 7:00 AM that day convening about what we should do.”
The decision was made for Clarkson to immediately record another version of “Piece By Piece,” dubbed the “Idol Version,” for an instant repackaging of the song originally released in March 2015. Clarkson was in a Los Angeles studio recording the new version of the track the morning after American Idol, and the “Idol Version” was mixed and mastered over that weekend so that it could arrive on Monday, Feb. 29.
For Clarkson, who announced her second pregnancy last August, the success of “Piece By Piece” marks the second straight album in which her highest-charting single was not the lead radio offering. “Stronger (What Doesn’t Kill You)” bested “Mr. Know It All” from 2011’s Stronger, and now “Piece By Piece” has peaked above Piece By Piece’s lead track “Heartbeat Song,” a shimmering uptempo track that topped out at No. 21. It's a powerful ballad that's close to Clarkson's heart, but few could have predicted that it would change the Piece By Piece campaign so dramatically.
“This song from the beginning was always a very important one for her, in terms of its message, and we knew that it was always going to be a single at some point,” notes Fleckstein. “When we started the campaign on the track initially, that was right when she became pregnant. If you’ve seen her live show, it was always a centerpiece, and it was an important song for her. So when Idol came out, the opportunity presented itself, and even though she was pregnant, I think she felt like this was the opportune time to get her message across in a wide platform.”
“It’s extraordinarily rare that something like this happens.”
For Clarkson, that reach is going to continue widening: Fleckstein confirms that, when it comes to the radio push for the new version of the song, “We’re going everywhere,” particularly Top 40 and Hot AC. The song’s initial impact might have come from the Idol performance, but it’s only gained momentum as more program directors pick up on the word-of-mouth buzz that the viral clip (currently with 15 million YouTube views) has caused.
“A lot of people were talking about it [the next day], and called in to talk about how they were crying when they were listening to it—now, it’s just taking a life of its own,” says Sharon Dastur, senior VP of programming at iHeartMedia. Dastur, previously the program director of Z100 in New York, says that the past few weeks have seen big radio launches by Ariana Grande, Meghan Trainor and Fifth Harmony, but that “Piece By Piece” has distinguished itself to listeners. “There’s been a lot of traffic, but this song has cut through in a different way.”
Over the next few weeks, RCA’s mission is to expose “Piece By Piece” to audiences that can’t even watch American Idol in their countries. “We’re also revamping the track in various markets around the world,” Fleckstein notes. “Certain places like Canada and Australia, which both have the show, have gotten a pretty strong reaction out of the gate, and we’re reintroducing the song to radio in the U.K. and to the rest of Europe. It’s a worldwide effort.”
So does that mean that Clarkson, whose performance schedule has been limited due to her pregnancy, could be taking the stage again soon? The pop star stopped by The Ellen DeGeneres Show on Mar. 3 to unveil a “Piece By Piece” reprise, but right now, there are no future performances scheduled.
“I think she would do as much as she possibly can,” says Fleckstein. “At this point, we’ll see what the future brings.”