Kelly Clarkson Fails to Shake Off Her Pop Princess Shackles

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By now it seems well-established, mostly because of the success of “Since U Been Gone,” that Kelly Clarkson has done what few alumni from any career-kick-starting reality show (let alone “American Idol”) have: She’s become a successful singer on the merits of her strong singles and solid albums, not because of her affiliation with the show that launched her career. Her quick catapult into fame has also given fans the assurance that up until a few years ago, she was just another face in the crowd, which already sets her apart from the Britney school of divas, and it does so without the cloying antics and marketing that did the same for Avril.

That’s credibility you can’t buy, though with My December, cred seems to be what’s on Clarkson’s mind. For one, she tops Jay-Z’s surprising enlistment of Chris Martin from last year’s Kingdom Come by collaborating with punk icon and bassist extraordinaire Mike Watt (the Minutemen, currently the Stooges) on a handful of tracks. Sure, Double Nickels on the Dime probably wasn’t a major touchstone for Clarkson, but her turn to Watt is no less legitimate than the Stooges’ own ambitions to capture a certain sound by hiring Nirvana and Pixies producer Steve Albini (and The Weirdness tanked a lot harder). But it also feels like a conscious attempt to reach out to indie rock listeners who picked up “Since U Been Gone” on their radars. But instead of sounding earnest, the hard rock sheen on My December comes off as sounding a little dated—perhaps more suited to Linkin Park’s adolescent angst then the confessional work she seems to be pushing for.

There’s also the fact that Clarkson has not shied away from talking about her clashes with producer Clive Davis, who was reportedly so unsatisfied with the album that he suggested scrapping it—only to headbutt with Clarkson, who has compared her album to such commercially unsuccessful but critically lauded albums as Bruce Springsteen’s Nebraska. Judging by the album, though, the qualities that both parties associate with a commercially infertile product seem questionable. Davis’ judgements stem from the assumption that Clarkson is a pop star in the “Idol” sense of the word, where only singles are taken into account. It’s a dismissive ideology and it discounts Clarkson’s ambitions to be a career artist.

Clarkson, on the other hand, in an effort to establish legitimacy as a pop star away from the bubble gum league, is perhaps too ambitious in her comparisons to the Boss. She also buys into the fallacy that albums rejected by record labels inherently paint the artist as visionary rebel and martyr, and the record label as evil corporation. It’s dogma that’s been projected on listeners often, with Wilco’s Yankee Hotel Foxtrot and Fiona Apple’s Extraordinary Machine coming to mind as recent examples. And while this may be good for publicity, it doesn’t always amount to a work that was worth the fight. There are no standouts on My December—mild tracks like “Sober” slip by unnoticed between maudlin rockers, and it’s not until “How I Feel,” the album’s tenth track, that you get a whiff of levity.

If there’s consistency on My December, it’s consistent in the sense that while Clarkson never does anything damning of her ambitions to be a great singer-songwriter, she never quite proves herself either. Tracks like “Judas” look to the Killers’ brand of synth-rock for direction, but Clarkson is at her best when the music is stripped of its unremarkable arrangements; when it finds catharsis in more compelling ways than simply turning up the volume. She’s on the cusp of something more compelling, and by all accounts, My December feels like a transitional album, since she sounds neither comfortable as a diva nor a rocker.

Kelly Clarkson is still a pop singer, albeit a more likeable one than most, and once she comes to terms with this and finds a fitting sound, she’ll likely have more gems up her sleeve.

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