When Kelly Clarkson released her third album, "My December," last June, many
writers portrayed the cherub-cheeked ''American Idol'' winner turned defiant
rocker grrrl as a valiant David battling the music industry Goliath of
record company chief Clive Davis.
The 25-year-old Texas singer objected
when Davis tried to repeat the winning formula of smash hits such as "Since
U Been Gone" by pairing her with the best pop songwriters, musicians and
producers that money could buy. This time, she was going to do things her
way: recording her own darker, more serious songs with her chosen band in
the more substantive style she claims to favor. (She cited Bruce
Springsteen's ''Nebraska'' as a model.)
Although she and Davis have reportedly reconciled, Clarkson paid a price
for rebelling against the star-making svengali: The new album hasn't been
nearly as successful as its predecessors, ''Thankful'' (2003) and
''Breakaway'' (2004), and poor ticket sales forced the cancellation of a
summer arena tour that was to have stopped at the Allstate Arena in July.
The star finally performed Thursday at the much smaller but by no means
shabby Chicago Theatre, and the problem with the notion of ''Kelly as
uncompromising heroine and artistic visionary'' became obvious: The new
material -- which dominated the set -- is solipsistic, bombastic, joyless
and utterly unconvincing, cribbing more from Pat Benatar and Loverboy than
To bolster her attempt to convince us that she can rock hard and be, you
know, really heavy, Clarkson blasted AC/DC music before taking the stage.
But the gambit backfired: Few bands could shake us any harder all night
long, and Kelly and her seven central-casting backing musicians weren't even
on the same continent as those Aussie immortals in terms of being up to the
The best of Clarkson's older tunes -- ''Behind These Hazel Eyes,'' ''Miss
Independent'' and ''Breakaway'' -- at least conveyed a sugary pop buzz. Like
eating too much Halloween candy, you suspected you'd pay for it tomorrow
with a stomachache or a trip to the dentist. But it sure tasted good going
In contrast, plodding new tunes such as "One Minute," "Never Again,"
''Sober'' and ''Don't Waste Your Time'' were not only lacking in musical
nourishment, they were as bitter and unpleasant as a mouthful of vinegar.
To be certain, Clarkson isn't lacking as a singer: Her voice is a soulful
instrument capable of considerable power as well as gentle subtlety, as she
showed midway through her 75-minute set when she paused to breathe during
her own lovely ballad ''Be Still'' and indulge in the gospel stylings of
Patty Griffin's ''Up to the Mountain.''
In the end, what Clarkson lacks is taste. Clearly, she needs someone to
rein in her worst impulses and steer her in better directions. Davis may not
be the best man for this job. But she's only done worse on her own.
Opening for Clarkson was piano-playing pop wannabe Jon McLaughlin, a
well-groomed and overly polished singer-songwriter touring behind a debut
album named for his home state: ''Indiana.''
Whether Chicago concertgoers were trying to be neighborly or they just
appreciated the many times McLaughlin dropped Clarkson's name, the opener
got a relatively warm reception -- though if I want Maroon 5/James
Blunt-style easy-listening (and I don't), I'll turn to those acts.