There comes a day in the inevitably limited career of every prefab pop
princess when she decides it's time to assert herself as an artist,
releasing material that reflects her true musical vision and deepest
feelings rather than performing the sugary anthems so laboriously crafted
This year alone, we've seen this scenario play out with Hilary Duff, Joss
Stone and Avril Lavigne. All of them bucked the odds and scored modest
artistic and commercial successes with their latest discs, though they've
yet to match earlier peaks. But Kelly Clarkson, who releases her third
album, "My December," on Tuesday, may not be so lucky.
The music industry has been buzzing since late April, when legendary
star-maker and RCA/Arista/J Records label chief Clive Davis appeared at a
company conference and complained that Clarkson, the 25-year-old Texas
singer who rose to fame by winning the first season of "American Idol," was
protesting that after two multi-platinum albums and hits-for-hire such as
"Since U Been Gone," she no longer needed the svengali's help and insisted
on recording the tunes she wrote with her band.
The 72-year-old Davis has been lauded for fostering the careers of
artists such as Janis Joplin, Carlos Santana, Bruce Springsteen and Whitney
Houston, among many others. But he's also the man who inflicted Barry
Manilow on the world, and he's notorious for playing hardball with any
artist who doesn't take his suggestions. Some have even claimed he sabotaged
their new releases when they balked at his meddling.
"This project is worth hundreds of millions of dollars," Davis reportedly
told the industry gathering. Then he played "Never Again," the first song on
Clarkson's new album. "Does this sound like a No. 1 single to you?" he
The feisty singer quickly fired back. Clarkson began telling interviewers
that her label -- read: Davis -- objected to the edgy content of her new
disc, prompting speculation that they might not release it. "They were like,
'It's just too negative,' " she told Entertainment Weekly. "I'm like, 'Well,
I'm sorry I've inconvenienced you with my life. ... But it's reality.' "
Up to that point, most people were siding with Clarkson: What
self-respecting rock fan wouldn't root for the underdog bucking the powerful
corporation that wanted to silence her just for rocking out and telling it
like it is? But then she crossed the line and revealed the level of her
hubris and self-delusion.
"Some of the songs are not what 10-year-olds are probably going to listen
to," Clarkson told EW. "Like 'Nebraska' from Bruce Springsteen -- that's one
of my favorite records, and it's not the most well-known. But it's an
Uh-oh. I'm no Springsteen super-fan, but I've heard Bruce, and I know
"Nebraska," and you, Kelly, are no Boss. "My December" isn't in the same
hemisphere as "Nebraska," much less the same state.
Then the Clarkson backlash started. The ink had hardly dried on headlines
about her firing the Firm, the high-powered management team led by former
Chicagoan Jeff Kwatinetz, when the singer had to cancel her summer tour --
including a July 29 show at the Allstate Arena -- because of poor ticket
Now, "My December" is finally hitting record stores, and the sad truth is
that this alleged "artist's record" is much less spirited, passionate or
entertaining than the Clarkson/Davis cage match.
Lyrically, Clarkson doesn't give us much reason to relate. Yes, everyone
has pain in life, but we can't be blamed for thinking the former Idol has
been pretty darn lucky, the dreadful flop of "From Justin to Kelly" aside.
No matter how thoughtlessly men have treated her, no one warrants the level
of vindictive bitterness in a song such as "Never Again." "I hope the
ring you gave to her / Turns her finger green," Clarkson sings. "I
hope when you're in bed with her / You think of me / I would never wish bad
things / But I don't wish you well."
And so it goes through all 13 tracks, with titles such as "Don't Waste
Your Time," "Haunted," "How I Feel" and "Judas" pretty much telling the
whole sordid, solipsistic tale.
All the moaning and railing isn't the biggest problem. It's the music
that makes this a joyless dud. Clarkson has a robust, modestly appealing
voice, but she has dreadful taste in picking the settings for it. The songs
stomp and plod more than they rock; she and the band up the volume rather
than increase the intensity, and they generally evoke the sort of generic
bar band you'd hear on a Tuesday afternoon at the Minnesota State Fair,
playing unmemorable tunes somewhere between cookie-cutter New Wave and
bombastic pop-metal circa the early '80s.
In other words, "My December" sounds like a sub-par effort from Pat
Benatar or a distaff REO Speedwagon. And as much as it pains me to say this,
we should probably thank Davis and the record company suits for trying to
save us from it.