Pride topples former Idol

June 25, 2007


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 for her.

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 asked.

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 artist's record."

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 sales.

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.



Critic's rating: 1 star