efore we even get to the music, let’s first acknowledge that what Kelly Clarkson is doing is not only compelling, it’s also eminently worthwhile.
Every vastly entertaining, vaguely scary cultural monolith needs its renegades, its bravely likable though possibly ill-fated irritants. It’s next to meaningless when so-called sophisticates call for a blight on the monster that is “American Idol” and its carefully orchestrated cycles of discovery, rise, and eventual saturation in specifically targeted markets. In the long view “Idol”’s not doing music or 21st century existence any actual harm, and it’s undoubtedly helped give the world a shitload of good tunes.
But it is a beast that’s increasingly more bloated, stilted, and lazy (season 6 was roundly judged the series’ worst), and so who better to throw a dour, unseemly little monkey wrench into the whole shebang than Idol’s initial, once-cheerful spawn?
In spurning the comfortable steering and decades-proven Billboard mastery of her bulletproof army of major-label patronage, Clarkson very well might be committing career suicide, at least in the multi-platinum terms to which she’s grown accustomed. Nevertheless, by refusing to conform to Sony BMG, Clive Davis, and the greater Idol leviathan’s idea of what kind of singer she should be (brightly hooky and prone to more approachable forms of heartbreak rather than righteously jilted and almost monomaniacally lovelorn), Kelly has at least made it certain that if she’s destined for a flameout, it’ll be one for the annals. Seriously though, who could’ve predicted the sun-romping star of From Justin to Kelly would turn out to be the Curt Flood of talent-competition pop?
In terms of institution-tweaking the comparison to baseball’s pioneer of free agency is pretty apt, but while Flood’s career went to absolute shit after failing to buck the system, Clarkson’s fortunes are on far steadier ground. From a strict musical perspective, My December isn’t the kind of earth-shattering fuck-you accomplishment that would make this story too good to be true. However, it’s not nearly as bereft of good songs and great moments as some folks would have you believe either.
In all truthfulness, the performer Clarkson apparently desires to be—or at least felt like being while she was making this album—is not generally a very fun gal. She’s sort of doomy and goth-y and clearly listens to way too much mook-rock. The best adjective to describe the worst stuff on My December is strident, recognizing that Kelly’s always been prone to angst on record (“Since U Been Gone,” duh) but still naming “Haunted” and “Maybe” for what they are—dire approximations of Evanescence (with the only crappy one-word-titled outlier being “Yeah,” which sounds like Xtina covering Beck).
Happily, that’s not the whole story. Content-wise, My December is indeed pretty much an incessant sad parade, but that doesn’t mean Clarkson hasn’t found some nuance inside her blues. “Hole” whips up an almost joyously liberating nihilism that blessedly bypasses goth’s obfuscation, and then right on its heels there’s “Sober” seething with quiet restraint (at least until the end). For an album that’s necessarily mostly humorless, “How I Feel” is still a damn good hoot, with Kelly heaping contempt on “trophy wives with their little black books” (and that’s saying nothing of the stone-cold insouciance of “Chivas”); for an album that’s necessarily unerotic, “Can I Have a Kiss” might be Clarkson’s sexiest moment to date.
As lyrically sour as they may be, “One Minute” and “Don’t Waste Your Time” are both fantastically layered pop-rockers, and Kelly’s even got something for winsome coffee-house hipsters too, as “Irvine” could slot effortlessly alongside Keren Ann and Feist.
Surely we shouldn’t have been surprised that a singing-contest vet could show real songwriting chops, not when it’s July and Nashville Star entrant Miranda Lambert is still able to say she’s made 2007’s best album. If Clarkson truly intends to forge her own artistic path, however, it’s the next record that will tell the tale. If it’s equally shrilly and lachrymose then maybe she’s just a pony with one really good trick after all. For now though, there are lots of reasons to believe in Kelly’s capacity to sculpt a healthy and diverse career no matter who she has to piss off to do it.