28 June 2007

December in the Summertime

Well, Kelly Clarkson released her third album, "My December," and nobody's head exploded. Which is kind of surprising, given the brouhaha that erupted over this thing.

A quick recap: Clive Davis, legendary head of Clarkson's record label, reportedly delayed release of the record because he didn't hear any hit singles on it. Clarkson wrote this one almost entirely herself, whereas her previous effort, "Breakaway," had her collaborating with some very seasoned pop songwriters (or sometimes just covering their compositions).

"Breakway" was an absolute smash... but you all know that. So obviously there's pressure on Clarkson to have another hit. She recently spoke to Entertainment Weekly about fighting to release the material she wanted--and that she crafted--even if it didn't sound radio-friendly.

Could the battle lines be more clearly drawn? Clive Davis is the evil capitalist pig, and Kelly Clarkson is the pure artist.

However, now that the album is actually out, the sides seem less clear. For one thing, as Greg Kot points out in this story in The Chicago Tribune, "My December" isn't exactly a radical departure from pop formulas.

But in Davis' defense, it doesn't exactly have any obvious hits on it, either. (I disagree with Kot there.) Witness the lackluster performance of first single "Never Again" (a song I really like), which hardly dented the radio. Often, these songs are a bit too formless or a bit too lyrically generic. ("There's a hole/inside of me/It's so damn cold/it's slowly killing me.") As plenty have mentioned, the music apes Evanescence and Pat Benatar, but it lacks the polish of those artists' best tracks.

And the good songs on "My December?" They may be too dark for pop radio and too pop for rock radio.

I'm not arguing that Clarkson should have been denied the chance to express herself artistically. As Kot says, doing the bulk of her songwriting helps her gain the credibility necessary for career longevity. I'm just saying that Davis may be right: There are no obvious masterpieces here on a par with "Since U Been Gone."

If anything, "My December" is like Clarkson's solid debut album. There's an obvious talent for songwriting here, but it's still being honed.

And you know what? Fine. "My December" is still a worthwhile record. It's just not a superstar record. That's a bit awkward, of course, since Clarkson is already a superstar, but what are you gonna do?

After all, the first Kelly Clarkson could have continued for at least a few more years, churning out other people's hits, but the first Kelly Clarkson obviously is no more. The second Kelly Clarkson--the one with her own musical perspective--needs time to grow. She may never reach the peaks of her predecessor, but she may become much more interesting in the long run.

(Also, I know lots of people have made this point, but it's interesting that Alanis Morrissette's career followed essentially the same path. Most Americans, though, didn't hear her first two pop records, so it was much easier for us to embrace the Jagged Little Alanis who burst into our brains. If Clarkson hadn't been a pop sensation in Canada, would they be eating up "My December" like a genius work of art?)



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