Music Idol mind

Two albums into her career, Kelly Clarkson remains a voice in search of a musical identity

If you've ever had the chance to A) read an interview with, B) see a video from, or C) listen to a song from Kelly Clarkson, then you already know her worst enemy is clearly her pernicious cuteness, which includes the pipes she was blessed/cursed with.

She's so damn cute, one wonders if maybe she was created in a lab somewhere, the perfect pop synthesis of beauty, personality, and (as quaint as this sounds) talent. She's so damn cute, in fact, it's becoming increasingly difficult to pinpoint just who the real Kelly Clarkson is, especially since her latest album, Breakaway, sees her transformed from American Idol-Kewpie doll to Avril Lavigne-lite headbanger.

Kelly Clarkson: Does she want to be Celine Dion or Avril Lavigne?

This, of course, is the drawback of graduating from a worldwide phenomenon like Idol, on which weekly handlers help to sculpt contestants into the sort of potential champion that'll sell boatloads of cut 'n' paste singles. Squeaky-clean Clarkson was all-too-moldable with her girl-next-door figure (skinny, but still plenty of baby fat), cute nose (imperfectly proportioned, but cute in its imperfection), and down-home innocence (you'd want to bring her home to Ma and Pa).

That's how the pedestrian "A Moment Like This"-the kind of string-heavy vocal extravaganza that makes Celine Dion involuntarily start cooing in French-became the best-selling single of 2003. Along with its follow-up, "Before Your Love," it helped to sell the product Idol had begotten. What few anticipated was how Clarkson would perform the song when she hit the stage on tour, adding a strong rock tilt to the number. It seems, America's Sweetheart prefers rock to pop, which is probably why she regularly covers songs like Annie Lennox's "Sweet Dreams" and Janis Joplin's "Piece of My Heart."

Slowly, Clarkson learned to circumvent the image thrust upon her-though any attempt to escape it entirely is probably wasted, much like a Michael Jackson trying to escape what the media (and his own handiwork) has made him. That's not to say Clarkson has anything in common with Jacko, or that, you know, she's an eccentric pedophile, but, the fact is, both are burdened with expectations from their fans. Jackson is expected to play with llamas, monkeys, and boys, while Clarkson is expected to be...well, cute. Possible solution? Light acne scarring, heavy drug use, and a cigarette habit. Nothing is less cute than skin that looks weathered by sand, an addict's twitch, or the hoarse voice of a smoker.

The recent Texas Monthly cover story on Clarkson made a big deal about how humble and unaffected she is, how she remains a small-town Texas girl even though she's surrounded by the glitz of Hollywood. Inadvertently, however, the piece also confirmed what her critics have long suspected: that Clarkson is a big voice in search of a personality, that she has nothing to say and a pretty bland way of saying it. While she deserves credit for surviving the contractual-obligation fiasco From Justin To Kelly - a piece of cinematic toxic waste so foul it would have required mass evacuations if anyone had actually paid to see it - her survival instincts haven't translated to compelling music.

Kelly Clarkson
Graham Colton Band

Thu, July 9

Municipal Auditorium
100 Auditorium Circle
Clarkson obviously likes rock, she has all the right role models, and she headbangs like a mosher on speed, sure, but there's still something lacking. Or bubbling over. Oh yeah, that's right. She's too cute. Even though, she's veered off the Bubblegum Pop Highway, she's still moving parallel to it. Clarkson, you see, is beholden to her fans. There are few musical acts who aren't and, in the case of those who aren't, all you ever hear them do is bemoan the inherent evils of commercial music - mostly, because they haven't been let into the club. Secretly, everyone wants to sell a bazillion copies of their album. Clarkson, undoubtedly, feels the same way.

It's absurd to suggest she dodge her success and reinvent herself by touring small, smoky venues. And frankly, it's not really necessary. What is, however, is Clarkson's need to experiment more. Bringing Avril Lavigne's most recent collaborators in to help produce and write songs doesn't cut it. Lavigne is a product too, of her own creation, and, even though she might verbally disembowel most pop stars, she's become exactly what she hates.

Here are a few suggestions:

1. Stop catering to the kiddies. Tossing a song onto The Princess Diaries 2 soundtrack might score you a few new 8-year-old fans and sell a few more albums, but having your name appear anywhere on a playlist with super-cute Lindsay Lohan is a big mistake.

2. Grow up. Sure, you don't want to go all skanktastic like Pop Tart Princess Britney Spears, but ditch the virginal appeal. It's almost impossible to imagine you kissing a boy, much less slipping into a bedroom with one. Being from Small Town, America doesn't mean you can't revel in your hotness. And "hot" doesn't mean a flat stomach either. It means being who you are.

3. (And this is the most important one): Don't just cover your musical heroes; Study them like your life depends on it. Take some time off and learn the guitar if you have to. Adhere to the DIY policy and drop the producers - or at least find ones who haven't put out a No. 1 album for a major label. Sure, you're new to the game, but that excuse has been exhausted with this second album. Next time out, it's got to be you. All you. And yes, that's hard, it's a killer, actually. You've spent so much time being pushed and prodded by others, you've probably forgotten where their idea of you ends and where yours begins.

And that's the real rub, isn't it? Clarkson, for all her talent, still has no idea who she is or what she sounds like. Once, maybe. Then America voted. Cross your fingers, though. Third time is the charm, or so they say.

By Cole Haddon

Scroll to read more Music Stories & Interviews articles


Join SA Current Newsletters

Subscribe now to get the latest news delivered right to your inbox.