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My Conflicted Love for Kelly Clarkson's New Album

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You guys, I'm conflicted about liking Kelly Clarkson's new album. Check that: For loving her new album. Every track on All I Ever Wanted is at least pop silver, and most are pop gold. In fact, after inspecting them with my jeweler's loop, I'm here to tell you that "Don't Let Me Stop You," "Long Shot," and "Already Gone" are pop platinum.

Few albums provoke this kind of instant, bark-at-the-moon joy. I've listened to it three times since Tuesday morning, and I still want to race into the streets and make strangers listen with me, just so we can share the wicked rush. (This is how my friend Brandt and I reacted the first time we heard "Ray of Light," dragging our friend Lauren out of bed so she could experience the revelation. This is also why, in the summer of 1991, I turned my stereo so the speakers faced out my bedroom window, thus letting my entire Chattanooga subdivision savor "Touch Me (All Night Long.)")

But here's the thing: This album is an artistic middle ground. A few years ago, when K.C. released her mostly self-written, entirely moody rock album My December, she insisted that she needed to distance herself from the pop explosion of her signature album Breakaway. I remember seeing an interview where she said that everyone would have been happy if she'd made Breakaway 2... except her. She would have been miserable.

Unfortunately, My December isn't very good. Clarkson's writing has none of the technical skill and emotional texture of her singing, and it's a bummer to hear her waste her voice on songs that are beneath it. She may have been happy with the record, but nobody else was.

So now she's back with what Blender critic Jon Dolan astutely dubs "a Third Way" a December Break, if you will. The angry lyrics that have always marked her music are back, as are the growling rock vocals and punk/metal riffs that made December such a departure. This time, however, all that's tempered with slick production, professional songwriting, and the kind of hooks usually reserved for catching giant bass.

As Clarkson predicted, I'm very happy about it. For one thing, I love a good pop song, even if it's performed by a so-so singer. Cookie cutters make cookies, after all, and cookies are good.

And All I Ever Wanted is loaded with some damn fine dessert. Yes, "My Life Would Suck Without You" (reviewed here) sounds like "Since U Been Gone." Yes, Duffy or Adele could have recorded "I Want You." But who cares? There's nothing wrong with delivering an excellent variation on a satisfying formula, and as I said before, all of these songs are pop tropes at their best.

Even better, Kelly Clarkson is such a fantastic singer that she improves even excellent songs. For instance, the first verse of "Don't Let Me Stop You" (embedded above), has a vivid line about the singer's boyfriend kissing her with his eyes open. That's a striking image of broken trust, and in the way Clarkson delivers it, her voice leaping to desperate high notes before finally breaking into a wounded growl, the emotion becomes immediate. She works similar magic on "Ready," a hand-clapping ode to risking it all for love. Her husky phrasing adds sultriness to the verses, and when she drops it for clear notes in the chorus, it's like sexy teasing giving way to pure happiness.

Ultimately, Clarkson benefits from the fact that these songs sound similar to earlier hits by other artists. By proving her mettle across the stylistic board---from power balladry to neo-soul to punk-laced pop---she positions herself as Top 40's current interpretive master.

Yet by moving through so many copycat songs, K.C. proves she's part of the music industry machine. It's the machine she tried to rebel against on My December. It's the machine she said would make her unhappy.

So is Clarkson unhappy now? Who knows? Maybe she loves this new album as much as I do, but I can't stop thinking about the artist she tried to be a few years ago, and the modified version that she's presenting now. It's a narrative that bothers me.

It bothers me because My December was presented as a product of the "authentic" Kelly Clarkson, which implied that Breakaway was somehow inauthentic. And now, because All I Ever Wanted has as much (if not more) to do with the latter as the former, the suggestion is that it's phony, too. (It's a suggestion that irks Slate's Jonathan Keefe.)

By extension, because I vastly prefer All I Ever Wanted, I'm choosing artifice over authenticity. This is not the way it's supposed to work. Smart, cool people are always supposed to choose the My Decembers of the world, or else they're supposed to enjoy the All I Ever Wanteds with a knowingly raised eyebrow. But me? I don't like the "honest" album, and I celebrate the "processed" one without irony.

Now, I know that most "cool" people probably don't consider Kelly Clarkson at all. For many, the question of her "authenticity" is moot, no matter which album she's making. I also know that My December's "true art of my soul" angle was partly a marketing campaign, and that I'm accepting it as truth. But what I'm getting at here isn't only about Kelly Clarkson.

My hesitation comes from realizing that I usually embrace the "true art of my soul" narrative... that part of my self image is tied to identifying with it. If I just looked at the arc of Clarkson's career without listening to her music, then I'd probably be cheering My December and cursing everything else, the way I dismiss Pink's R&B-lite debut and admire her subsequent rock records. That, you see, is "cool." It's "smart."

And I think of myself as being smart and cool, dammit. So what does it say that I can't get enough of this factory pop that changes the ending to Kelly Clarkson's story of self-discovery?

For more, please join me at The Critical Condition.