Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Kelly Clarkson Is Back!! But Should We Be Excited?

I have been shaking/crying/sobbing through most of 2011 waiting for the return of the one and only Kelegend Clarkson. She is one of my favorite vocalists of this generation, and has shown a huge range, both in talents and in the genres she can work in.

So now that it's here...why am I not feeling it like I thought it would?

So the album is all around a fun listen. After going through and rating all 16 of the deluxe edition's tracks, it came out with a 3.67. So...not a bad album. And there are a few songs on here that could go on to be one of Kelly's strongest career highlights (Let Me Down, Stronger). If I clipped a few of the stinkers out of the album (You Can't Win, Hello), then it is actually only bested by Kelly's biggest album, Breakway. So what's the problem?

Maybe this is only a problem for someone who has followed Kelly obsessively while not ever becoming a die-hard stan like I have. I literally watch every single performance, have every single album (even that awful My December), and get excited for every single interview. But something has always just been a little bit out of reach. As I walked around the other day listening to the album, I tried to identify some of my problems with this album...but more specifically with Kelly in general.

So let's look at Kelly's career trajectory, shall we? 10 years ago, she became the first American Idol, and went on to go from smiley label puppet to wrathful ex-girlfriend superstar with her sophomore album Breakaway. Songs like "Since U Been Gone" and "Because Of You" turned her into the popstar the producers of Idol were hoping for, and gave us a pop/rock vocal goddess to worship. I still count that as one of the best albums of the last decade, and it is what has made Kelly the constant in pop culture. Even after the critical and commercial flop that her "dark" and "personal" project "My December" was...people still were interested in our girl. So much so that even with all of her label drama and poor record sales, the lead single off of her 4th studio album, "All I Ever Wanted", shot to #1 faster than any song before it.

It was in between the period of turmoil and All I Ever Wanted that we started to see things change in Kelly land. She began putting on weight (always beautiful, though!), making public statements that her happiness was more important to her than her abs. She began covering country songs (Up To The Mountain on Idol Gives Back? GLORIOUS), toured with country legend Reba McEntire after their duet on Reba's album, and began having a larger presence in the circle of country stars such as Blake Shelton and Jason Aldean. These influences showed in certain moments of her album campaign for AIEW, especially in her acoustic (and improved) performances of Halo-sound-alike Already Gone. On the record, however, she displayed a return to the commercial, polished sound of her first two albums. She had found her way back to the top of the charts..and I was happy to see her there!

But it was also around this era that I was starting to feel a little bit dissatisfied. Kelly's live performances strayed towards a more acoustic sound, and she had never sounded better. She could deliver heartbreaking vocals on mature songs and sound absolutely sublime...so why all the overly polished immature break-up anthems that echoed her sound from years before? Despite all of the problems Kelly had gone through in the industry in the years before...her approach hadn't actually seemed to progress at all. But I wrote this off as her attempt to become relevant again after flopping with her previous album and anything to let one of our premiere vocalists return to the spotlight was fine by me...surely things would eventually get to the sound we had seen her embrace live.

So that brings us to her new album, Stronger. As I said there are some serious gems on this album, and the lead single Mr. Know It All gave me hope that maybe she was embracing a different, more mature sound. As I listened to the album, however, it is packed mostly with bratty kiss-offs and "I don't need you anymore" post-breakup anthems. Almost all of it is built around explosive choruses and sing-a-long  melodies. It is all very entertaining...but haven't we been here before, Kelly? It is starting to get a little bit boring for me. The material is good...but must I have songs with such stupid lyrics like Einstein and Don't Be A Girl About It? You are one of the top recording artists...you can't get some good songwriters and better producers who can use your talents in better ways than a glossy, overproduced pop/rock swamp?

But fear not Kelly fans...I don't think the problem is something that can't be fixed with a couple tips from yours truly! I am here to save the day! Below are a couple of things that I think Kelly needs to do with her next album if she doesn't want to start losing some of the respect her incredible voice has won her.

1) Take notes from Queen Bey

I know I know. It isn't cute to compare 2 artists this way. But what has made Beyonce's album this year is that she left behind label-puppetry songs that come off as insincere and she backed up her more personal songs with more of a live sound. I am not saying Kelly should come out with a bunch of sex jams...that isn't her. But even a song like Already Gone showed a more interesting approach to a relationship than songs that Selena Gomez could be singing like "My Life Would Suck Without You." She could even turn towards the approach that Adele has taken, who is much younger than her but isn't singing teen anthems about break-ups. Dumb + Dumb = You, Kelly? Really? That's all you got? To see someone with such talent not grow artistically is distressing to me, especially when we have seen glimpses of what that would look and sound like. And speaking of sound...

2) Live Instrumentation is your friend, grl!

Kelly is a stunning live performer. She almost always sounds better when she sounds natural. My iPod is filled with rips of live versions of her songs because the overly polished recordings pale next to them. If rock music is what she is going for, why can't I hear it? Beyonce spent a career of doing the same thing, and finally brought her live sound to her latest album, and has never sounded better. Time for Kelly to do the same thing.

3) Find an identity

5 albums in and pretty much all we have heard from Kelly is how over a guy she is and how she is a bad bitch who doesn't need it. That isn't a theme...that's a slump! What goes on in Kelly's life? What makes her happy? What is she passionate about? Who knows? For a huge solo artist, Kelly has next to no identity...and it is starting to take a toll on her work.

Hopefully Kelly, whom I am sure is a rabid fan of this blog, takes me up on my tips. Until then I will be playing the shit out of her new album and wistfully hoping for Kelly's 6th album to be the one I have been waiting for.

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