Running In Circles With Kelly Clarkson

2011 is the year of the comeback pop star. From Britney to Beyonce, everyone who had been dormant for the last year or two has been hustling hard to land their spot on the charts. Not one to be left out, Kelly Clarkson is throwing her hat in the ring with a new single “Mr. Know It All” and her new album Stronger, dropping next Tuesday.

Since the beginning of her career, Kelly has been a huge commercial success and a household name, but it hasn’t come without some setbacks and label drama. When she was singing pop, she wanted to be singing rock. When she was singing rock, her label wanted her to be singing pop. Kelly’s career has been a constant back and forth with her look and sound, and it’s starting to get really hard to keep up with.

I keep forgetting that Kelly Clarkson is famous because she was the winner of the first season of American Idol. Today, winning American Idol holds almost as much prestige as being a Real Housewife, maybe even less. The show is tired, the contestants are more akin to cast members of The Real World than aspiring singers, and Ryan Seacrest is pumped so full of botox that he hasn’t been able to feel his face since Ruben Studdard. But in 2002, Kelly stole the hearts of Americans with her girl-next-door persona and a killer set of pipes.

Her first album, Thankful, was a sterile pop record that showed Kelly in the same light that she had been seen in on Idol. The chubby, innocent southern girl with chunky highlights and a big voice. The album fulfilled all of the promises American Idol had made — she was famous and had a great first album — but no one was sure just how much staying power Kelly actually had.

Kelly was intent on gaining more creative control with her second album, Breakaway. Co-writing six songs and working with hit makers such as Max Martin and even Avril Lavigne (wtf?), she topped the charts with everyone’s favorite scorned woman anthem “Since U Been Gone” (you scream it at the top of your lungs every time it comes on at a bar, admit it). The album also bestowed on us more angsty gifts such as “Behind These Hazel Eyes” and “Because of You.” “Breakaway” showed us that Kelly could stand on her own two feet as an artist and was going to be around for a while.

Well, buckle up, b-tches, because this is where the trouble begins. After Breakaway’s huge success, Kelly wanted to go for an even harder rock sound. When she finally handed her third album over to her record label RCA, label head Clive Davis was less than enthused, saying that the record didn’t guarantee a radio hit. He wanted her to go back and make significant changes. Some reports say he wanted her to scrap the album entirely and start all over, going for a more pop feel. Well, Kelly was NOT having any of that. Things got really good when she started running her mouth, saying that Clive was too old and didn’t know what people wanted to hear. Remember, this is Clive Davis we’re talking about, the same man who is responsible for signing Aretha Franklin and Whitney Houston. That’s like saying Anna Wintour doesn’t really have her finger on the pulse of the fashion industry. Girl please.

When asked about Clive, Kelly spawned the “Oh… Gurl…” heard ‘round the world, saying “I’m going to be real honest with you: I am not a fan. I do respect him but I don’t want to barbecue with him. We don’t braid each other’s hair. And despite the rumors, he is nowhere near a father figure.”

WELL. The joke was on her because her third album, My December had a worse reception than a Lohan in a courtroom. Her sound was much darker than her previous two albums, with all the sugar coating and pop mentality thrown out the window. She was seen in videos drowning in bathtubs, screaming and stalking ex-boyfriends. Not exactly the same Kelly we’d all grown to love. The album’s lifespan was a short one, with no hit singles and a more caustic attitude. It was shelved and they went back to the drawing board.

Since Kelly had publicly badmouthed Clive Davis and RCA about being too controlling, only to have her album bomb, she was immediately strong-armed back into the studio and forced to put out a pop record.  She had exercised her artistic freedom and the results had been laughable, so it was time for her to sell some records, god damn it. Producer and OneRepublic front man Ryan Tedder worked with Kelly to put together a perfect pop album. The finished product, All I Ever Wanted, was the pop Kelly we were all familiar with. The lead singles, “My Life Would Suck Without You” and “I Do Not Hook Up” were essentially “Since U Been Gone Part 2,” with big choruses, legions of backup vocals and lots and lots of drums. The single cover for “My Life Would Suck Without You” even featured Kelly licking a big, heart-shaped lollipop, which I can only chalk up as the final slap in the face by Clive Davis and RCA for rebelling against her original pop image. She was back to pop music whether she liked it or not.

Kelly had gone from Pop to Pop/Rock to Rock and circled all the way back around to Pop. While she clearly wants to have some say in the direction that her career takes, her vision may not always be right for her audience, and her label is still the one calling the shots.

This Tuesday, her fifth album Stronger drops. I was skeptical about the sound of this album, but after hearing the leak, it seems like Kelly and her label have finally found a common ground.  Stronger is full of pop tracks dressed up as rock songs. Big choruses and rollercoaster melodies paired with acoustic guitars and strong vocals. The album contains 14 tracks (18 if you get the deluxe version) that are sufficiently catchy and leave you pretty satisfied. If you pretend the lyric “dumb + dumb = you” doesn’t exist, then you’ve got yourself a pretty good record.

I can’t help but wonder though — where exactly does this record fall into the equation of Kelly Clarkson? Her label was sure not going to let her put out another My December mess, and she had did her penance by releasing All I Ever Wanted, but I still feel like she’s on a short leash.  From the look to the sound, it’s almost a little too reminiscent of her very first album. At the end of the day, Kelly Clarkson will sell records. Just what kind of records those end up being seem to rely heavily on what her label wants, which is Pop Kelly. When Kelly goes pop, albums go platinum. Why fix it if it ain’t broke? You can put lipstick on a pig, but it’s still a pig. You can put some guitars on a pop record, but it’s still a pop record.

So Kelly seems to be back where she started, which may not be a bad thing. She’s already one of the biggest names in the music industry with a career that spans almost ten years. She’s an artist that doesn’t need a bunch of spectacle and pyrotechnics when performing because she’s got the talent to keep an audience captivated by simply standing in front of a microphone. You won’t ever see Kelly wearing a cupcake bra or a meat dress, but you will see her still making music in 20 years, which is a claim that most artists can’t make. She may not have perfected her sound, but she’s not afraid to take a risk and fall flat on her face, and get back up and try it again. Stronger seems like an appropriate name for her album at this stage of her career, and I for one, will still proudly scream “Since U Been Gone” for years to come. Thought Catalog Logo Mark

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