`Idol' winner proves she's here to stay

Kelly Clarkson won't be pigeonholed, as she keeps flexing her vocal muscles from genre to genre

Spotlight

May 13, 2007|By Ann Powers | Ann Powers,Los Angeles Times

LOS ANGELES -- From what mix of elements does a millennial pop star spring? Consider two imaginary home movies from the adolescence of Kelly Clarkson, blockbuster hit-maker and television Idol.

In the first, Clarkson is in her house in Burleson, Texas. There's been a scene at the dinner table. She retreats to her bedroom, crawls onto her bed, puts on headphones and listens to a singer whose voice she describes as "your mother telling you a story." It's Reba McEntire.

"Any time there were hard times at my house, for some reason Reba's voice always made me feel peaceful," remembered Clarkson, who recently fulfilled a dream by collaborating with the country music doyenne. "It's just that voice you want to hear when you're just, like, `Everything else go away.' I felt the same way about Aretha Franklin - she's my other safe place."

In the second scene, Clarkson has sneaked out of the house with her friends and headed to a club a couple of towns over. Inside, noise penetrates the floorboards. As Todd Lewis, the singer for the Toadies - the best post-grunge band in Texas - yowls and testifies, Clarkson finds herself lifted by the crowd.

"The Toadies - my favorite band of all time!" said the 25-year-old, who has the bouncy but controlled carriage of someone who studied gymnastics. "I've gone to about a billion shows of theirs," she said. "Todd Lewis' voice, I just love that it's sexy, dirty, drunk, broken. Anything about rock swagger, I learned from them. And yeah, I crowd-surfed."

Listening to Clarkson's third album, My December, to be released this summer, it's easy to believe that she has spent time in a mosh pit. It was produced by David Kahne, who has guided new-wave rockers from the Bangles to Sugar Ray to the Strokes, and written almost entirely by Clarkson with several members of her touring band. The album features revered punk bassist Mike Watt on several tracks and stresses Clarkson's avenging-angel vocals throughout. The up-tempo songs, with unpretty titles such as "Hole" and "Judas," spruce up the pop-metal template with sharp guitar riffs and the occasional electro-clash beat. It's not rock, says Clarkson: "Rock, to me, is like AC/DC, Led Zeppelin, Aerosmith." But it is hard and, in its own way, extreme.

She's versatile

On My December, Clarkson presents herself as a hot young inheritor of the arena rock stage; next time, she might go country-blues. Versatility is her gift. During an interview at the Beverly Hills Four Seasons in April, Clarkson described her latest effort as a step in a continuing process.

"I'll always come out with a different record," she explained. The songs she's writing for the next album are more down-home and dirty. "But I don't necessarily want to make just a country record," she said. "I'd rather do something like the Rolling Stones - tie in everything."

Clarkson has her own ideas about how to grow. She has plunged into songwriting, hunkered down with her touring band and come up with a sound that mixes the grand gestures of 1980s metal (there's a famous YouTube clip of Clarkson covering "Sweet Child of Mine" by Guns N' Roses, and she nails it) with the barefaced emotionality of '90s alternative music.

So call Clarkson a rocker, but don't mistake her for the new Metallica. The singer has been citing Pat Benatar, and that's about right. Like the spandex queen of the 1970s-'80s pop era, Clarkson has the moxie to rock without worrying about what anybody else thinks that pose requires. Her gift is for finding the source of vitality in absolutely mainstream, people-pleasing pop, which by its nature breaks stylistic rules in favor of magpie mash-ups, bold appropriations and happy accidents.

Indie-rock nods

Clarkson's previous hits, especially the expertly constructed "Since U Been Gone," have gained her surprising cachet among indie-rock fans. According to Ted Leo, an indie-rock elder statesman whose hard-to-find cover of Clarkson's hit has become a cult classic (and laid bare the song's borrowings from the Yeah Yeah Yeahs' punk ballad "Maps"), what's interesting is the artfulness of their larceny.

"The song is great, and Kelly Clarkson sings it fantastically, but one of the things that makes it great is what a cheap trick it is - it was a perfectly cynical amalgamation of everything that was `hot' and `edgy' in pop music that year," he commented.

Clarkson doesn't want to stop at just one idea, or just one sound, and this unpretentious sense of privilege greatly benefits her. She doesn't have a home genre tugging at her, as do so many young artists (especially American Idol grads), who long to prove their hip-hop cred or hard-rock virility. And it helps, she says, that she won Idol, because for her, the variety the show demands wasn't a put-on.

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