Friday, October 16, 2009

I could be lovely given the chance.

Experimenting with new sounds and songwriting styles is taboo in the world of pop. Messing with a tried and true hit-making-formula is destined to alienate radio’s eager listeners anticipating their next anthem. For most of 2004 through 2006, those anthems were supplied by inaugural American Idol champ Kelly Clarkson. In those three years she had a string of radio hits, won two Grammy awards and embarked on four successful tours in support of the album “Breakaway”. So, it came as no surprise when she divulged to the media her third album, “My December” , would be entirely composed of material she co-wrote with members of her band that rumors began circulating Clive Davis, former CEO of RCA Records, was displeased with the results.

Never Again [Kelly Clarkson/ Jimmy Messer]
ps: check out that money note at 1:57.

The outcome of the “My December” ordeal is now somewhat of an industry parable. It was hailed as “The Return of Kelly Clarkson”, despite that she was only off public radar for a few months. Radio stations were buzzing about the first single weeks in advance. Fans were curious how Clarkson could possibly live up to the success of her previous album. So was her label.

“Breakaway”, the sophomore album juggernaut that propelled her into super stardom, was not an overnight success. In an interview with Blender Magazine, Clarkson said her label wasn’t optimistic the project would have any longevity. She was told to her face the album would be lucky to sell more than 650,000 copies once it was released. “[RCA] thought there was only one single—“Since U Been Gone”, Clarkson dished in an interview with on-demand channel Music Choice. “They thought all the other songs, especially the ones I wrote, were just crap,” she added. As Clarkson made the publicity rounds in support of the album, the subsequent singles began to receive more airplay on radio stations. When that happened, the label came on board to support their bubbling star.

Five singles later and 11 million albums sold worldwide, Clarkson was one of the most popular female artists in the world. Following the Addicted Tour [on which she performed one of the best versions of this song to date] she headed into the studio in the fall of 2006 to lay down tracks for her third album. From the beginning, it was a highly anticipated project. Fans were curious how she could possibly deliver an album of equal success to “Breakaway”, but duplication wasn't part of Clarkson’s intentions.

Be Still [Kelly Clarkson/ Aben Eubanks]

Foregoing expectations that she would work with the same producers that crafted memorable pop songs “Since U Been Gone” and “Behind These Hazel Eyes”, Clarkson teamed up with producer David Kahne—who had previously worked with Paul McCartney, Sublime and The Bangles. At the suggestion of her band mates, Clarkson asked legendary punk musician Mike Watt to play bass on six of the 26 songs recorded for the final project. Fans and critics alike were intrigued with the developing project and wondered what a pop star was doing among an unlikely group of musicians.

The album was finally released after a media-fueled battle of artistic integrity over commercial success that hounded Clarkson for months. Reviews among critics were generally positive and on par with the singer’s previous works. Casual fans, however, didn’t quite warm up to the new material at first. After a change in management, a second single that failed to chart and a cancelled summer tour, the impression was left that the label had been right all along. The new material simply wasn’t good enough.

How I Feel [Kelly Clarkson, Jimmy Messer, Dwight Baker, David Kahne]

What was most interesting about the “My December” ordeal was the actual music took a back seat to label politics and media created tension. Despite the criticism that the album was too dark and that there weren’t any radio friendly singles, “My December” has remained a favorite among her fans, including me. The pop sheen of her earlier albums was replaced with rollicking bass lines, crunchy guitars, strings and synths. The lyrics were a rebel yell for a scorned, misunderstood and lonely youth. And then there was Clarkson’s finest asset—her voice. Passionately wringing every ounce of emotion from each lyric, she presented an impressive amount of range throughout 14 tracks. It was exactly the album no one expected from an American Idol winner.

Transforming a stint on a reality show into a thriving music career is a feat few will ever achieve. Clarkson is determined to make her career count for something other than number one hits. “There’s no way [to be number one] unless I do the formula stuff every time,” she said to Music Choice. “I want to do something different,” Clarkson said, “and different takes time for people to catch on.”

Maybe [Kelly Clarkson, Jimmy Messer, Aben Eubanks]

Clarkson followed up “My December” with 2009’s super-charged pop album "All I Ever Wanted". Producers Max Martin, Howard Benson and Ryan Tedder were enlisted to craft the album’s 14 songs—6 of which were co-written by Clarkson. Ironically, it has taken 26 weeks, three singles and months of promotion to sell more than 1 million copies worldwide—an achievement “My December” earned in eight weeks with one single. Some chalk it up to the economy. Some anticipate an increase in sales in the months to come. But as Clarkson eluded to Elle Magazine, even her most fervent fans are likely outgrow her one day.

“It’s weird to me when a 12-year-old tells me I’m their favorite artist,” she said. “In time, I’ll be weeded out, and that’s cool. I know I’m a good singer—but I know who I am, too.”

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