On her new album, Kelly Clarkson blows away the long line of female pop stars who use sex to sell.
“It’s too bad you can’t see what you’re worth/spreading your legs ’stead of using your words,” she sneers in the song “I Had a Dream.”
“Anyone can sell/when they’re selling out,” she quips.
It’s a good line – not to mention an echo of Bette Midler’s recent “put-down read round the world” of Ariana Grande for pushing her sexual allure ahead of her pipes. But you have to wonder why Clarkson decided to fire this broadside right now.
Clarkson, the original “American Idol,” has never used sex to sell – and never had to. It’s her battering-ram voice that excites people – that, and her team’s ability to find songs hot-wired for radio play. On the other hand, it’s a crowded diva field these days, and putting down the competition can’t help but carve you a high profile.
As it turns out, Clarkson’s new album, “Piece by Piece,” needs all the profile it can get. It’s a strictly off-the-rack affair, a cynical run through current femme-pop clichÃ©s that does everything it can to bland Clarkson’s essential talent.
Several albums ago, the singer famously went to war with her record company, chafing at their cookie-cutter approach to pop. Promotion folks went nuts and her sales suffered. But at least Clarkson made her point – if briefly.
By the time she put out her 2011 album “Stronger,” the star had seemingly thrown up her hands, giving herself back over to corporate demands. Predictably, her acquiescence resulted in a huge hit with the title track – but at a cost. The album did little to display the more nuanced talent Clarkson can reveal live.
The singer’s latest album lacks the pay-off of a guilty-pleasure hit like “Stronger.” Worse, it doubles-down on her last album’s over-heated production. “Piece By Piece” piles on the gloss and glop. It’s a fat sounding recording that fights with, rather than enhances, Clarkson’s to-the-rafters vocals.
It’s left to the lyrics to reveal some of the star’s character. Two interesting songs – “Someone” and the title track – repeat Clarkson’s flair for the passive aggressive put-down. In “Someone,” she offers a classic non-apology-apology, saying she wishes she didn’t have to say such awful things to a foe. “Piece By Piece” repeats the theme of her smash, “Because of You.” Both offer rebukes to neglectful and/or abusive parents.
Together, such songs help focus Clarkson’s persona. But the rigid music, and assembly-line production, make a sad fact clear: Clarkson has never fully escaped the “American Idol” machine.