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By Steve Weinstein
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When American Idol started in the early naughts, it had an almost public-accessish charm about it—there was a "let's raise a barn" brio embodied by Simon Cowell's relative unkemptness, the smallness of the stage, and the goofiness of hastily dispatched co-host Brian Dunkleman. That talent-show feel was gradually eroded by the show's ratings triumphs, with the stage ballooning into something that could conceivably be called an EnormoDome and Cowell burnishing his British wit to a diamond-hard shine. (He got better-looking, too. The power of the stylist.)
But the show's first victor, a Texan named Kelly Clarkson, somehow managed to retain a good chunk of the initial season's can-do spirit over the course of the nearly 10 years since she walked off with the title. Her fifth album, Stronger, shows her growing even more comfortable in her own skin, an achievement made somewhat more notable by the public dust-up that accompanied her "difficult" third record, My December. Where 2007's December was a roar that sounded a bit too inspired by the tunelessness of that particular moment's rock-radio playlists, Stronger is rooted in hooks, with Clarkson dabbling in country, R&B, and the slightly bent strain of pop-rock that defined her best singles.
Purists will still scoff, even as they grudgingly concede her technical ability and steal the occasional listen to her mid-decade melding of Max Martin sparkle and Karen O grit "Since U Been Gone." The songs are written by a slew of pros (including Greg Kurstin of The Bird and the Bee and former Scritti Politti member David Gamson); there's a pop sheen that's present even over the track with a musical bed that could very well be described as "chillwave" (the otherworldly "Honestly," in which Clarkson teaches the Williamsburgers who moan nostalgically over their synths a much-needed lesson in vocal presence); the words "American" and "Idol" in the same sentence still cause some people to break out in hives and all-caps comment-box contributions. Which is a shame, because in an age during which even those singers with barely an MP3 to their name can already have a marketing plan locked and loaded, Stronger shows Clarkson's artistry and humanity coming together in a compelling, relatable—and incredibly sing-along-ready—way.
Last May, while Stronger was still in the pipeline, Clarkson played the Highline Ballroom; the show was sponsored by Tupperware, which was looking to rebrand itself. As Clarkson powered through her back catalog—the spunky kiss-off "Walk Away," the coquettish "I Want You"—and poked fun at her lousy luck with men and her own foibles between tracks, it was easy to see why she'd been chosen to help out a company that brings together kitchen storage and camaraderie. Her public persona in this confessional age comes off not unlike the friend you might not see often but who is ready to commiserate with you over a cup of coffee and who can slide into chatting about her, and your, recent travails as easily as someone who has been tracking your every Facebook update.
She doesn't see herself as perfect, but then again, how many times has overinflated self-worth on the outside masked the opposite within? In its ideal form, confidence refers not just to the strength to overcome one's missteps and flaws, but also the willingness to acknowledge that they exist in the first place. It's a rare trait among female pop stars, who seem culturally required to bring home the bacon, cook it up in a pan, stay in tune, smile, and remain sexually appealing to the most exacting measurers of the female form at once.
Clarkson seems pretty uninterested in all the pick-a-little-talk-a-little distractions involved with being a pop star, openly refuting them on Stronger's "You Can't Win," which runs down the laundry list of celebrity transgressions she has apparently committed (not having a public significant other, allowing her weight to fluctuate, getting mouthy). She follows her public bird-flip with the intimate, slide-guitar-tinged ode to a pulling-away lover "Breaking Your Own Heart," which sounds like a bedside confessional; that she can glide between the two poles so effortlessly reinforces the humanity of both the album and her voice.
On "I Forgive You," Clarkson looks back on a relationship that crashed and burned and forgives both her past paramour and herself; the former is a frequent idea in pop music (though the songs pleading forgiveness are usually a bit gloppier and more overwrought than "Forgive," which bounces and crunches along a sing-songy hook), but the latter is a sign of maturity that's increasingly absent from the pop charts as they become more colonized by singers under the age of 25. There's no self-loathing to reflect outward. Instead Clarkson sings of damage being done to both sides of the torpedoed relationship. She avoids the pit of denial that can trap those people teetering on its edge, seeming perfect while standing stock-still and on tiptoe.
Stronger continues Clarkson's path toward sorting herself out in public; it's an album defined not by the people behind the curtain, but by the figure out front, charting her own path as she sings about the scar-making slights and fights that brought her to where she is today—still in front of an audience, gently mocking Cowell to reporters, telling those around her that, to borrow a pop mantra from another singer, everything's gonna be all right.