Missing from the list of many-splendored things American Idol contestants can expect for their troublesa working familiarity with the Diane Warren songbook, made-for-TV snark from judge Simon Cowell, miserable follow-up photo spreads in Us Weeklyis that most fundamental of pop star virtues, the one your Princes and Madonnas and Britneys own long before the music: a brand. This is the show's genius, of course: By opening up pop to talented, wholesome kids whose backstories will never rivet us (if indeed they're ever told), Idol makes a star of the process, not the puppet; for frustrated voters it's like electing the president, only the black guy stands a chance of winning and the people cooking the books are after Nielsen points, not world domination. Besides, building an identity is what the time after a win on the show is for.
Sort of. On 2003's Thankful, first-season champ Kelly Clarkson seemed content to extend the sub-Mariah white-chick wailing with which she triumphed over Justin Guarini into long-haul shtick; her appearance in the goofy From Justin to Kelly helped solidify her 'round-the-way goody-goody image, at least for the 11 people who saw the movie. Yet Clarkson also sang "Miss Independent," a nasty bit of agile Aguilera robo-funk that came dangerously close to asserting a personality. And for Breakaway, her second album, the singer has mostly ditched Thankful's bleached r&b for a crack at the glass candy 'tween-rock that Avril Lavigne and Ashlee Simpson make.
Scan the disc's credits and you'll see how hungry Kelly is for a piece of that pie: ExEvanescence guitarist Ben Moody, Canadian singer-songwriter Chantal Kreviazuk, and Our Lady Peace frontman Raine Maida, all architects of Lavigne's Under My Skin, wrote and produced, as did Lavigne herself and John Shanks, who helmed much of Simpson's Autobiography. They give the singer delicious dough to knead. The title track is swoony acoustic folk-pop that Goo Goo Doll Johnny Rzeznik would trade his hair gel for; "Gone" rolls a fist-pumping chorus over a bananas verse full of chopped-up guitar and drum machine syncopation; "Addicted" activates tired junkie metaphors with swirling goth-pop strings administered intravenously. Even faded Swedish teen-pop maestro Max Martin gets in on the action with "Since U Been Gone," a delirious homage to the Strokes, of all things. But if all this material belongs to genres engineered to provide identity, Clarkson never sounds like she owns the songs; she adds melisma where it shouldn't be, or overheats when she's supposed to cool out. Only in "Beautiful Disaster," a schmaltzy piano ballad stuck at Breakaway's end, does she sound at home.
Second-season Idol Ruben Studdard has never seemed comfortable with himself; his personality's always appeared to be centered around his surprise that runner-up Clay Aiken didn't beat him. So you can't really blame him for retreating to the relative safety of gospel for I Need an Angel, his new album. First, it's his way of delicately circumnavigating the question of sex appeal, which earnest admirers of the singer's cuddliness have been delicately circumnavigating since he defeated the more sexually ambiguous (and therefore threatening) Aiken. Second, you don't have to think of anything to sing gospel songs about, leaving Studdard to do what Idols do best: flex technique. Surprisingly, Angel might be the most tasteful Idol disc yet; Studdard sings beautifully, and even the contempo-gospel cream cheese that keeps Casio in business sounds OK.
Fantasia Barrino, who won the show's third competition last May, has no such use for restraint: Free Yourself, larded with contributions from Missy Elliott, Jermaine Dupri, and Jazze Pha, is her naked bid for assimilation into the r&b mainstreama perfectly reasonable goal I won't begrudge anyone savvy enough to hire Elliott (who nonetheless sounds asleep at the wheel here). But in a wondrously trashy reading of the Gershwins' "Summertime," Fantasia shows off the scratchy, extemporaneous sass that Idol squelches and that will someday earn her a dinner theater to call her own. No wonder it's over in two minutes and 45 seconds.
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