It's not the actual content of "My December," Kelly Clarkson's just-released third album, that currently makes it unlistenable. I'm not saying that it's a bad album -- it's a solid, heartfelt, occasionally beautiful exercise in mainstream modern rock, and most reviews are confirming that. "My December" is unlistenable in the sense that nobody can really hear it. Sometimes this happens to a work of art: The din around it from a controversy renders the thing itself mute.
At least the dust-up is about the work itself, not how many kids somebody has adopted or a political aside made on a foreign concert stage long ago. But the way it's playing out in the hype-dominated, expert-laden, power-obsessed culture of celebrity says something truly depressing about the limits of pop as art, and as democratic expression.
That's not just because Clarkson, a multiplatinum moneymaker, is having to wage an undignified war with her record label over creative control. Artists have struggled with "the man" since the days of royal patronage; many have had face-offs with veteran star maker Clive Davis, the particular man clashing with Clarkson. (Davis, chairman of the BMG Label Group, didn't hear a hit on "My December" and wanted Clarkson to rework it with the "professional songwriters" he credits for her success.)
What's grim is the way the drama has played out in public. Since the disagreement surfaced this spring, the main question posed has been, "Will 'My December' have hits?" Such speculation is reasonable from a business point of view -- RCA, like every major label, expects huge sales from its top artists to offset losses accrued as the music industry continues to melt down. But that it has become a matter of general fascination reflects the winner-take-all mentality afflicting American culture and diminishing its arts.
Popularity is hip right now. From the shift in the independent music underground epitomized by Paris Hilton dancing onstage at Coachella with Cansei De Ser Sexy, a Brazilian band signed to Nirvana's former label Sub Pop and by a mainstream transfixed by the voting process on "American Idol," we care who wins. We care who wins so much that once the victory is accomplished, questions of whether it was deserved or how it was accomplished become almost gauche.
I'm interested in what's popular, but I think we all need to take a breather and remember that instant and unwavering commercial success doesn't necessarily denote artistic genius. It certainly can, but just as often success comes from a great marketing plan, a lucky hook or stealing someone else's game. And for an artist to grow over a creative lifetime -- let's call it that for once, instead of always referring to "careers" -- she needs to take side roads and make mistakes.
The fascination with Clarkson's possible slip in commercial viability equates her value as an artist (and as a person, since her assertiveness has been read by some as petulance and egotism) with record sales. Even her defenders feel obligated to suggest which tracks might become hit singles, as if the only way to appreciate "My December" is to imagine a way to salvage it.
The idea that this music might have a great effect on a smaller audience or that it's a valuable step in the evolution of someone whose talent should make for many fine albums pales next to betting on Clarkson like a prized racehorse.
The Clarkson affair reminds us that even our most popular artists don't have that much freedom once they're ensconced in the game. Mavericks such as Kanye West and the White Stripes are rare. Most big sellers dutifully (or reluctantly) play along, approximating whatever worked last time to claw their way back onto the charts. It's hard to blame artists for this; look at the viciousness that has greeted commercial less-than-successes such as Liz Phair.
This mess also, frankly, reeks of sexism. Casting Clarkson as a deluded ingenue and Davis as a father figure gone ballistic -- not to mention the inevitable speculation about her weight -- conceals other relevant issues. "My December" is a rock record, but rock radio plays barely any female artists. And there's a history of women trying to evolve and facing resistance: consider Lauryn Hill, Joan Osborne, Macy Gray, Paula Cole, even Sheryl Crow. Men experiment and they're applauded, or at least indulged; women do so and it's assumed that a boyfriend has led them astray.
The release of "My December" should have been a time of celebration for Clarkson; instead, it's a difficult moment, one that this strong and gifted performer will likely overcome. But she's not the only one who should be sad at how it's all gone down. Everyone who loves pop music needs to feel a bit chagrined about this one and try next time to do as another often-besmirched pop star, George Michael, once advised: listen without prejudice.