Ready to rock it

Times Staff Writer

FROM what mix of elements does a millennial pop star spring? Consider two imaginary home movies from the adolescence of Kelly Clarkson, blockbuster hit-maker and television “Idol.”

In the first, Clarkson is in her house in Burleson, Texas. There’s been a scene at the dinner table. She retreats to her bedroom, crawls onto her bed, puts on headphones and listens to a singer whose voice she describes as “your mother telling you a story.” It’s Reba McEntire.

“Any time there were hard times at my house, for some reason Reba’s voice always made me feel peaceful,” remembered Clarkson, who recently fulfilled a dream by collaborating with the country music doyenne. “It’s just that voice you want to hear when you’re just, like, ‘Everything else go away.’ I felt the same way about Aretha Franklin -- she’s my other safe place.”

In the second scene, Clarkson has snuck out of the house with her friends and headed to a club a couple of towns over. Inside, noise penetrates the floorboards. As Todd Lewis, the singer for the Toadies -- the best post-grunge band in Texas -- yowls and testifies, Clarkson finds herself lifted by the crowd.

“The Toadies -- my favorite band of all time!” said the heart-shape-faced 25-year-old, who has the bouncy but controlled carriage of someone who studied gymnastics as a child. “I’ve gone to about a billion shows of theirs,” she said. “Todd Lewis’s voice, I just love that it’s sexy, dirty, drunk, broken. Anything about rock swagger I learned from them. And yeah, I crowd-surfed.”


Listening to Clarkson’s third album, “My December,” to be released early this summer, it’s easy to believe that she’s spent time in a mosh pit. Produced by David Kahne, who’s guided new-wave rockers from the Bangles to Sugar Ray to the Strokes, and written almost entirely by Clarkson with several members of her touring band, the album features revered punk bassist Mike Watt on several tracks and stresses Clarkson’s avenging-angel vocals throughout. The up-tempo songs, with un-pretty titles such as “Hole” and “Judas,” spruce up the often-maligned pop-metal template with sharp guitar riffs and the occasional electro-clash beat. It’s not rock, says Clarkson: “Rock, to me, is like AC/DC, Led Zeppelin, Aerosmith.” But it is hard and, in its own way, extreme.

On “My December” Clarkson presents herself as a hot young inheritor of the arena rock stage; next time, she might go country-blues. Versatility is her gift. During a long interview at the Beverly Hills Four Seasons last month, Clarkson described her latest effort as a proud step in an ongoing process. “I’ll always come out with a different record,” she explained. The songs she’s writing for the next album are more down-home and dirty. “But I don’t necessarily want to make just a country record,” she said. “I’d rather do something like the Rolling Stones -- tie in everything.”

“My December” avoids the shiny tedium of many pop-rock projects by exploiting Clarkson’s ease in shifting roles. According to a source close to the singer, concerns among execs at Clarkson’s label, RCA, over whether the album has enough pop flavor to go platinum could lead to changes before its release. Given the chance, Clarkson doesn’t indulge in the interview cliche of trumpeting her integrity in the face of executives’ meddling -- as a child, she says, she was a “people pleaser,” and she’s still reflexively tactful.

The strength of versatility

BUT Clarkson has her own ideas about how to grow. She has plunged into songwriting, hunkered down with her touring band and come up with a sound that mixes the grand gestures of 1980s metal (there’s a famous YouTube clip of Clarkson covering “Sweet Child of Mine” by Guns N’ Roses, and she nails it) with the barefaced emotionality of ‘90s alternative music. This is a 21st century idea of hard rock, incorporating loops and other studio effects to find a middle ground between the raw and the cooked.

And there is variety here. On the lovely “Be Still,” a meditative refrain intertwines with a gentle violin motif as Clarkson dips in and out of her upper range like a young Christine McVie. “Yeah” is a funk-rock stomp reminiscent of En Vogue’s 1992 hit “Free Your Mind.” On “Chivas,” recorded at home in Texas using GarageBand software, the chuckle in Clarkson’s throat is totally Janis Joplin as she tips her glass and gives the finger to an ex. There’s also the bopping “How I Feel,” a single girl’s lament that’s way smarter than Avril Lavigne’s latest smash.

So call Clarkson a rocker, but don’t mistake her for the new Metallica. The singer has been citing Pat Benatar, and that’s about right. Like the spandex queen of 1970-'80s popera, Clarkson has the moxie to rock without worrying about what anybody else thinks that pose requires. Her gift is for finding the source of vitality in absolutely mainstream, people-pleasing pop, which by its nature breaks stylistic rules in favor of magpie mash-ups, bold appropriations and happy accidents.

Clarkson’s previous hits, especially the expertly constructed “Since U Been Gone,” have gained her surprising cachet among indie-rock fans. According to Ted Leo, an indie-rock elder statesman whose hard-to-find cover of Clarkson’s hit has become a cult classic (and laid bare the song’s borrowings from the Yeah Yeah Yeahs’ punk ballad “Maps”), what’s interesting is the artfulness of their larceny.

“The song is great, and Kelly Clarkson sings it fantastically, but one of the things that makes it great is what a cheap trick it is -- it was a perfectly cynical amalgamation of everything that was ‘hot’ and ‘edgy’ in pop music that year,” he commented.

Even Clarkson’s conversational style reflects her all-embracing personality. As she discussed “My December” and her hopes for the future, her words careened forward like the hot-foot kick-drum in her new single, “Never Again.” At first, her manic perkiness disturbingly recalled Reese Witherspoon as the high-school overachiever in “Election,” but eventually it became clear that Clarkson’s character, like her music, simply tends toward openness. She doesn’t want to stop at just one idea, or just one sound.

This unpretentious sense of privilege greatly benefits her. She doesn’t have a home genre tugging at her, as do so many young artists (especially “Idol” grads), who long to prove their hip-hop cred or hard-rock virility. She doesn’t equate being serious with being pure. It helps that fans and industry types accept white artists crossing into different styles much more easily than nonwhite artists can gain credibility in, say, country music. And it helps, she says, that she won “Idol,” because for her, the variety the show demands wasn’t a put-on.

“I’m lucky because of the ‘Idol’ thing,” she said, disputing the suggestion that she’d ever tried to distance herself from the show. “People got to see me perform different genres, and see that I like different stuff. People enjoy that -- most people don’t listen to the same kind of music all the time, that’s boring.”

Many facets, singular drive

IN high school, Clarkson was in choir, played sports and was in student council. “I had friends all over the place,” she said. “Not popular by any means -- I just knew lots of people.” She describes herself as “a very talkative, outgoing person, but introverted at the same time.” She’s a devout Christian but bristles at being called the “girl next door” unless it’s acknowledged that such a girl can drink whiskey, has a temper and can be an emotional wreck. “I’m very intense,” she said. “Or passionate. If I’m happy, I’m really happy

All of which makes Clarkson an average human bundle of contradictions. What stands out is her ability to translate her inconsistencies into an artistic persona that’s both flexible and strong. Unlike many ingenues, Clarkson never came off as a blank slate; even on her teen-pop-tinged first album, “Thankful,” she pushed through, projecting a kind of directness (she calls it “blunt”) that stood out within the music’s predictable flourishes. Her second album, “Breakaway,” took the evolution further; Clarkson began to act out the role she naturally inhabited, that of a freewheeling regular gal for whom fitting in everywhere isn’t a compromise but a crowning achievement.

In the end, it’s Clarkson’s voice that allows for such freedom. Her technical prowess and relaxed phrasing combine in an approach that’s virtuosic without being cold, and personal rather than affected. She was classically trained, and early on she emulated technically savvy songbirds such as Mariah Carey, but those nights in clubs listening to the Toadies’ Lewis scream showed her that sometimes an ugly note holds more truth.

“Men have always been emotional singers,” she said. “There are only a few select women who have actually carried that off. Like Patsy Cline -- she’s great. She’s not a technical singer. She slides around. Aretha slides around. There are these technical singers in my generation who worry so much; it’s pretty, but it’s nothing like Bono. At some point, I realized, I can be pitchy, I can forget lyrics. I don’t need to worry so much about it because I’ve hit that emotional depth, which is what attracts fans.”

“My December” is all about Clarkson’s voice -- and not only the succulent, slightly dark timbre of her alto, or her ability to nail those shirt-ripping high notes that say “freedom” in rock ‘n’ roll speak. The lyrics, many inspired by a bout of despair Clarkson suffered at the height of her newfound fame, are genuinely heart-baring. “I found myself at the lowest of lows,” she said of that period, when she realized that several intimates had betrayed her trust.

Her solution was to “clean closet” of the people she couldn’t rely on and to write a batch of songs that capture, in ragged detail, her confusion and pain. Her writing is often awkward and almost embarrassingly uncensored. (In one, “Irvine,” she addresses God: “Do you cry as much as I do?”) Even the album’s happier moments carry the weight of uncertainty. This is the sound of a decent human being unmoored by demands and desires she can’t meet.

“It is very aggressive,” Clarkson said. “And it might be too much. But I just needed to be able to make this record and not have so many hands in the cookie jar saying, ‘Pull this string, pull that string.’ I was like, ‘Just give me this one thing, and I will make whatever record you want next time.’ Now, I need this, for me.”


Powers is The Times’ pop music critic.