Kelly Clarkson

Kelly Clarkson has outlasted most American Idols — probably because she was one of the first. 

Clarkson, the Texas-born winner of the first season of "American Idol," succeeded thanks to her knack for co-writing and performing empowering anthems. She’s become a genuine artist in the ever-changing world of pop, and her new record, Piece By Piece, sustains her stylistic consistency.    

Over the course of seven albums, Clarkson has homed in on which kind of artist she wants to be. She delivers her ballads with the conviction of a brand new artist trying to make it in music — a characteristic a lot of musicians lose after their first few records. Notable pop stars, such as Katy Perry and Carrie Underwood, have lost a lot of the emotion in their music, but Clarkson keeps her passion.

If there’s one artist Clarkson is competing with, it’s Taylor Swift. Clarkson proves she is capable of matching, sometimes besting, Swift in vocal strength. In terms of creativity, though, Swift has the lead. 

Clarkson mirrors Swift’s 1989 on several occasions. Even the cover resembles the Instagram-esque 1989 cover. Competition is fine, but taking inspiration directly from a competitor’s record isn’t the way to go.

Piece By Piece doesn’t waver much from Clarkson’s style of passionate pop ballads and over-powering anthems. There are no revolutionary takes on pop or R&B. 

However, Clarkson’s consistent style makes a lot of the songs on this record feel stale. 

The only song that is a bit out-of-the-norm for Clarkson is “Take You High,” which contains an exhilarating electronic hook. This out-of-the-norm behavior is worth the risk; the hook of this song makes it an enjoyable experiment.    

The lead single, “Heartbeat Song,” feels like Clarkson and her producers worked for months to produce one track that sounds like every single she has ever released. With its typical guitar chords and familiar pop chorus, “Heartbeat Song” was meant to be critic proof, but I’m here to burst your bubble. The biggest flaw in this track is that it feels robotic. 

The songs on this record feel motivating when listened to, but, upon reflection, they go from inspirational to inhuman.    

There are some great moments on this record. “Invincible,” which Sia wrote, is performed perfectly. It feels amazing in the moment but leaves a bad taste in your mouth afterward. 

Clarkson has recorded singles in which there are some minor vocal errors, and it’s those performances that stand out the most. 

When she’s singing about human flaws and how everyone has them in “Piece By Piece,” it’s ironic that she doesn’t let herself slip up. Clarkson obeys her sheet music to the T.    

“Nostalgic” and “Dance With Me” contain urgency, showing Clarkson still feels the need to prove her worth in pop. “Someone” shows off Clarkson’s ability to deliver songs with a maximum dramatic effect, reminding the listener this Texan is still one of pop’s most powerful and forceful voices. 

All of these tracks suffer from the same problem: There’s no real risk. The only hazardous tracks on the album are “Take You High” and a surprising cover of Tokio Hotel’s “Run Run Run.” The latter song would be a bust without John Legend’s help.    

There’s no doubt that Kelly Clarkson is a vocally talented and empowering singer, but the over-production of this album proves to be its downfall.


Album: Piece By Piece

Artist: Kelly Clarkson

Tracks: 13

Rating: 6/10

Beyonce sings the National Anthem at the ceremonial swearing-in for President Barack Obama at the U.S. Capitol during the 57th Presidential Inauguration in Washington on Monday.

Photo Credit: The Associated Press

News broke mid-Tuesday morning that national treasure Beyoncé Knowles-Carter’s rendition of the Star Spangled Banner at the presidential inauguration may have been lip synced, compromising the very foundation of America itself. Rumors that bald eagles fell out of the sky and the Lincoln Memorial shed a real tear have yet to be confirmed or denied as the country stood, united in shock, at this stunning betrayal of trust in the nation’s capital.

The inauguration, starring Beyoncé and featuring celebrities such as Kelly Clarkson, drew both crowds and criticism. The First Lady Michelle Obama debuted controversial new bangs and presumably “wowed” in some designer dress. Cheez-Its were part of the culinary offerings. James Taylor proved he’s still doing stuff. The highlight by far was Beyoncé’s performance of the national anthem, which spawned endless praises on my Facebook news feed. The emotion! The flawless vocals! That infamous removal of the earpiece! It seemed too good to be true.

Perhaps it was.

A mere 24 hours later the social media world had done an about-face and was plagued with lamentations of the pop culture queen’s supposed inauthenticity. Surely if the president is being sworn in with a hand on the Bible, the performers, too, should be held accountable, right? Did Kelly fake it too? And let’s reopen the whole Beyoncé-faked-her-pregnancy can of worms while we’re at it.

Maybe we’re blowing this whole thing out of proportion. As news broke, I couldn’t help being reminded of an episode of “Hey Arnold,” one I had coincidentally watched that very morning, in which Eugene finds out his favorite TV action hero doesn’t do his own stunts. Poor Eugene is heartbroken when he sees that actor Maurice, clearly based on a pre-Gubernatorial Arnold Schwarzenegger, has a stunt double, and writes him off as a phony. In the end, Maurice redeems himself and proves that even though he does fake his stunts, he’s still a decent person.

Are we skewering Bey as Eugene did Maurice? Have we built her up so much as a culture goddess that we can no longer accept reality? Performers are just that, performers. They entertain, often at the cost of authenticity. We should be used to it by now. And face it: that national anthem was entertaining. Lip synced or not, it’s still Beyoncé’s voice singing and it still sounded incredible. Though that whole earpiece bit, in light of recent knowledge, was definitely taking it too far.

I understand, we’re all still so hurt about Lance Armstrong lying to us and Photoshopped CoverGirls and Kristen Stewart still being allowed to act that we feel like we deserve to have something real. Beyoncé denied us that. It’s natural to feel betrayed; I do too. But I choose to stand by Beyoncé in this difficult time, and I hope you will too.

Published on January 23, 2013 as "Beyonce accused of lip syncing anthem". 

Photo Credit: The Associated Press

WASHINGTON — Beyonce drew a loud cheer from the audience Monday even before her impressive rendition of the national anthem.

The applause started when she took her place with Jay-Z at the Capitol to watch President Barack Obama take the oath for his second term in office. The two stopped to chat with the Rev. Al Sharpton.

James Taylor kicked off the musical performances, strumming his guitar and singing “America the Beautiful.” Kelly Clarkson followed with a different arrangement of “My Country ‘Tis of Thee.” Then Beyonce was introduced and the crowd again roared its approval.

Beyonce had a definite fan in Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas, who applauded eagerly after she finished singing the national anthem. She offered R&B-esque vocal riffs as she sang on and the crowd seemed to love it, cheering loudly as she finished. Clarkson, too, hit high notes.

Beyonce may have been the star musical attraction, but she had plenty of company from Hollywood at the Capitol on Monday. Katy Perry and John Mayer sat side by side. Singer-songwriter Ke$ha was there, too.

People flocked to the colorful pop star, snapping photos. And Perry did the same, taking shots of “Girls” actress and daughter of news anchor Brian Williams, Allison Williams.

Actress Eva Longoria was seated on the platform outside the Capitol after making an appearance at a Kennedy Center performance Sunday night. Perry sang at the children’s concert the night before.

Former Boston Celtics great Bill Russell was in the crowd, too, along with actor Marlon Wayans.

When it comes to pop music, if Britney Spears is the voice of unrefined sexuality and Taylor Swift is the voice of the demure girl next door, then Kelly Clarkson is the voice of fiery empowerment. Kelly Clarkson’s latest album, Stronger, holds true to its title, pumping out song after bass-thumping song, making it the ideal breakup playlist for girls who refuse to feel bad about themselves.

From the album’s first single, “Mr. Know It All,” to the catchy, “Don’t Be A Girl About It,” the songs deliver rock-infused pop beats perfectly crafted for car ride sing-alongs and impromptu dorm room dance-offs.

On “What Doesn’t Kill You,” Clarkson masters the post-breakup anthem, fit to empower not only with lyrics like, “What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger/Stand a little taller/Doesn’t mean I’m lonely when I’m alone.” In the chorus, however, walloping dance beats compete with powerhouse vocals and mask Clarkson’s singing, which is well-designed for belting out words double-dipped in vengeance and angst. Some songs, based on formulaic crescendo-led choruses, prove that Clarkson sticks to what works for her. On “Alone,” her expected crescendos keep lyrics like, “You’re gonna miss me/So get ready/I’m about to tell you why,” tense and tight, just before the apex of volume and excitement. In the world according to Clarkson, it appears that a post-breakup comeback song isn’t complete without a crescendo.

The album shows Clarkson’s vocal versatility with the country-influenced ballad, “Don’t You Wanna Stay,” where country artist Jason Aldean takes the lead, but Clarkson, no stranger to country music, keeps her signature vocal prowess, taking back the spotlight for the chorus and bridge. Though the track’s country twang is easy on the ears, it’s out of place, considering the overall pop vibe from the rest of the album.

However, Clarkson’s song, “The Sun Will Rise,” is a seamless blend of country and pop, as it promises that life post-breakup gets better with each day. The almost-bare verses feature simple but strong vocals that contrast the bouncy dance beats of the rest of the album. Clarkson showcases a vocal versatility that sets her apart from her female pop music peers, proving her to be more than a performer but a true musician.

“Hello,” is a sassy bubblegum pop track that practically begs for a performance with a microphone stand, multiple hair flips and bursts of confetti. With a punchy melody reminiscent of Clarkson’s 2004 hit “Since U Been Gone,” “Hello” proves that in the pop world, you don’t have to have good lyrics to get someone to sing along.

Lyrics also fall short on “Einstein,” where the 29-year-old pop star, sings “I may not be Einstein but I know/Dumb plus dumb equals you,” to a cheating ex-boyfriend. Though it would make a strut-worthy runway track, the song would be better suited for the album of a saccharine Disney tween queen instead.

Stronger solidifies Clarkson as the pop music authority when it comes to getting over love and getting even. Attention, heartbroken girls, it’s time to put down the ice cream.

Printed on Tuesday, November 1, 2011 as: Clarkson's latest teems with fiery empowerment


Katy Perry’s second album, Teenage Dream, is a force to be reckoned with: Each of its successive singles has climbed to No. 1 on the Billboard Hot 100, the definitive measure of a song’s commercial success. Some might think it a surprising accomplishment given that one of the songs, “Firework,” poses the simple philosophical quandary: “Do you ever feel like a plastic bag?”

So Katy Perry songs aren’t necessarily known for their lyrical heft. Likewise, it’s unlikely you’ll find a defense of any of her songs much weightier than a tossed off, “It’s a guilty pleasure,” or “It’s really catchy.” But those excuses, particularly the latter, are telling of just what her main producer, Dr. Luke, wants you to feel. That ability to hook you despite inane lyrics is the result of masterful music production. There’s a technical mastery at work creating these pop hits, a skill great enough that we should reconsider how we measure the quality of song craft.

Creating a modern pop hit is an inexact science, but if you take some of the best pop songs of the last decade — Britney Spears’ “Toxic,” Kelly Clarkson’s “Since U Been Gone” or Miley Cyrus’ “Party in the U.S.A.” — there seems to be a recurring set of elements: a strutting, danceable beat, a hook-laden chorus and an anthemic rush of energy right around the bridge.

All three songs are from three different, successful super producers: Swedish production duo Bloodshy & Avant (“Toxic”), Dr. Luke (“Party in the U.S.A.”) and his mentor, Max Martin (“Since U Been Gone”). Collectively, their music has a singular goal: make music so impossibly catchy as to consume you entirely, the ridiculous pop starlet singing be damned. These songs are not the result of following a formula but of skillful producers working their technical magic.

Case in point: Ke$ha’s “TiK ToK.” The accolades awarded this megahit, where pop’s poster child for personal hygiene brushes her teeth with a bottle of Jack Daniels, are numerous and its cultural dominance is undeniable. Certified five-times platinum in the U.S., it spent nine weeks at No. 1 and is currently the sixth-best-selling song in digital history. No, the world isn’t doomed to vapidity and cheap thrills — there will always be the kind of cerebral music heralded by sites like Pitchfork. In fact, those songs and albums routinely find themselves on critics’ year-end top 10 lists.

It’s unfair to hold mainstream pop and indie acts to the same qualitative standard because in most cases they have completely different goals. The work put into making the new Arcade Fire and Britney Spears albums offers a stark contrast: both albums have memorable tracks, existing in vastly different sonic spectrums; both were given four-star reviews by Rolling Stone.

If you’re willing to take a few steps back, you’ll marvel: “TiK ToK” is kind of brilliant. Yes, plenty have argued that Ke$ha’s dance style is lifted straight from electronic artist Uffie, but the greatness of “TiK ToK” is a separate success that owes nothing to her. It represents the success of taking that inspiration nearly to its saturation point for maximum effect; his technical skill accomplished the difficult task of creating a hit song. Your almost subconscious mouthing of the lyrics, wherever you hear it, is the result of a careful creation of beats, hooks and words. It’s a piece of art.

But since when was music not informed by other music? The animus flung at pop music seems to stem from frustration: “‘Since U Been Gone’ stole the guitar riff from the Yeah Yeah Yeahs’ ‘Maps’ and Kelly Clarkson is just a pimped-out, bourgeoise poser.”

Sure, Kelly Clarkson may have a nice steady stream of royalty checks for the rest of her life, but if you’re going to measure pop and indie music at different levels of quality, then measuring their respective success should be appropriately adjusted. Success for a Kelly Clarkson song and success for a Yeah Yeah Yeahs song are two different things. “Since U Been Gone” was a major Billboard, and thus commercial, hit; critics consider “Maps” of the greatest love songs of the last decade.

There’s no reason the appreciation of the craftsmanship of pop and indie music have to be mutually exclusive. When Pitchfork makes its annual best of the year song list, a nice handful of catchy pop songs make the cut alongside the indie ones. Musical taste may be subjective, but the apparent skill at work in some modern pop songs isn’t.