Against all odds, it’s hard not to feel a modicum of respect for the most manufactured pop star in the world.
Though Kelly Clarkson still carries the weight of being the first American Idol champion (inadvertently setting the template for the show’s many anonymous pop starlets to follow for years to come), it was obvious to everyone that she was never too pleased with becoming famous just because she won the world’s largest karaoke competition. Though her 2003 debut album Thankful was a moderate success, it wasn’t until the following year that she became the superstar that Idol had always intended her to be. “Since U Been Gone” was just about as perfect a pop single as there ever was: a flawless blend of mainstream accessibility and melodic prowess that went on to garner Clarkson a surprising amount of clout, credibility, and — oh yeah — a Grammy to boot. The remarkable thing about Clarkson’s sophomore disc Breakaway was that she took a huge hand in writing nearly half the songs on it, almost as if she wanted to prove to the world (and, to a lesser degree, herself) that she deserved to top the charts, and that she could’ve done it by herself all along. She may have gotten her start on a giant corporate clog, but Clarkson’s desire for genuine credibility was unique and respectable, especially in the sea of flavor-of-the-week pop stars that flood the charts these days.
Then Clarkson’s desire for cred got the best of her.
The release of 2007’s My December was rife with bad publicity. Clarkson was taking her sound into a far heavier rock-oriented direction, she was writing all of her own songs despite her label’s insistence that she work with industry pros, and all the while, Clarkson was feuding with Clive Davis about the “new direction” of her music right from day one. Though the furious “Never Again” was still a Top 10 hit, the album was still a commercial disappointment, which — at the time — only compounded Clarkson’s bad luck: weak ticket sales for her My December tour lead to its surprise cancellation, suddenly forcing many to speculate whether Clarkson’s star was on the immediate decline. Though rumors kept getting tossed around that she was going to shift to country music as a way to reignite her career (a la Jessica Simpson), the recent single “My Life Would Suck Without You” proved that Clarkson’s heart still belonged firmly in mainstream dance/guitar-pop, and, well, few people can sell a hook like she can.
If All I Ever Wanted — with its brightly-colored promotional photos and candy-disco choruses — sounds like career backpedaling, that’s because it is. Yet the wonderful thing about Clarkson is that she knows that she’s a pop star that’s going back to what worked before, and her music is defiantly disposable because of it. Is “My Life Would Suck Without You” a total rip-off of “Since U Been Gone”? Of course it is (it has the same songwriters, even). Critics may not fawn over it, but if you pump it up with enough thumping synths and catchy guitar riffs, you will — in the end — have the pop single equivalent of a Hollywood romantic comedy: predictable in every possible way but still pretty damn fun.
The rest of the disc brings in heavyweight mainstream songwriters like Max Martin, Glen Ballard, Katy Perry, and OneRepublic’s Ryan Tedder to craft Clarkson’s trademark tales of romantic woe. When the songs work, Clarkson sounds positively unstoppable. “Don’t Let Me Stop You” may sound like another rewrite of an older Clarkson hit (in this case, “Behind These Hazel Eyes”), but the observational lyrics about a questionable relationship are what ultimately makes the whole thing click:
This is gonna sound kind of silly
But I couldn’t help but notice
The last time you kissed me
You kept both eyes open
Baby can you tell me what does that mean
If you’re looking over your shoulder
Then you don’t need to be with me
And I don’t need to hold on
Though some of the post-breakup bitterness of My December still lingers here (most notably on the storming title track), All I Ever Wanted remains a remarkably upbeat record, which, in turn, plays to Clarkson’s strengths. There’s a good run of highlight right from the get-go: the wry “I Do Not Hook Up”, the thumping “If I Can’t Have You” (which sounds like another smart rip-off, this time of the Veronicas’ “Hook Me Up”), and the rollicking “Long Shot” (where the guitars sound like they’re on loan from the Trans-Siberian Orchestra) — all sturdy, memorable pop numbers that may not break any new ground (was anyone expecting them to?), but still manage to have a remarkable amount of fun playing in Clarkson’s safe zone.
It’s unfortunate, then, that this peppy little record has to — like so many Idol discs both before and (inevitably) after — get weighed down by a string of forgettable, snore-inducing ballads. The Keri Noble-penned closer “If No One Will Listen” is the worst offender of them all, as all the gaudy string sections in the world can’t make this song memorable even if they tried (and boy do they). The Ryan Tedder ballads (“Already Gone”, “Save You”, “Impossible”) also fall down with a resounding thud, as his predictable and hackneyed lyrics do little favors to either Clarkson or the listener (though it should be noted that the towering Timbaland-knocking synths in “Impossible” at least try to add a new musical dimension to Clarkson’s sound, even if they too sound like they’re chasing current chart trends).
Yet even with those missteps, there are still some stellar moments on All I Ever Wanted that show Clarkson branching out into new territory. The punky “Whyyawannabringmedown” feels like one of the few songs where Clarkson is allowed to let her freak flag fly, and amidst the stop-start guitars that chug around her, Clarkson’s rock-ready wail makes her sound like a dead ringer for Tia Carrere’s character in Wayne’s World. Even better are the tracks right before the album’s close (aka where labels put songs that aren’t up for single consideration), as this is where we get some of the disc’s most surprising moments. “I Want You” comes off a modern-day update on the Phil Spector girl-group sound (or, at least the Pipettes’) complete with vocal stutters, fluid harps, and a dry kick-drum beat. What’s amazing is how completely at home Clarkson sounds here, almost as if you could envision her in a poodle skirt while playing this number at a 1950s prom, breaking out into Leslie Gore’s “It’s My Party (And I’ll Cry If I Want To)” immediately after. The breezy, carefree pop of “Ready” precedes “I Want You”, and, together, we’re reminded as to why Clarkson won American Idol in the first place: she didn’t just sing the songs, she sold them wholeheartedly, no matter what the intended emotion. These quirky little tunes may very well rank as some of her best, and perhaps there’s a reason behind their success: Clarkson wrote them herself.
In the liner notes for All I Ever Wanted, Clarkson — in a very interesting move — pulls out a quote from Emily Dickinson:
Life is but life, and death but death!
Bliss is but bliss, and breath but breath
And if, indeed, I fail
At least to know the worst is sweet
Defeat means nothing but defeat
No drearier, can prevail!
Though she spends the rest of the “thank you” section vaguely (and I mean vaguely) alluding to the failure of My December, the Dickinson quote essentially sums up Clarkson’s feelings: “Sure, I failed, but at least I was trying something new — how many others of you can claim the same?” Even though Clarkson’s music is unabashed Top 40 fodder, there is a certain joy to be found in her search for new sounds, textures, and styles — especially with this album. Clarkson is trying hard to be an artist in a realm where she’s viewed as just a product, and even when she missteps, at least she keeps things interesting. Though All I Ever Wanted is not a classic pop album by any means, it’s most assuredly a fun one — flaws and all. It might be a bit quirky at times, but therein lies the charm: no one could’ve filled up such a deliberately commercial album with so much personality aside from Kelly Clarkson, and for that, we should all be a bit thankful.