(Sony BMG; 2007)
By Mark Abraham | 26 July 2007
Fuck you, Clive Davis. You may have been nominally right in terms of sales, but that doesn’t mean you have any more cache, so stop editorializing from croquet parties at Andrew Lack’s house. Get off your 80-year old ass.
But what happened to our love for Clarkson? Since she’s been gone we’ve apparently lost our will to embrace the singer, rubbing down accolades to boring half-hearted platitudes: “she’s still the best American Idol has to offer.” Here’s a paraphrased smattering of the general consensus on My December: “it’s no where near a top fifty list,” “it’s not a great album but it’s a decent Kelly Clarkson album,” “it’s great that Clarkson is playing by her own rules, but those rules sound boring.” Putting aside, for the moment, the question of whether My December is actually any good, let me suggest something: the boon of the indie-community opening itself enough to embrace the mainstream has never been a clean process; loving Beyoncé or Usher or, hell, Missy Elliot is for many a compromised process that involves playing the ironic/pleasurable/campy enjoyment of the mainstream against the serious, real music we enjoy and protect viciously. At least publicly, while anybody is watching. Will the people in the audience who will unequivocally state that “Toxic” is a better song than “Eric’s Trip” please stand up?
Because here’s the first problem with even approaching Clarkson’s new jawn: it sounds kind of indie. Vaguely so. Enticingly so. Consequently, however, My December is neither pop-mainstream enough to be a guilty pleasure that compliments our fantastic indie cred or indie enough to be a true transformation from pop starlet to indie hero like, say, Robyn. And that problem is complicated by the fact that Clarkson’s fame and the expectations her fame entails subvert whatever surprise the vaguely indie Mike-Watts-guesting vibe had in the first place. Instead, My December sits somewhere in between, a liminal album that caresses indie touchstones at the same time that it flirts with mainstream viability. And so here’s the second problem: without another “Since U Been Gone,” how do we gauge the private enjoyment people must be getting out of this album, because for all the boring talk about how hell hath no fury like Kelly Clarkson scorned, or how dismal this album is—and, yes, the lyrics are just as redundant and simple and single-minded as you have heard—this album is a lot of fucking fun. All over. Even if it ain’t gonna get played at parties.
Let’s see. My December is to indie-pop/rock/whatever as “The Killing of Georgie (Parts I & II)” is to “Walk on the Wild Side.” Sure, no music critic worth their salt would cop to picking Rod Stewart over Lou Reed (did I?), and obviously Reed’s tune is held up as the best-known representative of his expansion of rock themes for countercultures. Except, how much of the wild side do we really see in indie-rock anymore? And, for all of Reed’s vague allegiances with the drag queens and sex workers of Manhattan, isn’t Stewart’s simple eulogy for his dead gay friend somehow more affecting, even if it is so obviously a rip-off of Reed’s signature tune? Stewart was playing at being edgy, sure, but the song is ultimately far more honest than Reed’s use of subcultures he wasn’t part of could ever be.
A different example: Elton John writes “Honky Cat,” a song about.well, I mean, my point is that it doesn’t matter what it’s about, really. John never wrote a track with Bernie Taupin that didn’t end up an opportunity for John to perform the camp version of the subject matter. John was never a cowboy; he was cross-dressing as a cowboy. He was performing himself as cowboy. And in that sense, while Clarkson’s lyrics are a pill on My December, no question—all thirteen tracks (fourteen, if you count the hidden one) are about some guy who broke her heart—there are moments of sly self-awareness that suggest to me that she’s playing that role for all its worth. Much of the album was written while Clarkson was in conflict with her label and touring extensively; in other words, exhausted and pissed off at the overbearing direction of Davis, Sony BMG, and 19 Recordings, Clarkson isn’t just getting over some dude—this is her real “Breakaway” from her entire life, and every metaphor is just as likely to be a “fuck you” to Sony as it is the nameless fella who pissed Clarkson off. In the same sense, Clarkson may well be pulling a Stewart by drawing on a whole array of edgy indie sounds that ultimately get pop inflated throughout My December. But how much of that is an attempt to gain cache and how much of that is Clarkson and her producers trying to give the mainstream itself an overhaul?
This record is not weird, farsighted, novel, innovative, or hyphy stylish. It’s not going to blow your mind with Clarkson’s embrace of out-there sonics or anything like that. But was anybody expecting it to? Because, on the other hand, the album is one of the most curious capital P Pop records I’ve heard in years. I find it simultaneously intoxicating and maddening, equally loving the wide arsenal of pop tricks producer David Kahne’s employing at the same time the lyrics often make me grimace. Of course, even Robyn doesn’t always turn the finest phrase, and not everything on My December is ludicrous. Nothing’s a mindfuck either, true, but, y’know, the unassuming woman from Texas with the brilliant voice who apparently ate like a bite of a marijuana cookie once in Amsterdam where it’s legal.can we really expect her to write some mythic millennial document? Much simpler, I think, to view this as what it may well be: the closest we’ll ever get to hearing a serious pop vocalist singing a sort of indie-record.
And, I mean, check out the production and sequencing on this thing. Pristine. Lead single “Never Again” opens the album with Clarkson at her most haunted, and while it’s true she’s one short step away from maudlin, the track itself is a brimming assault. “One Minute” follows with the appropriate second slot coyness, just as round and buoyant as the first track but far more lighthearted, packed with funny little synth bits in the corners and a delicious New Order vibe on the intro. This is followed by “Hole,” the rocker, a few Bonnie Raitt shades this side of rawk, but Clarkson pivots over some guitar work that, with a few more dials of the gain knob might sound comfortable on a Mastodon album. Fourth place goes to “Sober,” the trick ballad-that’s-really-a-soaring-bit-of-cartharsis, followed closely, as all tracks like “Sober” should be, with the chugging barrage of “Don’t Waste Your Time.” True, the track features one of the most obvious vocal faux pas on the album—“Don’t waste your time on me my friend / ‘Friend’—what does that even mean?”—but that wince will quickly be followed by amusement at the weird way Clarkson vocal ticks the enunciation of “song.” Then we get the (fairly accurate) Metric-styles of “Judas,” an electro-rock track that crashes against the palm-muted sample-introed Evanescence-y “Haunted.” Except, like, not nearly as gothically-stupid as Evanescence, and with enough Cocteau Twins or Belly to pull it through.
“Be Still” is the first true ballad on the album, a straightforward track with lots of beautiful reversed guitars and string synths. “Maybe” begins like an Iron & Wine track before turning into a rock ballad. (And, aside: all the strings on this album are canned—production choice or the label’s refusal to pay? But more importantly: when was the last time you heard a mainstream big label pop album that sounds like you could have recorded it in your bedroom?) “How I Feel” ups the ante on “One Minute,” winning the award for Track Sounding Most Like Kelly Clarkson’s Biggest Indie Fan Ted Leo’s Own Music. It also happens to be the song where Clarkson justifies all the monolithic lyricism: “That’s how I feel right now / so just let me be.” She also sings “bitter pill” on the bridge, not subtly making the obvious connection to Jagged Little Pill (1995). “Yeah” White Stripes itself over a funk beat, gospel mongering (by which I mean, “sounding like Odelay“) its way out to the album’s end. “Can I Have a Kiss” sounds like a drag when it starts but soon reveals the album’s most weighty melodies, right before the album spirals into the dismal Yorke-isms of “Irvine.”
The unassailable track sequencing, even if some of the tracks themselves are circumspect, has resulted in another humdrum consensus statement about this album: “it shows promise.” I really don’t expect we’re going to get an Emancipation of Mimi out of Clarkson; I think any half-formed fantasies that Clarkson will fully embrace the indie-stream are laughable. She’s not going to become Radiohead, but “Irvine” is clear evidence that she listens to them (or, fine, at least that somebody who produced the album does). Point being, all attempts to listen to this as straight mainstream pop or straight substream indie are besides the point, and that’s a binary I’m employing because it exists: the music we, as a community, secretly love but distance ourselves from by employing rhetoric of the very music we consider real. But what if Clarkson is suddenly the Rilo Kiley we all wished we wanted, but nobody is willing to own up to that fact?
I like this album a lot because it’s fun, well developed, and it never outreaches the Mike-Watts-guesting low-budget-utilizing current-darling-sound-copping flourishes it employs. It’s not trying to be more than it is at the same time that it unintentionally becomes much more than what it should be: a pretty fantastic Pop Star making a pretty fine Pop Album while traversing the monkeybars of indie-circumstance like a giddy child. Even if it doesn’t take many risks (other than the major one of Clarkson deciding to do it in the first place). Even if it follows a formula, that formula is the right one. Even if the lyrics are derivative they’re by no means abysmal. Even if the overall product doesn’t really knock your socks off, it still keeps your attention. We still have a great time. This might be the most fun break up album since Rumors (1977). Clarkson has made the ultimate example of an album that does precisely everything it should do as dictated by a consensus interpretation of what pop albums should, even if it does absolutely nothing more. But here’s my real point: most pop artists can’t even seem to get that much right lately. And therefore, My December ends up, curiously enough, a pretty freaking fun summer album.