"I hope the ring you gave to her turns her finger green/I hope when you're in bed with her you think of me."
Alanis, is that you?
Actually, the famously tormented Ms. Morissette has nothing to do with it. Those are the opening lines from American Idol fave Kelly Clarkson's third album, My December. It's lyrics like those—and there are plenty more where they came from—that have fueled a feud between Clarkson and her management in the months before the CD's drop date. At issue? Creative control of the insanely popular singer's work.
Kelly first captured America's heart as the aw-shucks sweetheart who beat out that big-haired Justin Whatshisname in American Idol's inaugural season. Since then, the now 25-year-old Texan has lived up to the show's lofty title. So much so that Idol's notoriously critical Simon Cowell told Entertainment Weekly, "She's up there now in the Top-5 most important recording artists in the world, literally." And she's got the numbers to back that blustery praise: Clarkson's last release, 2004's Breakaway, moved a massive (these days, anyway) 6 million units.
The man directing Miss Clarkson's pop progress has been über-mogul Clive Davis (whose production résumé reads like a who's-who of the last four decades: Janis Joplin, Santana, Pink Floyd, Bruce Springsteen, Aretha Franklin, Patti Smith, Whitney Houston and Alicia Keys). As Kelly's executive producer, Davis enlisted hired guns to pen tunes bristling with stick-in-your-head hooks. New York Times reviewer Kelefa Sanneh described Max Martin and Dr. Luke's "Since U Been Gone," for example, as "one of this decade's defining pop songs: a glorious blast of bubblegum emo."
With a total of 11 million albums sold, however, Kelly morphed into Miss Independent and insisted upon writing her own tunes for My December. The result is a long way from "Since U Been Gone" ... and a long way from what the suits at RCA were hoping for. So much so that Davis is widely reported as having pressured Kelly to swap five of her songs with new ones penned by his hit-makers in exchange for a cool $10 million.
Kelly stood her ground.
Ultimately, Davis and RCA relented, but not before purportedly labeling the album "hitless." What it's not is angstless. Brace yourself for a whole heap o' heartbreak.
All by Myself
Kelly isn't shy when talking about how My December differs from her last effort. She says of it, "This record is more intense, it's more raw, it's more emotional." And she's just getting started. If her songs are to be interpreted autobiographically—and there's no obvious reason not to hear them that way—break-up driven bitterness has become her painful muse, yielding rage and despair. Hope claws in at the margins, but this is not a happy album.
"Never Again" kicks things off with a snarl: "I don't wish you well," Kelly tells her ex. Equally spiteful, if more sarcastically so, is the hidden track "Chivas," on which she spits, "Baby, I can't stand the sight of your face." Again channeling early Alanis, Kelly tells her former paramour, "So much for true love/... I'll take the [scotch whiskey] Chivas instead/Over your bed/It wasn't even good/Trust me." Like an insolent adolescent, she lobs one final insult: "You are crap."
But Kelly's anger, it turns out, is just a way station en route to deeper despair. "Don't Waste Your Time" laments a relationship that's left her feeling sexually used. Bewilderment and brokenness result. "You held my hand/You held me tight/Now you're gone/And I'm still crying," she sighs on "Haunted." "Shocked, broken/I'm dying inside/... I wish I couldn't feel at all/Let me be numb."
And it just keeps coming. By the time you're half way through the disc, you just want to give Kelly a blanket to cover up the devastating vulnerability she pours out. These songs are truly hard to listen to.
A Hope and a Prayer
As for that hope clawing at the margins, most of it feels driven by desperation. Sometimes that's OK, of course. Full of pain and loneliness, "Irvine" launches into an aching prayer: "Why is it so hard?/Why can't you just take me?/I don't have much to go/Before I fade completely/... Are you there?/Are you watching me?/As I lie here on this floor/They say you feel what I do/They say you're here every moment/Will you stay?/Stay till the darkness leaves/Stay here with me/I know you're busy/I know I'm just one/But you might be the only one who sees me/The only one to save me."
Other times, songs look studiously inward. "Sober" recounts resisting an unnamed addiction ("Three months and I'm still sober/... Three months and I'm still breathing/... Three months and I'm getting better"), while "Be Still" gropes for relational stability after "we lost hope/When we still touched/And love wasn't so hard." "Maybe" dreams, "One day/... You'll see me completely/Every little bit/... Maybe you'll love me then.") And on the mostly innocent "Can I Have a Kiss," Kelly describes wanting "something so pure" and insists, "I can be lovely given the chance."
The Reality of Pain
Describing record execs' reactions to My December, Kelly told one interviewer, "[They said] 'it's just too negative.' I'm like, 'Well, I'm sorry I've inconvenienced you with my life.' No, it doesn't say, 'I'm happy, I'm with a boy and having so much fun.' But it's reality. I know it's not going to do what Breakaway did, 'cause it's not as mainstream. I get that. Some of the songs are not what 10-year-olds are probably going to listen to. But we all go through situations for certain reasons, and I think we should share that."
I get that. I really do. But there are big differences between sharing and wallowing. In addition to debilitating anger, gloomy desperation and (mildly) profane interjections, there are some deeper problems here, such as using alcohol to numb the pain and the implication that she and her ex(es) were sexually active.
Kids (and many adults, too) are convinced these days that 15 minutes of fame is just the ticket to snapping them out of the funk they feel they're in. But if My December is any indication of what's really going on in Kelly Clarkson's head and heart, popularity clearly hasn't yielded anything approximating wholeness or happiness. Instead, it appears to have brought her to the brink of despair.
In communicating that, ironically, she may well have done some a small favor.
As for everyone else... Well, let me put it this way: On "Hole" Kelly sings, "It's all wrong/I'm so sick of this." Depending on your inferences, she's either trying to climb out of that hole or is simply transfixed by its darkness. Either way, she risks dragging at least a few of her devoted fans in with her.