What happens when a curly-haired teen starts covering popular songs on YouTube, makes it to the Hollywood round on American Idol, then gets noticed by Justin Bieber’s manager, Scooter Braun?
Do I even have to answer that question?
Tori Kelly is an ebullient 22 year old whose 2015 debut album (and its 2016 bonus-track laden re-release), Unbreakable Smile, is as earnest as its infectious title suggests. Her aww-shucks, girl-next-door appeal is evident from the very first lines of “Where I Belong (Intro).” She sings, “I’m just a girl with her guitar/Trying to give you my whole heart/ … All I have is a story and a dream/Here I am, and that’s all I can be.”
Listening to those lyrics, I couldn’t help but think that Tori seemed to be taking a different tack toward mainstream success than so many of her peers. And another confession on the title track soon confirms that suspicion: “Who knows, maybe I can sell out shows without taking off my clothes.”
So who is this cheerful and amply-clothed young woman?
Tori Kelly wastes no time telling us that she’s pretty grounded when it comes to knowing who she is and in dealing with fame’s challenges. “Why do I let the pressure take over my mind?” she asks on “Where I Belong (Intro).” And she continues, “When I know the truth is never wrong/I’m alright, this is right where I belong.” Meanwhile, “Funny (Live)” ponders what happens to people’s identities when they become celebrities. “What is your definition of a true superstar?/Is it beauty? Is it money? Is it power? Is it fame?/Are you in it for the glory? What’s the purpose? What’s the game?” She then warns wisely, “Everything you ever wanted got you tied up in chains/Be careful how you play the game.” Echoing Mark 8:36 and then Proverbs 16:18, she adds, “If you lose your soul, you lose it all/If you’re at the top, then brace for the fall.”
Similar themes are evident at the outset of the title track as Tori tells us she’s more interested in making a difference than making money (“Somebody told me fame is a disease/You start singing the blues when you start seeing green/But I think it’s all about what you choose/The way you live your life depends on you/That’s when I realized I wanna make a difference/Change other people’s lives, give hope, even for a moment”). She says she’s likely to be spending time with her family and at church. And speaking of her spiritual convictions, she brags a bit about how God has made her … and how she refuses to sell herself to sell albums (“God made me sexy, I don’t care if only I know”). And even though she playfully says that going to church “don’t mean I can’t cause trouble,” she immediately contrasts that sassy bravado with the suggestion that it’s not the kind of “trouble” likely to land her in the tabloids (“Stir up a little scene, ’cause isn’t that what you want/For me to mess up, so you can dress up some story?/Saying, ‘Tori, this’ll sell more records'”).
“Nobody Love” is honest about the reality of risk and conflict in a romantic relationship, but it ultimately affirms the goodness in a relationship even if it’s not perfect. “Expensive” tells a beau that what matters to Tori isn’t pricey bling, but rather just spending time with him. Still, she doesn’t seem in a huge rush to plunge headlong into love. Romantic restraint shows up on several songs. On “I Was Made for Loving You,” she tells a guy cautiously, “I’ve been waiting all my life/Please don’t scar this young heart/Just take my hand.” “First Heartbreak” ponders how to avoid mistakes that might unwittingly torpedo a first love. “Falling Slow” tells a guy that she’s not going to just surrender mindlessly to strong emotions. “Talk” challenges a would-be boyfriend to do more than just offer pretty words about his commitment. And “Anyway” wonders if someone will stay with her if she’s honest about her faults.
“Something Beautiful” encourages an emotionally distraught friend, “Your tears are not for nothing/ … You are stronger than you know/Oh, you’re something beautiful.” “Should’ve Been Us” and “Art of Letting Go” tenderly ponder what might have been without letting those romantic disappointments completely undo us.
A few mildly suggestive/rebellious moments pop up on “California Lovers” (“I remember sneaking out in your car/ … Was a sucker for them boys with a wild heart/ … You’re never on my mind/Till I feel the heat of you and me, it hits me every summer/Remember when no one else could make me feel alive?/We were young and free, 17, just California lovers”).
Guest contributions from Ed Sheeran and LL Cool J include these questionable lines: “Hold me close through the night/Don’t let me go, we’ll be alright” and “Lips kissing, seats christened/ … Your legs deserve they own day of the week, Th-Th-Thighday/ … You can have a sip of whatever you want, a bottle of.'”
There was a time in our culture when almost any young pop star might have sung songs like those on Unbreakable Smile. But that epoch crashed through the barriers and down a cliff decades ago now. Virtually no one in the 2010s writes songs like these without a faith influence.
And, indeed, Tori Kelly hasn’t been shy when it comes to talking about her Christian faith.
When Billboard magazine asked about how her convictions inform her music, Tori responded, “My faith is a huge part of my life. I don’t force it into my music, but it’s in my experiences, so it comes through. People pick up on what they want to pick up on, but any way strangers connect to a song that I wrote is awesome.”
That approach to subtly blending her faith and her music is evident on a song like “Hollow,” where she’s crying out for someone to fill the emptiness inside her. “So hold me,” she sings, “Wrap me in love, fill my cup/Empty, and only your love can fill my cup.” It’s not an in-your-face proclamation of faith. But God’s definitely there to be found for those who are looking, just as Tori says.
A small handful of suggestive lyrics do curl down the edges of this Smile a bit. (The worst comes from guest contributors.) But compared to virtually any other mainstream starlet you might care to namecheck, Tori Kelly’s effervescent, innocent winsomeness is amazingly Unbreakable.
After serving as an associate editor at NavPress’ Discipleship Journal and consulting editor for Current Thoughts and Trends, Adam now oversees the editing and publishing of Plugged In’s reviews as the site’s director. He and his wife, Jennifer, have three children. In their free time, the Holzes enjoy playing games, a variety of musical instruments, swimming and … watching movies.