Covering the Front and Back Pages of the Newspaper
October 7, 2009
POP CULTURE: Concert Review: Kelly Clarkson, Without Shame or Reservation*
Last night, my wife and I went to see our (for once, mutual) current musical enthusiasm, Kelly Clarkson, in concert at the Hammerstein Ballroom in Manhattan. I am here to tell you that if you have any interest whatsoever in Clarkson's music, you owe it to yourself to see her live while she's in her prime as a concert performer. There's no other way to put it: Clarkson's voice goes to 11. It's a fun show, it's cheap (our $49 tickets were a fraction of what I'd have had to pay to see U2 or Springsteen again), and there's no substitute for the energy of a performer who's still young (she's 27), at the peak of her talent and still has something to prove. And as I'll discuss below, her live show, at least at this stage of her career, is unmistakably a rock show.
Now, obviously, versatile a singer as she is, Clarkson's music isn't for everyone. There's a reason why people are often a little embarrassed to like her music or describe it as a 'guilty pleasure.' Personally I have a fairly high tolerance for cheesy, as long as the end product is really fun music, real emotion, or both, rather than ersatz, generic Hallmark crapola. Thus, for example, music made by Meatloaf in the 1970s or Aerosmith or Bryan Adams in the 1980s: cheesy, but good. Music made by any of those artists from about 1990 on: makes me want to gouge out my eardrums. And Clarkson is definitely cheesy, cheerfully and unapologetically so; she makes Jon Bon Jovi look like Mark Knopfler by comparison. But she succeeds on both grounds: she makes a lot of fun music, and she pours genuine emotion into nearly everything she sings, even the fluffier pop tunes. I may be an emotional guy, but I'm a grown man and I have well over 2,000 songs on my iPod and more than that in my CD and tape collections, and I can count on one hand with room to spare the songs that still have the power to choke me up a little after repeated listening - but Clarkson's unreleased song "Close Your Eyes" is definitely one of them. Not without reason, she has swiftly surpassed Blondie as my favorite female artist and surpassed - well, nobody - as my favorite young (under-40) artist. As has been often pointed out, she's not just a singer of songs but an interpreter of them, and that talent has matured significantly in the years since her arrival at age 20. And very gradually, she's been accumulating some actual respect for being, basically, a musician's musician, the kind of artist other people in the industry want to work with: veteran performers, including rock warhorses like Jeff Beck, Melissa Etheridge, and Joe Perry, always come away impressed from working with her. Cheesy or not, my own guess is that if Clarkson's voice holds up well enough to have a long career in the business, she'll end up as one of those pop music stars (like Brian Wilson or Tony Bennett) who comes in for a round of more serious later-in-life re-evaluation. But whether that day comes or not, I'm not the type to miss a good show just because it's uncool.
The Ghost of Concerts Past
The concert was definitely a break from my past concert-going habits in two ways: Clarkson's the first female headliner I've seen, and the first who was younger than me. Here's the full roster of previous concerts I've seen, so far as memory (supplemented by Wikipedia) holds:
-Billy Joel, Worcester Centrum (Storm Front tour Nov. 1989) (no opening act)
-Tom Petty, Worcester Centrum (Full Moon Fever tour circa spring 1990) (opening act: Lenny Kravitz)
-Billy Joel, Giants Stadium (Storm Front tour summer 1990) (no opening act)
-Rush, Worcester Centrum (Roll the Bones tour, December 1991) (opening act was a guitar-only guy...Joe Satriani, maybe? Eric Johnson? I think it was Satriani.)
-Meatloaf, Holy Cross College (May 1992) (no opening act I can recall)
-U2, Yankee Stadium (Achtung Baby "Zoo TV" tour, August 1992) (opening acts: Primus and the Disposable Heroes of Hiphoprisy)
-Bruce Springsteen, Boston Garden (Human Touch/Lucky Town tour, December 1992) (no opening act)
-Billy Joel, Nassau Coliseum (River of Dreams tour...this must have been December 1993 or January 1994, though I thought I remembered it being later in the 1990s than that) (no opening act)
-Rolling Stones, Giants Stadium (Voodoo Lounge tour, August 1994) (opening act: Counting Crows)
-Harry Connick Jr., Jones Beach (She tour, I believe summer 1995) (no opening act I can recall)
-Bruce Springsteen & the E Street Band, Giants Stadium (Reunion tour August 1999) (no opening act)
-U2, Madison Square Garden (All That You Can't Leave Behind "Elevation" tour, June 17, 2001) (opening act: PJ Harvey)
-Bruce Springsteen & the E Street Band, Giants Stadium (Rising tour circa July 2003) (no opening act)
-Saw Doctors, Irving Plaza, Manhattan (March 14, 2003; reviewed briefly here) (opening act: ex-band member Padraig Stevens)
-Saw Doctors, Hammerstein Ballroom, Manhattan (March 20, 2004) (no opening act I can recall)
That's the full shows I've paid to see (although the Meatloaf show, I believe, was just a few bucks), excluding things like seeing Bruce do a few songs at Rockefeller Center for the Today show in 2007 when he released the Magic album, and excluding cover bands and people like John Cafferty or the Mighty Mighty Bosstones that I've caught pieces of shows by. I've been fortunate: I've never seen a bad concert.
The best show, unquestionably, was the first Bruce show, even though he was playing without the E Street Band (thus: no "Rosalita," although we did get "Santa Claus is Comin' to Town"). Partly that was seeing my all-time favorite artist live for the first time, and it was a classic college adventure: a friend loaned us her car for the drive to Boston on condition that we first dig it out of a foot of ice and snow. But it was also a sensational show: Bruce went on at 8:20 and played past midnight, closing the show when the Garden clocks struck 12 by bringing out Peter Wolf, the lead singer of the J. Geils Band, for a duet of "In the Midnight Hour," after which the crowd screamed for 10 minutes for more encores. After "Badlands," always the emotional high point of any Bruce show, he played a blazing stop-and-start version of "Light of Day" that held the entire crowd in his hand for close to 20 minutes.
The show that sold me the most on a band was the first Saw Doctors show; my younger brother had given me one of their CDs, the Sing a Powerful Song collection, so I knew I'd have a good time, but I was totally sold after that on a whole raft of songs I heard for the first time live - "Tommy K," "Galway and Mayo," "Villains," "That's What She Said Last Night," etc. Definitely another act a lot of people haven't seen, but they're amazing live, and I highly, highly recommend them.
The band that sounded most exactly like their records was Rush. A high-quality, impressive and enjoyable show, but the only spontaneous moment was the fistfight that broke out near my seats. But then, you listen to Rush to think, not to feel, which is different from what I usually look for in music.
Hard to pick the worst. Meatloaf was at the low ebb of his career, on the eve of his mid-90s comeback; that's why he was available for a small-college campus gig. At the time, I was unprepared for the crudity of his stage act, but his voice was tremendous and he performed his biggest hits with verve. The most pot smoke was definitely at the Petty show, the most beer-drinking crowd at the Stones show. The worst crowd was the third Billy Joel show, a Friday night crowd of working adults too worn out to get out of their seats, and that's probably the least-fun of the shows I've seen, but while he wasn't quite as good as the first two times I saw him, it was still a good set.
Unfortunately, I can't say I've never seen a bad opening act. None have been all that great - Lenny Kravitz was pretty good...as for Rush's opening act, my patience for guitar-only guys is pretty limited no matter how technically impressive. The most disappointing opening act was the Counting Crows, who literally were barely audible; they just weren't loud enough to be heard in a huge stadium on a sound system designed for the Stones. By far and away the two worst acts I have ever seen were the two opening acts for U2 at Yankee Stadium in 1992. Primus, a metal band, lived up to their fans' slogan ("Primus Sucks!") by, so far as I could tell, hitting one note and staying there for 45 minutes. I love metal as much as the next guy - Zeppelin, early Aerosmith, AC/DC, Guns n' Roses**, Pearl Jam, even a little Metallica - but these guys forgot that good metal is still supposed to be music. The Disposable Heroes of Hiphoprisy were even worse - granted, I (like probably a majority of U2 fans) loathe most rap anyway, but these clowns' big hit was some song called "California Uber Alles" about - I kid you not - how Pete Wilson, that icon of squishy liberal Republicanism, was a fascist. I'm sure that one goes over real well in concert in the 21st century. The fact that there were two opening acts only added to the atrocity. U2 was great, but they didn't take the stage until around 10:30; throw in gridlock on the Tappan Zee Bridge, and we didn't get home until after 2am.
The Continuing Story....
I thought, after penning an exhaustive profile of Clarkson for The New Ledger back in mid-June, that I was done writing about her, but I confess that I've stayed hooked on keeping an eye on her doings as the perennial scrappy underdog of pop music, the populist pop star who sings what she wants, says what she thinks, and doesn't give a damn about being cool, trendy or fashionable - and watching the ongoing befuddlement of a celebrity culture and music industry that still don't know quite what to make of her. She is, as a result, great copy. She's had an eventful and newsworthy few months since then, being embroiled in a series of increasingly ridiculous controversies, none of her own making (although in a few cases she poured gasoline on an existing fire):
-In late June, while Clarkson was in Toronto for the MMVAs (Canada's equivalent of the MTV Awards), her longtime tormentor, sleazy gossip blogger Perez Hilton, got in a fracas with Black Eyed Peas frontman Will.i.am after the show in which, in order, (1) Hilton called Will.i.am a "f*ggot," (2) the Peas' manager slugged Hilton in the face, and (3) both Hilton and Will.i.am, being idiots without decent legal advice, immediately recorded video statements about the incident and posted them to the web, in Hilton's case weeping melodramatically. It was believed at the time (but see below) that this was the most awesomely asinine thing ever to happen at a video music awards show. Clarkson was asked at an interview the next day about Hilton getting slugged, and busted out laughing at him and his weepy video, cracking "you're hurtful to children, no one's going to pity you." At a second interview she piled on the scorn: "I've been hit [in the face] before and I didn't make a video crying about it." While a bunch of other celebrities took out their long-festering grudges against Hilton, Clarkson's comments ended up leading most of the subsequent news stories on the incident.
-Clarkson wrote the lyrics and melodies to "Already Gone," the third single off her latest album, to a backing drum/piano/strings track written by OneRepublic frontman Ryan Tedder; the song is widely believed to be a very personal account of a relationship she had to break off. Unfortunately, Tedder seems to have fallen into the trap of people who are too much in demand too quickly, and around the same time, gave a nearly identical track to Beyonce for a more upbeat ballad called "Halo."*** Halo got released to radio first and became a big hit, leaving Clarkson blindsided and stung by suggestions that she was ripping off another singer. Clarkson revealed in an interview her irritation at Tedder and that her label (RCA) had released the song as a single without her consent. Hilton, still smarting, retaliated with an anonymously-sourced and later-disclaimed blog post claiming that RCA was about to terminate her recording contract over her comments. Adding insult to injury, the director of the video for the song posted on Twitter his anger at RCA for its editing of the video (which Clarkson had injured her neck shooting), which was mysteriously released with the last minute of the song cut off.
-Clarkson's gained a noticeable amount of weight in the past year (not that she's seriously overweight or anything, she just no longer fits the celebrity mold), for which she has received a seemingly endless barrage of mockery from Hilton and other tabloid and internet sources. Unlike say, being a pedophile - which is apparently no obstacle to being honored by the highest levels of our government - sleeping with your subordinates, or abusing drugs, a woman putting on a few pounds is one of the genuine taboos in the entertainment business, for violation of which not only apology but full penance is expected. Clarkson, showing the combination of mulish stubbornness and imperviousness to criticism for which Texans are justly famous,**** has responded (at least in public) by laughing at the criticism, giving interviews loudly insisting that she looks just fine as she is, and generally dressing and carrying herself in a way that suggests that she believes this. Self magazine honored her for her "positive body image" with a glowing cover story in their August issue...but then shot their own storyline in the foot by photoshopping her cover picture to look significantly thinner than she has in some time. The resulting media/blog firestorm over retouching run amok ended with entire segments on Good Morning America and the Today Show in which the magazine's beleaguered editor was confronted with the most unflattering pictures available of Clarkson's current figure. For her part, Clarkson's only peep during the uproar was to post a giggly video of herself playing golf before a show in Montana. The flap ended up making Clarkson something of an accidental hero to overweight women and feminists just by being there - and proving as well that she could take a (metaphorical) punch in the face and not make a video crying about it.
-Clarkson was nominated for an MTV Video Music Award, along with (among others in the same category) Beyonce and country/pop singer Taylor Swift. When the 19-year-old Swift was announced as the winner, rapper Kanye West rushed the stage, swiped her microphone, and announced, basically, that he thought Beyonce should have won, leaving the stunned teenager at the podium speechless and visibly shaken. Clarkson had skipped the show in favor of a Kimmel appearance in L.A., but unloaded on Kanye that night in a profanity-laced tirade on her (rarely-updated) Wordpress blog, calling him "a sad human being" and asking acidly
The best part of this evening is that you weren't even up for THIS award and yet you still have a problem with the outcome. Is winning a moon man that much of a life goal?? You can have mine if it will shut you up. Is it that important, really??
Yet again, Clarkson's pitch-perfect response ended up as the lede in most of the media roundups of celebrity responses to Kanye's idiotic stunt.
Ironically, one event that didn't ensnare Clarkson in controversy was her participation in "Get Schooled," a September 8 Bill Gates-sponsored education documentary that featured Clarkson's keyboard player, Jason Halbert, along with aides to President Obama and LeBron James, and was scheduled on the same day as Obama's controversial address to the nation's schoolchildren (I speculated at the time that Obama's imprudent timing of the speech was designed to coincide with his participation in the previously scheduled Gates special). As it turned out, the segment went back over a prior controversy, focusing on Halbert's and Clarkson's efforts to rework the live arrangement of Already Gone to sound less like Halo.
I hesitate to make this point since it mixes music with politics, which generally ends badly, but Clarkson's summer of controversies cemented for me some of the parallels I'd been contemplating between Clarkson and Sarah Palin.***** Palin, being a politician, is naturally a polarizing figure, while Clarkson, as I explained in my prior profile, is precisely the opposite, and there are other obvious dissimilarities as well. But what they have in common, besides their small-town Middle America backgrounds, competitive streak, general disdain for convention and elite opinion, and preference for trusting their own family, friends and supporters over "conventional wisdom," is that while neither is terribly erudite, both have a natural instinct for cutting to the emotional core of a situation in a way that connects with people on a very basic gut level. It's a talent also reflected in Clarkson's songwriting: her deceptively simple and direct lyrics are never clever or witty or expansive (it's impossible to imagine her writing a song like "Jungleland" or "Tangled up in Blue" or "Sympathy for the Devil"), but somehow never canned or forced either, despite writing largely in a genre (popular songs of love and heartbreak) that's been done to death and is a minefield of cliches. It's harder than it looks to evoke something real and fresh-sounding in few and simple words.
Theater of the absurd aside, we paid money to see Clarkson and hear her sing because live entertainment is what she does best. And it really was a tremendous show, as good as I could have expected. I wouldn't put anybody on the same level as Bruce, I'd rate Clarkson behind U2 - they're U2, after all - and perhaps just a bit behind the Saw Doctors, and it's hard to compare her to the Stones, who on the one hand played a much longer set from a vastly superior catalog of music, but on the other hand were well past their prime when I saw them. But on the whole, I'd compare her show favorably to any of the others I've seen, and like I said, I've seen some good ones. And with the exception of Bruce and the Stones, it was as hot, sweaty, hard-working rock as I've seen.
The downside of the scheduling: I'd thought when I bought the tickets that the show would be wedged between the end of the regular baseball season and the playoffs, and instead I ended up missing most of the Twins-Tigers classic. I tried checking the score on my Blackberry between sets, and a couple of the other guys around me were doing the same thing, but the game was still going when Clarkson took the stage around 9:45.
The Venue and the Crowd
This was the second show I've seen at the Hammerstein, an old-fashioned and somewhat dumpy ballroom that holds about 2,400 people, and was packed to capacity last night (the Saw Doctors show was probably closer to 1,500-2,000 people; I recall there being at least a little breathing room at the back of the ballroom, which there wasn't last night). We arrived 40 minutes after the doors opened and still had to wait on an around-the-block line that felt like the longest line I'd been on since I saw Return of the Jedi the weekend it opened.****** Most of the crowd, us included, was General Admission/standing room/free-for-all, which is pretty unpleasant, to say nothing of being a test of your kidneys. I expect to stand for a whole show, but I don't like having to spend half the show trying to protect my turf against encroachments (I was stuck next to the biggest gay dude I've ever seen, who almost took my head off with his elbow at one point). Between the lack of fixed seats, the floor coated with popcorn and the generally distracting behavior of the people standing next to us (note: don't take pictures of yourself during a song, and don't go running through the crowd during the last song of a concert), the setting left much to be desired. The place was also sweltering, but to some extent that's a good thing for really getting into the full experience of a rock concert. And a small indoor venue can be very intimate: even near the back of the crowd, I was closer to the stage than for any show but the Saw Doctors.
Clarkson's crowd seemed to be dominated by three groups: packs of women, mostly in their 20s; gay men; and moms with teen/preteen daughters. This being a late show on a school night in Manhattan, there were a lot more of the second group than the third (I don't believe I have ever been in a room with so many gay men in my entire life). I don't think I was the only straight man there with my wife, but there were precious few of us.
Concerts usually attract a lot of die-hard fans - the Billy Joel and Saw Doctors crowds certainly knew every word of every song by heart - but only the Springsteen crowd could quite compare in terms of this audience's raw, uncontained enthusiasm for the performer and her music. Between the small, hot room, Clarkson's light show, and the jumping-and-fist-pumping crowd, I seriously felt like I was in the middle of a music video for much of the night.
The Opening Acts
I swore after the U2 show at Yankee Stadium that I'd never see another artist with two opening acts, but Clarkson had them. First up was a Virginia-based band called Parachute that makes music for soap commercials. OK, that's unfair; they apparently sold a couple of their songs to Nivea, a skin-care company, to use in their ads. One of the great things about the YouTube era is that you can check out the opening acts ahead of time so as to be familiar with their songs. I'd gone in with an expectation that these guys would sound something like John Mayer, who I hate for his singing style of running out of energy to finish his sentences hmmmhmbmbmbhmmmm. But they were actually livelier and more rocked-out in person (and really young). Highlight of the set was a cover that did justice to the Beatles' "Get Back," with dueling guitars and a little sax solo. I wouldn't write home about them - the vocalist didn't have a very strong voice - but much better than being compelled to sit through Primus, and they may yet have a future.
The second opener was singer-songwriter Eric Hutchinson, a skinny mop-topped guy in a white suit and plaid shirt who played piano and guitar and seems to be a coming star of sorts. He, too, was better than I'd expected; the clips I'd watched reminded me of Michael Penn, but he had a bluesier sound live, a little bit Traffic and a little bit Supertramp. You could see the escalation in stage presence: Parachute was just a band there to make music, but Hutchinson strode around the stage cajoling the crowd and cracking jokes. And Clarkson's stage presence was something else entirely from his.
The Main Event
You could see the crowd's transformation the minute the speakers started playing Clarkson's traditional entrance music ("You Shook Me All Night Long"), and Clarkson kicked off with "All I Ever Wanted," the title track to her current album and my favorite on the album, a rock-ish song with an R&B/hip-hop beat to the verses and a massive anthem chorus. Even having heard her records and seen concert clips on YouTube, there's nothing to quite prepare you for her voice live. It's the first concert I've been to where I could feel the vocals shaking the floor. The song was basically a big wall of sound crashing over the crowd.
Watching Clarkson's voice at work is a little like watching Pedro Martinez' right arm at work ten years ago: you're amazed by what she can make it do, but there's also a real sense of vulnerability, as it's hard to see how long such a powerful and complex instrument can be wielded by a body scarely large enough to support it (she's barely 5'3"). The downside of the show is that she could only play for 90 minutes, since more than that would presumably be too much strain. Her voice has been healthier on this tour than in the past, but she still had to cancel one show for laryngitis. It's one reason I wanted to see her now, while she still has the full range of tools at her disposal.
One of the reasons why Clarkson's show comes together so well, as well as why most of her songs rock harder live than on the record, is that her band is really good, most notably her guitarists (although the drums really took over on the pop single "I Do Not Hook Up"). She's got two guitarists (one of whom doubles on the violin and backing vocals), a bass player (who's a dead ringer for Peter Garrett), drummer, two female backup singers (one of whom also doubles on guitar), a keyboard player, and on the current tours a DJ and a three-man horn section (sax, trumpet, trombone). I'm a big fan of the idea that horn sections make everything better, and the horns and keyboard give the band a bit of the Jersey Shore flavor - there will only ever be one E Street Band, but it's not a bad model to imitate. The sax solo that opened "Walk Away" live really adds something to the song. A bunch of her songs were reworked live to a harder edge: "Miss Independent," an R&B hit for Clarkson in 2003, is sufficiently jacked-up live that it's not at all out of place when her guitarists kick into the Black Sabbath "Iron Man" riff in the middle of the song. Ditto for "If I Can't Have You," a dance-pop track that seems likely to be the next single off the current album. "My Life Would Suck Without You," a girly-pop record, plays live as a soaring, Meatloaf-ish anthem with the keyboard and horns, as Clarkson sings it in a lower key but brings it up to dizzying high notes. Even "Cry," a maudlin ballad that plays on the record as a country waltz, was redone as a Heart-style power ballad. Of course, it's not just the band that does that, it's also the boom and blare of Clarkson's enormous voice, especially in a small venue like the Hammerstein. In terms of pure rock power, the high points of the show were a roof-rattling rendition of Clarkson's Hell-hath-no-fury-like-a-woman-scorned song "Never Again," and a stirring cover of the White Stripes' "Seven Nation Army"; videos of both have already been posted on YouTube, so I'll offer those as a sampling:
Seven Nation Army:
Unfortunately, the crowd was nearly still at Seven Nation Army, which she played as the next to last song of the encore. I admit I know only a little of the White Stripes myself, but I was pretty pumped for the song, and would have liked to see a little more enthusiasm; it was really the only song of the night that the crowd wasn't into. Maybe the encore is too late to play a song your fans don't know.
Clarkson's vocal skill and control live is also amazing. I'm not the biggest fan of the ballad "Because of You," and wasn't really getting into it, until she hit the song's signature high note (on the line "now I cry in the middle of the night for the same damn thinggggg...") and couldn't resist getting chills - Clarkson stuck that line so well she had to stop the song to let the applause die down. And her bluesy cover of Patsy Cline's "Walkin' After Midnight" has just taken ownership of the song, to the point where it will be a serious mistake if she doesn't get a version of it on her next album. Here's
(Clarkson says she chose to add Walkin' After Midnight to her set because her stepfather used to wake her up singing it, but I wonder if there isn't another unstated kinship with the song: Cline is today one of country's most revered figures, but she originally shot to national stardom in 1957 when she sang Walkin' After Midnight on Arthur Godfrey's TV talent show.)
The setlist was dominated by nine songs from Clarkson's current album (others I haven't mentioned here include "Ready," "Impossible," I Want You," and the reworked Already Gone) and five from her smash hit Breakaway album (also including "Breakaway," an acoustic version of "Behind These Hazel Eyes," and, of course, her signature song "Since U Been Gone"), plus one song each from her first and third albums and four covers, the other two being the blues song "Lies" by the Black Keys (Clarkson is never more in her element than singing the blues) and a sort of medley-mashup of an Alanis Morrissette song ("That I Would Be Good") with the Kings of Leon's "Use Somebody,"******* which I mostly enjoyed despite generally despising Alanis Morrissette. My wife and I were a little disappointed there wasn't room in the list for our favorite of her songs, the Pat Benetar-ish "How I Feel" from My December, her third album. It's a sign of how far Clarkson's come in just four albums that she doesn't need to sing her first #1 hit, "A Moment Like This," or other songs like "Addicted" that are widely known. Probably the most obvious absence from her set is any of the R&B/Motown-style ballads that made her a star in 2002-03; I didn't miss them myself but I can see how people who've been with her from the beginning might.
Visually, the show was a bit more upscale than Clarkson's usual set. She's known for performing barefoot in a vintage concert t-shirt and hideous bell-bottom jeans with only the band behind her, although she had recently added a light-up microphone stand that looks like Darth Maul's lightsaber. Her outfit was mostly the same; feminine vanity is generally no obstacle to her shows, which are all about the music, as Clarkson sweats profusely onstage, unravels any efforts at a hairstyle and generally gets progressively more disheveled as a show progresses. But for the fall tour, she's added a snazzy translucent stage and a wall of lights. I'm not usually a fan of the visuals, since I go to a concert to see and hear the performer (U2's stages have always been overdone, although I'll confess to being impressed by Rush's high-tech laser-light show), but the light show was subdued enough to complement the music rather than distract from it. And whatever the gripes about Clarkson's weight, her performance isn't affected; while she does a few of her ballads sitting down, she spent the rest of the show spinning and bouncing about the stage as if on springs, and she never gets winded.
Clarkson's personality is the final ingredient of her stage show. Her stage presence while performing is commanding; even on a crowded stage, there's never any doubt who the star of the show is. But between songs, she chats amiably and sometimes aimlessly with the audience, at this show going off on one tangent about how she'd had a blueberry shake before the show and didn't want the people in the front row to think she didn't brush her teeth if her mouth was still blue. She's disarmingly down-to-earth and can be quite funny and spontaneous; another of her headline-grabbing incidents this summer was when she plucked a life-size cardboard cutout of Edward Cullen from Twilight out of the crowd and serenaded it. She has the ability to speak to a crowd of thousands, or a TV audience of millions, as if chatting with a group of close friends; flip through any random page of the concert reviews at Ticketmaster and you'll see over and over people saying they felt like she was talking to them personally as a friend. The fact that this is apparently just her natural personality shouldn't obscure what a rare gift this is: if you could bottle it, throw in her seemingly endless reserves of energy and enthusiasm and sell them to politicians or other entertainers, you'd never run out of customers.
Kelly Clarkson and The Future of Rock
While she continues to straddle multiple genres of music, Clarkson today stands as one of a dwindling band of heirs to the rock n' roll tradition, in her case the pop/rock side of that tradition - the Beatles, Beach Boys, Eagles, Blly Joel, Elton John, Fleetwood Mac, etc. And one who respects the heritage: she's named Jimi Hendrix's "Red House" as her favorite song from her childhood, and it's her encyclopedic knowledge and enthusiasm about music of all kinds that makes her something of a walking iTunes. While Clarkson's voice would have distinguished her in any era, her music wouldn't have stood out in a 1980s female pop/rock scene that included Blondie, Stevie Nicks, Heart, Pat Benatar, the Bangles, the Go-Gos, the Pretenders, Joan Jett, the Eurythmics, Linda Ronstadt (who was sort of the Kelly Clarkson of the 1970s), Scandal, Bonnie Tyler, even Cher.******** But those days are gone. Few women still make and successfully sell anything that could be called rock, and those that do - Avril Lavigne, Alanis Morrissette, Pink - tend to project such off-putting personalities that it's hard to embrace them. Besides Clarkson, about the only significant female rockers I can think of from the past two decades to avoid that trap are Sheryl Crow and Gwen Stefani, both of whose careers have tapered off some of late.********* The pickings are slim. And really, despite the recent success of the Kings of Leon and Daughtry, the male rockers aren't doing a whole lot better.
Jon Landau, in his historic 1974 Springsteen concert review, declared "I saw rock and roll future, and its name is Bruce Springsteen." That was 35 years ago, when Bruce was younger and less accomplished than Clarkson is now. Today, it's not clear that rock has a future, and neither Clarkson nor anyone else on the music scene appears a likely candidate to lead a revival.********** But as we await a return from rock's Dark Ages, it's encouraging to see a young, energetic, enthusiastic artist carrying that tradition to the next generation of music fans. In that sense, Clarkson and her band have less in common with Bruce than with how Elwood Blues (Dan Aykroyd) described the Blues Brothers on 1978's Briefcase Full of Blues, recorded at the pit of the last nadir for rock, blues and similar formats:
So much of the music we hear today is pre-programmed electronic disco, we never get to hear master bluesmen practicing their craft anymore. By the year 2006, the music known today as the blues will only be found in the classical records department of your local public library.
So, I'll say it to my fellow straight, male, dads-with-jobs rock fans, without shame or reservation: don't be embarrassed, grab your wife and maybe your daughters, get yourself a ticket and go see Kelly Clarkson.
* - Hat tip to Jonah Goldberg's ode to Budweiser for the title.
** - Yes, I had a Guns n' Roses poster on my wall as a freshman in college.
*** - I noted in my prior column that the track also sounds a lot like the 1989 Aerosmith ballad "What it Takes." My next-door neighbor my freshman year broke up with his girlfriend and played "What it Takes" round the clock for weeks, maybe months. I'd know those opening bars anywhere.
**** - Seriously, this trait is common to more famous Texans in baseball, football, politics, law, business and other fields than I could possibly hope to list here.
***** - And more generally, a point I'd also meant to make back when the All-Star Game passed up the opportunity to do a more fulsome tribute to Stan Musial: that is, our celebrity culture's preference for crazy people and jerks over people who are sane and normal and have their priorities in order.
****** - Memorial Day 1983; we had to wait the duration of an entire showing in sweltering heat.
******* - Use Somebody recently hit #1 on the pop charts, the first song by a straight-up rock band to do that in I don't know how long (a reminder that, however little rock gets a fair hearing on the radio, there's still a great untapped demand for it). But Clarkson's been raving about them for some time.
******** - Even I have my limits to what I'm not embarrassed to do: back in the day, I actually liked one or two of the power-pop-rock songs that were hits for Cher on the radio in the late 80s, but while I have a fair amount of embarrassing stuff on my iTunes, I just can't pull the trigger on buying a song by Cher. Can't do it.
********* - Katy Perry, one of pop's current "It" girls, is arguably rock as well - her songs are largely guitar-driven, and she wrote two of the songs on Clarkson's latest album - but I've caught a few clips of Perry singing live and she is legitimately the worst singer I've heard in 30+ years of listening to music, so tuneless she makes Bob Dylan sound like Pavarotti.
********** - I'm not willing to go as far as Camille Paglia, who declared of Clarkson's song "Irvine" in 2007 that "As long as music of this quality is being made, the American fine arts will revive." But then, Paglia loves being contrarian and embracing the genuine and the unpretentious.