When American Idol started in the early '00s, it had an almost public-access charm about it. There was Simon Cowell's relative unkemptness, the smallness of the stage, and the goofiness of hastily dispatched cohost Brian Dunkleman. That talent-show feel was gradually eroded by Idol's ratings triumphs, with the stage ballooning into something that could conceivably be called an EnormoDome and Cowell burnishing his British wit to a diamond-hard shine. (He got better-looking too. The power of the stylist.)
But the show's first victor, a Texan named Kelly Clarkson, has somehow managed to retain a good chunk of the initial season's can-do spirit over the course of the nearly 10 years since she won the American Idol crown. Her fifth album, Stronger, shows Clarkson growing even more comfortable in her own skin. Where 2007's My December was a roar that sounded a bit too inspired by the tunelessness of that particular moment's rock-radio playlists, Stronger is rooted in hooks, with Clarkson dabbling in country, R&B, and the slightly bent strain of pop-rock that defined her best singles.
Purists will scoff, even as they grudgingly concede Clarkson's technical ability and steal the occasional listen to "Since U Been Gone," her mid-decade melding of Max Martin sparkle and Karen O grit. But the songs on Stronger are written by a slew of pros, including Greg Kurstin of The Bird and the Bee and former Scritti Politti member David Gamson.
The words American and idol in the same sentence still cause some people to break out in hives and all-caps comment-box contributions. Which is a shame, because in an age during which even those singers with barely an MP3 to their name can already have a marketing plan locked and loaded, Stronger shows Clarkson's artistry and humanity coming together in a compelling, relatable, and incredibly sing-along-ready way.
Last May, while Stronger was still in the pipeline, Clarkson played the Highline Ballroom in New York City; the show was sponsored by Tupperware, which was looking to rebrand itself. As Clarkson powered through her back catalog — the spunky kiss-off "Walk Away," the coquettish "I Want You" — and poked fun between tracks at her lousy luck with men, it was easy to see why she'd been chosen to help out a company that brings together kitchen storage and camaraderie. Her public persona in this confessional age comes off not unlike some long-lost friend who is ready to commiserate with you over a cup of coffee and who can slide into chatting about her — and your — recent travails as easily as someone who has been tracking your every Facebook update.
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She doesn't see herself as perfect. But then again, how many times has overinflated self-worth on the outside masked the opposite within? In its ideal form, confidence refers not just to the strength to overcome one's missteps and flaws, but also the willingness to acknowledge that they exist in the first place. It's a rare trait among female pop stars, who seem culturally required to simultaneously bring home the bacon, cook it up in a pan, stay in tune, smile, and remain sexually appealing to the most exacting measurers of the female form.
Clarkson seems pretty uninterested in all the distractions involved with being a pop star, openly refuting them on Stronger's "You Can't Win," which runs down the laundry list of celebrity transgressions she has apparently committed, e.g., not having a public significant other, allowing her weight to fluctuate, getting mouthy. She follows her public bird-flip with the intimate, slide-guitar-tinged ode to a pulling-away lover "Breaking Your Own Heart," which sounds like a bedside confessional. That Clarkson can glide between the two poles so effortlessly reinforces the humanity of both the album and her identity as an artist.
On "I Forgive You," she looks back on a relationship that crashed and burned, forgiving both her past paramour and herself. The former is a common idea in pop music. But the latter is a sign of maturity that's increasingly absent from the pop charts as they become more and more colonized by singers under the age of 25.
Ultimately, Stronger continues Clarkson's path toward sorting herself out in public as she sings about the scar-making slights and fights that brought her to where she is today — still in front of an audience, gently mocking Cowell to reporters, telling those around her that, to borrow a pop mantra from another singer, everything's gonna be all right.