I still feel bad about Kelly Clarkson. Weird, no? All I Ever Wanted has been out awhile now, the first single, “My Life Would Suck Without You,” is the big, power-chorus pop tune her fans wanted, and everything is supposedly back to normal with her career. She even gets to have things her way a little bit, as this album has a little of the rock edge and bite she was aiming for on her musical Declaration of Independence, My December (2007).

Yet I can’t help but wonder, at what cost? Surely you know of the drama and mishegoss behind the scenes, but for the sake of clarity, label head Clive Davis didn’t like My December. It lost the pop edge, recast cutie-pie Kelly as a much darker personality, and he felt he “didn’t hear a single.” Clarkson stood her ground and as the primary songwriter and guiding force of the project, she considered it to be that bold emancipation moment, out of the music-machinations, out of the clutches of American Idoldom… She pinned a lot on the fate of the album.

Well, even though it went platinum, it was considered a failure when compared to the figures set by the previous Breakaway (2004). Although the single, “Never Again,” did well digitally, it didn’t really do much to push the product. There were no substantial singles afterward, which meant a lot as both the modern music industry and Clarkson’s specific career niche was built on the foundations of being a singles-oriented artist. Critics were divided. Some felt the album was strong, bold and assertive. Others felt it blatantly and consciously aped Amy Lee and Evanescence (which is kind of absurd, since Evanescence bald-facedly apes Cristina Scabbia and Lacuna Coil, Anneke Van Giersbergen with The Gathering and a whole host of female fronted rock bands.) It is all to say that My December would have been considered a fairly substantive success for anyone other than Kelly Clarkson.

So we’re back to the present, Clarkson is now America’s cutie-pie again, working directly with her label’s hitmakers for hire Max Martin, Howard Benson, Kara DioGuardi (now herself an Idol piece of furniture) and the excreble Ryan Tedder. Perhaps more telling is that on the pop ladder, Katy Perry, who would fall somewhere under her, is now hired to write a couple songs for her (including “I Do Not Hook Up”). The imagery associated with the album is all bright, shiny and day-glo, a look we’ve come to associate mostly with Perry and, in fact, it’s hard not to believe Clarkson has been refurbished more in her image. It’s akin to a pop music version of All About Eve.

But hey, the music is now zingy and poppy again, so who cares how we got back to good? Well, I do, kind of. The whole scenario is a parable of sorts, where the child who yearns to be her own person and claim her own rewards defies her father, he who has already decided who she’s going to marry. “He gives good dowry,” her father says. “Just do what I say and don’t screw this up.”

She chooses otherwise and succeeds, but she’s no longer as omnipresent in her success as she was, and the whole world seems to say, “You should have listened to your father.” She goes home, acquiesces all the way ’round, and is brought back into the family’s good graces. That dude with big dowry? Ryan Tedder. Yeah, she wants to run from this thing she’s gotten herself into, but it’s too late and, besides, everybody else wants this to happen. This imagined scenario colors the CD whenever I hear it.

All the mechanisms that made this happen haven’t produced a better album, either. We end up with a hot pink, Play-Doh extrusion that has been calculated to the Nth degree to provide results, not music. And that’s what we have in All I Ever Wanted — results. If numbers were all that mattered in this case, then this succeeds wildly, but I don’t listen to numbers. Whether that is the album’s failing or my own, I’ll leave to you to decide. Still, I can’t help but feel bad for Clarkson even if, in fact, this was all she ever wanted.

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