Kelly Clarkson (Finally) Succumbs to the Spotlight

In 2002, American Idol introduced us to Kelly Clarkson, an anti-glamour, anti-gimmick singer with vocals as potent as a lioness’s roar. To help viewers better connect with its contestants, the program, then in its first season, ran segments between performances that highlighted the artists’ often tragic backgrounds. But producers neglected to exhibit Clarkson’s dreadful upbringing — growing up in a broken home without her father and siblings, her apartment that burned down a year before her Idol audition — in the same maudlin fashion. The Texas native’s sheer charisma and irrepressibly chirpy attitude seemed to naturally resist such a rendering, and by the time she was voted the show’s first winner, the tabloids had little material to play with: no drugs, no juicy love life, no bad behavior. (In December of that year, the New York Times referred to her as “thoroughly generic.”)

Instead, Clarkson’s early career would be defined by creative conflict. Her hit-and-miss debut, 2003’s Thankful, sounded like RCA didn’t know what to do with her: push her toward the soulful sentimentalism of “Some Kind of Miracle,” the snappy pop of “Miss Independent,” or the style of melismatic ballad she excelled at on Idol. Meanwhile, her sophomore effort, 2004’s Breakaway, arrived through a series of power struggles. Clive Davis, then the head of her label, famously hated “Because of You” (and detailed in his 2013 memoir that Clarkson was a bad songwriter who wasn’t fit to write for radio). He also forced her to work with Max Martin and his then-protégé Dr. Luke despite her protests. Still, she managed to more effectively assert her own viewpoint than she had on her first project, turning “Behind These Hazel Eyes,” “Since U Been Gone,” and “Because of You” into breakout hits.

By then, Clarkson, with her deliberately modest clothing choices and laid-back candor, was being positioned as a corrective to the remote seductiveness of pop stars like Britney Spears and Christina Aguilera. But while those two were frequently making music that went hand in hand with their own worlds and what the tabloids were writing about them, Clarkson was recording depersonalized breakup anthems uninspired by her private life. The universal message of “Since U Been Gone” might have packed an emotional wallop for listeners, but it existed without the context of a real-life sob story. “I know people probably think I’ve been heartbroken because of the stuff I’ve sung and written,” Clarkson told Elle in 2007. “But I have never said the words I love you to anyone in a romantic relationship. Ever.”

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Chemistry, her tenth album and the first with all-new material since 2017, represents something different.For the first time in her recording career, the 41-year-old’s heartbreak is told from her own lived experience. Inspired by her 2020 split from her then-husband, music manager Brandon Blackstock, it catches the former Idol in the act of transformative revelation, charting the long and painful journey from enervating heartbreak to self-reliance. Part of a string of recent high-profile divorce records, Chemistry represents Clarkson at her most venturesome and liberated. But while “now I’m single” projects from the likes of Adele, Kacey Musgraves, and the Chicks felt strangely glossy and overconceptualized, Clarkson’s approach is more representative of the rough-hewn arc of marital dissolution.

The album’s journey from anguished bereavement to the joy of self-sufficiency is split into three acts. The first details the teething pains of post-breakup life. On “skip this part,” electric-guitar solos soundtrack Clarkson’s move from self-pity to accountability as she sings of “numbing the pain away with sweet Mary Jane.” “High road,” an early album highlight, finds her veering into cinematic dream-pop territory as she tries to shirk the lessons she was taught in childhood that have come to harm her as an adult. “My mother told me to put others before my own needs,” she says, a direct callback to “Because of You” and the burden of carrying her parents’ stiff-upper-lip mentality into her own life. But here, Clarkson admits to outgrowing her upbringing and credits her own personal progression: “Now I’m older, I’ve learned some lessons,” which she details further on “me,” a track dedicated solely to herself. “I’m always pleasin’ someone, honestly, now I’m done.”

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By Act Two, Clarkson’s focus is infatuation as she pivots to the challenge of finding a new partner amid heartbreak. From its psychedelic title track to the vibrant, ’80s-inspired “magic,” she manages to mirror the giddy, scintillating ecstasy of Carly Rae Jepsen’s best love songs. Yet while the latter’s thoughts on romance have the soothing sugar rush of a dream, Clarkson’s are more grounded in specificity. On the Jepsen-assisted “favorite kind of high,” Clarkson sings with breathless desire, desperate to be taken home. “Kiss me how you like,” she says, feeling only her lover’s gaze as her world simultaneously contracts and expands. With “lighthouse,” that infatuation starts to fizzle out, revealing a more sobering rendition of events — “No shootin’ stars can fix what we aren’t,” she sings.

When we arrive at Act Three, Clarkson is fully focused on vengeance. It’s a bold move for someone whose public life has only recently been meticulously mined as much as her early contemporaries’ were. Yet Clarkson slots easily into the role. “No, I won’t put on a show, and you can blame it on me,” she sings over the grunge-inspired bass riff of “rock hudson.” The Wild West-themed “red flag collector” appropriately cribs from outlaw country as Clarkson sings cuttingly about her former partner. “You can have the money / Drag my name around town / I don’t mind, I changed it anyway,” she snarls, while the Steve Martin-backed “I hate love” has her admitting, “Love’s no friend of mine,” through a soul-inspired chest voice.

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Chemistry catches Clarkson in the act of transformative revelation.

Clarkson successfully bolsters this tale of heartbreak by flipping through a Rolodex of recent pop trends. The Billie Eilish-inspired opener, “skip this part,” with its sparse, bassy instrumentation, quasi-cursive whispering, and sudden shifts in genre and key, feels as though Clarkson is conferring a deep secret. Her performance favors messy, spontaneous splurges of emotion over technical perfection as little cracks appear in her voice (“What’s it gonna take to get me through this break?” she asks). But in blending recent musical flourishes with a gleeful postdivorce energy, she never sounds derivative. “Go ahead and break my heart, that’s fine,” she sings on “mine” in a near-conversational cadence we’re not used to hearing from her.

Less than a year after The Kelly Clarkson Show launched, in 2019, the host’s divorce started serving as its almost unspoken emotional center. “What I’m dealing with is hard because it involves more than just my heart; it involves a lot of little hearts,” she said, referencing her children, ahead of the season-two premiere. By then, most episodes were turning into Clarkson and her guests clasping hands on the couch while baring their hearts to each other. Chemistry proves to be a complement to this sort of vulnerability, with the show and album working in tandem to allow fans an even further understanding of who the singer really is. Clarkson is building on the intimate relationship she already started establishing with the public. Once a skeptic of the limelight, she seems keen to let it shine, as long as it’s on her terms.

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