October 18, 2018

Kelly Clarkson Is Nobody’s Puppet

Showcasing that voice in its full glory was one of Ms. Clarkson’s primary objectives for “Meaning of Life.” “I wanted to make a record that I could really sing the [expletive] out of,” she said. Writing songs wasn’t as big of a priority; she wanted to spend time with her children, and “I don’t write well when I’m happy.”

Her starting point was her favorite artist: Aretha Franklin. She and Mr. Kallman, who was an executive producer of “Meaning of Life” with Ms. Clarkson, asked, “What if Aretha was born now and made a record today?”

They didn’t want the album to sound old. “So it’s just not nostalgic, it’s not a retro experience,” Mr. Kallman said in a phone interview, “but it’s really a modern experience infused with the best of those records we call standards.”

Ms. Clarkson teamed with familiar faces including Greg Kurstin (Adele) and Maureen “Mozella” McDonald (Miley Cyrus), as well as newcomers Jessica Ashley Karpov (Britney Spears) and the duo Nova Wav (Kehlani), in search of songs that capture her current state of mind: dealing with the rewards and complications that come with connecting with someone “emotionally, mentally, physically” in a marriage; and as a mature woman feeling completely comfortable in her own skin after years of withering, sexist criticism about her appearance. The results are sassy up-tempo numbers like “Heat” and “Didn’t I,” and slinky slow-jams like “Move You.”

“Obviously when you’re writing in your 20s — I’m not demeaning it, in any way — but it’s a different, juvenile kind of approach,” Ms. Clarkson said. Referring to an intimate ballad about foreplay, she added, “If I had sung ‘Slow Dance’ at 20, what the hell do I know about that?”

Jesse Shatkin, a producer and songwriter who worked with Sia on “Chandelier,” collaborated on half of the songs on “Meaning of Life,” including “Love So Soft.” He said Ms. Clarkson delighted in having her backup singers in the studio, filling the room with a gleeful feminine energy. “There was this really fun women-singing-all-over-the-studio, laughing-so-much, joking-all-the-time vibe,” he said.


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But so far, “Love So Soft” has yet to rise past No. 62 on the Billboard Hot 100 after five weeks. Ms. Greenwald said that the first-week streaming numbers for the single indicated the listenership was over 50 percent male. “I would have bet you a million dollars it was going to be 85 percent women,” she said. “I was blown away.”

Sharon Dastur, a senior vice president at the radio company iHeartMedia, said Ms. Clarkson’s music has always been playable on multiple formats. “Is it still pop music? Absolutely,” she said in a phone interview, noting that the song is performing on both pop and Hot AC (adult contemporary) stations. Ms. Dastur, who attended Ms. Clarkson’s premiere event, said she’s been following her career from its start.

“I’ve never seen her so fully happy with herself, personally, professionally, her music,” she said. “I think people have always not only just loved her voice, her music, but her. I think that goes a long way with fans, that she’s been the same genuine, super-talented person she’s been from the beginning.”

MS. CLARKSON IS so disarming that when she returned from a bathroom break proclaiming, “Wow, I really had to pee! That was a lot!,” I nearly high-fived her. She calls herself “a tool” and “a nerd.” She loves “Game of Thrones,” but has never watched a reality show (and yes, she gets the irony). When she wants to be sure you catch her disdain, she quickly says “sarcasm, sarcasm.” On Twitter, she alternates between posting goofy GIFs, relentlessly positive shout-outs to artists she loves and rebukes to people who scold her for speaking out about issues like the violence in Charlottesville, Va., and N.F.L. players protesting. (She announced her support for Hillary Clinton in January 2016, and tweeted “Yaaaasssss!” upon learning that Mrs. Clinton cited her — and Nietzsche — in her book “What Happened.”)

Ms. Clarkson has bristled at being told to “shut up and sing.” “It’s weird, but I actually came with a brain, not just vocal cords, and it would be silly to not have an opinion,” she said. Credit Samir Hussein/WireImage, via Getty Images

She understands why fans feel an extra sense of ownership over her. We witnessed her “Idol” journey in real time. We heard the personal stories she shared in songs like “Because of You” and “Piece by Piece,” which describe feeling abandoned by her father following her parents’ divorce. We’ve seen her transparency and graciousness in an ecosystem that encourages the opposite.

“I actually don’t mind that,” she said, “because I feel a certain level of pride that people even feel like my journey is that important in their life. That’s cool, for someone from Nowhereville. I just mind when people all of a sudden feel like I’m one thing.”

Over the summer, Ms. Clarkson shined a light on the routine harassment women endure online by responding to a “You’re fat” tweet with “…and still [expletive] awesome.” (She added a winking-tongue-out emoji, perhaps because, as a therapist told her during one of the two sessions she’s ever had, “You don’t want to wreck someone’s day.”) And she has no patience for being instructed to “shut up and sing.”

“It’s weird, but I actually came with a brain, not just vocal cords, and it would be silly to not have an opinion,” she said, growing heated. “It would be a disgrace if I didn’t have an opinion. It would be a cruel irony to all these people who live in different countries who don’t have an opinion, and don’t count, for me not to take full advantage of all the opportunities that are laid before us here in this nation.”


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The centerpiece of “Meaning of Life” is a feisty throwdown called “Whole Lotta Woman,” which alludes to the size of her waistline, her attitude, her self-worth and her mouth using references to Southern cooking. Ms. Clarkson said its inspiration came from the challenges of being a financially secure woman looking for a man after internalizing the paradoxes of growing up in the South, where women are told, “We want to educate you and we want you to be intelligent, but not too intelligent to where you’re intimidating; we want you to be beautiful, but not too sexy to where you’re a slut; we want you to be successful but not so successful that you make someone feel uncomfortable.”

Debuting the track for the radio promoters at her home, Ms. Clarkson couldn’t hold back. She sung along and bounced to its outro’s bass-heavy groove.

“I don’t want to hide the fact that I am a successful, strong-minded, opinionated —” she said the next day, cutting herself off to make another point. “Sometimes I get it wrong, but I learn — but I have a voice.”

Correction: October 19, 2017

An earlier version of this story misstated the relationship of Julie Greenwald and Craig Kallman of Atlantic Records. They are not married to each other.

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Article source: https://www.nytimes.com/2017/10/19/arts/music/kelly-clarkson-meaning-of-life-interview.html?partner=rss&emc=rss

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