Piece By Piece
Contemporary popular music is enduring a serious personality crisis. As in, it’s very difficult to ascertain any actual musical personality these days.
This is a natural outgrowth of pop’s tendency toward idiomatic mash-ups, urged along by music-themed game shows in which contestants are tasked with singing tunes in a myriad of styles, and none of them particularly convincingly. Personality, individuality, conviction – these have been kicked to the curb in terms of their value, replaced in the pantheon of admirable traits by an ability to sing athletically and in tune, preferably at the same time, while simultaneously boasting an easily marketable look.
It makes sense, then, that former “American Idol” winner Kelly Clarkson seems to have absolutely no idea who she is, musically speaking, as evidenced by the turgid mess that is her newly released “Piece by Piece.”
In the time since her big win, Clarkson has been a country artist, released Christmas music, attempted edgier pop stylings, dabbled with the classics, and even dipped her toe into the R&B pool. This time around, she attempts to do most of these things at once, and ends up doing all of them rather poorly.
Add overly earnest, string-soaked power-ballads, pure ‘80s dance pop, electro-laced R&B and some flagrant attempts to cash Katy Perry’s check, and you’ve got an album that has no idea what it’s supposed to be, other than successful.
Clarkson always has gotten by on the strength of her singing, which can’t be questioned, and her tendency toward stressing themes of self-empowerment in her lyrics. Our culture’s disdain for nuanced argument dictates that suggesting that the constant playing of the “self-empowered female” card is cloying, clichéd and perhaps even cynical, is not an option. It should be. This shtick is getting old. Listening to mediocre pop songs will empower absolutely no one, be they female or male. And “Piece by Piece” is full of them.
Clarkson still has a strong and agile voice. She needs to find some material that is worthy of that voice. There is very little such material on “Piece by Piece,” the exception being at least partly inspired collaboration with John Legend that elevates a take on Tokio Hotel’s “Run Run Run” above its neighbors. Elsewhere, a watered-down mash-up of styles already proven successful by other artists makes up “Piece by Piece.” Ultimately, these pieces don’t add up to much.
– Jeff Miers