Get ready for Kelly Clarkson as ... Courtney Love.
Clarkson’s new album, "My December," is causing more trouble than anyone could have guessed.
The album, Clarkson’s third, is at the center of a tug of war between the artist and her record label, RCA, which is run by the mogul of moguls, Clive Davis.
I told you the other day that Davis is happy enough to release "My December" even though he has misgivings about it. Clarkson, never before a songwriter, refused to use professional collaborators this time around. She wrote all the songs with her band members against the advice of her label and Davis.
But the real friction may not be between Clarkson and Davis, but between Clarkson’s manager, Jeff Kwatinetz, of The Firm, and the label.
It was only this past weekend that RCA learned Kwatinetz is being listed by Clarkson as “executive producer” of the album. This indicates a new role for Kwatinetz, who is not the most popular member of the recording industry. Managers generally do not receive "EP" credits on albums. They are listed as managers.
In this case, though, Kwatinetz may regret what he’s wished for. “My December” has already spawned one non-starter single in “Never Again,” a kind of tough-chick rock song that failed to penetrate radio or video. After six weeks, it’s already being pulled from rotations after not catching on.
Even though “My December” isn’t ready for press copies, three of its songs can be heard on AOL (all of its lyrics are available, too). None of them has the bright catchy pop hooks of Clarkson’s previous hits like “Since U Been Gone.” One of them, “Sober,” is kind of a rock dirge that boasts the refrain, “Three months … and I’m still sober!”
Is the world really ready for Kelly as Courtney? Ironically, Kwatinetz now also manages Love, who’s turned in a magnificent album of songs. The difference is she collaborated with hitmaker Linda Perry to mix the bitter with the sweet. Kwatinetz may have been so excited about Love and Perry that he’s gotten confused about artistic rebellion.
Clarkson’s songs are indeed bitter. On “Maybe,” which features an acoustic guitar, Clarkson boasts “life with me is never easy.” Surely the folks at RCA are finding that out, since “Maybe” is maudlin and also contains not a sing-able melody.
“Can I Have a Kiss,” mixed with heavy bass over another acoustic guitar, sounds like the kind of song you might hear from an up-and-coming singer in a San Francisco coffee house.
None of them, however, are equal to the polished, edgy pop that made Clarkson a breakthrough hit on her last album. If anything, “My December” is shaping up to be the equivalent of Lauryn Hill’s disastrous follow-up to her mega-selling “Miseducation” album. You’ll notice that no one remembers that CD, and no one’s heard from the onetime superstar since then.
Of course, Davis is often accused of being a control freak who insists on selecting every note sung by his artists. But many Arista and J Records stars write their own songs, including Alicia Keys, Dido and Sarah McLachlan. Davis has never had a problem with them, insiders say. What he does have a problem with is failure, and he’s worried, sources tell me, that Clarkson is headed for a fall.
“The album will come in at No. 1 and could even stay there a second week,” says a source. “But then, it will be over fast.” Fan club members may add to sales with downloads, too. “But Kelly will not sell anywhere near her previous numbers.” The last album, “Breakaway,” released in late 2004, sold a whopping 5.7 million copies.
I met Clarkson last year in Washington, D.C., at a recording industry event. She couldn’t have been nicer, and truly, she has a big voice that could keep her on the top of the charts for years.
But writing her own songs is a gamble she may regret, especially if she turns off her core listening audience. After all, she was built in the “American Idol” factory, and then retooled by Davis — who gave her “Since U Been Gone” — to be hip without seeming dangerous.
Clarkson’s is not a similar case to when Stevie Wonder and Marvin Gaye each decided to venture out on his own from the Motown hit machine in 1970. Nor is it the same as Justin Timberlake’s break from his *NSYNC persona. Pop music, a savvy producer friend of mine used to say, has to have the sound of triumph even if it’s a sad song.
“My December,” however, sounds like it’s shaping up to be one dark, angry recording. It contains lyrics like “There’s a hole/ Inside of me/ It’s so cold/ Slowly killing me.”
Some of the songs — “Judas” and “Irvine” — have titles that aren’t even mentioned in the lyrics at all, forget about the choruses.
On track after track, it’s clear that Kelly had a bad break-up with someone. But not being a skilled lyricist, her broken heart comes off as unsympathetic and a little childish. Someone should have given her a crash course in Carly Simon or Joni Mitchell to see how poetic justice is truly meted out.
Davis, I’m told, could have simply killed the album — he’s done it before when artists turned in CDs he didn’t like. But he’s going to let Clarkson face the music either way.
Says an RCA insider, “Even if this fails, he’ll work with Kelly again if she’s ready to listen.”
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