Hello, and welcome to Feedbacks, where we look at a famous artist’s least famous album. Today, I’m closing out December with Kelly Clarkson’s 2007 album My December.
On some level, everyone self-mythologizes; everyone gently rubs away unwanted parts of their past, either for our benefit, other’s, or both. We get sell albums and movies we no longer like, we trash posters that used to hang in our rooms, we unceremoniously delete mash notes on Facebook for people we haven’t seen in years, we delete last Saturday’s drunk tweets. We’re frequently reshaping the past to remember it the way we want to.
Music artists get a rare form of self-mythologizing: the greatest hits compilation. It’s a quick way to draw up your image as you want to be remembered, and especially for pop artists, it sticks. It’s also somewhat unique to music; there’s no quick way for Neil Patrick Harris to scratch The Smurfs off his career the same way that Oasis completely left famous bomb Be Here Now off their self-curated compilation.
This brings us to today’s artist: Kelly Clarkson, who released her first greatest hits record last month. A quick scan of the tracklist reads how you’d expect: all the big hits up front, some back-end filler to sucker the die-hard fans, and multiple singles from every album. That is, every album but My December, whose sole representative was lead single “Never Again”.
My December marks a popular phase to be stricken from the file: the mascara and black nail polish phase. The album was born out the exhaustion and lows Clarkson felt and wrote about while promoting her previous album Breakaway, a time that she’s described as the lowest point in her life and career. Clarkson wasn’t shy about putting her feelings up front; My December is a stark and personal record that doesn’t hide emotion with a pop sheen the way Breakaway did.
There’s no better way to examine the divide between the two records like looking at “Since U Been Gone” and “Never Again”. The former is rightly considered to be one of the best pop singles of the 00s, whereas the latter was a hit in a more generous sense. Both cover break-ups, but while slick “Since U Been Gone” sounds like a public “the reasons you suck” speech whose delivery concludes with a cheer of support from the crowd, “Never Again” is the late night voicemail/Facebook message equal parts despair and desperation that you might finally send after another glass of wine. It’s the “fuck-off” you draft over and over on a lonely night, and quietly delete the next morning: abrasive, raw, and a little ugly. As a song, “Never Again” was still a pop single, albeit one that valued sheer power over polished hooks, and remains a compelling listen.
My December doesn’t quite double-dip on the abrasion of “Never Again”, but it still rocks harder than a standard pop album. Cuts like “How I Feel”, “Hole”, and “Yeah” feature crunchy guitar riffs (“Hole” in particular sounds like the band of the same name working in pop mode), and “One Minute” almost channels Garbage. Other pop rock single “Don’t Waste Your Time” puts the emphasis on rock at the pop’s expense. The ballads on the album, with the exception of standout “Sober”, err towards a 90s sound, with acoustic guitars and soft drum pads. Closer “Irvine” is haunting in its loneliness; Clarkson’s backed by a lone acoustic guitar with sparse sounds working their way into the atmosphere over some of the bleakest lyrics on the album. It doesn’t exactly close My December with hope for the new year.
So, with all of this in mind, it’s easy to see why the album’s release looked like a battle of wills between Clarkson and her label in the months leading to its release. With nary a “Since U Been Gone” or even a “Walk Away” to be seen on the album, record execs (including Sony-BMG and Idol overlord Clive Davis) were hesitant about releasing it, citing that it was too negative and dark. Accusations flew about the label wanting to shelve the album, or that Davis had offered Clarkson money to remove five songs from the album, and replace them with pop songs of his choosing.
Clarkson, of course, was in defense of the album, arguing that she didn’t want to get pushed around and doubted by everyone close to her. She was well aware of the commercial risks she was taking with My December, but she was also determined not to just sit in the corner and sing when asked, but wanted to make the music she wanted to. Despite the tensions on both sides, My December arrived in tact, despite some marketing mishaps.
In the aftermath of the record’s so-so sales and critical reception, Clarkson put a statement on her website, calling the situation leading to My December‘s release blown out of proportion, and expressed gratitude that her label and Clive Davis had put the album out. Her next release, All I Ever Wanted, saw the return of professional songwriters and producers, but also the return of commercial and critical success. Did it rival that of Breakaway? No, but granted Breakaway was a zeitgeist you only get once.
Sidenote before we wrap up here: the “young female pop artist ditching professional handlers for an album, it getting a cool reception, and then going back to the fold” thing happens with enough regularity that it’s almost a trope. Taylor Swift wrote every note and word on Speak Now, Avril Lavinge side-stepped pop professionals for Under My Skin, and hell, even the model of manufactured pop stars Britney Spears fessed up that she took a larger part in writing for Britney because she “couldn’t do …Baby, One More Time number three”. After all three albums slumped, each artist worked with pop industry writers on more successful follow-ups. I’m interested in why this keeps happening: is it because the artists in question feel confident in their ability to carry an album? Is it because they find their treatment beforehand so unbearable they have to do anything to be rid of it?
Getting back to Clarkson, the final thought on My December is: was the album worth it? I think it was. If only from an artistic standpoint, she was able to release the album she wanted to (and even if history has swept it under the rug, the thing still went platinum; failure is a strange thing in the pop world). While less friendly and catchy than her other releases, there’s still enough emotional weight present here that it’ll leave an impression. My December doesn’t fit Clarkson’s self-mythology but, like the moody girl you went to high school with that wore too much mascara and black nail polish, it’s probably a little more likeable than you’ve been led on to believe.