These are the songs that, throughout her now 20+ year career, established or re-established the name Kelly Clarkson in the eyes of the general public. In between these milestones, Clarkson would co-headline a tour with Reba McEntire, release a record that could be considered a flop commercially (by the standards of a Kelly Clarkson album) but is, ultimately, something of a cult classic, serve as a coach on a short-lived reality singing show, and become known as the unofficial/official Queen Of Covers (see her renditions of “I Know You Won’t” by Carrie Underwood and “Happier Than Ever” by Billie Eilish).
Clarkson, who won the inaugural season of American Idol, has proven herself as both a bonafide hitmaker and a smart, educated music fanatic who, even still, seems keen on continuing to maintain a sharp eye on who and what is relevant in the modern landscape.
While 2017’s Meaning Of Life, her first album under Atlantic Records, may have allowed her the artistic freedom to do as she pleased, it failed to keep her musically relevant. Her now-regular gig as a coach on The Voice as well as her very own talk show, aptly named The Kelly Clarkson Show, have not just put her back into but accelerated her position in the public consciousness. With new record Chemistry, which she has described as the “complete arc of a relationship,” set for release on June 23rd, Clarkson has set the tone for the project and established where she is at musically.
“me,” the more self-affirming, forward-thinking of the two singles, is extremely reminiscent of “I Don’t Think About You,” an absolute vocal doozy from Meaning Of Life. Clarkson, accompanied by a choir, sings like only she can while delivering bold, declarative statements surrounding her messy (and public) divorce and how she now plans to move forward: “I put together my broken / Let go of the pain I’ve been holdin’ / Don’t need to need somebody… when I got me.”
While it is, of course, vocally impressive, it doesn’t feel like a strategic attempt at capitalizing on her constant presence in the public eye to make a genuine, definitive splash on pop radio/the charts (if that’s at all what she is interested in, which she may not be.) Had Clarkson taken a turn out of her friend Ariana Grande’s playbook and returned with a track similar to “No Tears Left To Cry,” Grande’s accessible radio-friendly return circa 2018 addressing her own very public trauma, she may have had a surefire hit. Instead, she chose to return to a sound that is less commercial, but, perhaps, closer to the more adult contemporary, soulful vibe she may want to be known for now.
However, Clarkson, like Adele, has gracefully and maturely handled her divorce, and is undoubtedly stronger, no pun intended, because of it. The fierceness and resolve of Clarkson have always been felt, but are unwavering here: “Don’t need somebody that hurts me. Don’t need somebody to scold me / Don’t need somebody who feels weak standin’ next to me.” Perhaps this, like “Easy On Me” by Adele or Weight Of These Wings by Miranda Lambert is the non-traditional path back to commercial success for Clarkson, just for being vulnerable and honest and, as per usual, being the incredibly powerful and effective vocalist that she is.