When last we heard from 26-year-old Texas singer Kelly Clarkson, the first season winner of "American Idol" was feuding with record label chief Clive Davis over her third album "My December," a soggy and sullen effort that Davis accused of tamping out the spark fans loved most from the mildly rocking, gently female-empowering pop songstress. And Davis was right: When Clarkson toured in support of that disc, playing scaled-down theater shows after failing to sell out the arenas, the best tunes from her first two releases ("Behind These Hazel Eyes," "Miss Independent," "Breakaway") put to shame the disappointing, self-obsessed and bitter new material.
Clarkson returned to her old sugar-buzz form earlier this year with the blunt but catchy single "My Life Would Suck without You," tapping the talents of veteran teen-pop maestro Max Martin and setting a record for the largest leap to No. 1. And much of the rest of her fourth album, which was in large part produced by another teen-pop giant, Ryan Tedder of OneRepublic, falls giddily in line, with the auteur cheerfully eschewing all talk of trying to rewrite Bruce Springsteen's "Nebraska" this time around.
As this genre goes, I've long preferred Clarkson's peers Pink (before she got married and went soft), Joss Stone (who's a lot more soulful in a prefab way) and even Hilary Duff. Still, it's hard to deny the bubblegum charms of up-tempo songs such as "Long Shot" and "I Do Not Hook Up" (both co-written by Katy "I Kissed a Girl" Perry) and the Walmart-safe grunge anthem "Whyyouwannabringmedown." Sappy ballads such as "Cry" and "If No One Will Listen" aren't nearly as successful, but there's more than enough of the old Kelly (however genuine or manufactured that might have been) to please the faithful and modestly entertain--or at least not offend--anyone else within earshot of their daughters' cranked- up iPods.