In the Spotlight showcases a cross-section of an artist’s cover work. View past installments, then post suggestions for future picks in the comments!
Kelly Clarkson is a genuine pop idol – idol is the key word there. She found fame as the original winner of American Idol back in 2002, mostly on the strength of her amazing voice. Not content to simply rest on those laurels, she quickly put her TV show winner past behind her and sought out a bigger, different sound. Her second album, Breakaway, accomplished that; she netted the Grammy for Best Pop Vocal Album and sold over fifteen million copies. That’s not bad for an album used as a statement piece about taking control of her own career.
Clarkson has continued refining her sound. At times she’s flirted with rock, as she did with the My December album. She’s indulged in country music as well, duetting with Reba McEntire on several occasions, finally leading to their co-headlining 2 Worlds 2 Voices tour in 2008. No matter what she chooses to sing, Kelly brings that amazing voice. Rolling Stone‘s Arion Berger said that “her high notes are sweet and pillowy, her growl is bone-shaking and sexy, and her midrange is amazingly confident.” With that kind of instrument at her command, any song she chooses to sing is worth listening to.
She started it all back in 2002 with American Idol. With the show having just ended its fifteen-year run, it’s a good time to take a look at some covers from the first singer who used the show to make herself a star.
Kelly Clarkson – Hopelessly Devoted to You (Olivia Newton-John cover)
Kelly Clarkson is willing to have a little bit of fun with her own goofiness. Her take on Olivia Newton-John’s Grease classic “Hopefully Devoted to You” proves this. She opens up by admitting how cheesy she’s being, and then she runs with it. Kelly really sells it, bringing all the emotion you’d expect to hear in the role of a crushed teenage girl who just cannot get over her first heartbreak. The soft, breathy way she finishes certain words balances out the strong emotions when she really cuts loose, making sure the listener knows even though she’s always going to be in love, she’s wise enough to know it might not always be the best thing for her.
Kelly Clarkson – Walkaway Joe (Trisha Yearwood cover)
Trisha Yearwood has one of the best voices in country music. As good as it is, though, Kelly’s is its equal. She proves this when she takes on one of Trisha’s best songs, “Walkaway Joe”. When she sings about the girl waking up alone in a motel room, the poignancy and loneliness in her tone is heart-stopping. She follows that by quickly escalating her way through one final chorus, hitting the high notes as sweetly as Miss Yearwood ever has. Country has always been good to Kelly Clarkson, and she returns the favor every time she ventures into the genre.
Kelly Clarkson – Don’t Speak (No Doubt cover)
Kelly is an unabashed No Doubt fan. So when it was suggested that she cover “Don’t Speak,” it was a a match made in pop music heaven. She handles the song perfectly. Her voice is full of a hurt that is even stronger than Gwen Stefani‘s was in the original. Instead of the slow, tentative beginning leading into a passionate, almost angry tone that No Doubt gave us, Kelly stays under control until the very end, begging her love not to speak almost patiently. It’s only at the very end of the song that her calm cracks, showing a forlornness that is haunting in the way it surfaces suddenly and then disappears again.
Kelly Clarkson with Jeff Beck – Up to the Mountain (Patty Griffin cover)
Patty Griffin‘s tribute to Martin Luther King, Jr., finds its power in its restraint. The song seems so big that it threatens to burst out of the form she gave it and explode into something huge. That sense of containment gives it a depth that is amazing, considering the rightness of the emotion such an outpouring would take. How do you improve on such an understated masterpiece? Give the song to Kelly Clarkson and her amazing voice, add Jeff Beck‘s bluesy guitar, and let the pair of them have the reins. Kelly shows much of the same control that Griffin lent the original. When she sings about working “till the day [she expires]”, it feels like it would be the perfect time to cut loose, but she skirts the edge for a moment, waiting until the line “Some days I look down afraid I will fall” to do so, her voice cracking a little on the rhyming line “I see nothing at all”. The purity of that lyric about fear and tiredness in the pursuit of one’s goal is universal, and Clark’s technical failure there is nonetheless fitting; we all reach our breaking point. But we can all rise up and keep on going.
Kelly Clarkson – Purple Rain (Prince cover)
When you cover an honest-to-God legend, you have to bring your A-game. Prince is as great a legend as they come. When Kelly Clarkson decided to cover “Purple Rain,” she had to know she had a tightrope to walk. You can’t go off the rails and change the song completely, but if you try to copy someone as singular as Prince too much, you’re going to come off sounding like you’re at a karaoke bar. No matter how good you are, how well you do, you’re not going to BE Prince. So, Kelly does exactly what she has to do. At times, she gives the song a softness that Prince’s version lacks. At others, she attacks it just as hard as he does. By the end, she’s adding something he couldn’t: that throaty, earthy, feminine voice. Prince’s sexuality was almost otherworldly. Kelly’s is completely grounded in the way she makes her girl-next-door looks and ordinariness into something extraordinary through emotion and intensity. What they both share in their performances of “Purple Rain” is the way they fill the song with a variety of emotions, from love to pain to loss and finally leading to optimism. She adds her own touches, but keeps the spirit of the song exactly the same.