Although Thankful, her debut disc after her American Idol win, was white-bread and whole-milk, her Grammy-winning follow-up, Breakaway, was a surprise. Breakaway allowed thousands of girls to take a vicious pleasure in the act of being dumped by their douche-bag boyfriends. Written by Swedish phenoms Dr. Luke and Max Martin, the main rally call, “Since U Been Gone” is an emo-rebel anthem that’s also a defining brand of pop, a delicious sort of song that you at once know is pure sonic paydirt. Even Avril Lavigne, who co-wrote “Breakaway” and gave the song to Kelly, was jealous of “Since U Been Gone.” When indie hero Ted Leo covered it, the blogosphere dutifully posted MP3s, and these were downloaded until Kelly had won a seal of Ironic Hipster Approval.
Leo later told Los Angeles Times pop critic Ann Powers that “Since U Been Gone” was a “cheap trick,” a “perfect amalgamation of everything that was ‘hot’ and ‘edgy’ in pop music that year.” True enough. But that cheap trick was what distinguished Kelly from any number of other tween-pop sensations. My December doesn’t pull off any expensive illusions, and neither does the renewed vigor of her bitterness seem as purely fucked up as it did on Breakaway.
In some ways, My December actually is a Breakaway II. Kelly might bristle at the thought, but just because the pop flavor is missing doesn’t mean our girl has altered her methods. It’s clear she learned something from the professional song doctors she’s now distancing herself from. “Hole,” “Sober,” “Judas,” “Haunted” — the titles alone match the banality of the text-messaging parlance Dr. Luke inserted into “Since U Been Gone.” Yet her compositions are, for the most part, complete and total bummers that don’t end quickly enough. Kelly keeps citing Pat Benatar as a muse, but what she’s created is more Jagged Little Pill than Crimes of Passion. Which wouldn’t be such a letdown if her songwriting were as strong or as consistent as Pat’s or even Alanis’s. Were Mutt Lange, Serban Ghenea, any of the trained professionals in Davis’s Outlook contacts booked up? Or is Kelly just a snobby control freak in the studio?
At least she understands how to manipulate the PR machine. She knew enough to issue the proper soundbites, equating the writing process of My December to free therapy. So wouldn’t you think she’d be smart enough to save the seediest bits for her lyric sheet/shrink instead of tossing out bad clichés? “I hope the ring you gave to her turns her finger green,” she bellows on “Never Again,” a ballbuster about her backstabbing ex-boy and ex-collaborator (also ex-Evanescence) David Hodges. “I hope when you’re in bed with her, you think of me.” Seriously? Is that the worst she’s got? Even Ryan Seacrest could think of a better way to describe the ghosts in his closet.
For what it’s worth, Kelly’s instrument is still a powerhouse. Underneath the earthy swells in her gospel-esque delivery are gravel and grit, a dirty, roaring alto that holds a growl as well as it can a soft, pretty warble. When she digs in, the ugly notes are the most memorable. There’s one couplet in “Maybe” where Kelly croons, “We’ll meet again and you’ll need me, you’ll see me completely,” then spits out the rest of the sentence, guttural and angry, “Every little bit.” The roughness of her pitch is sweeter than any baby-voiced gasp. Her evolution into a world-weary rock princess would make more sense had there been other such moments on My December.