The original American Idol has released a new album ruminating on The Meaning of Life. The subject matter of that album, given the record’s title, tells us a lot about how the secular culture establishes meaning and purpose.
Clarkson as an artist has been all around the genre map, migrating from pop to a rock/pop blend to a more oldies/soul influence. It’s the lattermost of these that takes Clarkson’s full attention on The Meaning of Life, creating a record that, in her words, is meant to be the album Arethra Franklin would have recorded if she was starting out in 2017. There’s a great deal of callback to classic soul and R&B, from the opener’s scratchy vinyl recreation to the overall tone of brass-heavy crooner band. This is largely effective, although it’s not always consistent. The soul vibe works really well when Clarkson and her producer really commit to it, but far too often, its effectiveness is compromised by a modern pop production that’s over-reliant on modern conventions.
One in which Clarkson does commit to the soul legacy, however, is with lyrical theme. True to the genre, most of the songs on the album deal with romantic relationships, and a fair amount of these are sexually tinged, to varying degrees. There are no “sex songs” on this album (although “Whole Lotta Woman” is noticeably more risque than the album’s other tracks), but there’s a clear indication of physical chemistry as a centerpiece to the album’s relational ties. This can be seen as early as the first full song, “Love So Soft,” in which she sings “Every kiss is a door/Can I knock on yours/Can we knock a little more.” “Whole Lotta Woman,” which is itself so stereotypically sexual I have to wonder if it’s a parody in disguise, contains several sexual allusions (most of them including southern cooking).
It’s here, however, that I’m going to break formation from what you may read on other Christian media blogs. Sexual overtones on an album about romantic love are not in and of themselves problematic. Some context here is probably helpful. Kelly Clarkson is a wife and mother as well as a singer, so the context for at least some of her songs about romantic love are likely to come from a wholesome context. This isn’t applicable on every song on the album, but it is something worth considering – Christians ought to be willing to embrace the placement of sex in its proper context rather than shunning every light touch of the topic.
The thing worthy of more attention is found implicitly in the album’s title, as well as explicitly in the title track of the record – the idolization of romantic love. “Cause when you kiss me, I know who I am/And when you let me feel it, I understand/When I’m lost I just look in your eyes/You show me the meaning of life.” There are hints of other attitudes towards relationships I would be somewhat leery of as well (“Suddenly the wrongs they start to feel so right”), although Clarkson elsewhere communicates a strong sense of self-respect and give-and-take in relationships that’s often lacking in popular music.
But the idolization of romance, which is not Clarkson’s movement, but this album is an example of it, is a troublesome idea. It’s quite telling that this title was used not in a concept album about metaphysical longing or a country album about God, country, and family, but on a pop album about romance. I ought to be careful what I say here, because I don’t want to leave the impression that I’m blaming Kelly Clarkson for a cultural movement, nor do I think this one feature sets any remaining value of her music ablaze. But it is an idea that, in general, we ought to push back against. Single people can still be fulfilled people, particularly in Christ.
I would be remiss, however, if I didn’t balance this review out with some praise, as well. This is some of the best vocal work Kelly Clarkson has done to date, and rarely if ever does it feel like a retread of her past work. As a music listener, I value thematic cohesion and new exploration, and Clarkson offers both of those in The Meaning of Life, even if the themes could have been much better conceived.