Pop music Svengalis have never been beloved figures. In crafting a performer's image, producing or writing their records, or all of the above, they're part bully, part stage mother, and part egomaniac, and inevitably, the singers under their strict control rebel against them. But Svengalis are going through a particularly rough patch these days. Phil Spector, one of the most renowned and controlling, is on trial for murder. Lou Pearlman, who helped concoct the Backstreet Boys and 'N Sync by way of his boy-band factory in Florida, has been unceremoniously dragged back to the U.S. from Guam to face bank-fraud charges.
And then there's Clive Davis, the SonyBMG chairman and industry old hand who's been steering the careers of pop acts for four decades. In what's become a fascinating spectacle, Davis is in the midst of a snippy public feud with one of his company's biggest acts, American Idol alum Kelly Clarkson, over the direction of her new album, My December, released Tuesday.
Davis is equally famous and infamous for his both-hands-on approach, personally choosing songs and producers for albums. Not long ago, when I was reporting a story on Davis' J label, I asked the then-head of A&R to confirm his title, and the executive smiled and said, "Cliveis the head of A&R." In recent interviews, though, Clarkson has made it clear that she wants to steer her own music and career. When it came to My December, that meant Clarkson penning songs with members of her own band and ignoring Davis' suggestions to collaborate with established tunesmiths. Shooting back, Davis reportedly took a swipe at some of Clarkson's new tracks at a SonyBMG meeting where upcoming releases were played for the staff. Whether it was directly related to the fracas or not, Clarkson cancelled her summer tour in light of poor ticket sales, and Davis' public reputation has been smudged.
It's deceptively easy to take Clarkson's side: Artists should be able to express themselves, and anyone who's ever heard the slick, wan albums that the Grateful Dead and the Allman Brothers Band made while under Davis' wing has a right to be wary of his involvement. Nevermind the way Whitney Houston's gospel-rooted lungs were constantly undermined by the formulaic material Davis and his cohorts saddled her with.
And yet pop Svengalis are a noble and often valuable tradition. Berry Gordy was notoriously tyrannical during the heyday of Motown Records, but compare the timeless, distinctive singles the Four Tops or Diana Ross did for the label with the banal, forgettable ones they did after they left. Spector, for his part, brandished a gun in the studio, intimidating everyone around him. But the hits he crafted for the Ronettes and the Righteous Brothers are the music equivalent to the Sistine Chapel; the flimsy singles those acts (and many others) released after they broke with him are paint-by-numbers pop. As much as a Monkees fan like myself hates to admit it, their records were never quite the same after they discarded Don Kirshner, who took his team of songwriters and backup musicians with him. And speaking of the boy-band era, remember when Britney Spears and the non-Timberlake members of 'N Sync decided to not rely so heavily on hit-crafters like Swedish producer-songwriter Max Martin and write their own songs? Anyone remember Spears' "Dear Diary"? Of course not.
Beyond any concerns with Clarkson's lyric-writing abilities, what supposedly made Davis and his company nervous about My December is the album's emphasis on "rock," which is even how iTunes refers to it. (Davis took over SonyBMG during the making of Clarkson's previous, and more pop, album, Breakaway.) In essence, Clarkson wants to rebrand herself, an extremely alarming move -- for record moguls, anyway -- when hit records are more imperative than ever to the life of the slowly expiring music business.
The problem with My December is that it isn't particularly great rock. Even those dismayed by what American Idol hath wrought (consider my hand raised) have to admit Clarkson has a strapping, swooping voice. But it lacks a defined personality, reflected in the bloated industrial-Pat Benatar knockoffs ("Haunted," "Don't Waste My Time," the single "Never Again") that dominate the album. When they aren't in that mode, Clarkson and her new, hardly avant-garde producer David Kahne (Bangles, Sugar Ray) dabble with proven formulae: They know a solemn ballad must start with a lone strummed guitar ("Sober") and that a horn section and a throaty delivery can lend a bit of earthy Christina Aguilera cred ("Yeah").
The lyrics, an aggrieved and angry lot, are no more forgettable than what we hear regularly on the radio. But most of the songs, co-written by Clarkson, rely on wide-screen, processed production gimmicks, rather than genuine hooks. And as any pop Svengali knows, making a pop record is as much a matter of craft and precision as it is eccentricities. It's about the thin line between hackwork and magic. As much as one can applaud Clarkson for wanting to be taken seriously, neither pop nor rock should sound as labored as most of My December. A Svengali might have also talked her out of releasing a summertime album with that title, but that's another story.