Ellen Kempner is the vocalist, guitarist, and songwriter for the Boston-based indie rock trio Palehound. Building on the promise of their critically-acclaimed 2015 album Dry Food, their sophomore album, A Place I’ll Always Go, is a frank look at love and loss. The band released APIAG on Polyvinyl in 2017.
A few years ago, my friend Maura invited me to see Kelly Clarkson at the Xfinity Center outside of Boston. That was a no-brainer: Kelly’s been one of my favorite artists since I was in elementary school. I was an angsty 10-year-old kid who was bullied extensively for wearing a back brace and covering it up with boy clothes. I resented popular music because it reminded me of my bullies, so I rebelled by listening almost exclusively to Alice Cooper. I was also struggling with the realization that I was queer, and the overwhelmingly hetero narratives in Top 40 songs alienated me even further. I only ever consensually listened to pop in the car with my mom, tuned into Radio Disney, where I first heard “Miss Independent.” As soon as I heard the opening guitar riff, I was hooked. After hearing so many songs in which the girl sings about being incomplete without a man, Kelly’s song finds her consulting herself when deciding if she’s ready for love. In fact, she never refers to a man at all—just to “love,” meaning I could attach my own narrative to the song. I latched onto Kelly, drawn in further by her punkness and the humbleness of the fact that she was discovered through American Idol. For the first time, I could connect to a female pop star.
When I walked into the show with Maura, I was mainly excited to hear nostalgic faves like “Since U Been Gone” and “Behind These Hazel Eyes.” I was prepared to rock out to the oldies and take breaks during everything else. I was not expecting how the show enchanted me from the minute she hit the stage. It was the same sensation I’d had in the car with Radio Disney, except it was 15 years later, and here she was in front of thousands of people, greeting the crowd in a plus-sized dress. I’m big, I’m a performer, and it’s hard. I almost never see other fat girls on stage in indie rock, and it’s even rarer in the mainstream. As is the story with many female celebrities, her weight became the center of the conversation after she had children. She was applauded when she shed some of the baby weight, and then brutally mocked when she gained it back and embraced it. She proudly displayed her body positivity when someone tweeted at her calling her fat and she responded, “…but still fucking awesome.” Since then, she’s been outspoken about her weight, saying, “Happy looks different on everyone.” After watching Kelly dance and laugh as she gave a dazzling show, I left feeling the same way I had when I first heard “Miss Independent”: empowered.
On Kelly Clarkson’s new album, Meaning of Life, her spirit is as alive as it was at the Xfinity Center. This is her first record since her long-term contract with RCA expired, which she’d had ever since her days as American Idol’s breakout star. Clarkson’s relationship with RCA was tumultuous, especially with chairman Clive Davis, who once told her that “Breakaway” was a shitty song that didn’t rhyme. In a recent interview with Variety, she said, “A group of men thought it was OK to sit around a young woman and bully her. I was told I should shut up and sing.” Clarkson teamed up with Atlantic Records, whom she says have given her much more creative control, enabling her to make what she’s described as the record she’s always wanted to make.
The record she’s always wanted to make is a soul record. Meaning Of Life is thick with big-band brass, playful backing vocals, and Kelly’s signature vocal runs and powerful belting. The production on the record is sleek and fat, and it strongly favors live instruments over the programmed drum beats and synths in the majority of current pop. Kelly’s style has changed since her early hits, but guitars and live drums are still very present in her work, although now the guitars are sparse and jazzy and the drums are thick, intentional, classic R&B beats.
“A Minute (Intro)” opens the album with the sound of a person dropping a record needle, cueing a lo-fi, staticky verse that, combined with Kelly’s riffing, sounds like 1940s diva soul. The song shifts from the warm crackle of vinyl to shiny production halfway through, giving way to the album’s second single, “Love So Soft.” The aggressive music is hilariously contradictory with the lyrics, in which Clarkson offers a “love so soft, you’ve had nothing softer.” She sings the chorus with a bite that would lead you to think she was telling you about hot, sweaty sex instead.
“Love So Soft” is the first of many singalong anthems on Meaning of Life. The next track, “Heat,” has a similar feel, although instead of offering love, Clarkson is pulling it out from under you. “Heat” is a fight song, bitterly lamenting the loss of passion in a sagging relationship. Over the stomping march of the drums, Kelly sings, “You used to make me feel like a diamond / Now it feels like you’re not even trying.” Breakups are also heavily referenced on “Medicine,” “Cruel,” and “Didn’t I.” These aren’t pitiful songs—they’re triumphant and all revolve around Clarkson’s autonomy.
While effective, the breakup theme surprised me. When I saw Kelly live, she beamed as she gloated about her husband and children, and even brought them on stage at the end of the show. In the Variety interview, she mentions that she’s taking a job hosting The Voice partly because her husband manages Blake Shelton, one of the other judges, and she likes being close to him. Given her seemingly happy relationship, I wonder if these songs are aimed at her haters, those people who mocked her for aging or putting on weight. This is speculation: It’s very possible that she just felt like putting breakup songs on the album to make it more accessible—but given everything and everyone Kelly has shed to be true to herself on this record, I doubt that.
The most intriguing song, “Whole Lotta Woman,” which Clarkson co-wrote, is all about the bigness that she’s been criticized for. “Whole Lotta Woman” opens with Kelly addressing her size through playful chatter as she carelessly laughs about someone calling her fat. She goes on to showcase the bigness of her personality through the drawl of southern “Everything’s Bigger in Texas” pride, citing her home state in the lines, “You ain’t know? Texas women do it better,” and, “I reside in Tennessee, but Texas still runs deep in me.” She sounds huge—not just belting, but almost yelling, “I’m a whole lotta woman. I’m a strong badass chick with classic confidence.” This song conveys the same “classic confidence” that she’s had since she was an angsty rocker embracing being an emotional outcast, except now she’s a southern mother, embracing her independence as a woman with a big body and spirit.
Running alongside Clarkson’s southern charm on Meaning Of Life is her Christian faith. On “Whole Lotta Woman” she addresses it tongue in cheek, joking “If you’re scared, go to church,” then transitions to a more solemn approach on the album’s lead single, “Move You.” The song opens with an organ and strings, giving it a gospel feel. A church choir swells as Clarkson sings fervidly about wanting to move the audience “Like a fallen hallelujah / Like a choir shouts amen / Like your first time falling in love / Or a stairway up to heaven.” Her religious faith starts to spill into American pride. She equates her love to “a soldier who is fallen as he holds his country’s flag / And he fights for freedom’s calling / I wanna move you like that.” Given the context of the rest of the album, I was surprised that “Move You” was chosen as the lead single. On its own, it seems to strive to appeal to a certain demographic of god-fearing, flag-waving Americans, which could alienate some listeners who would appreciate the album’s more consistent themes of feminism and body positivity.
The album closes with “Go High,” a song inspired by Michelle Obama’s infamous “speech heard around the world,” as, in her Variety interview, Clarkson calls the First Lady’s appearance at the 2016 Democratic National Convention. Clarkson personalizes the speech with the line, “When you go low, I go high.” It’s the perfect way to end a record about overcoming. After being shackled to men who tried to suppress her, and being bullied by fans who spat at her for changing, she fights back with peace, leaving the world with a promise and a warning: “I won’t give up. I’ll keep giving love.”