Sam Smith, Kelly Clarkson, and the Power of Vocal-Driven Pop

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Pop music is a lot like television: The good stuff is gripping and expressive, but also beholden to rules of structure and format. A good song grabs you by the 30th second and turns you loose in the third or fourth minute; an airtight sitcom plot is set up in 5 minutes and resolved in under 30. You don’t get to keep making the stuff unless you can keep people’s eyes on the product, and the quest for longevity sometimes leads its creators to embrace worn-but-proven formulas. In TV, that can mean the addition of a famous face playing a precocious new character. (See: Sean Astin as the all-purpose computer whiz who solves a few puzzles in Stranger Things 2 by somehow knowing everything.) The pop analogue is tracking down the biggest producers and writers in order to offer your own twist on the prevailing sound of the radio.

As the inaugural star of the postmillennial TV-singing-contest craze, Kelly Clarkson cut her teeth on soul and singer-songwriter standards and won the first season of American Idol, only to be nudged into a pop scene a little more concerned with state-of-the-art R&B and dance music than the gale-force vocal performances she excelled at. Early solo singles such as “Miss Independent” and “The Trouble with Love Is” gestured to sultry dance-pop, but Clarkson’s heart seemed to lie elsewhere. Subsequent works, such as her 2007 album My December, bravely pushed her sound into darker, more guitar-based territory, at some cost to her chart traction. Clarkson spent years trying to calibrate a balance of pop, rock, and balladry before settling on the glossy electropop of 2015’s Piece by Piece, a passable record that sounded more like the work of producer Greg Kurstin (Sia, Kesha, Adele) than the singer whose name and face graced its cover.

Piece by Piece second-guessed Kelly Clarkson’s skill set with a safe batch of songs that hewed too close to radio — but it also wound down the RCA recording contract that Idol winners are all contractually obligated to sign, giving Clarkson the chance to shop for a label for the first time in her career. She chose Atlantic Records, home to soul and blues classics such as Ray Charles’s The Genius of Ray Charles and Aretha Franklin’s I Never Loved a Man the Way I Love You, and shifted gears accordingly. It’s apparent from the start of Clarkson’s new album Meaning of Life that she feels renewed — that pairing with Atlantic signaled a push from the squeaky-clean sonics of her last album into throwback soul. The album opener, “A Minute (Intro)” finds the singer in a moment of repose, crooning calmly over milky guitars and tasteful strings about needing a break and a hard reset.

Meaning of Life offers just that: It captures Kelly Clarkson’s voice in the setting it seems best suited for. From searing early Idol performances of Marvin Gaye and Tammi Terrell’s “You’re All I Need to Get By” and Otis Redding’s “Respect” on, Clarkson has always felt like a brilliant soul singer whose label simply didn’t trust the marketability of the stuff. Lead single “Love So Soft” lays out the new album’s mission statement as it carefully mixes nouveau- and retro-soul influences, bounding between girl-group R&B (assisted by Earth, Wind and Fire) and modern-day trap-soul production between the verses and choruses. “Whole Lotta Woman” serves up hot buttered soul and boisterous body positivity, like a down-South rejoinder to Kesha’s “Woman.” “I Don’t Think About You” is a pointed kiss-off that doubles as prescient career commentary; when Clarkson sings, “I feel freedom where I stand now/I feel proud of who I am now,” it’s hard to tell whether the situation she is happy to leave is a shaky romantic relationship or a strained business one.

Meaning of Life presents a less cloying version of the modern pop/’60s R&B hybrid attempted in the recent past by grating artists such as Meghan Trainor. It’s a formidable successor to the middle-aughts soul revival staged by artists such as Sharon Jones and Amy Winehouse — the one Adele defaulted on, as her music beelined for the middle of the road. It’s emboldening hearing Clarkson skip across these lush soul tracks without stressing how they fit into the mainstream landscape. The concessions to 2017 pop are light: The Kurstin collab “Would You Call That Love” could slide straight into Pink’s new album without a wink, and the bonus cut “Don’t You Pretend” cribs a few runs straight out of Rihanna’s “Love on the Brain.” But by and large, Meaning of Life is a simmering pot of warm grooves and powerful vocals, a career pivot to the music that Kelly Clarkson ought to have been allowed to make right out of the gate. The album deserves the best, but Kelly will be fine either way: A new deal with NBC’s The Voice brings her journey full circle this fall, as she once again joins a TV singing contest, this time as a judge.

Sam Smith’s pop career isn’t half as far along as Clarkson’s — this Friday’s new The Thrill of It All is only his second studio album — but it seems just as predisposed to unexpected shifts in tone. His breakthrough came with the British brother duo Disclosure’s “Latch,” a breezy synth-pop tune whose production cleverly toyed with the faux electrocardiograph beep of Soft Cell’s “Tainted Love.” Smith’s vocal opened high and kept on soaring — landing, by the chorus, on a controlled shriek, evocative of nothing short of Bronski Beat’s “Smalltown Boy.” These qualities, and the love song’s convenient lack of pronoun specificity, made it something of a gay anthem. “Safe With Me,” off Smith’s 2014 EP Nirvana, chased “Latch” with more state-of-the-art dance grooves and a lyric about lovers and secrets, further positing the London-born singer as a budding LGBTQ icon.

Smith’s debut album In the Lonely Hour doused all preconceived notions about his career path with an almost cynically tame batch of quiet songs about vague, unrequited longing. Ironically, this planned universality helped singles “Stay With Me” and “I’m Not the Only One” hit to the tune of several million units sold, and their success landed Lonely Hour in the running for Album of the Year at the same Grammys showdown where Beck won over Beyoncé. As his public profile grew, Smith remained intent on protecting his privacy and keeping his art relatable. Songs were tailored more to the lives of listeners than to that of the writer. “I had to be careful,” Smith told Rolling Stone of Lonely Hour’s creation. “I want my music to be sung by absolutely everyone, just like I listen to straight people every day of my life, and I’m not straight.”

Accusations arose about Smith being out-of-touch, assimilationist, and culturally conservative, and they were further stoked when he appeared to abruptly discover the notion that racism existed in England on Twitter in 2016. (“I never ever ever ever thought that would happen here.”) Smith caught more backlash just a month later at the Academy Awards, when he won Best Original Song for the theme to the Bond film Spectre and accidentally suggested that he was the first openly gay Oscar recipient, forgetting to cite wins by writer Dustin Lance Black and musicians such as Elton John and Melissa Etheridge. In the face of mounting criticism, Sam Smith vanished.

When musicians abruptly take time off, it is generally assumed that they are quietly reevaluating things and pouring their revelations into new music — and, as we learned when Sam Smith reemerged in September with “Too Good at Goodbyes,” that’s exactly what happened here. The new single picks up where the moonlit mood of In the Lonely Hour left off, stewing with regret but soaring on a vocal seemingly unbound by restraints to its range. Something is different, though.

The Thrill of It All shakes some of the stuffiness off Smith’s sound by livening up arrangements. Songs that would’ve been hammered out as droll piano ballads get fleshed out with strings, horns, and sweeping backing vocals. The majority of the album’s ten songs feature something resembling a choir, from the hearty gospel accompaniment of “Too Good at Goodbyes” to the tinny, whooping chorus underneath “One Last Song.” It’s tempting to view Smith’s gearshift as an analogue to the Nashville storyline in which Hayden Panettiere’s self-centered country singer, Juliette Barnes, has a change of heart upon meeting a black church singer, then rushes her choir into the studio for an album — never noticing that the urge to bottle and commercialize their music was still selfish behavior.

But writing off the album’s embrace of soul and gospel as a deliberate signifier of groundedness — like Madonna hamming it up on “Like a Prayer” — ignores how genuinely engaged Smith sounds when singing this music, and the depth it pushes him to in his writing. He’s still not pouring his whole life into song — the singer told Billboard only three tracks on the album are autobiographical — but Thrill successfully expands Smith’s palette from sad-sack window pain into something grander and more poignant. The song “HIM” is a crushing indictment of the homophobia tucked into organized religion and Southern culture by proxy: “I walk the streets of Mississippi/I hold my lover by the hand/I feel you staring when he is with me/How can I make you understand?” Like the old Madonna tune, “HIM” coyly refuses to divulge whether its refrain of “It is him I love” is aimed at God or the boyfriend. The tug between the two interpretations dramatizes the plight of queer people of faith made to choose between sainted celibacy or forbidden love and the promise of eternal damnation.

Regardless of whatever personal or ideological processes urged Sam Smith and Kelly Clarkson to seek rebirth in the sounds of soul and gospel music, it’s intriguing to watch two of the era’s finest pop vocalists standing on the power of raw talent and emotion at a time when many of their peers are dialing up Jack Antonoff for makeshift Balearic beats. There used to be more space in pop for this kind of album — back when the Whitneys, Celines, and Mariahs of the ’80s and ’90s got by on blowing audiences down with pure vocals. The music of this decade is increasingly defined by the upbeat signature sounds of its most popular producers. What if we gave some of that power back to its greatest voices?

Sam Smith, Kelly Clarkson, and the Power of Vocal-Driven Pop