CLEARWATER — It says a lot about Kelly Clarkson that the current controversy hanging over her head is all about, well, the blunt curtain of hair hanging over her forehead.
Forget about domestic abuse or vocal-cord blowouts or sex, drugs and related rock detritus: The inaugural American Idol champ is so tabloid-free, so relatively reclusive in her private life, we get in a frenzy, a froth, a fervor about her bangs.
As she proved to 2,180 hyped-up fans at a sold-out Ruth Eckerd Hall on Tuesday, the 29-year-old Texan is the rare pop star who succeeds almost completely on pure, soul-kissed talent. She's one of the best-selling artists of the 21st century because she can wail almighty, with only Christina Aguilera and Adele around to match her chops.
Of course, there's a part of Clarkson that wants to be perceived as edgy, as her 90-minute set opened with screen projections flashing accusatory headlines: "FAT" "LOSING SPONSORS?" "ALBUM LEAKS AGAIN!" She then howled into Dark Side, a song from her new album, Stronger.
But the truth, as she soon revealed, is that Clarkson is actually a sweet, giddy young woman who talks a mile a minute and sings like God's personal crooner. Her band was way too loud and amped up for burns such as Behind These Hazel Eyes and Since U Been Gone. But when things quieted down — especially during a sort-of-acoustic medley including The Trouble With Love Is — she had the crowd testifyin' to her chops.
Clarkson also doesn't seem to have a jealous bone in her body, covering several of her favorite acts. After delivering Florence and the Machine's Heavy in Your Arms, she gushed in her rapid-fire way, "I have a musical crush on her. I think she's so rad. She's kind of like a younger Annie Lennox. And I love Annie Lennox." After a fun, fiery cover of Pat Benatar's Hit Me With Your Best Shot, she added, "Pat Benatar is really fun to sing! And Joan Jett! Wait — was that Joan Jett?! No, that was Pat Benatar, right?!"
Okay, so there might have been some gamesmanship in the torchy ballad I Know You Won't, a staple in fellow Idol champ Carrie Underwood's concert set list. Using an upper register that quavered with bluesy heat, Clarkson crushed the song, her most inspired, nuanced performance of the night. Lesson learned: Nice or not, the girl has a serious competitive streak.
After that, the set was boom-boom-boom with hits. Projected onto a screen, Jason Aldean showed up for powerhouse duet Don't You Wanna Stay. (In Aldean's concerts, Clarkson returns the video favor.) There were the requisite girl-power anthems: Breakaway, What Doesn't Kill You (Stronger), Mr. Know It All.
In a curious finale, Clarkson resurrected a song that she gave short shrift to on her last tour. Look at the lyrics, and Miss Independent is about an icy loner who finally falls in love. But Clarkson now delivers her first big hit like a heat-seeking mission statement. And why not? She's never played the showbiz game, and yet she still sells millions of records. So yeah, make fun of her bangs, her weight, whatever. Miss Independent will smile as she blows on by.
Sean Daly can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow @seandalypoplife on Facebook.