The knock on “American Idol” is that the show’s performers are likable but bland, singers with outsized, sturdy voices that have little personality. Kelly Clarkson, the brassy first-season winner, has done everything she can to declare her independence — titling her second album “Breakaway” (RCA/19), sporting nasal jewelry on the album’s cover, collaborating with Avril Lavigne and members of Evanescence and Our Lady Peace. But both the album and the tour that pulled into the Wiltern show Clarkson actually likes being a pop tart. It’s as if Pinocchio, once he became a real boy, continued to live as a marionette.
Nothing in her hourlong show would surprise anyone with even a passing knowledge of current pop radio. She may complain, “I never stray too far from the sidewalk” in “Because of You,” but the song is a safe, inoffensive ballad. The chirpy dissatisfaction of “I Hate Myself for Losing You” and “Walk Away” could just as easily come from Britney, Lavigne or Ashlee Simpson.
Clarkson has a stronger set of pipes than her competition, and the songs she’s co-written (or that have been written for her) give her plenty of opportunities to show them off. But there’s not much more to her perf. She’s the George W. Bush of singers: No matter what the situation, she has only one response — use that power.
The limitations of this approach are revealed in the medley in which she pays tribute to her influences — Janis Joplin, B.B. King and Annie Lennox. In Clarkson’s hands, “Piece of My Heart,” “The Thrill Is Gone” and “Sweet Dreams” are all taken at the same full-throttle, take-no-prisoners emotional intensity, with little room for nuance or subtlety. She’s better when not trying so hard to impress, as on the understated, soulful swing of “Trouble With Love Is” and the quiet, acoustic guitar and fiddle version of “Breakaway.”
A relentlessly cheery performer, bouncing around the stage, responding to the placards and screams of fans in the front rows (and, just to make sure nobody’s left out, repeatedly asking those in the balconies and the back of the orchestra how they’re doing), Clarkson reveals little about herself. Even her stage patter references other “Idol” contestants: When commenting about how hot she is onstage, she says she’s “sweating like Ruben.”
The stage decoration — a vaguely “Arabian Nights”-themed set, with rugs, pillows, hanging lamps and flowing scrims — looks generic and slapped together at the last minute. That the pillows placed directly in front of the amps could deaden the sound coming from the stage was a problem that apparently occurred to no one.
But then the show was more about personality than music. Four seasons in, it should be obvious that success on “American Idol” in no way guarantees a career. Sure, Clay Aiken will have work as long as there are showrooms in Branson, Mo., and Ruben Studdard should be the first choice to star in the inevitable basic-cable Luther Vandross biopic, but most of the contestants wind up with the same kind of twilight stardom achieved by other reality-show contestants. That Clarkson has ambitions for something more is admirable and should be applauded. The choices she has made are another matter entirely.