album reviews

'Idol' Winners, But Only on TV
Kelly Clarkson
RCA (2004)
Ruben Studdard
I Need an Angel
J-Records (2004)
Free Yourself
J-Records (2004)

As "American Idol" prepares to enter its fourth season next month, the show's previous winners -- Kelly Clarkson (2002), Ruben Studdard ('03) and Fantasia Barrino ('04) -- have each released a new album in time for the holidays.

While the show may be little more than a karaoke contest, its weekly pseudo-documentary format enables contestants to develop a "character" that audiences can associate with their talents. But the singers' recordings tend to lack that personality, turning interesting voices into run-of-the-mill studio products.

Clarkson's second album, "Breakaway," is an angrier affair than her debut, last year's "Thankful." Her sassy, quick-to-smile TV persona doesn't fare well behind the fiery-tempered pop punk of "Since U Been Gone" and "Behind These Hazel Eyes," which fall flat without the mascara-smeared attitude of contemporaries like Avril Lavigne (who, coincidentally, co-wrote the CD's title track).

Clarkson lacks not only the riot-grrrl 'tude but also its sense of empowerment: The songs on "Breakaway" are passive, focusing on the wrongs done to her (from "Addicted": "It's like you're a leech, sucking the life from me"). Without the spunkiness of her previous single "Miss Independent," "Breakaway" lacks charisma, making it seem like an afterthought for the first Idol.

"I Need an Angel" is Studdard's return to his gospel roots after his secular debut, "Soulful." Although he risks alienating his nonreligious fans, "Angel" feels like a sincere tribute to Studdard's Christianity, from the R. Kelly-penned title track to the two cuts written by veteran gospel singer Fred Hammond (who joins Studdard in the up-tempo "We Have Not Forgotten"). The gospel choir that appears throughout "Angel" -- a predictable gimmick in "American Idol" finales -- adds to the sincerity but takes some of the spotlight from Studdard's silky-smooth voice. The singer booms through on "Running Back to You" -- but while "Angel" is a cohesive album, Studdard's vocals lack intensity and his performance is, overall, unmemorable.

The most recent "Idol" winner, Barrino, seemed more real than her predecessors, with her life as a teenage mother outside the confines of the weekly show. Barrino's R&B debut, "Free Yourself" -- which bills her as just Fantasia -- often dwells on the struggles of single motherhood, from the candid "This Is Me" to "Baby Mama," whose bouncy backing chorus inanely spells out the song's title over and over.

Barrino's nasal vocals, which helped set her apart from her fellow "Idol" contestants, become grating on record, as with her baby-voiced rendition of the Willie Nelson classic "You Were Always on My Mind." Although she tones down the theatrics for the more melodic "Got Me Waiting," she again resorts to spelling in the chorus, singing "you think that you're something like a P-I-M-P." Barrino's often screechy vocals and lyrical quirks make her debut difficult to take in one full sitting, and although she might be the most three-dimensional of the "Idol" champs, even she can't escape being flattened into generic facelessness in the studio, like Clarkson and Studdard before her. -Catherine P. Lewis

.: Originally published: The Washington Post: 8 December 2004
.: Items mentioned above on Breakaway (Kelly Clarkson, 2004); I Need an Angel (Ruben Studdard, 2004); Free Yourself (Fantasia, 2004).