How Kelly Clarkson (spiritually) saved Xcel from the abyss

Kelly Clarkson at Xcel Energy Center

Kelly Clarkson at Xcel Energy Center

In 2002, when hair-gelled smiles Ryan Seacrest and Brian Dunkleman trotted out the first season of American Idol, the American pop-culture landscape shifted. The disposability of reality TV accelerated the IKEA and frozen dinner decay already crumbling us, with the proliferation of eyeball-monopolizing screens further draining the few intangible bits of what makes us human faster than ever. 

But, as Satan or Simon Cowell or some collusion thereof designed to bloodlet all integrity from popular entertainment, the cosmos gifted us an unlikely dose of morphine: Kelly Clarkson. The winner of the first season of Idol is not a savior, because we've doomed ourselves into an unsustainable aesthetic churn combining prefab houses, Adderall-hooked toddlers, and maniacally grinning YouTube stars.

But, as Clarkson confirmed Tuesday at Xcel, we can be pacified by her two greatest gifts — a fist-pumping insistence on songs that lyrically overcome something vague, plus an enormous and dazzling voice that reminds us genuine artifacts, though fewer and fleeting, still remain. We're gonna get through this, Clarkson implores us, even as the world burns. Or maybe that's this reviewer's overwrought, solipsist take and she stands for something less dire and broader-spanning ... or nothing at all. 
 Either way, Clarkson exuded pure confidence at Xcel. Barefoot, loose, and affable, the 33-year-old new mom took the stage last night to "Dance With Me," which is about as adventurous as she gets with regard to titles, lyrics, and themes. But that's OK, as her main asset, discovered all those years back on Fox, is her effortless voice. With such a stacked vocal arsenal, Clarkson could default to her Top 40 belting, a blunt-force weapon that'll level you, but not display much touch; her vocal chords are Brett Favre's arm. But like the Gunslinger later in his career, Clarkson has the good sense to ease off the gas, offering glimpses of nuance and personality amid the soaring, powerhouse choruses. 

Despite addressing the crowd as "Minneapolis" at one point, the 13-year vet boasting seven albums, most recently February's Piece by Piece, displayed emotional honesty in her banter that's rare in the arena-pop landscape. She was chatty, funny, and self-deprecating in stream-of-conscious crowd interactions that were accented by nervous laughs; she was anything but canned.

The Patron Saint of the Scorned delivers, as our preview writer pointed out, the ultimate road-trip singalongs with triumphant jams like "Catch My Breath," and pummels anonymous wrongdoers with tracks like "Mr. Know It All" (dedicated to "jerks" of all stripes, she tells us). Ahead of an especially sassy and huge-sounding rendition of "Second Wind," Clarkson informed us the song encompasses all of her "empowering songs." She might not have have a brandable personality or distinct point of view — what is Clarkson about, really? — but a humongous and rare voice railing against amorphous roadblocks taps into something deeper, something we need. 
The throbbing, generic pop-rock that props up Clarkson's vocal theatrics took a breather during a mid-set suite of piano ballads. Cheesy yet moving, you could detect bits of personality in a stripped-down "Piece By Piece"; Clarkson was forthright in introducing "super depressing" hit "Because of You," her vulnerable broaching of dad issues that's powerful despite its hamfistedness.

Later came the gimmicky and fun portion of the evening, in which Clarkson paid it forward by inviting an upstart to take the mic for a song ("I got my start on a giant open-mic night," she reminded us). That upstart, Jeff Johnson, handled Josh Groban’s “Remember When It Rained” admirably. Then the highlight of the evening: a fan-requested cover of "Purple Rain." Clarkson poured herself into the Prince classic, crushing the vocals and emoting her heart out. She was giddy afterward, over-sharing the fact she was afraid she would "pee" herself when confronting one of "the best songs of all time." 

While charging through KC classic "Stronger," her five-piece band, flanked by a trio of backup singers, rocked louder and harder than you'd expect from a radio-pop outfit. The Pentatonix kids joined Clarkson for new single "Heartbeat Song," to the screaming, hopping delight of the tween-packed crowd. With surplus attitude, "Walk Away" was merged with Mark Ronson and Bruno Mars' "Uptown Funk"; Clarkson let her backup singers handle most of Jessie J/Ariana Grande/Nicki Minaj hit "Bang Bang" — possibly the best female pop posse cut since "Lady Marmalade." An encore closed things down in hard-rocking fashion with "Miss Independent" and eternal kiss-off favorite "Since U Been Gone," an obvious closer that elicited a full-on audience freakout. On both tracks, Clarkson assumed the aura of a straight-up rock 'n' roll singer, belting with the force of Heart or Lita Ford. 
Clarkson might not exude personality (although she was hardly cookie-cutter Tuesday) and she'll never provide challenging or forward-thinking art. Born from the corporate house of horrors, she's simultaneously subversive and opiatizing; the former due to her subtle message of forging ahead with an authentic (literal) voice and battling on in the face of ... hmm, of whatever you need to be raging back against, I suppose.

In that way, Kelly Clarkson might not stand for anything after all; she's the Christopher Nolan Batman of Top 40 radio — a Swiss Army knife soother in a world gone mad, whatever your definition of that is. Given her malleable and constant message, she's whatever support you need in the face of whatever's oppressing you. For some, that might be a prickly social studies teacher or unrequited crush. For others, it's a rally cry as we hurl pointlessly toward the sanitized cultural void. Regardless of how Clarkson's presence is channeled, when delivered with undeniable talent, it feels welcome and almost essential, in the broadest, most consumer-friendly sense. 

Critic’s bias: Even when I was trying my hardest to seem cool in high school, I had a soft spot for "Since U Been Gone." 

The crowd: Some dads in golf shirts, tons of tweens in tour merch, oh-so-many moms — full and empty nesters. Also, quite a few gay male couples. 

Overheard in the crowd: The whooshes of wind produced by the youngster in front of me as she waved frantically every time Clarkson looked in our direction.

Notes on the opener: Cities 97-geared pop-rocker Eric Hutchinson was backed by a giant banner that read "ERIC HUTCHINSON IS PRETTY GOOD" — let's not get crazy, Eric. Sugary a cappella (mostly) covers quintet Pentatonix showed off tremendous vocal chops, but their genre feels limiting; the audience — which the Penta crew repeatedly lavished as "incredible," "beautiful," and "amazing" — ate up every note. Both acts lobbied hard for social media follows as they exited the stage.

Random notebook dump: Clarkson was an edgy babysitter for the young crowd, referencing getting drunk, popping Xanax, and dating "assholes." It all felt surprisingly genuine and charming.