KELLY Clarkson makes the kind of hits that feed the machine of mainstream music commerce, but she should be careful that the machine doesn't chew her up and spit her out.
Headlining her biggest Southern California concert to date on Tuesday at Verizon Wireless Amphitheater in Irvine, the mega-selling singer was far more subdued than usual, delivering most of her set with professional efficiency.
Missing was the disarming exuberance that can elevate her catchy, superficial music into an enjoyably giddy experience.
At one point, Clarkson remarked to the audience, "It's been an odd year. It's been rough, but it's been really good." It's a year that's seen her moving up in record sales and concert drawing power, add some stature to her statistics by winning a couple of Grammys and start recording her third album. You have to wonder if the heavy pace is starting to wear on her.
Or maybe it was just one of those nights. In any case, it didn't help that the 70-minute set was front-loaded with slower material, such as the bluesy, hyper-dramatic opener "Addicted" and a pensive new song, "Maybe."
Clarkson has long moved beyond her career-launching origin as an "American Idol" winner, but she still seems to be searching for some kind of musical identity. She has limited skills as an interpreter, delivering the anguished, slow-burn ballads with an un-nuanced alternation of taut, subdued setup and belting release, and riding the rockers with a wailing willingness.
She has taken that approach through a variety of styles, from Bowie and Prince-style funk ("Miss Independent" and "Walk Away," respectively) to country-ish pop ("Breakaway"), selling a ton of records on the strength of their hooks and dynamics and her girl-next-door directness.
There's not a lot of ambition in that formula, but there's something about Clarkson that makes you want to stick with her. The most intriguing segment of Tuesday's concert came during a long acoustic interlude, when she left the sterile studio hits behind and headed to America's South.
Soulful singer-songwriter Ray LaMontagne's longing ballad "Shelter" seemed to inspire a clarity and intelligence in her vocal. Her own hit "Thankful" was given a down-home, back-porch gospel treatment, and she followed that with a rollicking, New Orleans-flavored version of Marc Broussard's "Home."
It wasn't exactly Linda or Lucinda jamming with Little Feat, but it evoked such a pairing, and Clarkson's focused singing and her embrace of these tradition-expanding songwriters suggested that there's an artistic restlessness inside the hard-driving careerist.
The only other moment that had a similar intimacy came on "Breakaway," which Clarkson sang as an encore with acoustic accompaniment from a stage in the middle of the crowd. The song's sentiment might be a bit maudlin, but her performance -- sweet, direct and real -- distilled the essence of her appeal.
She's already lived its theme of freeing oneself from the mundane to follow a dream, but she might adapt it to her current situation and break away from a cycle that could threaten that dream.