Kelly Clarkson vs. Bob Dylan

I know you haters expect another hatchet piece on America’s Sweetheart of Song Gone Electric, and as much as every bilious globule left in me hates American Idol for awarding record contracts to singers that couldn’t get the emotional gist of a milk commercial right, I’ve got to fess up that Kelly Clarkson could conquer the world and it wouldn’t raise a hackle on me. I like her, not only for her head-pinching vocal range but her potential to obliterate the whole Joe Simpson franchise — she’s both Jessica and Ashlee rolled into one.

Like good daughter Jessica, Kelly did what was expected of her with her debut (the courteously titled Thankful), which she toured behind with upstanding two-shoe Clay Aiken. Then, as bad daughter Ashlee, Kelly rebelled against herself with Breakaway, a rocker album that’s a more credible Autobiography ’cause there’s no “darn-my-big-sis” songs and no throat-doctors involved. Frankly, Kelly hits notes that Jessica and Ashlee couldn’t if they were being fed into a wood chipper — with a helium chaser to boot.

But why would Kelly Clarkson wanna stop there? Now that she’s writing lots of songs on her second album like a certain freewheelin’ 20-year-old once did, what’s to stop her from becoming the next Dylan?

Once upon a time any dude with a harmonica holder could pass for New Dylan — Steve Forbert, Willie Nile, the guy in Timbuk 3. But like the Antichrist, the new New Dylan must operate on levels of mass-marketing we can’t begin to comprehend. Follow me through this comprehensive diagnostic and you’ll see why Kelly Clarkson is not only the New Dylan, but the only Dylan most will ever need. It’s the voice of a generation versus the voice of several generations of couch potatoes.

Reason No. 1: The Clive Davis angle. In Kevin Bacon Game terms, Clarkson is one degree of separation from Mr. Tambourine Man through her association with music mogul “Jive” Clive Davis. The same man who selected which Dylan album tracks would be singles is also credited with having outsmarted Dylan into re-signing with Columbia in 1966, if not smart enough to figure out how to make Columbia pay for his son’s bar mitzvah. Unceremoniously booted from CBS, Davis embarked on a series of wrongheaded, if ultimately visionary, New Dylan signings, starting with Barry Manilow (too Jewish), Whitney Houston (too black) and Eric Carmen (too ex-lead singer of the Raspberries) before raiding the American Idol lottery. Kelly is not unlike Dylan in that she jettisoned Clive’s longstanding edict that an artist be on a first-name basis with the consumer by delivering a self-titled album. Gutsy Clarkson balked twice at naming an album Kelly, although she would’ve sold a helluva lot more copies if she’d called her sophomore effort Bob.

Reason No. 2: You’re never gonna find the New Dylan where the old one was. If I’m not mistaken, Gerdes Folk City in Greenwich Village is now a Starbucks, so if corporations have taken over the humble coffeehouses where Old Dylan honed his craft, why couldn’t the New Dylan come through something as corporate as reality TV, where people can see potential New Dylans pay their dues with a break for commercials? If reality TV existed in the early ’60s and people had a say in the matter, we’d be looking for the New Chad Mitchell now.

Reason No. 3: Old Dylan is an abstraction. You know that old saying, “If you remember the ’60s, you weren’t there.” Well, now there are more people who weren’t there than ever before and they kinda remember Dylan had something to do with telling it like it is. But they couldn’t define what he said beyond noncommittals like “the answer is blowin’ in the wind,” “everybody must get stoned” and “awwwwwwww!” People never could assign a definite emotion to Dylan songs without first factoring in what mathematicians and carpenters’ wives and the reincarnation of Paul Revere’s horse had to do with it.

When we sent Martha Stewart to jail, that was America saying, “We just don’t have time for obstruction anymore.” I have to believe we’d want our New Dylan to be appreciably more lyrically direct than the last one, and Kelly doesn’t disappoint on that score. You always know where she stands in a song, whether it’s lonely, confused or angry, or justified for being any combination of the three. We’re a nation of eavesdroppers, and there’s no way to misinterpret Kelly lyrics like “Shut your mouth, I just can’t take it,” “I want a man by my side, not a boy who runs and hides” or “It’s like I can’t think without you interrupting me.” Can you imagine Old Dylan ever singing something as naked as “I’m ashamed of my life because it’s empty”? Nah, he’d want to ruminate over “Napoleon in rags” first.

Reason No. 4: Kelly’s acerbic wit. Remember Dylan’s classic putdowns like “You’d know what a drag it is to see you,” “You’re a cow, give me some milk or else go home” and “awwwwwwww!”? Well, Kelly’s gonna shut you down with the hardest truths since Don Rickles downsized people into hockey pucks. On “Gone” she rails, “That is just so you coming back when I’ve finally moved on.” What’s more acerbic than tapping into a person’s ugliest inner fears and then serving them back to him like it’s a lemon meringue pie? On “Since You’ve Been Gone” she makes it sound like it’s gonna be another one of her “I can’t function because of you” songs until she turns tables and tells that windbag, “I’m so moving on.” That’s a Dylan gotcha moment for sure. Like Self Portrait. Maybe even that Victoria Secret’s commercial. I defy anyone to play that track and not slap their forehead and say, “Damn you, New Dylan, you’re playing us all like a kazoo!”

Reason No. 5: New Dylan should be able to hit a high C without the aid of Hohner. Although reports are that Old Dylan is singing better than ever, it’s a safe bet that you’ve passed cheese sandwiches through your nose more tuneful than what he’s hitting now. Which is no reason to keep Kelly from clinching the New Dylan crown. I’m sure if Bob in his younger years negotiated notes that even Smurf babies couldn’t imagine, “Sad Eyed Lady of the Lowlands” would’ve sounded more like “Miss Independence.”

Reason No. 6: She’s already laying the foundation for Nashville Skyline. There’s no other explanation for all the “y’alls” she includes in her album’s thanks except a calculated attempt to sound more like Woody Guthrie.

Reason No. 7: New Dylan writes in groups of three. Some will protest that Kelly’s songwriting is the work of a committee and that her name doesn’t appear beneath a song title unless two other names are buttressing it. They’re forgetting that Dylan’s stint in the Traveling Wilburys made it possible for all New Dylans to have up to four collaborators without losing cred. Even if Kelly didn’t even have a hand in Breakaway’s breakout hits, you have to ask yourself, how “hands-on” was Andy Warhol with a paint roller in the end? Like a team of worker ants, these behind-the-scene song lackeys are working harder at writing for Kelly Clarkson than Dylan ever did for himself and that’s gotta count for something. Plus she’s struck lucky twice with songwriter Avril Lavigne, who would be a potential New Dylan if she weren’t Canadian. Had we allowed her in this exclusive club, the din from disgruntled Bruce Cockburn fans would’ve been deafening.

Reasons No. 8 through 13: She aches, takes, bakes, makes and fakes just like a woman,
But she breaks just like a little girl.


Bob Dylan appears Tuesday, April 12, at Masonic Temple Theatre (500 Temple St., Detroit; 313-832-2232). Kelly Clarkson performs Tuesday, April 12, at the State Theatre (2115 Woodward Ave., Detroit; 313-961-5450).

Serene Dominic is a freelance writer. Send comments to [email protected] and go to