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Pop Music!

Wow! The San Francisco Chronicle's Joel Selvin badly needs a new and different life:

'American Idol' champ Clarkson struggles to the finish line in local headlining debut: Kelly Clarkson was not having a good night. Instead of presiding triumphantly over an amphitheater full of screaming teens anointing her a true pop goddess, she cut off the electric guitars and hobbled into the finale. Her voice in shreds, she dropped the key and slowed the beat for the climactic performance of her big hit, "Since U Been Gone." She sang, but without any vitality, flat and listless. She left most of the singing to the audience, parading around the stage holding the microphone out to the crowd, who happily supplied the chorus. Clarkson looked ragged, drained. What should have been a victory lap looked like a forced march.

The song has been the biggest pop hit of the year, rescuing 23-year-old Clarkson from the footnote oblivion of having been the first winner of TV's "American Idol." Clarkson arrived for her Bay Area headline concert debut Sunday at UC Berkeley's Greek Theatre to be greeted by a larger-than-expected crowd of more than 6,000 enthusiasts who were screaming her name in unison -- "Kell-lee" -- before she took the stage.

She apologized for her voice after the raw edges showed on a ballad. She talked about having the next day off (after the show she did, in fact, cancel a concert scheduled for Santa Barbara). She nevertheless pulled off the frenzied final chorus of Annie Lennox's "Why." But she was not happy. She made her three guitar players switch to acoustics and tried to regain her equilibrium. Rather than stop the show, she said, they would soldier on. "We'll try to have the same good time," she said, "only at a lower key."

With a hit that big on the charts -- and the limited shelf life of pop hits -- her agents can be forgiven for having her do more than four shows a week this summer. But her gymnastic vocal style calls for a sturdy athleticism that she couldn't summon Sunday. Her big numbers rely on ringing choruses she drives home with blasting, trumpet-like high notes, and, her voice gone, she didn't have other resources to fall back on, as a cunning veteran might. She is, after all, a relative newcomer who owes her fame to winning a talent show on television three years ago, and she was already widely presumed to be washed up. Her surprising career resurrection comes from Swedish songsmith Max Martin, the man who brought you Britney Spears and the Backstreet Boys and who has been having a hard time buying a hit himself recently.

Clarkson managed to separate herself from the machinations of the evil geniuses behind "American Idol" -- the ones who made her sing "A Moment Like This" and star in the movie "From Justin to Kelly" -- and she apparently sought out this new career strategy for herself. She has clearly long placed her faith in the work of makeup, hair and wardrobe professionals, although the stylist that picked out the impossibly low-cut knee pants and halter-top outfit didn't do her any favors.

She exuded a certain cheery charm, a becoming modesty that suits her talents, a willingness to please that is always attractive in an entertainer. Her wholesome exuberance is more tomboy than sexy. But waving at fans in the front rows during dramatic passages of a song might be taking the giggly, girlish thing a little too far.

There were moments tinged with promise -- a Joplinesque rasp on the edge of a soulful ballad, a sweet turn in her voice in the country-pop of Rascal Flatts' "I'm Movin' On" that suggested early Ronstadt. But largely she stuck to cookie-cutter teen pop that really wasn't all that interesting or memorable, save for the big hit, of course, which is a great, glowing, gleaming piece of pop cheese Clarkson is likely never to see the likes of again.

We took the Twelve-Year-Old to the concert at Berkeley's Greek Theatre. No, she was not listless. No, it did not look like a forced march. Yes, she has some excellent material to work with. Yes, she has very good taste in the cover songs she chooses. We saw a twenty-two year old realizing as she got into her set that her voice that night couldn't carry the belt-it-out vocal strategy of her new album, and trying to regroup and adjust so that she could do a set that would (a) please her fans, while (b) not straining her voice too far. We saw a remarkably professional twenty-two year old.

She has a voice. She has range. She has presence. She has 160,000 people who have seen her this summer. If she gets good vocal coaches who will help her save and develop her voice, she could do very well.

Joel Selvin, on the other hand.... He needs to get out of town--get out of the music-covering business--before he does himself serious damage.