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Kelly Clarkson: Is Her New Music Any Good?

Kelly Clarkson and I have never met, but I bet if we did, we’d totally hit it off.

We’d go out for drinks — but end up ordering pear-tinis and chocolate mousse — and we’d talk about old high school crushes, the first time we got drunk, and how it’s so weird that we still like Brad Pitt but hate Angelina.

She’d dish on Clive Davis and I’d trash my coworkers and then, after a couple of pear-tinis, I’d dare her to send a drink to the cute hoodie-clad loner at the bar. (“Look, he’s, like, writing in a journal!” I’d goad her. “OMG, he must be deep,” Kelly’d pretend to gush — so loud he’d turn and look, causing us both to erupt into giggles.) By midnight, we’d be making plans to see Marley and Me and go shopping at Anthropologie the next day.

Total slumber party.

But while I like to imagine that Kelly and I would be bosom buddies, I honestly believe anybody would hit it off with her. And therein lies my dilemma: Does Kelly’s likeability cloud our ability to actually hear her music?

This week Kelly released “My Life Would Suck Without You,” the first single from her upcoming album All I Ever Wanted (due March 17). Like many, I was put off by the affectedly chatty song title, but after three listens, I decided that, “suck” aside, I liked it. It was catchy, it was upbeat, it was the perfect song for the elliptical machine at the gym. On my fourth playback, I grinned and bobbed my head along to the synthetic snares, letting the bleepy keyboards and Kelly’s breathy vocals wash over me like a chocolate fountain.

And then it hit me: This wasn’t a very good song.

I wanted to like it. I wanted to believe it was on par with her supremely awesome kiss-off anthem “Since U Been Gone.” But it’s not. Sure, it has the same edgy guitar lead-off, but her vocals sound robotic, empty, and — can it be? — AutoTuned. The lyrics are vapid and vaguely anti-feminist (“I’m nothing without you”???) and there’s not even a bridge or a key change to liven things up. It sounds like it was made in a lab — and in a way it was, at the Swedish hit-factory of Dr. Luke and Max Martin, the bubble gum-pop savants responsible for Britney, Katy Perry and, of course, Kelly’s “Since U Been Gone.”

I don’t know the details behind her new album. Did label head Clive Davis threaten to drop her if she dared write her own songs like she did on 2007’s My December? Did she just strike a deal to include a couple of radio-ready singles in exchange for creative freedom elsewhere? Or did she realize it’s a lot less emotionally draining to just let RCA call the shots?

I mulled all of this over as I played the song again, this time forcing my two male officemates to listen. “I really want to like it,” one of them said. “I hope it’s still a big hit,” added the other. No matter how much we disliked it, we were still rooting for Kelly.

How could you not? American Sweethearts don’t come much sweeter. She uses phrases like “cool beans,” calls cookies “soul food,” and somehow managed to make us forget From Justin to Kelly. She’s sold more than 20 million albums and yet she still seems like that girl voted “class favorite” in high school. She hasn’t been slapped with a DUI, she doesn’t own a Chihuahua and she hasn’t collaborated with Timbaland. She’s, you know, just Kelly.

I’m genuinely sorry I don’t like this song as much as I want to — as much as Kelly would want me to. I hope we can still be friends.

Watch: Kelly Clarkson, “Since U Been Gone”