By Chris Willman
July 24, 2007 at 05:01 AM EDT

Shaq vs. Kobe… 50 Cent vs. Ja Rule… Kelly vs. Clive. Who knew that the alleged Clarkson/Davis feud of ’07 would go down in the history of classic beefs? It wasn’t that many weeks ago that some cynics were still insisting that the whole thing was a publicity gimmick cooked up somewhere in a SonyBMG boardroom, to ratchet up anticipation for Clarkson’s My December album — as if letting word get out that he’s releasing an album he doesn’t really care for would ever be the way Clive rolls. But by now it’s clear to everyone that there was no great PR strategy behind taking the artist/label contretemps public, and that the album’s fortunes have been affected in the collateral damage.

Today she released a statement about what she calls the “supposed feud,” insisting that she and her team remain a “tightly knit family” and saying, “A lot has been made in the press about my relationship with Clive. Much of this has been blown way out of proportion and taken out of context. Contrary to recent characterizations in the press, I’m well aware that Clive is one of the great record men of all time. He has been a key advisor and has been an important force in my success to date. He has also given me respect by releasing my new album when he was not obligated to do so. I really regret how this has turned out and I apologize to those whom I have done disservice. I would never intentionally hurt anyone. I love music, and I love the people I am blessed to work with. I am happy that my team is behind me and I look forward to the future.”

Why make that statement now? Because of some particularly bad timing. Shortly before the album was released, she fired her manager, Hollywood powerhouse Jeff Kwatinetz; her new one, Nashville-based Narvel Blackstock, apparently advised her to stop giving interviews. Kwatinetz had gone on the record in a couple of articles himself, talking about how Clarkson was getting a raw deal from Davis, echoing her own comments about the need for artistic freedom — but maybe he defended her so vociferously in print, and took on Davis so brazenly, that it suddenly occurred to the singer that “divide and conquer” wasn’t such a great album-launch strategy. Anyhow, Clarkson has been inside the cone of silence since My December hit the streets a month ago. Except you’d never know it because interviews she did prior to that are still coming out, making it sound like she’s still trying to stir up a good scrap.

addCredit(“Kelly Clarkson: Jeff Kravitz/”)

She’d talked about the disagreements with her label chief in earlier interviews — including a cover story and online chat with EW — but the quotes belatedly coming out now surely added too much fuel to the fire. In a Blender interview,conducted while Kwatinetz was still her manager but released only thismonth, she described a key meeting with Davis like this: “I was like,’I don’t know you very well, and I am not a bulls–tter. I get youdon’t like the album. You’re 80; you’re not supposed to like my album.’” In Us Weekly, she managed to, by implication, up Davis’ ageeven further. “I just want people to hear it, instead of 100-year-oldexecutives making decisions on what’s good for pop radio.” (For therecord, Davis is neither an octogenarian or centenarian but a strappingyoung lad of 74.) In USA Weekend,just this past week, she managed to avoid any age-guessing games butdid say of the industry legend: “I’m going to be real honest with you:I am not a fan. I do respect him, but I don’t want to barbecue withhim. We don’t braid each other’s hair. And, despite the rumors, he isnowhere near a father figure.”

Talk about your past coming back to haunt you. As of June 26, the release date for My December,Clarkson had effectively shut up about Davis. But her July is beingseverely affected by her May and her June, when her frankness was stillin full bloom. If the album or any of its singles were huge smashesright now, she could afford that kind of cockiness out there in thepublic sphere (and, where it really counts, the blogosphere). But herthree-week tally of 463,000 units — good enough by most standards, butwell behind the recent pace set by Linkin Park, Maroon 5, and Hannah Montana — lent ammunition to anybody who, for whatever reason, had decided Clarkson needed a good ole smackdown.

Wisely, Davis has had no comment on this matter lately… or ever, infact. So he’s blameless in this brouhaha — beyond having delayed heralbum’s release by a few months while he tried to convince her tofatten it up with outside songs — right? Not necessarily, if you countsilence as a statement of its own, or passive-aggressiveness as adistinct dis. Some say the bad buzz really got started after a SonyBMGcorporate meeting this spring, at which Davis reportedly played fourtracks off the album and asked the attendees — rhetorically, or forreal — if they heard any hits. If you’ve ever heard Clive give a speechextolling one of his artists’ new albums, you know that anything lessthan a half-hour declaration of the Second Coming is an implicit voteof “no confidence” on his part. And then there was his presentation on the American Idol season finale — the speech that launched a thousand huh?s— in which he found time to praise the failing efforts of Taylor Hicksand Katharine McPhee, and pointedly raved about the songwriters who’dhelped out on Clarkson’s records in the past, without ever mentioningthat she had a new single or album. No one could prove in court that heintended it as a slap, but the circumstantial bruising was in plainsight.

What’s been lost in this, of course, is the ability to evaluate My December on its own merits. I’m on record calling it Clarkson’s best album yet, and the best post-Idolrecord anyone’s made, a contention I still stand behind. In a lessaccusatory climate, the label could still release “One Minute” (a fun,frothy throwaway) or “Can I Have a Kiss” (a terrifically ecstaticdeclaration of romantic desperation) as a single, and instantlydisprove the popular notion that her album is a depressing, hooklessaffair. But combine the fact that Clarkson’s songwriting abilities arenow being debated on street corners with the controversy over how muchAvril Lavigne has contributed to the hits she gets credit on, andsuddenly the burden of proof is on any young singer to prove that shecan craft a tune as brilliantly without professional song doctors aswith ‘em. My December has a lot going for it, between someperfectly dandy pop songs and some real growth in personal expression.But there are undeniably also clunky moments for the hater crowd toseize upon, and it’d probably be better appreciated without the extremescrutiny she’s had a big part in inviting upon it.

All of this has surely put some of the SonyBMG rank and file in a tough spot. I went to a Yahoo tapingClarkson did the night before her album release. It was a happy enoughaffair; maybe a couple of dozen label staffers were there, and she gavethem a shout-out at one point, offering props for their support andsaying something like, “These are the people at my label that I like!“(a comment I’m sure was edited out of the webcast). The staffers inquestion cheered back, in a mutual lovefest. But I wonder if they mighthave felt a bit awkward, as if their names were being scrawled on a”Dumbledore’s Army” list in anticipation of a showdown with the forcesof Voldemort.

No one’s been at their most honorable or smartest in this situation.Surely both parties have legitimate reasons to feel publiclydisrespected by the other. But at least it’s helped disabuse the publicof the least true truism of all time: that all publicity is goodpublicity. Clarkson and Davis are both Teflon-coated survivors, and theonly real damage will probably be her candor. If you’ve ever sat in onan interview with Clarkson, you know that she’ll talk to you ascasually as she might a best buddy, which is disarmingly enjoyable andalso, as we’ve seen, potentially bad for business. I suspect that, evenas we speak, new manager Blackstock is giving her some instruction inhow to watch her mouth and put her guard up. And though I’ll miss theshoot-from-the-hip Kelly, she’ll probably need those lessons, if she,too, wants to have a career until she’s 80. Or 100. Er, 74.