The narrative of Carrie Underwood has always fallen short of describing the reigning queen of pop-country.
It’s certainly true that she’s a bubbly blonde who got her start on a reality show, but the reality is much more interesting. With her incredible talent and unassuming personality, Underwood isn’t just the most successful American Idol of all time.
Since appearing on Idol’s fourth season in 2005, Underwood has blossomed into the genre’s biggest star, and is almost single-handedly responsible for bringing an entirely new generation of listeners to country music and turning them into lifelong fans.
It’s no coincidence that Underwood’s career trajectory and the explosive growth that country music has seen over the past decade happened at the same time. No one disputes Underwood’s star power, or her remarkable ability to satisfy stodgy old country fans while counting millions of tweenagers among her fans. But her performing skills have, in some respects, taken a battering from critics in recent months. She’s been criticized for “scream-singing” and focusing too little on vocal technique.
For the thousands of fans of crowded into Dallas’ American Airlines Center Tuesday, though, none of that mattered in the least.
Underwood’s Storyteller tour is, despite its massive pyrotechnics setup and the stage engulfing a significant portion of the floor, an attempt at bringing intimacy to a venue that is anything but. With little circular cutouts positioned at each end of the stage, everyone in the crowd had the chance to get a little up close and personal glimpse at the Beyonce of country music.
Opening the evening with Runaway Renegade, Underwood filled the entire AAC with her boundless energy and endless effervescence.
Looking every bit the part of an icon, she flawlessly ripped through a medley of Last Name and Something Bad, her 2014 duet with Miranda Lambert. Just a few songs into the set came Church Bells, the standout barn burner from her most recent release. This is the kind of song that made Underwood a star — big enough to show off her powerhouse vocals and just catchy enough to permanently lodge itself inside the brain after just a few listens.
But with Underwood, everything is big. Her voice is almost too powerful for the confines of a stadium; at times you had to wonder whether or not she even needed the mic to carry the tune into the rafters. The songs are loud and full of soaring high notes, and she belts them without reservation. The problem comes when it all starts to sound the same — at the end of two hours, it feels like all you've done is listen to Underwood go for big notes, and it starts to get a little painful toward the end.
The stage, surrounded by a throng of fans and equipped with a ridiculous amount of technology, provides proximity for the fans stuck in the nosebleeds, but it is also incredibly distracting.
She’s running up and down the thing; there is fire and explosions and multiple costume changes and lasers going off the whole time. The show is, to be sure, an impressive spectacle, but there are plenty of times when you feel like the show is overshadowing what Underwood is doing with her voice.
And many times, the performance would benefit greatly from being more subdued. Sometimes the big notes fall a little flat; sometimes she reaches a little too hard. She’s guilty of slipping into a nasally baby voice from time to time, especially when she’s speak-singing.
Everyone’s heard Underwood belt Jesus Take The Wheel by now — the real treat would be in hearing her perform a stripped down, acoustic version while sitting on a stool. No amount of lasers or fancy costumes are necessary to make that song any better.
The one time a dose of actual vulnerability does appear is with Underwood’s remarkable cover of I Will Always Love You. It may have started off a touch out of tune, but she got on key quickly and did Dolly Parton some real justice on a song that her fellow Idol competitors have all but wrung every drop of emotion from. Later, she sat atop a white piano to sing The Things I Never Knew I Wanted while photos of her hunky hockey player husband and toddler displayed on the screens behind her.
With her newest album, Underwood has settled into a comfortable identity for herself. She’s the classic country golden girl with a little bit of bad-ass sprinkled in. She’s officially evolved beyond the one-note pop princess that won a singing competition into a bona fide superstar. She's writing her own songs, cultivating a unique aesthetic, and used her voice as the foundation on which to build a global brand.
As the night wore on, Underwood worked her way through new and old hits alike, and she did not slow down or tire. She wailed the opening notes of Choctaw County Affair on a harmonica and continued to run up and down the stage with a seemingly bottomless well of endurance. If you weren’t exhausted just watching her, you weren't paying close enough attention.
It almost seems like a fluke that Carrie Underwood got her start on a reality TV singing competition. If Tuesday’s show was any indication, she was born with the glitz and gumption that it takes to reach the peak of country stardom written inside her DNA.
But at this point in her career, when she’s already convinced everyone just how great she really is, Underwood could really benefit from reeling in the showmanship and letting her talent — as pure and strong as it was when she was crowned American Idol — stand on its own.