Dallas Who is Carrie Underwood?
Is she, as she sang during her opener Wednesday night at American Airlines Center, a Good Girl? Is she given to flights of vengeful violence, as in her show closing Before He Cheats? Is she the model of piety, as suggested in her mid-set tune Temporary Home? Or does she fall somewhere in between?
Searching for the answer is tricky because among the 29-year-old Underwood's many gifts includes an easygoing remove, a charm that endears even as it isolates. She wears her beatific smile like a suit of armor. Some of that distance is due to her astronomical success -- few could scale the heights she has (practically every industry accolade you can name; more than 15 million albums sold; winning a little singing contest called American Idol) and remain an approachable figure. She is, simply, part of the 21st century pantheon, a country artist on a single-name basis, like Reba, George or Garth.
Yet, Underwood, who has become a confident, polished performer in the years since winning Idol in 2005, deftly provides the illusion of intimacy, making sure to wave at the fans gathered near the foot of the immense stage, offering anecdotes about her journey to stardom and peppering her set with "How's everybody doing?" banter. ("Dance, sing -- do what you've gotta do," Underwood instructed the rapt, nearly sold-out audience at one point.)
It's deceptively disarming, and helps make a precisely choreographed show loaded with bells and whistles (at one point, the front piece of Underwood's stage lifted up and away, suspended by cables and floating several feet above the heads of the crowd) feel grounded.
Backed by an eight-piece band and a small forest of restless video screens, Underwood pulled from all phases of her career, including her most recent LP, Blown Away. The briskly paced, faintly Wizard of Oz-themed two-hour set blended the aforementioned gee-whiz technology with that most potent of special effects, Underwood's voice.
She remains a top touring artist who, blessedly, sings her songs live, embracing the small hiccups and momentary flaws that can color the human voice. Underwood is, without question, one of her generation's most formidable vocalists, capable of making Randy Travis's I Told You So a tender, breathtaking moment (hey, Carrie -- given any thought to an album of classic country sides?) or stumbling on a classic rock warhorse (Sweet Emotion was an enthusiastic misfire).
But without a personality to connect to that voice, Underwood's songs end up being empty, glittering hits. She is better than she used to be at conveying the guts of a song, yet the desire to really feel as though Underwood is connecting with the material, the fans and her meteoric rise to country's front ranks never abates. She professed her love of songwriting midway through her set Wednesday night, and perhaps, in time, she'll surprise us all with a sensitively rendered, genuinely considered record of material aimed at letting her fans inside, just a little.
Until then, Underwood remains a woman of many guises, all of them appealing to different demographics. Who is Carrie Underwood? She is, for now, an unknowable superstar.