Ever since Kelly Clarkson earned a lifetime of music geek cred by belting the sublimely brilliant, indie-rock aping “Since U Been Gone,” the alt-rock blogosphere has been eagerly following her every move. So by now you’ve probably heard her new single, “My Life Would Suck Without You” (if not, I’ve got the YouTube at the end of this post). After famously taking the reigns on her last album to the chagrin of studio head Clive Davis – he reportedly tried to have Clarkson junk or re-record the album – she’s now back to working with the songwriting and production team that brought her from reality show contestant to international superstar: evil geniuses Max Martin and Dr. Luke.
The result fails to reach the heights of the “Since U Been Gone”/”Behind These Hazel Eyes” double-whammy, but it’s still a hell of a track. Even if the songwriting duo hold back on some of their signature tricks (what, no bridge?), their shamelessly-shoved-with-hooks style remains a perfect match with Clarkson’s killer pipes; far moreso than, say, with the warbles of a Katy Perry or Britney Spears. But something was holding me back from truly loving the track, and after listening to it a few times today, I’ve finally put my finger on it: it’s the lyrics.
Oh there’s nothing inherently wrong with them; they’re pretty standard pop fare, with really only one good line (a great delivery by Clarkson on “I know that I’ve got issues / but you’re pretty messed up too) and no truly bad ones once you get past how lame the word “suck” sounds in the chorus. No, it’s that there’s a whole slew of subtext that one could read into the lyrics when you think about how this song fits into Clarkson’s body of work thus far. In particular, two different scenarios really complicate the track for me. I’m not sure which of them I prefer, so I figured I might as well psychoanalyze them both.
Psychoanylitical Subtext #1: Since You Came Back
The Setup: “Suck” is a direct sequel to “Since U Been Gone,” dealing with the same relationship.
The Background: In returning to work with Clarkson, Martin and Luke wanted to address the relationship schism they created on Breakaway’s biggest track. Was that joyous breakup (well, on Kelly’s end at least) really the end for Ms. Clarkson and her suitor, or did fate have something else in store for the shattered couple? This might explain why the music video plays with almost exactly the same concept as “Since U Been Gone’s” vid: live performance for the chorus, Clarkson destroying a boyfriend’s things during the verses. Only this time, the destroying isn’t an act of separation – it’s an act of reconciliation, a need to get all the drama on the table before the making-up can begin.
The Analysis: Oh Kelly, you need an intervention honey. You’ve got your head on straight during the first verse, I’ll admit, reminding yourself of what an asshole this jerkface was to you. He’s not necessarily giving you any reason to trust him, but okay, might as well hear him out. But then we hit verse two, and we go completely into “emotionally battered girlfriend” craziness:
Maybe I was stupid for telling you goodbye
Maybe I was wrong for tryin’ to pick a fight
I know that I’ve got issues but you’re pretty messed up too
Either way, I found out I’m nothing without you
NO NO NO NO NO. Kelly, remember “Since U Been Gone”? How you could breathe for the first time? How you could get what you want? So what the hell are you doing going back to this assclown? This guy had his chance and he blew it. Big time. Just because he has a “piece of you” doesn’t mean that you “belong” together.
What’s frustrating is that “Since U Been Gone” was such a bold, joyously independent song. Now not only is Clarkson reverting to a subservient, emotionally-dependent state, but she’s doing so in ridiculously juvenile terms. Her life would “suck” without this guy? Really, Kelly? You’re going to describe this complicated set of emotions you’re going through with “suck”? Maybe you’re not really prepared to handle what it is you’re going through right now…
Doctor’s Orders: a healthy dose of self-awareness and a clean break from this loser boyfriend.
Psychoanalytical Subtext #2: My Life Would Suck Without Clive Davis
The Setup: “Suck” is actually about Clarkson’s reconciliation with both Martin/Luke and with studio head Clive Davis.
The Background: Clarkson wanted to go her own way with My December, which meant taking a stronger role in the writing process and basically shunning Martin/Luke’s pre-packaged pop masterpieces. Studio head Davis wasn’t pleased and though he eventually released the record, all accounts are that he wasn’t happy about it and Clarkson sure as hell wasn’t happy with him. Ultimately, though, sales do the talking and Davis’ doubts proved prescient: lead single “Never Again” fell off the charts quickly and while far from a complete failure, the record failed to keep Clarkson’s blistering momentum from Breakaway. What better time to mend fences and get this pop juggernaut back on the charts?
The Analysis: Clarkson comes off a lot better in this one. Sure, there’s a bit of smug satisfaction in her initial reaction to the reunion, but this reading makes the second verse into a bit of genuine self-reflection on where her relationship with her label went so wrong. She did try to pick a fight for her own sake, but she’s put that behind her because she’s come to a harsh realization: she needs this pairing as much as her svengalis do. No one else can belt these pieces of powerpop perfection like she can, and no one else writes hooks as note-perfect.
They do belong together. They always have. And as My December showed, Clarkson’s life would suck without Davis/Martin/Luke; the proof is all there on the record, laid out for everyone to hear. But with the best songwriting team in pop music behind her, she’s an icon, a superstar, a hero to Internet nerds and radio listeners alike. Time to put the drama behind them and belt out a celebration for why, sometimes, being together sure beats the shit out of being apart.
Doctor’s orders: More hit singles to steal blogger boys’ hearts. Forever and ever.
Watch: Kelly Clarkson – “My Life Would Suck Without You” (the official video stupidly doesn’t allow embedding, you’ll have to settle with the link. Sorry, interwebs.)