Kelly Clarkson, more than almost anyone in pop, is assailed near-continuously by endless annoying narratives. It’s not exactly surprising. Clarkson’s career exists because she won American Idol when American Idol was tilted closer to discovering new talent and farther from combing America for filmable combinations of Sims personality traits; America got to know her as a name and voice before a sound or fully-formed personality: “both a powerhouse and a cipher,” as The New York Times‘ Jon Caramanica put it. That’s essentially how A&R works, but the process normally wasn’t so immediate and public.
It’s somewhat more surprising how little of a real effect they’ve had on her career, at least on the charts. “What Doesn’t Kill You (Stronger),” the second single from Stronger, went No. 1 and stayed there for two weeks. It’d be impressive considering her chart history alone, it’s more impressive considering that 2012′s sales accomplishments have been all but earmarked for Adele, and it’s even more impressive considering Clarkson’s past year.
Unlike almost everyone else in season one (early standout Tamyra Gray, costumes-included Nikki McKibbin and Ryan Starr, living frizz attack Justin Guarini, whose voice all but 12 people have forgotten), Clarkson managed to escape being a cipher, at least musically. In fact, she found a really comfortable niche: a pop-rock revivalist, one of the leading ones, thanks to Breakaway and “Since U Been Gone” specifically. These were neither producers Max Martin and Dr. Luke’s nor pop’s first rock forays; P!nk had made the same R&B-to-rock pivot as Clarkson years before, as did Michelle Branch, Avril Lavigne and other peers. Nor was the track originally Clarkson’s (it was written for P!nk, then shopped to Hilary Duff). All those are technicalities, though; the track became associated with Clarkson, and it was Luke and Max’s operating template for years.
Then, things happened. There was My December, Clarkson’s best but least well-received album and one called radically angsty only because people forgot that both adolescence and the ’90s were angst factories. After label and public rejected December, follow-up All I Ever Wanted was the equivalent of repainting Clarkson’s career in colors you’d use for candy, like the cover art, or Katy Perry, who lent demos to the album. Two successive singles, “My Life Would Suck Without You” and “I Do Not Hook Up,” were “Since U Been Gone” with upgraded, glossier hooks; the next, “Already Gone,” was Beyonce’s “Halo,” with no upgrades or changes at all. But this wasn’t Clarkson’s fault so much as the fault of trends shifting from drama to dance, pop-rock to party rock. P!nk, Clarkson’s closest career analogue, was scrubbing herself clean with Martin of all remaining Try This grunge. Branch and her earnest peers gave way to Perry, whose rock never leaves the studio without its gumdrop-and-Magic-Shell bustier.
Stronger is, in part, an attempt to follow those trends, although lead single “Mr. Know It All” was a bit misleading. More specifically, it’s an attempt to write a lot of “Since U Been Gone” variations, none more so than “Stronger.” This is totally fair–”Since U Been Gone” wasn’t only an iconic hit for Clarkson and pop alike, but it’s a hit translatable to pop in 2012. Just shake some synths in like dry shampoo, and it’s completely radio-friendly. That said, “Since U Been Gone” wasn’t just known for being a pop-rock track. It’s known as a kiss-off. And for some reason, people think that’s all she writes.
Reading about Stronger before hearing it, you’d assume it’s an album-length diss. Rolling Stone called the album a one-note series of “bellowing her pain, scorching the earth“; The New York Times, a continuous showcase of “clobbering her subject.” The media discussion followed those lines; post after post focuses on her heartbreak, her headlines (both in the “Mr. Know It All” video and out) and her pain. People mention her voice, but it’s usually secondary to how that voice is yelling.
This wasn’t the first storyline that took over Clarkson’s career. There was hand-wringing about her album leaks, an occurrence so commonplace that Watch the Throne avoiding them was planned and seen as conspicuous consumption. There was every mention of weight, in any context. There was the entire Ron Paul endorsement kerfuffle, which dissolves to nothing when you realize Clarkson grew up as a Southern girl from Texas. But those were blips, all quickly receding beneath the heft of that one overarching and wrong accusation: that Kelly Clarkson’s music is one long wallow in heartbreak, one endless breakup song.
Clarkson’s not the only one to get this accusation–Beyonce gets almost the same thing, an astounding feat of ignoring both exuberantly lovey “Crazy in Love” and its follow-ups and love-is-bull tracks like “Independent Women (Part 2).” And there’s some truth to it, in that Clarkson’s fans see her much as Taylor Swift’s and Adele’s do, as a surrogate big sister who’s already lived versions of their heartbreaks. The problem is when it renders her songs one-dimensional. Take “Since U Been Gone,” even just the title: “Since you’ve been gone…” If you finished that sentence, it’d probably be somber. Leaves would shrivel, clouds would form, inboxes would stall and LEDs wouldn’t blink. Clarkson turns the phrase into the dawning of a triumph. It’s about a breakup, yes, it’s empowering, sure, but “Because of You” is equally applicable to parental neglect as romantic. “My Life Would Suck Without You” is a love song so obvious it’s practically what Sara Bareilles railed about not writing. Meanwhile, “Miss Independent” has to qualify by now as the single most misinterpreted song of Clarkson’s career and quite possibly the last 15 years. It’s been called a kiss-off and an ode to lonerdom, which makes total sense if you ignore the huge, surging chorus denouncing the title.
But Stronger has a range of, depending on how charitable you are, subjects or even just single lenses on a subject. “You Can’t Win” is more political than personal. “Dark Side” is fundamentally a love song. “You Love Me” might be the most complex of all; did its subject leave her because he said she’s not good enough, or that he‘s not? The song supports both interpretations. The thing about “What Doesn’t Kill You (Stronger), though, is that it does reward those arguments. A straightforward better-to-be-lonely anthem, it begins “the bed feels warmer sleeping here alone” (the opposite usually happens, but we’re in metaphorical territory), closes with “doesn’t mean I’m lonely when I’m alone” and deploys the phrase “me, myself and I” not to eviscerate it. She’s not coming back but coming back swinging, and it doesn’t matter whether she has someone new or not (the song suggests both); the point is being assertive.
There’s something else going on, though, as generally happens. It starts with the title. What doesn’t kill you might not make you stronger; it’s as likely to make you stronger as it is to wear you down, a blow that makes you weaker for the next. This is how sickness works, for instance–what doesn’t kill you makes your immune system weaker, makes you stand a little smaller. It’s how societies fall–what didn’t kill them made them shinier targets for armies. And it’s how people succumb to whatever’s assailing them, even if takes multiple tries. But if you’re trying for a career resurgence–or if you’re the one tracking it on the balance sheets–you must believe this. “What doesn’t kill you slowly erodes your record sales” is the last philosophy any musician or exec wants to embrace. Any setback, be it a leak, irritating tabloid story or bad review, can’t be a blow but a graceful crouch into a leap. You’ve got to believe that what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger, even if it’s just trying to force a self-fulfilling prophecy.
Knowing that, you can read “Doesn’t mean I’m lonely when I’m alone,” she sings, a comeback equally applicable to an ex or the critics she’s already addressed before in video. The same goes double for “doesn’t mean I’m over,” and quadruple for “You don’t know me” because Clarkson’s entire album is one big statement of identity. It’s not the showy sort you associate with personality-building–Ke$ha’s glitter-and-bearding, for instance, or anything Lady Gaga has ever done–which means it’s easy to misinterpret. But it’s there; Clarkson’s made a career not just out of relatability but claiming that. “Stronger” is one big, defiant statement, confirming itself by going to No. 1: Kelly’s thorns are not the best part of her.