The Number Ones

February 18, 2012

The Number Ones: Kelly Clarkson’s “Stronger (What Doesn’t Kill You)”

Stayed at #1:

3 Weeks

In The Number Ones, I’m reviewing every single #1 single in the history of the Billboard Hot 100, starting with the chart’s beginning, in 1958, and working my way up into the present. Book Bonus Beat: The Number Ones: Twenty Chart-Topping Hits That Reveal the History of Pop Music.

Kelly Clarkson was there from the beginning. She was there from the beginnings of a few different things, and one of them was the form of hyper-processed, mathematically precise, post-genre turbo-pop that took over the Billboard Hot 100 for a good chunk of this century. This was not Kelly Clarkson’s intention. She was not the architect of this sound, and she was a mostly-unwilling participant in it. Clarkson famously hated Dr. Luke, one of the people who really was the architect of that sound, and she had no interest in recording “Since U Been Gone,” the Luke/Max Martin song that turned her from reality-show refugee to platinum-plated pop monster. But Clarkson caved and recorded “Since U Been Gone,” and the song became the berserk masterpiece that rewrote the rules for 21st-century pop. (I’ve already said it a bunch of times, but I’ll say it again: “Since U Been Gone” peaked at #2. It’s a 10.)

In the years after “Since U Been Gone,” that song’s formula warped and adapted to a changing landscape. Max Martin and Dr. Luke took its vrooming, explosive glam-rock howl and added in various different clubby genres, tweaking the format for whatever singer they were working with at the time. In the process, they become dominant behind-the-scenes figures. Kelly Clarkson, on the other hand, tried to move in a more singer-songwriter direction, and this brought her into bitter conflict with Clive Davis, the record-label boss who helped shape her career. Clarkson was adamant that she never wanted to work with Dr. Luke again, but she once again gave in to record-label pressure, and the resulting single “My Life Would Suck Without You” became her second #1 hit.

Late in 2011, a series of corporate mergers finally pushed Clive Davis out of power at RCA Records. For the first time, Kelly Clarkson was able to make a record without constantly butting heads with people at her label. Nobody was going to force her to work with Dr. Luke, partly because the guy who constantly demanded that she work with Dr. Luke wasn’t around anymore. Clarkson was nearing the end of her RCA deal, and she had enough goodwill and credibility that the new RCA regime trusted her instincts. And anyway, a whole lot of other people were making Dr. Luke-esque pop records at that point. Kelly Clarkson didn’t have to get anywhere Luke to make a banger like that.

“Stronger (What Doesn’t Kill You),” Kelly Clarkson’s third and for-now final Hot 100 chart-topper, isn’t the best Kelly Clarkson song, but it might be the most Kelly Clarkson song. If someone told you that “Stronger” was a Dr. Luke production, it would be easy to believe them; the track has the same kind of booming zero-subtlety crunch as his Clarkson collabs. But “Stronger” also has a fists-up emancipation message, and its attitude is key to the whole Kelly Clarkson project. (Plenty of actual Dr. Luke songs have that same message, but work with me here.) “Stronger” is very much a song of its era, but simple resonance has kept the song around. By some metrics, it’s the biggest hit of Clarkson’s whole career. She didn’t make the song on her own, but she did make it without her constant tormenters. Maybe that whole experience made her stronger.

For a minute there, it looked like Kelly Clarkson might go country. She certainly flirted with the idea. It would’ve made sense. Clarkson is from Texas, and she’s got the sort of approachable charm that does major business in Nashville. Around 2010, plenty of other former mainstream pop stars were migrating to Nashville, and a guy like Hootie And The Blowfish’s Darius Rucker has built a whole second career out of that shift. When Kelly Clarkson fired her manager in 2007, she hired Narvel Blackstock, then-husband of Nashville legend Reba McIntire. Kelly and Reba recorded a country version of Kelly’s “Because Of You” that did well on country radio. The country lane was open for her, and it must’ve looked pretty inviting.

In 2010, Kelly Clarkson and the country star Jason Aldean released their duet “Don’t You Wanna Stay,” which went to #1 on the country chart and reached #31 on the Hot 100. (Jason Aldean, I regret to report, will eventually appear in this column.) Clarkson also talked up the country influence on Stronger, the album that she released in October 2011. Stronger isn’t even remotely a country record, and Clarkson recorded it with a whole cast of pop-machine professionals, including Rihanna collaborator Ester Dean, who co-wrote lead single “Mr. Know-It-All.” But that song isn’t exactly a club banger, and RCA commissioned a country remix that went to #21 on the country charts. On the Hot 100, “Mr. Know-It-All” did a little better, peaking at #10. (It’s a 6.)

“Mr. Know-It-All” sounds big, but it’s not an anthem. Kelly Clarkson does best when she’s wailing out anthems, and that’s what she did with “Stronger (What Doesn’t Kill You),” the second single from the Stronger album. To make that song, Clarkson worked with a fascinating cast of characters, most of whom had been working in the pop-music system for a long time. One of them was around when Kelly Clarkson was just getting started.

Kelly Clarkson’s first #1 hit was her debut single: “A Moment Like This,” the big but forgettable coronation song that she belted out immediately after winning the first season of American Idol. One of that song’s writers was Jörgen Elofsson, a veteran of Cheiron Studios, the same Stockholm hit factory that gave us Max Martin. At Cheiron, Elofsson worked on some of Britney Spears’ earliest hits. Once the Cheiron braintrust broke up, Elofsson made a bunch of hits with Westlife, the Irish boy band who were hugely popular in the UK for a time, and with Simon Cowell’s whole reality-show machine. That’s what brought him to American Idol and Kelly Clarkson. After “A Moment Like This,” Elofsson worked with people like Céline Dion and Jennifer Lopez, but he didn’t land another big American hit until he reconnected with Kelly Clarkson.

Jörgen Elofsson was one of the writers behind “Stronger,” and the song came together at a session in an LA studio. The studio belonged to David Gamson, another industry professional whose career looks like a long, unlikely journey. Gamson comes from New York, but after studying music in college and releasing an arch dance version of the Archies’ “Sugar, Sugar,” Gamson joined the conceptual British post-punk band Scritti Politti. With Gamson on board, Scritti Politti became significantly sleeker, poppier, and more successful. Gamson co-wrote and co-produced Scritti Politti’s biggest US hit, 1985’s “Perfect Way,” which peaked at #11. Good song!

As Scritti Politti wound down, David Gamson got himself a staff A&R/producer job at Warner Bros., and he worked with people like Chaka Khan, Luther Vandross, and extremely late-period Miles Davis. He also produced the first two Meshell Ndegeocello albums and helped an unsigned young Kesha develop her demos. (He ended up producing a couple of tracks on her debut album Animal.) Kelly Clarkson’s “Stronger” came from a Jörgen Elofsson/David Gamson songwriting session at Gamson’s studio, but the person with the idea for the song was the one who’d only just arrived in the business.

Palm Beach native Ali Tamposi, granddaughter of a real estate baron, moved out to LA with the specific intention of becoming a songwriter, and she got her first break when she worked on Beyoncé’s 2008 deep cut “Save The Hero.” Tamposi, whose work will appear in this column again, was still mostly unknown when she went to the session at David Gamson’s studio, and she was not having a good day. Later, Tamposi told American Songwriter, “I was in the worst mood I’ve ever been in. My boyfriend at the time had not been answering any of my calls, and one of my friends told me that they had seen him out with another girl. I was so freaking pissed off.” On the way to the session, Tamposi was on the phone with her mom, telling her that she couldn’t even stand to try to work on that day. Tamposi’s mother told her that whatever doesn’t kill her makes her stronger.

This was not an original insight. Friedrich Nietzsche wrote the maxim “that which does not kill us makes us stronger” in his 1888 book Twilight Of The Idols, and then that phrase inspired two different #1 hits more than a century later. Kelly Clarkson’s “Stronger” came after Kanye West’s “Stronger,” but the sentiment of both songs has the same source. For a proto-fascistic theorist who died in an insane asylum after a syphilis-induced nervous breakdown, Nietzsche had a real knack for a catchy phrase. If he’d been born much later, the guy could’ve had a career in the music business.

That “that which doesn’t kill us” line is the kind of wisdom that you really only use when you don’t know what else to say, but it had its intended effect and then some. Tamposi says, “I typed it in my notes, the whole time thinking to myself ‘Ugh, this is cheesy, Jörgen is not gonna like it.'” But after Jörgen Elofsson shot down a bunch of Tamposi’s other proposed song concepts, he loved the “Stronger” idea. The trio put the track together quickly and recorded a demo. The demo made its way to publishers and A&R people before Kelly Clarkson heard it and loved it.

Kelly Clarkson took “Stronger” to a producer who was on his way to becoming very important. Greg Kurstin grew up in LA, studied jazz in college, and formed the band Geggy Tah in 1994. David Byrne signed Geggy Tah to his Luaka Bop label, and they had a minor alt-rock hit with their skittery, playful traffic-themed 1996 single “Whoever You Are.” I hated that song. Geggy Tah faded away, but Kurstin made connects in the LA music world, and he formed the vaguely successful alt-pop duo the Bird And The Bee with singer Inara George in 2006. (Kurstin is the Bee.) Around the same time, Kurstin started producing for people like Lily Allen and future Number Ones artist Sia. When Kelly Clarkson’s people heard “Stronger,” they figured that it needed to be a little edgier, so they brought it to Kurstin. I don’t look at Greg Kurstin and think “edgy,” but I’m not a music-business person. Down the line, we’ll see more of Kurstin in this column.

Greg Kurstin reworked the “Stronger” demo, speeding it up a bit and adding a few musical accents. Kelly Clarkson messed around with the lyrics, adding the line about dreaming in color. Both Kurstin and Clarkson got songwriting credits on the final track. “Stronger” does sound like the product of backroom machination, but I don’t think that diminishes the song.

“Stronger” belongs to the same souped-up ultra-pop genre as a whole lot of other early-’10 pop hits, and that’s not a complaint. “Stronger” sound a bit like arena-rock, with its big, surging power chords. But there’s also a bit of hip-swaying disco in the groove — I associate the rubbery little bass notes with Daft Punk — and a ton of synthpop and EDM in the mechanized boom of its synths and drums. Kelly Clarkson knows how to deliver over a track like that, and she uses her voice the same way she did on her Dr. Luke tracks — sassy and conversational rasp on the verses, uncorked explosive howling on the choruses. There are very few people in human history who can sing a song like that better than prime Kelly Clarkson. When she’s singing, you can hear the formula working, and the formula feels good.

Kelly Clarkson delivers “Stronger” from the perspective of someone who’s ditched an ex and who now wants to rub their face in it. When she hits that hook, Clarkson turns into an avenging angel: “What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger! Stand a little taller! Doesn’t mean I’m lonely when I’m alone!” The way she sings it, “Stronger” isn’t about the ex. It’s about the person singing — finding power and transcendence through struggle, refusing to give up on herself. That generic empowerment message was all over that era’s pop hits, but there’s a reason why that stuff resonated the way it did.

The “Stronger” YouTube comments don’t have too much of the “no Auto-Tune, just pure talent” sentiment that you see under so many slightly outmoded pop videos. Instead, it’s got a litany of cancer survivors and recovering addicts describing their own struggles. When you’re going through some shit, a song like “Stronger,” sharply written and delivered with conviction, can make a difference. Those YouTube commenters listened to “Stronger” and heard something that they could use. I’m guessing that overcome-your-struggle ferocity is also one of the reasons that “Stronger” has served as a gay-club staple over the years.

“Stronger” is cliché as all hell. It’s predictable and mechanical. It’s got the diminishing-returns problem — Kelly Clarkson doing another version of a thing that she’d done better before. But holy shit, that song works. I don’t think it’s anywhere near Clarkson’s best single, but its force is undeniable. I’ve never been in the situation where I heard “Stronger” at a moment when I needed it, but that just means I’ve been lucky. I can easily picture how this song would hit if I heard it in a low moment.

“Stronger” has lasted, but its video is forever mired in the eternal 2011. It’s in love with the brief and obnoxious flashmob fad. Clarkson invited fans to send in their own dance videos, and the final product mixes crisp, gleaming shots of Clarkson and her band with murky camera-phone footage of randos awkwardly shuffling through a few choreographed steps. At the video’s end, Clarkson herself joins a fake flashmob, coming off less as a giant global pop icon and more as a slightly tipsy elementary school teacher at a staff Christmas party. It’s so chintzy, and I’m not even a tiny bit mad at it.

“Stronger” ultimately became Kelly Clarkson’s last truly massive hit. The song has gone platinum seven times over. None of the other songs from her Stronger album really connected; “Catch My Breath,” its next-biggest hit, peaked at #19. The album still went platinum, as did Clarkson’s follow-up, the 2013 Christmas record Wrapped In Red. Her big holiday song “Underneath The Tree” has become a seasonal perennial, racking up almost as many Spotify streams as “Since U Been Gone” and “Because Of You” and “Stronger.” In 2021, after Christmas songs came to dominate the chart for a month every year, “Underneath The Tree” peaked at #12. Right now, the song is back on the Hot 100, sitting at #17. It’s hard to make a new Christmas standard, but Kelly Clarkson might’ve pulled it off.

Over the past decade, the chart-pop mainstream has moved away from Kelly Clarkson. She’s kept recording, but her records haven’t been anywhere near as commercially dominant. Since “Stronger,” Clarkson has only landed one more top-10 hit. (2015’s “Piece By Piece” peaked at #8. It’s a 7.) But Clarkson has arguably been way, way more successful than most of her millennial pop peers. Even as her chart fortunes flagged, Clarkson maintained her visibility. She made big appearances, like when she sang at Barack Obama’s second inauguration. She also stayed in the tabloids. Her manager’s son became her manager and then husband, and then they had a nasty public divorce that went on for a long time. (He seems like a real shithead.) Mostly, though, Kelly Clarkson has stayed famous by staying on television.

Gradually, Kelly Clarkson returned to singing-competition TV, the format that birthed her. She had stints as a judge on Duets and a coach on The Voice, and she was a natural. Her ebullient charm was always just as important to her success as her colossal voice. That charm is how she got her own TV show. In 2019, Kelly Clarkson began hosting The Kelly Clarkson Show, a daily daytime program, and it instantly became clear that this is what she was born to do.

Kelly Clarkson is such a treat on that show, and she’s got such a gift for comfort-food bits and softball-question interviews. She always comes off as a genuinely nice and normal person — no mean feat for someone who’s been famous for as long as her. Maybe Clarkson, like a few other daytime-show hosts I could name, will turn out to be a preening, dictatorial psychopath when it’s all said and done, but that’s not the vibe I get from her. The vibe I get is: This person would be a great friend. Best of all, Clarkson opens each episode by singing a different song — sometimes one of her own, but usually a cover. You never know when you’ll glance at your feed and encounter Kelly Clarkson singing Blink-182 or Bloc Party. It’s a gift.

Kelly Clarkson kept her show going through the pandemic, where she taped from home while singing remotely with her band and dealing with her divorce. These days, she’s still doing that show while cycling through prime-time hosting gigs, Vegas residencies, and occasional solo records that don’t come anywhere near the charts. She’s become one of those superhuman celebrities who seem to be everywhere all the time — the Seacrest types who must never sleep. I’m always happy to see her. Clarkson might stage some massive chart comeback at some point, or she might not; she’ll be successful either way. She’s got it figured out.

GRADE: 7/10

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BONUS BEATS: Here’s Fifth Harmony covering “Stronger” on the American X Factor in 2012, when they were still in their own singing-show-contestant era:

(Fifth Harmony’s highest-charting single, the 2016 Ty Dolla $ign collab “Work From Home,” peaked at #4. It’s a 10. Camila Cabello will eventually appear in this column with a couple of songs that Ali Tamposi had a hand in writing.)

BONUS BONUS BEATS: I was thinking about this, and I’m pretty sure Miranda Lambert, another former singing-show contestant, is my favorite country singer of all time. Her only real competitors are Taylor Swift and Waylon Jennings, and at least one of that pair really challenges the definition of “country singer.” Miranda Lambert does not. In any case, here’s fan footage of Miranda Lambert and Kelly Clarkson singing “Stronger” together at a Lambert show in 2012:

(Miranda Lambert’s highest-charting Hot 100 hit, the 2014 Carrie Underwood duet “Somethin’ Bad,” peaked at #19. Along with her group Pistol Annies, Lambert also guested on her then-husband Blake Shelton’s “Boys ‘Round Here,” which peaked at #12 in 2013.)

BONUS BONUS BONUS BEATS: Here’s Dove Cameron and China Anne McClain covering “Stronger” in some kind of Descendants-related Disney musical-number short in 2018:

(Dove Cameron’s first Hot 100 hit, 2022’s “Boyfriend,” peaked at #16. China Anne McClain’s highest-charting single, the 2017 Thomas Doherty/Dylan Playfair Descendants 2 situation “What’s Ny Name,” peaked at #61. In those Descendants movies, Dove Cameron plays Sleeping Beauty villain Maleficent’s daughter, while China Anne McClain is the offspring of sea witch Ursula. Disney-kid culture is absolutely fucking deranged.)

BONUS BONUS BONUS BONUS BEATS: Here’s Kelly Clarkson covering Kelly Clarkson’s “Stronger” on The Kelly Clarkson Show. Just kidding.

THE 10S: Tyga’s icy, minimalist Mustardwave strip-club hiss-thump “Rack City” peaked at #7 behind “Stronger.” 10 city, bitch, 10 10 city bitch.

The Number Ones: Twenty Chart-Topping Hits That Reveal The History Of Pop Music is out now on paperback via Hachette Books. It won’t kill you. Buy it here.

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