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.
Kelly Clarkson didn’t want to record “My Life Would Suck Without You,” the song that became her second #1 hit. Clarkson had big problems with one of her collaborators on the track, and she only recorded it because her label gave her no other options. All sorts of ugly, intense behind-the-scenes issues went into the creation of “My Life Would Suck Without You.” Musically, though, the song only has one real problem: It’s not “Since U Been Gone.”
To be fair, most songs are not “Since U Been Gone.” Most songs are nowhere near to being “Since U Been Gone.” “Since U Been Gone” is a pop-music miracle, a runaway emotional steamroller. Anytime “Since U Been Gone” plays, the atmosphere around the speaker charges. “Since U Been Gone” belongs to no genre, and that means that it belongs to everybody. Kelly Clarkson didn’t write “Since U Been Gone,” but nobody else could’ve sung the song like that.
“My Life Would Suck Without You” is a distant echo of “Since U Been Gone.” Max Martin and Dr. Luke, the writers and producers of “Since U Been Gone,” are also the parties primarily responsible for “My Life Would Suck Without You,” and they weren’t shy about repeating themselves. The two songs have the same instrumentation, the same structure, the same basic feel. “My Life Would Suck Without You” inverts the lyrical standpoint of “Since U Been Gone” to the point where one song could be the post-reconciliation sequel to the other. And while “My Life Would Suck” never ascends to the same heights as “Since U Been Gone,” it’s still close enough to kick serious ass. Maybe more songs should sound almost exactly like “Since U Been Gone.”
“Since U Been Gone” remains one of the defining songs of the ’00s. When “Since U Been Gone” came out in 2005, it peaked at #2, with 50 Cent’s “Candy Shop” unfortunately keeping it from achieving what should’ve been its destiny. Even without reaching #1, “Since U Been Gone” was a watershed. It rescued Kelly Clarkson from her American Idol backstory. It reinvented Max Martin, the late-’90s teen-pop mastermind who became the new century’s dominant songwriting voice. It introduced Dr. Luke, an infamous figure who went on to make a whole lot of hits. Finally, “Since U Been Gone” paved the way for a whole generation of rock-leaning centrist pop music, a shiny and computerized hybrid that hadn’t really existed until that song. (“Since U Been Gone” is a 10, obviously.)
Kelly Clarkson didn’t want to record “Since U Been Gone,” either. After she won the first season of American Idol and reached #1 with her coronation song “A Moment Like This,” Clarkson had her own ideas about what she wanted to sing. As a result of that Idol win, Clarkson was put under the tutelage of Clive Davis, a music-industry legend whose ideas on how to make and sell pop music did not align with Clarkson’s artistic ambitions. Kelly Clarkson wanted to write her own songs. Clive Davis wanted her to make hits. It became a problem.
Clarkson did reasonably well with her R&B-leaning 2003 debut Thankful, but there was room for improvement. On her 2005 sophomore LP Breakaway, Clarkson figured out a sound that was more singer-songwritery, more connected to guitar-rock. Clive Davis liked the way that the album was shaping up, but he didn’t think it had the monster hits that it needed. So Clive pressured Kelly Clarkson to work with Max Martin, a proven hitmaker, and his new protege Dr. Luke. Together, Martin and Luke wrote “Since U Been Gone,” and they also got together with Clarkson to write “Behind These Hazel Eyes,” another post-breakup rager that became a hit. (“Behind These Hazel Eyes” peaked at #6. It’s a 9.)
Kelly Clarkson went in a less overtly pop direction on “Because Of You,” a stormy and angry ballad directed at her absent father. Clarkson co-wrote that song with Evanescence guys Ben Moody and David Hodges, and it meant a lot to her. When she brought the song to Clive Davis, he hated it. After Clive wrote about his clashes with Clarkson in his memoir, Clarkson shot back in a post on her website. Clive wrote that Clarkson cried in his office when she told him that she didn’t want “Since U Been Gone” and “Behind These Hazel Eyes” on her album. Clarkson said that this wasn’t true, and she continued:
But yes, I did cry in his office once. I cried after I played him a song I had written about my life called “Because Of You.” I cried because he hated it and told me verbatim that I was “a shitty writer who should be grateful for the gifts that he bestows upon me.” He continued on about how the song didn’t rhyme and how I should just shut up and sing. This was devastating coming from a man who I, as a young girl, considered a musical hero and was so honored to work with. But I continued to fight for the song, and the label relented. And it became a worldwide hit. He didn’t include that in the book.
Kelly Clarkson’s blog post is long gone; I got that paragraph from John Seabrook’s great 2015 book The Song Machine. Clarkson was right; “Because Of You” was a hit, though not quite as big a hit as “Since U Been Gone” or “Behind These Hazel Eyes.” (“Because Of You” peaked at #7; it’s a 9.) Thanks to those hits and a few more, Breakaway went platinum six times over. It was a total blockbuster. By that point, it was clear that an American Idol victory was no guarantee of pop success. The show struck gold again with Carrie Underwood, but Breakaway was the moment that Kelly Clarkson transcended her origins and emerged as a generational pop figure.
After that success, Kelly Clarkson figured that she’d proven herself. Clarkson followed Breakaway with 2007’s My December, the singer-songwriter album that she’d really wanted to make that whole time. Clarkson co-wrote every song on My December, spurning big-name collaborators and recording with her touring band. Clive Davis fought her on the album, pressuring her to record material that was less angry and more pop-friendly. But Clarkson released the album that she wanted, and that album flopped.
My December still went platinum. Worldwide, though, it sold one tenth as many copies as Breakaway. Lead single “Never Again” made it to #8, but none of the album’s other singles charted. (“Never Again” is an 8.) RCA didn’t seem especially eager to promote My December, and that probably had something to do with its rough landing, but the numbers were still damning. Clarkson cancelled her tour, fired her manager, and eventually made the record that Clive Davis wanted her to make. In the process, Clarkson did the one thing that she really didn’t want to do: She worked with Dr. Luke again.
The Dr. Luke thing will come up again and again in this column. Some artists, like Katy Perry, have worked with Luke multiple times, and they’ve never had anything bad to say about him. But plenty of women have flat-out refused to have anything to do with Luke even after making successful records with him. Luke’s onetime protege Kesha will soon appear in this column, and she later accused Luke of all sorts of abuses. After those allegations, Kelly Clarkson said, “He didn’t do anything like that with me, but I’m not a fan. Like, I’m not gonna barbecue [with him] anytime soon.” She’d had a bad experience working with Luke, and she didn’t want to do it again. She later said that she agreed to make one song with Luke and Martin because she thought her label would never release her album if she didn’t give in to its demands.
Immediately after “Since U Been Gone,” Dr. Luke and Max Martin wrote more songs with Kelly Clarkson in mind. One of those songs was “My Life Would Suck Without You,” and you can totally tell. “My Life Would Suck” opens with precise guitar clicks, just like “Since U Been Gone.” Like “Since U Been Gone,” its opening lyric is something that Kelly might say when she’s mid-conversation. (On “Since U Been Gone”: “Here’s the thing, we started off friends.” On “My Life Would Suck”: “Guess this means you’re sorry.”) Like “Since U Been Gone,” “My Life Would Suck” has a deliberate, mathematical build — guitars and keyboards and drum machines hitting pleasure centers with precise efficiency. And like “Since U Been Gone,” “My Life Would Suck” explodes into an absolute juggernaut of a chorus that nobody else on the planet could sing the way that Kelly Clarkson sings it.
To hear Clarkson tell it, “My Life Would Suck Without You” was nowhere near ready when Max Martin and Dr. Luke first presented her with the track. The lyrics were all wrong. They were awkward and fake-edgy, and there was a line about smoking weed that didn’t even make sense. Clarkson worked with Claude Kelly, the Berklee-schooled songwriter who’d co-written Britney Spears’ “Circus,” to rework “My Life Would Suck.” (“Circus,” another Dr. Luke production, peaked at #3. It’s an 8. Claude Kelly’s work will appear in this column again.) Clarkson didn’t even want to speak directly to Dr. Luke, and Claude Kelly had to work as a kind of go-between.
Somehow, though, everyone got “My Life Would Suck Without You” to the point where they could live with the song. In a 2017 interview with Z100, Clarkson said that she decided not to take a writing credit on “My Life Would Suck Without You,” even though she’d done enough work on the song to earn one. That decision cost her a lot of money, but she just didn’t want to see her name next to Dr. Luke’s:
Basically, they were going to sit on my record unless I did what they wanted. And I was so frustrated ’cause I literally said anyone in the world but this one person. I will work with anyone you want to put in my path. I love people. I think that’s apparent. I think I’m a nice person. But I had not a good experience with him. It was one thing, and they just wouldn’t even give it to me…
They brought up writing credit at the end ’cause they were like, “Well, you changed the song.” And I was like, “I don’t want my name near his. I want to pretend this didn’t happen in my life, and I want to forget it.”… This is how much I didn’t want to do this. I don’t care about the money.
Over the grand arc of pop history, that kind of power struggle comes up all the time. Sometimes, it results in a great song. That’s what happened here. Somehow, just about everyone came out ahead. Kelly Clarkson landed her biggest hit in years, and she put her career back on track after My December and its cold reception. Max Martin and Dr. Luke added another hit to their fast-growing catalog. And the rest of us got to hear “My Life Will Suck Without You,” which is a great fucking song.
The “Since U Been Gone” formula still works beautifully even when the song in question isn’t a post-breakup fuck-you. On “My Life Would Suck Without You,” Kelly Clarkson’s narrator has gotten through a bad fight, or maybe even a breakup, with someone. That person has said some terrible things to Clarkson: “Like how much you wanted anyone but me/ Said you’d never come back, but here you are again.” (Those lyrics don’t actually rhyme, and maybe that doesn’t bother Clive Davis when Max Martin is the one writing the song. A lot of the lines from “My Life Will Suck” look awkward on paper, but they work when Kelly Clarkson is singing them.)
The lyrics of Max Martin songs often come off as if they’re written by aliens. English is not Martin’s first language, and he cares way more about how a lyrics sounds than what it means. But I like the directness of “My Life Would Suck Without You,” the lack of artifice. Sometimes, that’s the realest way to say that you love someone. You know that you’d fall apart without this one person, and you have a pretty good idea that this person would fall apart without you. You’re both messes, but for reasons that you never quite understand, your bullshit complements this other person’s bullshit. “My Life Would Suck Without You” captures that desperate attachment and even makes it sound romantic.
At the time, Kelly Clarkson said that “My Life Would Suck Without You” was her step away from the “boy-bashing” of her previous songs. On “My Life Would Suck,” the relationship still has its problems: “I know that I’ve got issues, but you’re pretty messed up, too.” These people are still drawn together, and they still make each other happy — or, at least, they keep each other afloat. Clarkson never sings that her life with this person is a magical dream. But she puts the awe-inspiring force of her voice into belting out the chorus: “My life! Would suck! Withouuuuut you!”
That chorus. Holy shit. What the hell. It shouldn’t work the way that it does. The phrase “my life would suck without you” should not work as a life-affirming pledge of devotion. But when the chorus hits, the synths come crashing in like wrecking balls, and Kelly Clarkson’s voice roars into overdrive: “Cause we belonnnng togetttthhhher now! Yeah! Forever united here somehowwwww! Yeah!” These motherfuckers just knew what they were doing. This fizzy and redundant ditty explodes when that chorus comes in. It jams the adrenaline needle into your heart. When “My Life Would Suck Without You” comes on the car radio, I feel an overwhelming urge to mash the gas pedal and fly off into oblivion. It’s not an intellectual response. It might not even be emotional. It’s physical. It’s chemical. Maybe it’s sorcery. That shit just works on me.
It’s not just the songwriting, though the songwriting has that Scandinavian gleam. It’s not the production, either, though I like the production a lot. There’s no band on “My Life Would Suck Without You”; it’s just Max Martin on guitar and keyboard and Dr. Luke on bass and drum programming. Once again, those guys find some ideal combination of new wave and classic rock and teen-pop and big-room dance music — chemicals that combine to form some universal version of pop music. Still, if anyone other than Kelly Clarkson were to sing the song, it wouldn’t work the same. Clarkson has the power and the personality to make that thing visceral and tangible.
Plenty of Kelly Clarkson’s contemporaries have big voices: Pink, Christina Aguilera, Lady Gaga. But none of them have that sense of otherworldly urgency. None of them quite convey the idea that they would die if they didn’t roar out this song right now. Clarkson’s performance on “My Life Would Suck Without You” calls back to the ’80s, when big-voiced rockers like Pat Benatar and Ann Wilson were wailing power ballads over keyboards and dance-adjacent beats. But Benatar and Heart never got to work with the crisp, airless production that Max Martin brings to the table. There’s just no substitute for that.
Kelly Clarkson never worked with Max Martin or Dr. Luke again after “My Life Would Suck Without You.” Those guys had plenty more success without her; we’ll see their work in this column many more times. None of the other singles from Clarkson’s album All I Ever Wanted made the top 10, though she got a few more minor hits out of the record. “I Do Not Hook Up” was a song that was supposed to go to Katy Perry, another Max Martin/Dr. Luke collaborator, before she got dropped from her Columbia contract. When Columbia shelved Perry’s album, Clarkson recorded “I Do Not Hook Up,” and Perry got a writing credit. (The same thing happened with a couple of previous Clarkson hits — the Christina Aguilera castoff “Miss Independent,” the Avril Lavigne outtake “Breakway.”) In Clarkson’s hands, “I Do Not Hook Up” made it to #20.
Kelly Clarkson worked with OneRepublic leader and “Bleeding Love” writer/producer Ryan Tedder on “Already Gone,” another of the singles from All I Ever Wanted. That song made it to #13, and it came out at the same time as another Ryan Tedder song that sounded very similar. Kelly Clarkson was furious when she heard Beyoncé’s “Halo” because she thought that Tedder had essentially sold both her and Beyoncé the same track. She figured that people would assume she’d ripped off Beyoncé. (“Already Gone” peaked at #13, while “Halo” made it to #5. It’s an 8.) Clarkson never worked with Tedder again, either.
Clearly, Kelly Clarkson was not very happy in the Clive Davis system. But Clarkson was still making great songs, and some of those great songs were hits. Those hits kept coming even after Kelly Clarkson stopped working with Clive Davis. We’ll see her in this column again.