Thursday, March 4, 2010

Kelly Clarkson, "Behind These Hazel Eyes"

Song: "Behind These Hazel Eyes"
Artist: Kelly Clarkson
Album: Breakaway
Written by: Kelly Clarkson/Martin Sandberg/Lukasz Gottwald
Year: 2004
Key: F#m
Classification: SF1
Lyrical content: it's none of your business what a wreck I currently am because of you; since u been gone, I've been struggling, actually
Where used: verse, chorus

I like Kelly Clarkson. It took me a good long while to come to grips with this fact. The only time I watched American Idol during the first season was the final performance episode out of sheer curiosity, and just about the only thing I took from it was how much I loathed "A Moment Like This" and "Before Your Love." (Little did I know that those would be the high water marks of Idol coronation songs.) So I more or less missed the entire first wave of Clarksonmania, which meant that by the time I'd finally succumbed to the numbing opiate of Idol and came across her performance of "Since U Been Gone" on the Kelly, Ruben & Fantasia: Home for Christmas special (which was, if not the debut of the song, at least very, very close to it), I wasn't quite prepared for the shock of realizing that I... I liked this song. A song by an American Idol winner. It was so unthinkable that I actually had a conversation months later with a friend where I laid out my internal struggle – my genuine struggle – over the fact that I really wanted to buy Breakaway despite the fact that I could never, ever allow myself to do so. She rightly told me to get over myself, and I broke down and purchased the thing, at which point I cursed the snobbery that had kept me at arm's length from a terrific pop album by someone who has proven herself to be a terrific pop singer.

I don't think there's any disputing that point these days. When even a die-hard indie DIYer like Ted Leo unapologetically (and unironically) covers Clarkson in concert, you know that the old knee-jerk rules stating that Idol and all it touches is anathema to art (or at least quality pop) no longer apply. "Behind These Hazel Eyes" covers the same theme as "Since U Been Gone" – she was in love, she was wronged, her independence is her vindication – but there's a rawness just underneath her defiance. Unlike in "Since U Been Gone," she's been shattered by the experience and is trying to put herself back together again, though she'll be damned if she lets him see that.

The difference is evident in the music, too. While "Since U Been Gone" pings, chugs and ultimately explodes in triumph, "Behind These Hazel Eyes" slams and grinds. When Clarkson howls, it's not out of liberation (she may have let the guy go, but she's far from free) but out of frustration: she's insisting on controlling the narrative of the breakup even as her own roiling emotions threaten to undermine what she's desperately trying to present to her ex and the world. (Both lyrically and musically, the song is the clearest anticipation of the emotional exorcism of My December, Clarkson's fatally flawed but still unfairly maligned followup.) Her anguish is supported not only by the SFCP but by the way it's used. The verse is ambiguous, hinting at the SFCP but never quite offering enough information to be sure until the bass comes in and locks it down, and the bulk of the chorus is a cathartic rush of power chords, a tough but measured glare that seems to lay Clarkson's cards on the table. Then comes the hook at end of the chorus, where the SFCP remains but the rhythm fractures, pouring out at an unfettered skip as she reveals the one thing that she's been trying so hard to keep hidden.

Full song: Kelly Clarkson, "Behind These Hazel Eyes"
Listen to the SFCP clip for this song