In The Ones of the ’10s, I’m reviewing every single that hit #1 on the Billboard Hot 100 in the 2010s and working my way up into the present.
Kelly Clarkson- “Stronger (What Doesn’t Kill You)”
HIT #1: February 18, 2012
STAYED AT #1: 3 weeks
In 1889, German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche published The Twilight of the Idols, his grand declaration of war on topics like reason, psychology, and theology. In it, he makes this statement, “What does not kill me makes me stronger.” Nietzsche’s work have proven to be very influential over the years. But the last thing Nietzsche probably expected his words to be the inspiration for is a generic ass #1 pop song 123 years later.
“Stronger (What Doesn’t Kill You)” came from songwriter Ali Tamposi after finding out from a friend that her boyfriend was cheating on her. From Tamposi’s account, she was not in the best mood as she was getting ready for a session with fellow songwriters Jörgen Elofsson and David Gamson. After being hysterical with her mom over the revelation and deciding not to do the session, her mom told her the Nietzsche quote as a piece of advice. Tamposi wrote the phrase down despite finding the line cheesy and saccharine.
In the studio, Tamposi, Elofsson, and Gamson came up with “Stronger” while jamming together trying to think up ideas for a song. After a few failed ideas, Tamposi brought up the line her mom told her. The other guys immediately liked the line writing the song around the phrase and cut a demo afterward.
After the demo, Elofsson recorded another version with a session singer and it was that version that made its way to Kelly Clarkson’s people. Clarkson’s A&R head liked what he heard but felt it needed more edge in the production. A new demo was recorded which got to producer Greg Kursten, working with Clarkson at the time, who overhauled the production giving “Stronger” a different beat, tempo, and chords.
By the time of “Stronger”, Clarkson had come a long way from her American Idol beginnings. (The #1 single in the US when Clarkson was born: Joan Jett & The Blackhearts’ “I Love Rock N’ Roll.”) By this point, it had been three years since her last #1, the pop-rock “My Life Would Suck Without You.” The album “My Life” came off of, 2009’s All I Ever Wanted, spawned two more Top 20 hits, “Already Gone” and “I Do Not Hook Up.” In between All I Ever Wanted and the 2011 follow up album Stronger, Clarkson made a venture into country appearing on the Jason Aldean duet “Don’t You Wanna Stay” giving her a #1 country hit and peaking at #32 on the Hot 100.
Upon listening to “Stronger,” Clarkson loved the song which led her to name her 2011 studio album after the song. She even wrote and changed up some of the lyrics. Stronger had launched with “Mr. Know It All,” a clumsily written pop/R&B diss which was nonetheless a hit peaking at #10. (It’s a 6.) But for the big hit, it was the song inspired by a German philosopher’s quote that got Clarkson back to #1 even if it’s a sweet nothing of a song.
On “Stronger”, Clarkson’s boyfriend broke up with her but there are no details about their relationship. We don’t know what happened between them. Instead, Clarkson sings from her point of view bragging to her ex how better her life is now and that their break-up has only made her stronger. This right away exposes the main problem with “Stronger,” it’s very low-stakes and uninteresting in terms of break-up songs. With Clarkson’s assured singing delivery and lack of subtext about the relationship, it doesn’t sound like she had to overcome any struggle thus removing any tension and making the premise of getting stronger from a bad situation meaningless.
Compare this to her 2004 classic “Since U Been Gone” where Clarkson actually sings about what went wrong in the relationship. And Clarkson delivers all this in an angry and burnt out delivery that shows how grateful she is to be out of an unhealthy relationship. I don’t get any of this from “Stronger.” (“Since U Been Gone” peaked at #2. It’s a 10!)
Lyrically, “Stronger” is not the type of song that gives you the impression that it was inspired by German philosophy. Instead, the song is a bunch of nothing cliches that you would hear in elementary school, “What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger/Stand a little taller/Just me, myself and I.” And some lyrics that are just weird as hell in terms of their phrasing, “You know I dream in color/Footsteps even lighter/Thanks to you, I’m not the broken-hearted.”
And it’s not like there’s much else to the song. The production is a boilerplate four-chord dance-pop nothing. Clarkson, a singer who’s capable of so much, just doesn’t get much to do here. You can tell she’s trying to give it her all with the high notes she hits but it all comes across as a big blank and doesn’t leave much of a lasting impact like the whole song. The song comes in for 3 minutes 40 seconds and evaporates after listen.
Kelly Clarkson wouldn’t get back to #1 after “Stronger.” Since 2012, she’s had only one other Top 10 hit with 2016’s “Piece By Piece” which peaked at #8. (It’s a 6.) Clarkson has remained active since. She continues to release albums. Still performs. She’s gotten married and had kids. In 2017, she went back to her singing competition roots by becoming a judge on NBC’s The Voice. And in 2019, Clarkson launched her own daytime talk show, The Kelly Clarkson Show, that is currently airing on NBC. So if you’re looking for something to watch while stuck at home check out The Kelly Clarkson Show.
BONUS BEATS: Here’s Dove Cameron and China Anne McClain covering “Stronger (What Doesn’t Kill You)” for the 2018 special Under The Sea: A Descendants Story:
THE 10S OF THE ‘10S: Snoop Dogg, Wiz Khalifa and Bruno Mars’ laidback old-school stoner anthem “Young, Wild & Free” peaked at #7 behind “Stronger (What Doesn’t Kill You).” It’s an 8.