Amid increasing suspense, layer upon layer – voice, organ, and then strings, Kelly Clarkson proclaims, “I’m always pleasing someone, honestly, now I’m done,” as her voice itself is stacked into a one-woman choir. Turns out, she’d actually been waiting a lifetime for a moment like this.
Kelly Clarkson’s new single “me” arrives after a tumultuous few years for the singer. According to Clarkson, the song represents one of the many emotions she’s experienced since separating from her ex-husband, Brandon Blackstock, in 2020.
Clarkson became a household name as the inaugural winner of American Idol’s first season, from which she ascended to superstardom via a string of hit singles and multi-platinum albums. In 2018, she made her return to TV on The Voice, and in 2019, made herself into a household staple as the host of her hugely successful daytime talk show.
However, Clarkson is still an artist – and “me,” from her forthcoming album “chemistry,” serves as an evocative reminder. It seems as though the song is the third installment in a trilogy preempted by two similarly introspective singles, her most recent top 10 hit, 2015’s “Piece By Piece,” the sequel to 2004’s “Because of You.”
Written by Clarkson at age 16 in reaction to her parents’ divorce, the young Idol had to fight for permission to include “Because of You” on her sophomore album “Breakaway.” She won, and it became the first truly personal song she had ever released – and one of her most memorable hits. The struggle to release “Because of You” marked the beginning of a decade-long battle for creative control between Clarkson and her former labels, RCA Records and 19 Recordings. Despite their reluctance to allow Clarkson creative freedom, most of her biggest singles were, in fact, songs she co-wrote. She has writing credits on 8 of her 15 biggest hits on the Billboard Hot 100.
“Because of You” remains one of her best songs because of how personally and emotionally connected she is to the lyric, and garnered Clarkson respect as an artist. The song also offers insight into her fraught relationship with her estranged father. With lyrics like “Because of you/ I find it hard to trust not only me, but everyone around me,” it established Clarkson as a young woman shattered by her broken home, and, though released 19 years ago, foreshadows “me.” It’s taken her nearly two decades to trust “me.”
However, there is one more piece to the puzzle. In 2015, Clarkson released “Piece By Piece” and referred to it as a sequel to “Because of You.” Released after the birth of her first child, Clarkson contrasts her father with her then-husband, singing, “Piece by piece, he collected me up/ Off the ground, where you abandoned things … Piece by piece, he restored my faith/ That a man can be kind and a father could stay.” The song was ripe with emotion even then, catapulting to the top 10 of the Billboard Hot 100 after she performed a tear-inducing, stripped-down version on American Idol. In 2023, listening to it post-“me” is even more emotional – but for different reasons.
On “me,” Clarkson sings, “Don’t need somebody to pick these pieces up/ I put together my broken/ Let go of the pain I’vе been holdin’/ Don’t need to need somebody/ When I got me.” It’s as though she’s alluding to both of those songs. She’s “letting go of the pain” she sings about in “Because of You.” Meanwhile, not needing “somebody to pick these pieces up” is an apparent reference to “Piece by Piece.” The latest installment is a 180 from the theme and message of its predecessors. On the first, she sounds like a damsel in distress, and on the second, she sounds swept away. With the third and perhaps final, she is finally whole.
Only one part of “Piece by Piece” still holds up today, and was always the most touching moment in the song. It’s when Clarkson abandons the co-dependent narrative, instead centering herself, singing, “I fell far from the tree/ I will never leave her like you left me/ And she will never have to wonder her worth/ ‘Cause unlike you, I’m gonna put her first,” before quickly regressing. Within the current context of Clarkson’s bitter financial battle with her ex, hearing her sing, “He never walks away/ He never asks for money/ He takes care of me/ ‘Cause he loves me,” is heartbreaking in hindsight.
Listening to both back-to-back gives “me” so much more weight. As the track crescendos, leveling up its intensity with musical and vocal layers, its message becomes more and more compelling. Singing with soulful conviction, it’s almost as if Clarkson is trying to persuade herself. Her vocals are truly better than ever – just listen to those high notes in the climax. Musically, she has the freedom to explore genres she’d previously been steered away from. For “me,” she collaborated with Atlantic labelmate and new hitmaker GAYLE (“abcdefu”) for what can best be described as a soulful, gospel-inspired pop ballad. Though “me” isn’t the best song in this nearly two-decade-spanning trilogy overall, it elevates the trio by delivering closure and inspiration.
While her last pop album, 2017’s “Meaning of Life,” was an overdue foray into R&B and soul-infused pop, it was more of an exercise in appreciation than artistic maturation. On “me” (and its A-side, “mine”), it’s clear Kelly Clarkson’s new era will be one of both personal and artistic evolution. The proof is right in the song: listen to how it builds from suppressed sadness at its start, to soaring strength in the end. Or, note the slight change of lyric for the final chorus: “Let go of the pain your hand I’ve been holdin’” – shedding the pain and dependency, because, as a wise woman (and/or Nietzche) once said, “in the end, what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.”