How Kelly Clarkson Made Me Stronger

A messy breakup made me understand the greatness of pop’s least pretentious superstar.

Mike Cassese / Reuters

For a long time I could find little comfort or safety in pop music. I liked tough girls and the messed-up girls the best, because I was tough, or imagined myself to be, though I was probably just messed-up.

Like this girl:

Or these girls:

And maybe this one, too:

Then I fell in love, a real kind of love, or at least one that lasted longer than usual. Then it ended, and it was an okay ending until it was not an okay ending, and then things lingered painfully for nearly a year. What a mess.

That thing where you are sort of seeing other people but still hold hands over the table when you see each other? Do you know that thing? The occasional ill-advised drunken makeout session. You know what I’m talking about, right?

If only we had just walked away and never looked back. Why did we keep looking back? What did we think we would see?

Eventually he moved in with a new girlfriend, neglecting to tell me that he even had a girlfriend in the first place, let alone that he was moving in with her. Now I was not so tough anymore. Now I was wobbly. But still, how did I end up with Kelly Clarkson in my life? How did I end up lying on the floor of my apartment playing “Since U Been Gone” approximately five thousand times a day that spring?

It was a sneak attack, I think. That guitar riff from “Maps” was probably part of it, how that song found its way in.

Also, Ted Leo did a cover of the two songs together at the time. There were so many ways to consume it.

I lay there and listened to that song. I stared up at the ceiling. What a jerk he is, I thought. What a jerk I am…Oh my god, what a great song this is.

But ultimately it was about Kelly, clear-voiced and passionate. There was this moment I began to feel supported by her. Her music propped me up. I began to adore her.

I had always thought of her as so chipper, so unlike me. In truth, she is. She is our American Idol, and I am the girl in the corner rolling my eyes like some kind of asshole. Or at least I was.

For the record I like Angry/Saying Goodbye Kelly better than Love Song Kelly. “Stronger” was the Number One song in the country for good reason.

And “Breakaway” is just fantastic. I wish Ted Leo would cover that, too.

Her live performances are exceptional. I first saw her on tour a few years ago at the Great Allentown Fair, and that might have sealed my love for her. She is a top-notch performer: funny, and feisty, and self-deprecating, with the tiniest edge to her, and she sings like a dream. She is unpretentious, and she comes off as having really great intentions. Maybe she’s faking it. But it seems like she still feels pretty lucky to be up on stage. And we all end up feeling so happy to see her.

She does a mean cover, too. Every show, a new one, requested by her fans. (She’s super into her fans.)

I saw Kelly this summer again on tour, at Jones Beach in New York. (I sat through a Lighthouse set for her. That’s true love.) And I saw Wild Flag, too, this summer.

Both shows lifted me up. I appreciated all of their wiles no matter how subtle or broad, from Carrie Brownstein’s defiant boot on the monitor or the way Mary Timony shreds without being blatant about it, to Kelly’s rallying girl power choruses, which every audience member sang along to enthusiastically.

And they all share that same gratitude for the opportunity to perform. There is also zero condescension to the audience. I felt equally joyful after both shows, although their performances targeted different pleasure centers within me. Kelly makes me happy to be alive, and Wild Flag makes me feel like I can do anything if I put my mind to it. Half the time in this life I am just grateful for the chance to feel anything at all.

By the way, now he’s married with a kid, the internet tells me. He writes about things related to the government. On the one hand, he looks happy. On the other hand, his life would bore the shit out of me. What a great country we live in that we can all co-exist so peacefully.

Jami Attenberg’s latest novel is The Middlesteins, which you can buy here.

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