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10 Years, 100 Songs: #23. “Here’s the Thing…”

Posted by Andrew Unterberger on November 6, 2009

Over the final months of our fine decade, Intensities in Ten Suburbs will be sending the Naughty Oughties out in style with a series of essays devoted to the top 100 songs of the decade–the ones we will most remember as we look back fondly on this period of pop music years down the road. The archives can be found here. If you want to argue about the order, you can’t, because we’re not totally sure what the qualifications are either. Otherwise, sit back and enjoy.

And the award for “Most Unexpectedly Beloved Song of the Naughty Oughties” goes to… Nobody could’ve expected this happening at the time. After winning the inaugural season of American Idol, it seemed like singing treacly ballads like the medicore “A Moment Like This” and lukewarm teen-pop blasts like the abhorrent “Miss Independent” would be the definition of Clarkson’s post-Idol career–a career of pre-teen heroism and Adult Contemporary ownage, without ever really crossing over to any other audience of significance.  Even her first single off 2004’s Breakaway was the plodding, feel-good title track, which I actually kind of liked, but hardly probed any sort of new ground for Ms. Clarkson.  We never saw “Since U Been Gone” coming–a song which even in its use of the slangy “U” instead of “You” showed more rebellion and attitude than Clarkson had in her entire career up to that point. (Unless you considered From Justin to Kelly an act of revolution, which I guess would be fairly arguable).

Everyone liked “Since U Been Gone.” OK, not everyone–I’m sure at least one person reading this perked up at that last sentence and now can’t wait to get to the end of this article to voice their dissneting opinion. Let me spare you the time and effort: Yes, I’m sure there were a decent number of people out there who couldn’t stand the song. But with no other song this decade did I hear so many unexpected people come out in support of it–the kind where people at first only hesitantly suggest their support of it, “You know, I kind of like that Kelly Clarkson” song, until they find that enough people feel similarly that soon enough they’re screaming along to it on the radio at the top of their lungs. It was good enough to completely change the public perception of Clarkson’s career, single-handedly transforming her from Reality TV Pawn to Serious Pop Artist.

The funniest thing about “Since U Been Gone,” for me was a conversation that I had about a month before the song started to become popular. My friend had gone through some falling out with a guy she’d been seeing, but rather than acting sad or angry about it, she just seemed frustrated and irritated that the guy apparently thought he could do better than her. She wondered aloud if there was a song that vocalized her feelings, one with a “What were you possibly thinking breaking up with me? I’m way more awesome than you are!” message. I racked my brain but couldn’t really think of anything. The song didn’t exist yet. Then all of a sudden, “Since U Been Gone.” Never in my life has a song so specifically filled a pre-existing void in pop music.

Of course, it wasn’t a perfect fit. The final message of “Since U Been Gone” is less “What were you thinking? I rule!” and more “What was I thinking? You suck!” But the thing that kept it from just being the latest cheesy kiss-off girl-power song, a Max Martin-produced “I Will Survive,” is that same sense of incredulity that Clarkson expresses about the whole situation. She’s not screaming for vengeance, she’s not trying to teach anyone a lesson, she just seems kind of amused and mildly irritated about what an idiot she used to be for dating this guy, and what an idiot this guy is for leaving her. “You had your chance, you blew it.” That simple. It’s one of the most well-adjusted break-up songs in the history of pop music, really.

Tune was good, too–and surprisingly hard-nosed for a previously all-too-eager-to-please little pixie like Clarkson. Indie rock fans came around to it about as quickly as anyone, mostly for two very specific reasons–the opening guitar line kinda made it sound like an Interpol song, and the breakdown section was instantly reminiscent of a similar section in The Yeah Yeah Yeahs’ “Maps” (so much so that enterprising underground hero Ted Leo even memorably combined the two songs in a live cover medley). It’s hard to say if either or both of these recalls were intended purposefully–you’d have to ask Martin and Lukasz “Dr. Luke” Gottwald, I guess–but they were both nice musical touches, and they gave the song the sort of edge, however slight, needed to convince non-Top 40 audiences to give the song a chance.

And once they did, they were treated to one of the more expertly-assembled pop songs of our time. One of my favorite things about “Since U Been Gone” has always been the first line: “Here’s the thing–we started out friends.” Jumping in with the “Here’s the thing” intro drops you right into the action, like Kelly’s just sat you down to have a very meaningful conversation with you about this specific epiphany of hers. She teases at the chorus throughout the verses–“Yeah, yeah, since you been gone”–maybe making you think that that’s all there is to it, before jumping in full blast on the chorus. And I mean full-blast. “Since U Been Gone” uses the quiet-loud thing as expertly (and unsubtly) as any band of the grunge era did in their prime, but the chorus is more than explosive and exuberant enough to earn the obviousness of the formula. It works especially well after the second verse, where Kelly starts to drift back dangerously close to regret and self-pity (“How come I never hear you say / I just wanna be with you? / I guess you never felt that way…”), but then the chorus comes back to interrupt her train of thought and snap her back into reality: “But SINCE YOU BEEN GO-OOOONNNE!!! / I CAN BREATHE FOR THE FIRST TIME!!!

“Since U Been Gone” ended up being extremely empowering for Clarkson’s career on the whole–maybe a little too empowering, since in her resulting success, she made the perhaps-unwise move of turning her back on Clive Davis, Simon Fuller and the rest of the powers that be that had launched her to stardom, deciding that she was now artist enough to make the kind of album she really wanted. Unfortunately, My December kind of tanked, Clarkson’s ensuing megatour was a disaster, and Kells went crawling back to her old friends. The lesson: We were pleased as punch with Nu Kelly and all, but only if the songs all kind of sounded like “Since U Been Gone.” (Unsurprisingly, her 2009 comeback single, “My Life Would Suck Without You,” sounded a whole lot like SUBG, except without any of the charm and with the biggest 180-degree attitude adjustment since Destiny’s Child came out with the disturbingly subservient “Cater 2 U“).

If nothing else, “Since U Been Gone” provided all the validation that American Idol would ever need as one of the legitimately dominant forces in 00s pop music. Before SUBG, all the songs that Idol contestants released after appearing on the show were unimpressive efforts whose limited pop success was mostly just a byproduct of the show’s enormity (with the possible exception of Clay Aiken’s superbly creepy “Invisible,” likely the only Hollow Man-inspired Top 40 hit of the Naughty Oughties). After SUBG, the ex-Idolator could now just as viable a pop star outside of the show, as Chris Daughtry, Jordin Sparks and Taylor Hicks (well…maybe not so much Taylor Hicks) have all gone on to prove. They all owe Kelly Clarkson a big ol’ thank you note for blowing that door open with her indie-rock-laced statement of post-relationship superiority.

(Have any thoughts or remembrances of this song? Want to correct our lyrics or call us out for relying too much on Wikipedia? Please feel free to leave a comment here, or (gulp) Tweet us about it at twitter.com/intensities. Your input is lusted after and appreciated.)

The List So Far (Now With Links!):

100. Green Day – “Jesus of Suburbia
99. The Ying Yang Twins – “Wait (The Whisper Song)
98. Crazytown – “Butterfly
97. Taylor Swift – “Teardrops on My Guitar
96. The Fray – “Over My Head (Cable Car)
95. Fergie – “Fergalicious
94. Lidstrom – “I Feel Space
93. Chevelle – “Send the Pain Below
92. T-Pain f/ Yung Joc – “Buy U a Drank (Shawty Snappin’)
91. The Arctic Monkeys – “I Bet You Look Good on the Dancefloor
90. Cassie – “Me & U
89. Nelly Furtado – “Maneater
88. Mike Jones f/ Slim Thug & Paul Wall – “Still Tippin’
87. Bat for Lashes – “Daniel
86. The Darkness – “I Believe in a Thing Called Love
85. Dynamite Hack – “Boyz n the Hood
84. DJ Khaled f/ T.I., Rick Ross, Fat Joe, Birdman, Lil’ Wayne & Akon – “We Takin’ Over
83. Matchbox20 – “Bent
82. The Game f/ 50 Cent – “Hate It or Love It
81. 311 – “Amber
80. 3 Doors Down – “Krptonite
79. Nas – “Made You Look
78. Royksopp – “Eple
77. The Pussycat Dolls – “Don’t Cha
76. DMX – “Party Up (Up in Here)
75. Junior Senior – “Move Your Feet
74. Twista f/ Kanye West & Jamie Foxx – “Slow Jamz
73. The Streets – “Weak Become Heroes
72. Jimmy Eat World – “The Middle
71. The Yeah Yeah Yeahs – “Maps
70. Snoop Dogg f/ Pharrell – “Drop It Like It’s Hot
69. Alice DeeJay – “Better Off Alone
68. Xiu Xiu – “I Luv the Valley OH!
67. Incubus – “Stellar
66. Mariah Carey – “We Belong Together
65. Andrew W.K. – “Party Hard
64. Jurgen Paape – “So Weit Wie Noch Nie
63. Taking Back Sunday – “MakeDamnSure
62. Kid Cudi – “Day n Nite
61. Paramore – “That’s What You Get
60. System of a Down – “Toxicity
59. dNTEL f/ Ben Gibbard – “(This Is) The Dream of Evan and Chan
58. Three 6 Mafia f/ 8Ball & MJG – “Stay Fly
57. Good Charlotte – “The Anthem
56. The Lonely Island – “Lazy Sunday
55. Darude – “Sandstorm
54. Yellowcard – “Ocean Avenue
53. The Killers – “Mr. Brightside
52. Luomo – “Tessio
51. Blink-182 – “Stay Together For the Kids
50. My Chemical Romance – “I’m Not Okay (I Promise)
49. Freelance Hellraiser – “A Stroke of Genius
48. Daft Punk – “Digital Love
47. Snow Patrol – “Chasing Cars
46. Sean Paul – “Like Glue
45. Ludacris – “Stand Up
44. Britney Spears – “Toxic
43. Kings of Leon – “Sex on Fire
42. Jennifer Lopez f/ Ja Rule – “I’m Real (Remix)
41. Lifehouse – “Hanging By a Moment
40. Plain White T’s – “Hey There Delilah
39. MGMT – “Kids
38. Gym Class Heroes f/ Patrick Stump – “Cupid’s Chokehold
37. Franz Ferdinand – “Do You Want To
36. Kylie Minogue – “Can’t Get You Out of My Head
35. Vertical Horizon – “Everything You Want
34. The White Stripes – “Fell in Love With a Girl
33. Jay-Z – “Takeover
32. Maroon 5 – “This Love
31. Silversun Pickups – “Lazy Eye
30. M.I.A. – “Paper Planes
29. Timbaland f/ OneRepublic – “Apologize
28. Beyonce f/ Jay-Z – “Crazy in Love
27. Coldplay – “Yellow
26. Lil’ Wayne – “A Milli
25. Shaggy f/ Ricardo “RikRok” Ducent – “It Wasn’t Me
24. The Strokes  – “Last Night
23. Kelly Clarkson – “Since U Been Gone”

3 Responses to “10 Years, 100 Songs: #23. “Here’s the Thing…””

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  2. Speaking as a person who has more than his fair share of love for radio pop, I’ll never understand the love. I fail to see the difference between this and any Daughty track. I even blame it for enabling Daughty to push his aggressively bland music on the world. But I have come to accept that I’m in the minority.

  3. MBI said

    “Yes, I’m sure there were a decent number of people out there who couldn’t stand the song. ”

    They’re no friends of mine though!

    Part of what I love about this song is Kelly’s shock-eyed surprise at how good being dumped feels. I also think it’s a particularly ephemeral, temporary high. “Shut your mouth I just can’t take it” — this is a very fragile happiness, but also a wonderfully intense one.

    I’ve heard three songs from My December — the pretty good “Don’t Waste Your Time,” the transcendent “Sober” (which justifies the entire enterprise), and the fuck-awful lead single “Never Again,” a disaster which takes the triumphant joy of “Since U Been Gone” and turns it so acrid and nasty that it makes “You Oughta Know” sound like “Amazing Grace.” I’m convinced that Clive Davis made that song the lead single to intentionally tank the album. But seriously, listen to “Sober” sometime.

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