I got some pretty great gifts this past Christmas, but by far the coolest one came from Jenn: a copy of the 1994 CD Earthquake Visions, by Swedish pop-metal band It’s Alive. You have never heard of this CD or this band, because no one has. I confess: Before tearing the wrapping off this gift, I had never heard of them either. But once I got a good look at the CD itself, I could not have been happier.
You see, the vocalist from It’s Alive is a guy called Martin White—of whom you have also never heard. But Martin White would go on to leave It’s Alive a year after the release of Earthquake Visions, change his name to Max Martin and write or co-write a few hundred of the biggest songs in modern popular music: “…Baby One More Time”; “I Want It That Way”; “U + UR Hand”; “I Kissed a Girl”…
I’ve mentioned before, both here and in many conversations, that I am a huge fan of Martin’s work, so to get this odd glimpse into the nascent career of a personal hero was both revelatory and touching. The music itself is nothing special—at best, it contains hints of the writer Martin would eventually become—but it helps me better understand a largely unknown and very reclusive artist whose music has served as the soundtrack to American life for the past decade and a half.
Along those same lines, there was a recent episode of Sundance Channel’s Iconoclasts focusing on decrepit music-biz mogul Clive Davis, and during the episode, one of Martin’s writing partners, Lukasz “Dr. Luke” Gottwald was interviewed. Gottwald talked about the pair’s songwriting process, noting that they frequently “tailor the lyrics specifically” for the artist for whom they are writing. As Gottwald was talking, he was playing an early demo of the new song “My Life Would Suck Without You,” which he and Martin wrote for Kelly Clarkson, for whom they also wrote the classic, career-making “Since U Been Gone.”
You might know the history between Kelly Clarkson and Clive Davis, but in case you don’t: In 2007, Clarkson made headlines when she somewhat stubbornly insisted her third album, My December, contain only songs she had written (or co-written) rather than songs written by professional songwriters (such as Martin and Gottwald). This decision was met with extreme resistance by Davis, the head of Clarkson’s label, who initially refused to release My December, and then, after relenting, refused to endorse it. The two battled it out in the press for a while and then, for a host of reasons—not excluding Davis’ ambivalence, but mostly because the songs were just pretty bad—the album stiffed.
Anyway, “My Life Would Suck Without You” is Clarkson’s first single since the My December catastrophe, and it’s being billed as a return to her Grammy-winning form, i.e., a return to the “Since U Been Gone” days. Now, after months of reading and wondering about it, I finally heard the song yesterday, and I enthusiastically concur with all the hype: The song is a buzzy, wild bundle of addictive hooks, dance beats and power vocals. I say this as a big fan of not just Martin but Clarkson, too: It is absolutely great.
In fact, over the last 17 hours I have listened to it so many times that I know every lyric by heart, and knowing both those lyrics and what I know about everyone involved, I am starting to get a little creeped out. Because, see, on their surface, the lyrics could not be less specific—it’s just a sassy, peppy little love song. Here’s the first verse:
“Guess this means you’re sorry/ You’re standing at my door/ Guess this means you take back/ What you said before.”
Could be about anything, right? That’s part of the magic of Martin’s songwriting—he makes these silly, meaningless lyrics sound both specific and universal. But look again at that verse, then look at the second verse:
“Maybe I was stupid for telling you goodbye/ Maybe I was wrong for trying to pick a fight/ I know that I’ve got issues/ But you’re pretty messed up too/ Anyway, I found out I’m nothing without you.”
So it’s not about just anything—it’s clearly about Clarkson and Davis. Right? I’m not crazy here, am I? Davis commissioned the song, and Martin and Gottwald tailored the lyrics specifically for Clarkson. All of this is fact! So now, when I listen to the song, I can’t help picturing Clarkson forced to grovel at the feet of this ancient corpse of a man—forced to sing, “I found out I’m nothing without you”—but I also can’t help being kind of excited that I know this history well enough to interpret these lyrics, and worse than that, I can’t help loving the song anyway.