Released: 21st February 2009
Writers: Lukasz Gottwald / Claude Kelly / Max Martin
Peak position: #1
Chart run: 1-4-6-7-10-14-17-20-29-33-33-36-48-53-65-69
Billboard Hot 100 chart run: 97-1-1-4-8-10-10-9-5-6-7-12-11-13-17-16-18-22-30-24-27-36-48-44
A commercial comeback beckoned for Kelly Clarkson with her fourth studio album. However, due to ongoing record label politics, the (brilliant) lead single – My Life Would Suck Without You – was recorded through gritted teeth.
The working relationship between Kelly Clarkson and Clive Davis – the head of her then-label, RCA Records – was known to be tumultuous, even at the best of times. The phenomenal success of her second album, Breakaway, was underpinned by a struggle for greater songwriting involvement and became the product of an arrangement where she was allowed to contribute to half the tracks, providing the rest were created by a team of established hitmakers. However, no such compromise was made on the follow-up, which is where tensions behind-the-scenes started to spill over. Kelly Clarkson co-wrote the entirety of My December, which adopted a somewhat darker tone overall (though tracks like Don’t Waste Your Time and How I Feel wouldn’t have been out of place on Breakaway). Upon hearing the material, Clive Davis was dissatisfied and requested additional songs – like a cover of Black Hole from Lindsay Lohan’s second album – be recorded. Kelly Clarkson declined, and RCA had little choice but to relent, knowing they needed to capitalise on the momentum of Breakaway.
Yet, while doing nothing wasn’t an option for the label, they did the bare minimum. Only one single – Never Again – was released in America, and even that was quickly withdrawn from radio (a music video was filmed to accompany Don’t Waste Your Time in Europe and Australia). My December promptly became engulfed in reports of conflict between Clive Davis and Kelly Clarkson over the direction of the album, even resulting in a post on her website which tried to downplay the situation. Yet, even if there had been some over-exaggeration, it was apparent that RCA wasn’t wholeheartedly behind My December, given the way the campaign was left to drift, resulting in sales that fell far short of its predecessor. Indeed, a more cynical take on their inaction may surmise that it was in the label’s best interest to let the album underperform since it strengthened their position to exert more control over what Kelly Clarkson did next.
Which is precisely what they did. All I Ever Wanted returned to a similar writing model as Breakaway, promising a more pop-orientated sound. For the most part, Kelly Clarkson appeared content with that arrangement, acknowledging that My December came from a place of physical and emotional burnout. But there was a catch. RCA wanted a guaranteed hit, and – somewhat inevitably – it came from the one person she didn’t want to work with: Dr. Luke. He and Max Martin had helped create Kelly Clarkson’s signature song, Since U Been Gone, and there could be no clearer statement of intent for All I Ever Wanted than to launch it with a single that returned to that same formula. But the experience was not one she wished to repeat, having subsequently described Dr. Luke as belittling and demeaning. Kelly Clarkson voiced her concerns to the label, offering instead to work with anybody else they desired. However, RCA wouldn’t budge, decreeing that if a song from Dr. Luke and Max Martin did not appear on All I Ever Wanted, the album wouldn’t be released.
Given she’d essentially been coerced into recording My Life Would Suck Without You, it would’ve been understandable if Kelly Clarkson had just wanted to get the whole thing over and done with as quickly as possible. But when it was initially presented to her with lyrics about smoking weed, she requested changes to ensure the track still sounded like something she would logically sing. Indeed, such was Kelly Clarkson’s involvement in the end product of My Life Would Suck Without You that she was offered a writing credit and declined in an attempt to emphasise to her label how little she wanted to share any kind of association with Dr. Luke. And if RCA understood nothing else, voluntarily giving up (significant) royalties from the song would surely be enough to make that point.
Needless to say, the backdrop to My Life Would Suck Without You isn’t a particularly happy one, which is a massive shame because, in every other respect, it’s utterly terrific. Comparisons to Since U Been Gone were as inevitable as they were intentional (the plucked guitar intros are more or less identical). Initially, it seems to be pursuing the same uncompromising persona: “Guess this means you’re sorry, you’re standing at my door, guess this means you take back, all you said before”. The vitriolic attitude Kelly Clarkson extols (“Said you’d never come back, but here you are again”) remains pointedly appealing. However, My Life Would Suck You is pitched as a sequel, not a re-tread, and soon shifts into an epic, singalong make-up – rather than break-up – anthem where there is room for both parties to be fallible: “Maybe I was stupid for telling you goodbye, maybe I was wrong for tryin’ to pick a fight”. In a wider sense, the track can be viewed as drawing a faint line beneath the uncompromising persona that came to characterise Breakaway and My December, which the latter had perhaps taken a bit too far.
The quiet verse-loud chorus structure that Since U Been Gone popularised was – by this point – well-established, affording My Life Would Suck Without You an opportunity to have some fun with the formula. The tempo is kicked up a notch, a fuzzy electro-bassline is thrown into the mix, and there’s a more flippant light-heartedness in how the complexities of a relationship are approached: “I know that I’ve got issues, but you’re pretty messed up too, either way I found out I’m nothing without you”. Had this track come on the heels of Breakaway, it might have been dismissed as a tad derivative. So, it’s faintly ironic that the sheer thrill of My Life Would Suck Without You is in no small part because it was a (relatively) long time coming. The decision to work with Max Martin and Dr. Luke might have been taken out of Kelly Clarkson’s hands by this point, but the result would be far less impactful if she’d not dug her heels in on doing it sooner.
As ever, it’s easy to take the vocals on My Life Would Suck Without You for granted. This is a big track, and a lesser singer might end up chasing the production, which is loaded with momentum, particularly after the middle eight: “Being with you is so dysfunctional, I really shouldn’t miss you, but I can’t let you go, oh yeah”. A guitar breakdown teasingly builds before exploding into the final choruses (with an exhilarating drum beat sandwiched between them): “’Cos we belo-o-o-ong toge-e-e-ether now…YEAH, forever uni-i-i-ited he-e-e-re somehow…YEAH, you got a piece of ME, and honest-LY, my life (MY LIFE) would suck (WOULD SUCK) without you”. But it’s propelled by the power in Kelly Clarkson’s voice; the ease with which she scales the notes remains phenomenally impressive, however effortless she makes it look.
Visually, the All I Ever Wanted campaign went out of its way to soften Kelly Clarkson’s image. Quite literally, in the case of the album cover, which was heavily photoshopped and used a garish pink-orange-purple-yellow colour scheme to appear as the antithesis of My December. The music video for My Life Would Suck Without You isn’t so glaringly obvious – from an aesthetic perspective, at least – but still makes a clear point of difference from the intensity of My December. Kelly Clarkson is shown playfully squabbling in an apartment with her boyfriend as the pair wind each other up by throwing their property – magazines, clothes, a guitar and a goldfish bowl (minus the goldfish, which is hastily scooped into a glass) – out of the window. Then they jump into a car and drive through the streets while continuing to goad one another, which Kelly Clarkson records on her product placement Nokia flip-phone. After a near-miss with another vehicle, they spin out of control and passionately kiss after coming to a stop. There are shades of Since U Been Gone in the wanton destruction of property interspersed with sporadic cuts to a hair-thrashing Kelly Clarkson performing the song with a live band, but – much like the song – the angle is different enough not to feel shamelessly copied. It works well and brings a positive energy that is utterly infectious.
Although it doesn’t condone RCA – and Clive Davis, in particular – holding Kelly Clarkson to ransom over working with Dr. Luke, in principle, their instincts were entirely correct because My Life Would Suck Without You went on to be a massive hit. First-week sales of 51,114 saw the song become Kelly Clarkson’s first – and to date, only – #1 single in the UK, while a total of 306,000 copies made it the 46th highest seller of 2009. As of 2017, the track had garnered combined sales of 467,000 thanks to its popularity on streaming and was her fourth biggest overall (excluding Christmas material) behind Stronger (What Doesn’t Kill You), Because Of You and Since U Been Gone. The single was followed shortly thereafter by All I Ever Wanted, which debuted and peaked at #3 in the UK.
In America, My Life Would Suck Without You entered the Billboard Hot 100 at #97 and then – with a full week of download sales and airplay – set a record for the largest jump to #1, which is yet to be surpassed. It was the first time Kelly Clarkson had topped the chart since A Moment Like This after winning American Idol. Thus, in terms of what All I Ever Wanted was trying to convey, My Life Would Suck Without You symbolised a return to form (even if the lower-peaking singles from Breakaway all achieved longer chart runs due to immense radio support). The sense of a resurgence continued when All I Ever Wanted subsequently debuted atop the chart, selling 255,000 copies in its first week to become Kelly Clarkson’s second #1 album after her 2002 debut, Thankful. Although their methods remain wholly questionable, RCA had unquestionably reasserted her as a commercial force (even if some may argue the need to do so was partly their own making).
Ultimately, it does feel somewhat contrary to derive pleasure from My Life Would Suck Without You while simultaneously disapproving of the way it was created since the song wouldn’t exist if the record label hadn’t so flagrantly disregarded Kelly Clarkson’s concerns. Yet, she found a way to retain some control over the situation – even if that meant giving away royalties – and embrace the enthusiastic response from fans towards the track when it’s performed live. In a broader sense, having restored some equilibrium in the power struggle over her career, My Life Would Suck Without You ended the perceived reliance on Max Martin and Dr. Luke for success. Their services weren’t required again, and for Kelly Clarkson, that is perhaps the greatest triumph of this single.