Song: ‘Since U Been Gone’
Artist: Kelly Clarkson
US chart peak: 2
Release date: November 16, 2004
Writers: Max Martin, Lukasz Gottwald
Producers: Max Martin, Dr Luke
Quintessential Max moment: The way the music drops out completely ahead of the chorus
Video synopsis: Kelly mooching about her apartment for the verses, jumping up and down for the choruses
The utterly amazing ‘Since U Been Gone’ was Max Martin’s first US Top Ten single in almost five years. As John Seabrook explains in his book, The Song Machine: Inside The Hit Factory, pop had been re-born in the 90s thanks at the start of the decade to New Kids On The Block and then again in 1997 with the explosion of the Spice Girls. Their pure pop ways had opened the door for Backstreet Boys and Britney, and, by extension, for the Max and his Cheiron cohorts to start dominating the charts. By 2001, however, the public seemed to be growing weary of manufactured pop acts, with R&B and hip-hop growing in stature again thanks to the arrival of Eminem and producers like Timbaland and The Neptunes.
The key to Max’s success and longevity, however, is an innate sense of when to shift gears slightly. Of when to leave a sound behind if it’s starting to feel played out, no matter how successful it’s become. At the end of 2000, he closed Cheiron studios, saying “It’s time to quit while we’re ahead.” In an interview with Kristian Lundin in Seabrook’s book he says: “When even our grandmothers said, ‘oh, you can hear that’s a Cheiron song!’ it was no longer inspiration, it was just copying ourselves.” Perhaps the most telling sign that things had shifted was the fact that Britney’s 2003 album ‘In The Zone’ featured no songs by Max or anyone from the Cheiron team. Radio itself had shifted more towards R&B and hip-hop, genres that Max knew very little about at the time. What he needed was a new collaborator.
Max and Dr Luke had been friends for a while before they started working together. “I came to New York and just wanted to write something, so I called him up, because I knew he had a studio in his basement,” Max told Billboard in 2010. “We started working, and I instantly knew, because his instincts are really, how do you say it? He wants it to be effective. I was struck by that. ‘No, no, that’s too long. Get to the point!’ And I’m known for that. But he took it even further, and I really liked that.” The story goes that ‘Since U Been Gone’ was born out of Max’s frustrations at the inability for a certain indie-rock song to get to the point. Luke remembers: “That was a conscious move by Max and myself, because we were listening to alternative and indie music and talking about some song – I don’t remember what it was. I said, ‘Ah, I love this song,’ and Max was like, ‘If they would just write a damn pop chorus on it!’ It was driving him nuts, because that indie song was sort of on six, going to seven, going to eight, the chorus comes…and it goes back down to five. It drove him crazy. And when he said that, it was like, light bulb. ‘Why don’t we do that, but put a big chorus on it?’ It worked.”
The journey of ‘Since U Been Gone’ pre-Kelly Clarkson singing the shit out of it is also an interesting one. Max originally wrote it with Pink in mind. Then it was offered to Hilary Duff but her management – presumably before she even heard it – rejected it saying she’d never be able to hit the high notes (Hilary would later lose out on Charli XCX’s ‘Boom Clap’, which was a Top Ten hit in both the UK and the US). The song then found its way to the CEO of RCA Clive Davis, who rather liked it and decided Kelly Clarkson would be perfect for it. Max, however, wasn’t keen. “Max was looking to move on from what he had done with Backstreet Boys,” Davis said, “and I really spent time convincing them that an American Idol winner could bring all the feeling and passion that was required to the song.”
For her part, Clarkson wasn’t really a massive fan of the song actually. “It didn’t have any lyrics and the melody really wasn’t finalised. The track was done on a computer, there was no band on it. My record label was freaking out about it and I was, like, why?” Oh Kelly. Anyway, it all turned out pretty well in the end, the song launching Clarkson’s career skywards and sending Max back up the charts where he belongs.
The key to ‘Since U Been Gone’’s success is the way it employs one of pop’s most deadliest tricks – delayed gratification. That one note guitar riff at the start seems to keep the song hanging in suspended animation for that bit too long, while the first verse is delivered with a sort of shrug by Clarkson (perhaps it’s a nod to the vocal stylings of the new-wave bands like The Strokes who’d taken over at the time, or maybe it’s part of her lack of enthusiasm for the song in general). Its ennui in the verses makes the glorious explosion of the chorus all the more potent, Clarkson’s voice erupting with a perfect mix of anger and relief. Once again it’s a song anchored by a juicy line that leaps out of the chorus, Clarkson avoiding the more blunt “go fuck yourself” with a much more teenage-friendly “I’m so moving on”. It’s one of those songs that turns adults back to petulant teenagers, all stomping vitriol and enraged chest thumps. It also hits harder than most of the ‘rock’ songs around at the time, and works considerably better as an indie disco anthem then anything The White Stripes have ever done.