This article is part of 2005 Week on Noisey, where we revisit all the best and worst pop culture relics from a decade ago.
Before Kelly Clarkson’s massive 2005 banger "Since U Been Gone" came marching in, top 40 pop and mainstream rock were still at odds. The end of grunge and the explosion of pop had left us with one or the other, a divide as inpentrable as Nick Carter's ever-present middle part. Our childhood pop stars like Britney and Christina were aging out of the 90s at the same time as we were. Radio pop's transition into the Aughts was an awkward stage on par with those of the devoted listeners it ushered into middle school. On the other hand, rock music was in commercial standoff between blink-182 rip-offs like Good Charlotte and insufferable FM sludge-rock from Nickelback and Staind. Both sides of the coin were pretty gnarly with songs like “The Reason” by Hoobastank and “Numb” by Linkin Park earnestly ruling rock radio. But that all changed in 2005, when the indie rock boom shook the foundation and cut off its circulation to the mainstream with skinny jeans and bass lines.
One reason that the onslaught of indie rock bands like The Killers, Bloc Party, Franz Ferdinand, Spoon, and Jet hit so hard in 2005 had a lot to do with the fact that it happened to catch both mainstream pop and radio rock at a pivotal moment of weakness. Pop-punk was siphoning off into “emo” while pop music took a nose-dive into a big, bad drought. Since Britney and Xtina were regrouping in preparation for their second-comings a few years later, the pop world turned to the trusted Disney petri dish for its newest torchbearer. However, Lindsay Lohan, Mandy Moore, and Hilary Duff—all who had released albums with radio jams in 2004—failed to really explode as pop stars. Newbie singers like FeFe Dobson and Skye Sweetnam never made it past a hit single. I mean, the strongest family in pop at the time was Ashlee and Jessica Simpson (this was obviously before Ashlee's SNL disaster a year later.) That said, things were not OK. Pop just wasn’t cool anymore. Given the political climate in the US post 9/11, the most popular songs were inflated with a distinctly American, anti-Bush rage and urgency that was seriously lacking in pop music. That said, “Since U Been Gone” was the first mainstream pop banger built like an indie rock single.
All you have to do is look at the charts to see what was happening to pop before “Since U Been Gone.” The top ten leaned towards R&B like Beyonce and Alicia Keys as tweeny-pop got sucked into the mighty undertow between soul slappers like from the Black Eyed Peas, Jo Jo, Pussycat Dolls, and Mariah Carey’s “We Belong Together.” Where the heck was pop hitmaker Max Martin—the genius producer responsible for Britney Spears and The Backstreet Boys—to steer 90s pop nostalgia back up to the top? Turns out the elusive Swedish producer (who’s currently responsible for all your favorite radio bangers from Taylor Swift to the Weeknd) had taken a break from the Hot 100 and left the pop world without one of its crucial behind-the-scenes masterminds.
In a rare 2010 interview with Billboard magazine, Martin credits "Since U Been Gone" for his re-emergence as a star producer. Its blistering indie rock structure of quiet-loud-quiet made the song incredibly innovative at a time when the old pop loop had wrung around its own neck. It was desperately time for something totally new. It makes sense that the man who had once changed the music industry by wiping out what was left of grunge with songs like “...Baby One More Time“ and “I Want It That Way” realized that pop needed a guitar-rock kick in the ass to assert itself into relevancy again. By observing the rebirth of 90s alternative break-downs in popular indie singles such as The Killers' “Mr. Brightside” and Bloc Party’s “Helicopter,” you can see how someone as perceptive as Martin would think to bring a hard rock edge to the pop rut.
Lukasz Gottwald aka Dr Luke, who helped to produced “Since U Been Gone,” said in the same issue of Billboard that introducing rock to pop was “a conscious move by Max and myself [...] 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!’”
Sure, they may have ripped off “Maps” by the Yeah Yeah Yeahs a bit, but that was the point. “Since U Been Gone” was intentionally written to bring an edgy rock flare to the pop sphere. Time has proved its enduring cross-genre appeal, as indie musicians like Ted Leo and Tokyo Police Club continue to cover the 2005 classic. But a pop song as obviously bent towards rock as “Since U Been Gone” was going to be hard to pull it off without its perfect matching pop star. In order to fully understand why Kelly Clarkson was the only pop singer who could pull it off, it's important to consider just how the song got to her in the first place.
The most understandable choice for a vocally demanding song like “Since U Been Gone” was P!nk who surprisingly said no thanks. It was then brought to Hilary Duff who couldn’t hit the high notes. Think about the landscape of the other reigning pop stars: Jessica Simpson was dedicated to her wifey life as the “Southern girl with her Levis on.” Britney was deeply in love with trucker hats and K-Fed before coming back with Blackout. Post-“Dirrty” Christina Aguilera wouldn’t give up the 50s pin-up shit, and Mariah Carey was already way too established as the sophisticated chanteuse she is to take on something as raucous as “Since U Been Gone." The song's underlying rock structure of quiet-loud-quiet-loud was just too alternative for the pop princesses of 2003/4. The only other person who could have worn this song as well was Avril Lavigne, but she was busy trailblazing through as one of the only pop singers writing (or at least co-writing) her own material. A song from someone as associated with pop puppets like Martin would’ve sold her back into the category she was trying to break out of. “Since U Been Gone” had so much potential but given the pop touchiness of pop at the time, no one really wanted it.
Kelly Clarkson however was still a newbie cradled in the prenatal arms of American Idol, whose true star-making power was yet to fully revealed. The singles that came off the back of her 2002 win reeked of the show and its brandedness. Still, her coronation song “A Moment Like This” broke The Beatles' record for the biggest leap ever to number one, from 52, despite the fact that it was a truly terrible song. Being the first American Idol had so much hype that Clarkson’s first album Thankful debuted at number one, with its funky lead single “Miss Independent” becoming an international top ten hit. With all that, Clarkson had proved that she could swing as hard as the best of them without having marketed herself on the back of a particular identity. In that sense, Kelly Clarkson was relatively free from the limitations that restricted other pop stars in 2005 and was able to transition from a bombastic pop sound to an edgy rock-oriented one with unprecedented fluidity. The genius was that those two sounds could co-exist: pop sensibilities with the powerful thrust of a guitar rock chorus.
Since Clarkson was the first of all the reality TV contestants to be voted into pop stardom, she was malleable from the start. Clarkson had this peculiar leverage that allowed her to play around with the kinds of songs she put out. People knew her name, but she wasn’t locked into anything particular aside from American Idol. All we really knew about Kelly Clarkson was that she could fucking sing. Since vote-from-home phenomenons like American Idol were still so new and she was the first real winner, it was OK for her to grow into herself. That’s what we the voters wanted from her! It was exciting for us to be in on the process. We rooted for Kelly because we could relate to how dorky and uncool she was on that show. (Her catch-phrase was "Cool beans.") She wasn't wrapped up in a post-Disney veneer or fastened to her bubblegum past. Kelly was quite literally the “American Idol." She represented us in a way that all other pop singers back then couldn’t since they seemed to come out of board rooms and think tanks.
The fact of the matter is, that song needed Kelly as much as Max Martin needed that song. You know those explosive guitars that come in on the chorus? That was Kelly's idea. It was also Clarkson's idea that the producer enlist Mike Watt, guitarist of the legendary hardcore punk band Minutemen, to come in and play guitar on the track. The song's subversive rock formula was there, but Kelly pushed it over the edge with those blistering guitars and her powerhouse vocals whose frankly were the strongest of all.
"Since U Been Gone" wasn't about being crazy in love or crazy sad about it. It was about being pissed off at the jackass loser that held you down until you'd had e-fucking-nough. Look at the lyrics: “Since u been gone/I can breathe for the first time.” As Kelly shed her skin from American Idol winner to legit pop star, her relatable position in the American conscience made her the ideal person to cast off an ex. Her ex wasn't Justin Timberlake, some actor, or a bad boy rockstar. He wasn’t anyone deified by pop culture—he was the same guy who made out with you on the weekend and didn't text you back. You only need to look at what she’s wearing in the video: Converse, an army green t-shirt and cut-offs. Other than her snarly mic-face and the literal moshing going on in the video, Kelly let the song's brute fuck-you speak for itself. We could relate so easily to both her and the song. Who could resist the hormonal release of that perfect pop-rock chorus? 2005 was so ugh! Finally, instead of the Girl Next Door image that Britney and Christina cultivated in their formative years, Kelly was the American Everygirl, and “Since U Been Gone” encapsulated that identity with an unprecedented fist pump. The song was roughed up just enough to remain rooted in Martin’s pop dynamic. Just as the pop fans could got down with a little rock, the rockers could appreciate a bit of pop as well. It was a digestible balance for everyone, and because of that, people ate it up.
The only other break-up song even similar to it was Alanis Morissette's self-empowered revenge anthem "You Oughta Know," which the 90s had deemed as categorically alternative. “Since U Been Gone” was built so solidly on indie foundation that a recent study asked self-described rock nerds to identify this song by its first few bars and no one said Kelly. Instead, they guessed Pavement, Parquet Courts, and Smashing Pumpkins. All you have to do is turn on the radio to hear the enduring influence of that song. The formula that was once so radical for a pop song has become the standard. Now, we want our pop music to explode like rock songs. Think of "Wrecking Ball,” "I Knew You Were Trouble," “Tick Tock,” and “Bad Romance”: Pop music desperately needed that hard rock surge in order to evolve and become the dominant force once again. Commercial radio bangers still bubble and pop, but they’re not bubblegum pop. The throbbing zit on the face of pop music grew along with our own pre-teen acne in 2003 and 2004, but it wasn't until "Since U Been Gone" that we popped that sucker and finally let it bleed. That pop-rock banger represented the moment guitar-driven music became the dominant "sound" of mainstream music in the mid aughts. When you look back at your click-wheel iPod, does anything else capture the turning point between the golden era of pop princesses and the impending rise of indie quite like “Since U Been Gone?" No—and that’s why it was so successful, so memorable, and so fucking good. Now go listen to it on repeat like we've been doing for the past ten years.
Bryn Lovitt and Emma Garland are writers for Noisey who whole-heartedly agree that "Since U Been Gone" is like, the best pop song ever.