Should Have Been Bigger: Kelly Clarkson’s “Sober”
In this franchise, we look back on songs that deserved a little more love and attention.
Few talent show winners have managed to win over the public as effortlessly as Kelly Clarkson. America’s first Idol surpassed expectations after winning the show in 2002, going on to become one of the most recognized voices in pop music. The singer’s 2003 debut LP Thankful was a success, but she took it to the next level on Breakaway. Teaming up with songwriting titan Max Martin, the then 22-year-old dabbled in pop/rock on what would become her career-defining single, “Since U Been Gone.” The album spawned 5 top 20 hits and cemented her status as a superstar.
The powerhouse vocalist hit a snag, however, with the release of her third effort in 2007. Several years wiser and more independent than ever before, Kelly took a risk. She championed an album of dark and emotional anthems against the recommendation of Sony BMG CEO Clive Davis. The LP opened with the hard hitting “Never Again,” which revisited the woman scorned themes of her earlier work but did so over beefier production. Fan interest propelled the track to a top 10 showing, but it failed to gain traction on radio. As a result, it was followed rapidly by the album’s second single “Sober.”
“Three months, and I’m still sober. Picked all my weeds but kept the flowers,” she earnestly declares over soft guitar on the track. The lyrics were inspired by a conversation with a close friend and dealt with the challenge of overcoming addiction of any sort. Production from David Kahn was minimal, putting the focus onto Kelly’s emotional vocal delivery. Beginning in her sweet middle register, the hitmaker’s delivery eventually crescendos into a raw release on the soaring bridge. The striking single should have become an instant hit.
Unfortunately, it never really had a chance. After the tepid response to “Never Again,” and amidst rumors of creative differences with Davis, subsequent releases from My December received minimal promotion, and “Sober” was no exception. Although it garnered positive reviews from critics, the alt-pop sound found even less love on radio than its predecessor. With no plans for a music video and only a handful of promotional performances, the single was basically dead upon arrival. It became Kelly’s first to entirely miss the Billboard Hot 100 since 2003’s “The Trouble With Love” and peaked 10 spots lower on Billboard’s Bubbling Under chart.
Like any prolific artist, Kelly Clarkson managed to overcome the obstacles in her path and returned stronger on her followup album. Remerging in 2009 and reuniting with Max Martin on “My Life Would Suck Without You,” the Texas native rocketed to the top of the charts. My December and its accompanying singles may be a blip on the radar of her impressive discography, but “Sober” remains as one of her most evocative releases to date and has achieved a favored status amongst her most devoted followers. Hopefully, she’ll manage to recapture the pure emotion on her soulful new single “Love So Soft.” Watch Kelly revisit the powerful ballad during a show in 2011 below.