The Musical Talmud: “Stronger (What Doesn’t Kill You)” by Kelly Clarkson

The Musical Talmud: “Stronger (What Doesn’t Kill You)” by Kelly Clarkson

Pop musicians love quoting Friedrich Nietzsche. But do they love what he means?

Out of life’s school of war — What does not kill me, makes me stronger.”

– Friedrich Nietzsche, “Maxims and Arrows,” Twilight of the Idols

As has already been covered by Tris McCall of The Star-Ledger (one of New Jersey’s finer regional newspapers), Kelly Clarkson is but the latest pop star quoting the works of German philosopher Friedrich Neitzsche. Her song, “Stronger (What Doesn’t Kill You),” written by Jorgen Elofsson, Ali Tamposi, David Gamson, and Greg Kurstin, and drawing from 1889’s Twilight of the Idols: Or How to Philosophize with a Hammer, is currently bumping back and forth among the first two spots in the Billboard charts.

This of course follows on the heels of Kanye West’s hit “Stronger” from 2007, which also quotes and aligns around Neitzsche to a greater degree than the Daft Punk song that underlies it:

And we’ve all heard the Nietzsche-inspired “Also Sprach Zarathustra,” which underscored the most memorable entrance of all time. (I am course talking about Elvis Presley’s unprecedented four-performance sold out run at Madison Square Garden in 1973):

Not to mention “Beyond Good and Evil,” by the Swedish Death Metal band At the Gates, off their two-and-a-half-star 1993 album With Fear I Kiss the Burning Darkness:

And the approximately two gazillion songs called some variant on “God is Dead” by various self-important rock and metal bands, including this one with a totally sweet video by the Greek rock outfit Nightstalker (See if you can guess which members of the band specialize in continental philosophy, if you know what I mean):

Turning this into a straight-up top 10 list of best songs inspired by Nietzsche would require me to put these performances in order, which I cannot possibly do. So instead let’s go a little bit into Kelly’s song and its major intellectual precursors.

“Maxims and Arrows”

Ms. Clarkson’s refrain owes its origin to “Maxims and Arrows,” a list of epigrams – brief sayings of wit or charm imparting a pithy idea – that comprise the first chapter of Twilight of the Idols. Nietzsche wrote Twilight (yes he did) in a few weeks during a vacation. The goal was to write a fairly straightforward book that connected with his developing popularity and provided an introduction to his philosophies. The “Maxims and Arrows” reflect an orientation toward popular consumption. The one-liners are insightful, but more provocative than rigorous.

Even the most courageous among us only rarely has the courage to face what he already knows.”

“If we have our own why in life, we shall get along with almost any how. Man does not strive for pleasure; only the Englishman does.”

“Man has created woman — out of what? Out of a rib of his god — of his ‘ideal.’”

“‘Evil men have no songs.’ How is it, then, that the Russians have songs?”

These live in the same general profundity range as Sinbad stand-up routines. Partly, this is because Nietzsche’s writing has pooled in the deep sediment of the popular consciousness. Partly it is that Sinbad is profound in his own right and can be a lot like Nietzsche. Most notably for our purposes,  Twilight of the Idols: How to Philosophize with a Hammer is a lot less Also Sprach Morriethustra and a lot more Tuesdays With Nietzsche.

Oh, except, to be fair to Sinbad, the Maxims are deeply sexist  even more sexist than a Sinbad routine, and far less winkingly so.

Women are considered profound. Why? Because we never fathom their depths. But women aren’t even shallow.”

Women be shoppin’!!” Geeeeeeeez.

Thankfully, we have not come to praise Nietzsche, but to explain his relationship with Kelly Clarkson. So let’s just call him a jerkface and move on. Jerkface.

Maxim 8 is the famous:

Out of life’s school of war — What does not kill me, makes me stronger.”

And while the Maxims defy strict interpretation by their loosey-gooseyness, this still appears to be saying something reasonable.

First, the lesson comes not from human experience, but from the experience of the natural world — and from the collective natural world, the war college or military school of life, where life indoctrinates and trains its soldiers to fight against one another. It is presented as a lesson foreign to people something against the civilizations of the time, part of a general call for a return to wildness and a primordial moral savagery, which is present in the rest of the book specifically and Nietzsche’s work in general.

Secondly, there is a strangeness to the statement that skirts the edge of horror. Of course people know that events can have a great many other effects than merely killing us or making us stronger they can affect our relationships, our wealth, our happiness they can horribly maim us or leave us disfigured. But, in life’s school of war, apparently none of these things matter, and only strength or death remain.

According to Nietzsche, wild beings, including humans who have not been held back by stultifying social and cultural arrangements, hold this survivalist attitude toward external events they see experiences as either life or death, and see the acquisition and demonstration of strength as the primary action in time. Leaving aside the degree to which nature acts like this (and I’d argue it doesn’t, at least not to the extent that it “acts” at all), Nietzsche is calling on us to do the same as his imagined nature by abandoning the crutches of our dull, civilized way of thinking about ourselves, our responsibilities to one another, and our abstract ideas, instead embracing the struggle for survival, and thus through life’s school of war, to find a path to strength.

It isn’t about overcoming adversity, it’s about survival of the fittest.

Like many Nietzsche sayings (like the famous “God is dead,” which isn’t about atheism as much as about cultural consensus around governing principles of behavior), it is misinterpreted more often than it is ‘terpreted.

A Moment With Kanye

Kanye’s reading of Nietzsche in “Stronger” is of a kin to Nietzsche’s original statement it’s a near-frenzied sexual solicitation to a whole mess of different women, where he revels in his own strength and vitality and the desirability of everything around him, using the Nietzsche quotation as a mantra, revving up his primal instincts and will to power, warding off the “haters” who would deny him what he can claim, or else otherwise convince him he is unworthy of his capacity to do what Nietzsche might describe as “walk the tightrope” or “live.” He is a Nietzschean bird of prey and the “haters” are lambs who would bring him down.

Or at least that’s what the poster on the wall of the notional dorm room he lives in through his arc of college-themed albums might say.

Back to Kelly

But of course, we are here to talk about Kelly Clarkson, whose song bears a greater semantic resemblance to a song at which even Neitzsche would be forced to bristle his generous mustache in approval:

Seriously, this is the kind of video that makes me wonder, as  unpopular an opinion as this might be, what amazing things the music industry could produce today if it had its old profit motive left. It’s easy to forget just how good at what they did the Britney-Spears-industrial-complex was.

At any rate, we’re dealing with a different sort of idea of personal strength than Nietzsche’s — Britney is recovering from a wound caused by a relationship ending (her loneliness was at one point figuratively “killing her”) and achieving a sort of self-constructed emotional wholeness. She does distance herself and place herself above the people who previously victimized her, which recalls Nietzschean ideas of leadership and the exercise of power. But the strength is one of a victim overcoming victimhood by passing through suffering — which does not jive with how Nietzsche tends to say the will to power works. Her triumph is not wholly over others, but over her own unhappiness, to achieving emotional maturity and self-empowerment — again, not things with which Nietzsche was particularly concerned.

It is actually a sort of coming of age story, about becoming the “strong woman,” which of course Mlawski wrote about so famously here so many years ago.

Breaking it down

In case you’ve forgotten, here’s the (now less impressive by comparison — to Britney, not to Nietzsche) Clarkson song again. Let’s listen to the lyrics this time:

You know the bed feels warmer,

Sleeping here alone,

You know I dream in color,

And do the things I want.

You think you got the best of me

Think you had the last laugh

Bet you think that everything good is gone.

Think you left me broken down

Think that I’d come running back

Baby you don’t know me, cause you’re dead wrong.”

The first thing to note from Kelly’s song is the subject. Given Kelly Clarkson’s oeuvre, which is just chock full of songs about bad relationships that gladly ended and good relationships gone bad, we can identify her mutually owned and co-created celebrity identity with the protagonist of the song. The speaker is “Kelly Clarkson” (whatever that means).

The second takeaway is the “you” the speaker is singing to. We don’t necessarily *know* this person is a guy, but cultural expectation and her oeuvre, which has never really dabbled in the genderqueer, defaults us to thinking it probably is. At least for now. Until somewhat recently, “Kelly Clarkson” was dating or otherwise sexually and emotionally involved with this guy (the first thing we find out is that they used to sleep together), but now they are not dating anymore, because (and this is important) he left her.

The third thing we learn is that he was a douche.

Consider the normal thermal environment of a bed — a resting human generates a fair amount of heat (I looked it up and found about 4 BTUs per minute for a resting person as a good guess, but I’ll leave the precise calculations to the scientists), so for the bed to be warmer with the other person not there, he either must have turned the heat way down, stripped the blankets, or instilled such an urgent and uncomfortable psychological chilling effect that it more than counteracted the resting metabolic output of 200 pounds of mammal under a blanket, probably trying to spoon you.

Consider how deeply this guy seems to want “Kelly Clarkson” to be unhappy, to the point where involuntary perception of color is an act of defiance, and where everything good in her life might even presumably be gone once he left her, which was for some reason terribly traumatic, even though being together also levied a brutal psychological toll.

And on top of that, the guy at least is presumed to want Kelly to come back, despite the relationship being so awful, at least for her, and despite him leaving her in an abusive, traumatic fashion.

Kelly then boldly declares this dude’s presumed notions of her current suffering to be misled — no, she only suffered _during_ the relationship, and while it was ending, but she is not suffering now!

What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger

Stand a little taller

Doesn’t mean I’m lonely when I’m alone.

What doesn’t kill you makes a fighter

Footsteps even lighter

Doesn’t mean I’m over cos you’re gone

What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger, stronger

Just me myself and I

What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger

Stand a little taller

Doesn’t mean I’m lonely when I’m alone.”

The standard for success here is very low, as is the level of power Kelly Clarkson is looking to achieve in this song. This is not “Since U Been Gone” where she exults in her newfound freedom.

Here the victory is merely discovering the possibility of fighting for what she wants. That a bad thing happening to you that comes short of killing you makes you somewhat more physically capable and makes you “a fighter” — whereas previously you were not.

Also, Clarkson comes up short of declaring Britney’s triumph over loneliness (which is still pretty humble “ain’t killing me” is a low hurdle for an emotion to jump) — being alone does not necessarily mean she is lonely. Well, it sure doesn’t mean she isn’t!

The Britney/Clarkson formulation

One of the interpretations of the original “What does not kill me makes me stronger” that tends to be persistent is this idea, reminiscent of homeopathic medicine, that the thing that kills you or the thing that makes you stronger are the same thing, only separated by degree. The Britney/Clarkson formulation of the saying, which is by far the more common in contemporary discourse, tends to operate within the subset of things that are bad, which isn’t necessarily the only way to see it.

For example, say you saw an apple. Well, is the apple going to kill you? Not unless you’re really allergic or respond to the trace cyanide in the apple in an unpredictable way, or you choke on it. Will it make you stronger? Sure, if you’re hungry, it’s food, and animals love food and convert it to energy.

Now, say there is a comet headed for the Earth. It will land on your precise position. Is that going to make you stronger? Not unless you’re created by Stan Lee it won’t (Excelsior!). Will it kill you? Sure! Animals are not built to handle direct hits from interstellar objects flying at tremendous speeds. We can’t all be Kanye.

So it is possible for the thing that kills you and the thing that makes you stronger are totally different subsets of things. So, a more Kanye/Nietzschean interpretation of the saying does not classifying challenges or obstacles by degree, but leaves them as separate subsets, instead reducing and factoring out unimportant, extraneous things that would have other effects.

That is, in a Britney/Clarkson formulation of “What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger,” a breakup would have to make you stronger, because it sure doesn’t kill you.

Whereas in a Kanye/Nietzsche formulation of “What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger,” a breakup that neither kills you nor makes you stronger is simply of no consequence and does not warrant inclusion in the set of events that ought to be classified. It is a nonevent in life’s school of war.

That’s why you’re not lonely

Kelly’s song repeats a lot, so I’ll point out one more small patch of lyric, spread out over two verses:

You heard that I was starting over with someone new,

They told you I was moving on, over you,

You didn’t think that I’d come back, I’d come back swinging

You try to break me but you see

Thanks to you I got a new thing started

Thanks to you I’m not the broken hearted

Thanks to you I’m finally thinking ‘bot me

You know in the end the day I left was just my beginning….. in the end…”

We learn that Kelly Clarkson isn’t actually alone, and that she is in a new, better relationship!

Well, this is awkward. What happened to it being okay to be alone? Britney was okay with being alone,  despite dressing in a way that hinted that she might want company.

Also, why does this guy who left her get credit for this new relationship being more functional than the other ones? Again, this isn’t “Since U Been Gone,” where “Thanks to you, now I get what I want” has a biting irony (because what she wants is the guy to have left). Here what she got was finding another guy, a degree removed from the first guy leaving, and thus somehow caused in a less ironic, positive way by her experience with the abusive douche.

The best I can come up with is that, by living within a Britney/Clarkson formulation of “What does not kill me makes me stronger,” “Kelly Clarkson” was previously assuming that all things she encountered belonged to the subset of challenges, obstacles or misfortunes — that her old relationship was full of bad things, and pushing her to fight by being a terrible boyfriend who broke up with her traumatically made her more capable of taking care of herself in future relationships, because just getting better at stuff without all that pain isn’t something that happens in the world. I guess.

This sure seems to exonerate the boyfriend in an uncomfortable way. It is also about as far away from Nietzsche as we can get — when you are suffering and hopeless, you should find somebody to make you suffer more, because it will teach you to feel good about yourself. Yeah, Netizsche doesn’t really jive that way.

Also, Kelly’s video moves in the direction of placing her in the support of her world of fans, which also gives the sense that perhaps her song is a bit of wishful thinking, and she isn’t quite as strengthened by her experience as she might say she is.

In the end “Stronger (What Doesn’t Kill You)” doesn’t seem sincere from the point of view of the speaker — perhaps she is trying to convince herself of something that is not true, or, as in the video, she is speaking more encouragingly and broadly, supporting other people, and creating from these shared experience a sort of collage of wishful thinking.

After all, that might be the truest and most common formulation of the saying, “Hey, I know this thing sucked, but let’s try to be positive about it for the sake of being positive.” We’ve certainly all felt that way from time to time, and sometimes a platitude, even a contradictory one, can be deeply meaningful. Although Nietzsche wouldn’t like it very much.


The #1 Greatest Nietzsche-inspired pop music act of all time, it’s the #12 Billboard Hit “Baby I Love Your Way/Freebird Medley” by the 80s Miami dance-pop sensation Will to Power!!

Play us out, Zarathustra!!

8 Comments on “The Musical Talmud: “Stronger (What Doesn’t Kill You)” by Kelly Clarkson”

  1. KateGonzo #

    But, but…she says “What doesn’t kill YOU makes YOU stronger,” instead of “me” and “me.” Is that just an alteration of the original maxim into the second-person generalization/advice voice? Or, is it actually an address to the same “you” as in the verses?

    If the latter (or both), then it almost seems “Kelly Clarkson” had a tough breakup with the addressee, but is on friendly terms with him now. The bed is warmer because, while he was cold to her during their time as a couple, she is now warmed by the idea of having him as a friend. OR maybe they’re back together and better/warmer/less alone than ever, because what didn’t kill their relationship made it stronger.

    On a totally different note, what’s with the change in sound mixing at the chorus?


    • fenzel #

      This is a really interesting take — that it is the dumper who is getting stronger, not “Kelly Clarkson.”

      I suppose you could interpret the “somebody new” lines as that the guy got false information that she’d started a new relationship, but instead she actually did come back to him, but this time as an aggressive fighting type (it’s super-effective!!!) person who doesn’t put up with nonsense. And that now they’re in some sort of hateful love-fest of aggressive and violent affection to each other.

      Interesting! A stretch, but interesting!

      I’m more inclined to see the “you” changing — that instead of telling the guy that whatever doesn’t kill him makes him stronger, that she is repeating the saying to herself as somebody else said it to her, which hints at her not entirely believing or internalizing it, and mostly saying it to herself to feel better.

      The change in mixing is probably to make the shift to the hook more noticeable — songs these days have glitches and weird sounds thrown into them for straight-up cognitive manipulation — things sped up, slowed down or made strange so that you notice or remember them more, with the goal of making the song stick in your head and thus sell better.

      This song leans _heavily_ on its hook for its marketability — as is evidenced by the Toyota commercial I wish I had heard about before I wrote the piece. It looks as if they released the song with the intention of primarily making money off of it through licensing, rather than sales or downloads. Focus on making a really catchy hook that can sell products, and you can make more money from the song than if it is a #1 hit most people download for free.


      • KateGonzo #

        Yes, I get _why_ the change is there, but the hook is the part that sounds weird, and in a way that I _do not want_ to hear over and over.

        Let’s just both agree that “Since U Been Gone” is a far superior Kelly Clarkson breakup song. Things it has that “Stronger” doesn’t: a consistent separation of “me” and “you” (too many pop songs these days stray from this, sadly); a clearer plot; and biting irony. Also, the hook is highlighted by a much fuller sound, with heavy guitars and belting, rather than a thinner sound.


        • fenzel #

          Agree 110%. “Since U Been Gone” is a great song.

          This song is mediocre at best.


        • Gab #

          I think my favorite song along these lines from our modern pop icons is “Fighter” by Christina Aguilera. It does everything you list making “Since U Been Gone” superior. I think the story in that one is not only better laid-out, but just plain better- he’s coming back, thinking he was in the clear, and she’s rejecting him while not making any references to loneliness OR being with someone new. She “got through” the relationship and that made her stronger in every aspect of her life. She’s rejecting him because the experience made her capable of standing up for herself in the face of mistreatment of any kind.

          Sound-wise, I like how it’s rather rock-ee, and the cut-time and various plays with the tempo and beat that happen in the song are quite magnetic- musically, I think it’s quite complex, but well-executed.


  2. elephants #

    “Her triumph is not wholly over others, but over her own unhappiness, to achieving emotional maturity and self-empowerment — again, not things with which Nietzsche was particularly concerned.”

    This is horribly, horribly wrong.

    Nietzsche hates the type of slave morality where we need to triumph over others in order to be happy. He’s not about making other people feel bad but about doing what one feels that one should do. His entire philosophy revolves around a sort of internalistic lens. Allowing others to shape the way we feel and what our goals are is stupid according to Nietzsche, as is the entire idea of vengence.

    Nietzsche is all about self empowerment. And while his idea of emotional maturity is different than Brittney’s (thankfully!) he still supports self growth and development.

    Additionally, you overemphasize Nietzsche’s primitivism throughout this. He praised the natural not because of any virtue it had in itself, but because it was something different than the societal conventions which surrounded him. Nietzsche is not opposed to society or civilization or even cooperation per se, only the way that it’s usually done through manners and conventions, etc.


    • elephants #

      Also, just wanted to note that Nietzsche criticized Darwin for overemphasizing the survival of the fittest because Nietzsche thought it was more about power. That backs up what I’m saying.


    • elephants #

      Lastly, after finishing this, I do agree that Clarkson is just dripping with ressentiment throughout her piece.


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