RetroPop: Would Jane Eyre Totally Heart Kelly Clarkson's “Stronger (What Doesn't Kill You)"?

Charlotte Bronte and Kelly Clarkson

Hello there and welcome once again to RetroPop—the guest blog where we put female-performed Top 40 pop tunes up next to works from great female writers of the past and ask, “Heyyyyy, did you guys know you’re doing something kinda similar?” The point, as always, is to try to help us all hear new layers in what many people believe to be pop fluff, and also to haul our favorite historical lady writers into the 21st century to a razzmatazz booty-shaking beat. Now.

If there’s one pop star who can make me nearly swerve off the road while driving, due to wild one-armed dancing action paired with a silent weep, it’s my good friend Kelly Clarkson. Here is my confession: I am a big blubbery emotional softie smoosh. Like, the Banjoemotional equivalent of Dairy Queen. Many things set me off, but nothing moreso than a good impassioned pop tune. I like to play such hits on my banjo, but I often have to take breaks for my voice to crack when I start to sob ever so slightly at the chorus or bridge. And “Stronger (What Doesn’t Kill You)” by Kelly Clarkson is one of those that brings a tear to my eye almost every time.

I’m not going to lie; I’m going through some stuff right now. I’m not in the same romantic situation as the narrator in Kelly’s lyrics, there is no brutish lout kicked to the curb. But that more metaphoric motivation, the feeling like it’s life that keeps kicking me in the bum rather than a romantic interest who’s being one, that’s something I can really relate to at this moment in my existence. You didn’t think I’d make it, Life, after that last crappy thing you did to knock me down? I’m comin’ back swinging! (See? I’m tearing up right now just thinking about it.)

You know who else could relate to this kind of survivor spirit, if, perhaps, not so much the incessant inappropriate weeping? That’s right: Jane Eyre.

For those who haven’t seen the gorgeously shot and moody Cary Fukunaga film version of this story, here’s its trailer, and also you could go here if you want a basic literary analysis kind of reminder of what’s up in the book.

Charlotte Brontë’s heroine is one of those passionate, complex, and amazingly powerful female characters from the literary canon who is just synonymous with the mojo behind “Stronger.”

Cheap-looking gyspy Halloween costumeNo, she didn’t shrink when she was abused by her icky family! No, she didn’t crumple into a ball when her best friend died at girls school! No, she didn’t fall apart when Mr. Rochester dressed up like an old gypsy woman and pretended to creepily tell her future. And that’s all even before we’ve gotten to the darn “madwoman in the attic”!

Jane is this fabulous representation of a creative and empathetic woman who knows how to use her own agency, and works it, even when it seems like she has little to none. And, I hate to point out the obvious, but it does seem like what doesn’t kill her seems to make her… well… y’know.

Same can’t be said for poor old steely Mr. Rochester! When life gives him a wife who destroys his estate, he ends up ailing, blind, bearded, living in a modest cottage with little more than his horrible memories and broken heart. Good thing Jane was able to get so strong from all her adversity so she can tend to him.

I’d be irritated that she uses all that strength from all those struggles to take care of a man, but you know, she really, REALLY loves the guy and it seems like that’s what she genuinely wants to do. After all the awesomely logical and survivalist decisions she made to keep herself alive, I’m not going to argue with that reasoning.

Kelly Clarkson, please dance with lots of bicep-flexing moves in your music video if you agree. Okay, great. Jane would like your dance moves too, and what they mean, and she says as much in Chapter 12:

Women are supposed to be very calm generally: but women feel just as men feel; they need exercise for their faculties, and a field for their efforts as much as their brothers do; they suffer from too rigid a restraint, too absolute a stagnation, precisely as men would suffer; and it is narrow-minded in their more privileged fellow-creatures to say that they ought to confine themselves to making puddings and knitting stockings, to playing on the piano and embroidering bags. It is thoughtless to condemn them, or laugh at them, if they seek to do more or learn more than custom has pronounced necessary for their sex.

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

Previously: RetroPop: Ellie Goulding’s “Lights” and Emily Dickinson’s Dark; RetroPop: Is the Dude in P!nk’s “Blow Me (One Last Kiss)” Just A 2012 Version of Heathcliff from Wuthering Heights?

by Brianna Goldberg
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