By Dr Oliver Tearle (Loughborough University)
‘Behind These Hazel Eyes’ is one of Kelly Clarkson’s greatest songs. It appeared on her second album, Breakaway, and Clarkson has commented that the song is her favourite track on the album. Indeed, the album was very nearly named after ‘Behind These Hazel Eyes’ rather than ‘Breakaway’.
But what is the meaning of the song? Let’s take a closer look at the lyrics.
‘Behind These Hazel Eyes’: summary
The song is about a break-up and sees Clarkson addressing a former lover, who she was once to close to that he felt like a part of her. Being with him made her proud and strong. Everything felt all right when he had his arms around her: she felt invincible.
But now he’s gone and they’re no longer together, she finds it difficult to sleep or even to breathe calmly and get on with her life. She’s barely keeping it together. She’s emotionally ruined, as though she’s been torn to pieces. She feels emotionally hurt by the break-up because she believed her ex was her one true love, and he turned out not to be.
But although she’s crying over him, she will make sure he never gets to see her tears – because she will not cry ‘on the outside’ any more. Her suffering is now purely internal, and she has stopped crying actual tears over him.
The second verse of the song is about how she opened up to him and trusted him, but he hurt her. She puts on a brave face and pretends to be keeping it together, because she doesn’t want to give him the satisfaction of seeing how much he hurt her. She has her pride.
She confides that she blames herself for hating him and for still allowing him to live rent-free, as the phrase has it, in her head. But she doesn’t cry over him any more – at least, not in the traditional sense. Her only tears are shed behind her eyes, in her mind and in her heart.
‘Behind These Hazel Eyes’: meaning
What is the meaning of this song, then, according to the one who wrote it?
In an interview with Entertainment Weekly, Kelly Clarkson explained that the song is about a ‘dipstick’ who ‘completely screwed up’ and is now unhappy as a result. However, her wording is ambiguous: is the ‘dipstick’ the useless boyfriend or the mistreated girl who sings the song?
We’d rightly assume the former, although Clarkson’s suggestion in this interview that the boyfriend is now unhappy while the girl is happy doesn’t convince. Is the speaker in this song really all that happy? She’s still crying tears, albeit only internally, and there’s little sign of how the ex-boyfriend is now feeling.
In many ways, it’s the second verse of ‘Behind These Hazel Eyes’ that reveals its core meaning: the gulf between reality and illusion, between our inward suffering and the outward selves we project to the world. Of course, this theme is hinted at by the song’s title: her ‘hazel eyes’ are what the outside world sees, but behind them, her mind is grieving over the lost relationship.
She puts on a brave face and pretends to be keeping it together, because she doesn’t want to give him the satisfaction of seeing how much he hurt her. But all that’s left of her, as she says, is what she pretends to be: in other words, her authentic self has been completely obliterated by the suffering he caused her.
This is not your run-of-the-mill song of about being empowered and stronger now a useless lover has been jettisoned: no mere replay of Viola Wills’ ‘Gonna Get Along Without You Now’ or Shakespears Sister’s ‘You’re History’. Clarkson’s lyrics cleverly reveal the loss of self that a serious break-up can cause.
Critics have often assumed that the song was inspired by Clarkson’s break-up with David Hodges, formerly of Evanescence, although it appears that the original lyrics to the song were composed when Clarkson and Hodges were still together. However, it is true that Clarkson revised the lyrics to the song in light of their split, in order to express the depth of her pain.
Kelly Clarkson also recorded a haunting acoustic version of ‘Behind These Hazel Eyes’, which was the ‘B-side’ on the CD single release of the track. You can listen to this version here. What makes this song superior to the main uptempo version of the song, in our (perhaps perverse) view, is the way Clarkson’s voice brilliantly falters, to reveal her vulnerability, on the line ‘Just thought you were the one …’