Kelly Clarkson still doesn’t get the respect she deserves. Fourteen years after winning the debut season of American Idol, she has yet to amass the cultural caché of contemporaries like Beyoncé and Adele. But damn, can she sing.
She proved as much at the very end of Seth Meyers’s first New Year’s Eve special on NBC Saturday night when she took the stage to belt out her version of “It’s Quiet Uptown,” a stand-out track on this past month’s Hamilton Mixtape album of covers, demos and remixes from Lin-Manuel Miranda’s hit Broadway show.
On an album full of excellent new takes on Hamilton hits by stars like Busta Rhymes, Usher, Sia, and more, Clarkson’s song stands more or less alone in its ability to surpass the original version from the cast album, sung primarily by Renée Elise Goldsberry, who plays Alexander Hamilton’s sister-in-law Angelica.
There was no way Usher was going to out-sing Leslie Odom Jr. on “Wait for It,” but Clarkson does manage to take “It’s Quiet Uptown” to an anthemic height it never quite reaches in the show. (Ja Rule achieves something similar in his throwback verse with Ashanti on “Helpless.”)
And it’s fitting that Meyers chose to end his New Year’s Eve special with this performance by Clarkson. 2016 was the year of Hamilton in numerous ways, from the cast’s ground-breaking performance at the Grammy Awards in February to President-elect Trump’s unlikely feud with the show in November. But beyond that, the song’s lyrics perfectly encapsulate the mournful attitude that much of the country is feeling after a year in which the “unimaginable” happened politically and so many great pop-culture icons were lost.
In the context of the musical, the song comes toward the end of show after Hamilton’s son Philip has been shot and killed in a duel. Hamilton blames himself for his son’s death and moves uptown to grieve and retreat from public life. Miranda famously sent a demo of the devastating song to Oskar Eustis, artistic director of The Public Theater, after the early Hamilton supporter’s son committed suicide.
“For me, the beautiful thing about ‘Quiet Uptown’ is, it serves a ritualistic function—it takes us into the grief, and then it takes us out of it,” Eustis told The New York Times this past fall. “And there’s nothing, there’s no other ritual that I know of, that can do that for me.”
“There are moments that the words don’t reach. There is a grace too powerful to name,” Angelica, and now Clarkson, sings in the song. “We push away what we can never understand. We push away the unimaginable.”
Those words feel just as relevant to this tragedy-filled year as another refrain from the show—“The World Turned Upside-Down”—did when the cast performed that song in the wake of the massacre at a gay nightclub in Orlando at the Tony Awards in June.
While losing the presidency is a very different type of grief from losing a child, the words that Angelica, Eliza and others use to describe Hamilton in the song could just as easily refer to the much-parodied image of Hillary Clinton, taking somber walks in the woods near her house in Chappaqua, New York, in the days following the election.
“If you see him in the street, walking by himself, talking to himself, have pity,” they sing. “He is working through the unimaginable. His hair has gone grey. He passes every day. They say he walks the length of the city.” The song is about coming to grips with a reality that never seemed possible, something Clinton and those who assumed she would be taking the oath of office on Jan. 20 are still struggling through today.
The thundering climax of Clarkson’s cover comes in the last 30 seconds of the song. While the original version begins to fade out near the end, the company singing more softly as the song comes to a close, Clarkson allows herself only a brief moment of quiet before building toward a powerful finish.
“Forgiveness. Can you imagine?” she sings, growing louder. When she repeats that phrase, it soars over the background vocalists, giving the song an emotional resonance it never reaches on stage.
If you need one more cathartic cry before starting fresh and gearing up for what will no doubt be an equally challenging 2017, look no further.