Along with millions of viewers, I was moved to tears by Kelly Clarkson’s emotionally raw performance of her song, “Piece by Piece,” on American Idol on February 25. The following day, the song, which was originally released in November 2015, jumped to number one on iTunes, and just last week, Clarkson released a new Idol version.
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“I definitely didn’t know how it would affect me like it does when I sing it live,” Clarkson, who is expecting her second child with husband, Brandon Blackstock, recently told Ryan Seacrest. “It’s awesome, but it’s kind of sad that so many relate to this song.”
With one out of every three children today growing up in father-absent homes, it is sad but not surprising that a song about father abandonment would resonate so strongly.
The song was inspired by Clarkson’s estranged father, who split after her parents’ bitter divorce when she was a little girl, and by her husband’s relationship with their daughter. In an interview with the Associated Press, Clarkson shared that having her daughter helped her “understand the depth of the loss” of her father’s absence. “I didn’t really . . . grasp what that was until falling in love with my husband and seeing him be a father and what that actually is when it’s done well,” she said.
What’s so powerful about “Piece by Piece” is the contrast the song draws between an absent, uninvolved, and rejecting father, and a present, loving, and faithful father. It beautifully illustrates the harms of father-absence and the healing power of father-presence, and highlights the link between responsible fatherhood and marriage that is too often overlooked in our culture.
Father-absence hurts. “Piece by Piece” could be considered a sequel to Clarkson’s previous hit about her parents’ divorce, “Because of You,” because it highlights a common consequence of family breakdown, father-absence. From the first few lines, we learn more about her father, as she sings:
And all I remember is your back.
Walking towards the airport, leaving us all in your past.
This is a man who leaves and rejects his family, who doesn’t “take care of things,” who breaks his daughter’s heart, and who wants something in return for his love.
We also hear about the effects of father-absence when Clarkson sings about being abandoned, feeling “worthless,” and the “holes” her father burned in her.
These lines aren’t just for dramatic effect—they communicate an important truth about how father-absence harms girls in particular. We know from a vast amount of research that, for girls, father-absence is linked to low self-esteem, depression, early sexual activity, teen pregnancy, and poor relationships with men. Fathers have a major influence on their daughters’ sense of self-worth, their ability to trust men, and their likelihood of having healthy, lasting relationships.
Father-presence heals. “Piece by Piece” doesn’t just give us a portrait of a bad father; it also offers a picture of a good father who heals by being faithful and present. One of the song’s most important and repeated lines is, “that a father could stay,” which communicates that responsible fatherhood equals presence.
In the song, Clarkson points to her husband’s faithfulness, noting that he “never walks away,” and through his care and love for her and her daughter fills “the holes” her father’s absence created. She also praises him for being a present father to their daughter, who will not have to question “her worth.” His love, Clarkson sings, will “restore her faith that a man can be kind and a father could be . . . great.”
Clarkson recently told Ryan Seacrest, “Watching my husband love on his daughter all the time, you know . . . just be there and be present is . . . hard to watch but beautiful to watch. I know that my kids are going to have that.”
As Clarkson clearly recognizes, father-presence is important for children. In fact, kids who grow up in homes with their fathers are more likely than those who don’t to enjoy a host of positive outcomes, including better health. And fathers are more likely to be present and involved when they are married to their children’s mother. Conversely, when marriage fails or is missing, fathers are more likely (although not always) to be missing or distant from their children’s lives.
“Piece by Piece” is more than just a song about good fathers versus bad fathers; it also traces the effects of healthy versus broken families. It reminds us not only why fathers are so important but also why marriage is intimately connected to responsible fatherhood; together, they have the power to heal.