In 2009, I crossed several state lines to see Kelly Clarkson at the Great Allentown Fair, a multi-day festival of fried foodstuffs and agricultural wonders.
Clarkson was promoting All I Ever Wanted, an album that had come out earlier in the year and which some championed as her return to big-ticket pop. Dr. Luke and Max Martin, the alchemists behind Clarkson's mega-hit "Since U Been Gone," had co-produced its lead track, "My Life Would Suck Without You." The rest of the album surprised with nods to doo-wop and Spoon, alongside crisp tracks like the firm but cheeky "I Do Not Hook Up."
That night, in addition to many tracks from Wanted, Clarkson performed Janet Jackson's "If," a single that had burned up dance floors nearly two decades before. In its original form, the track—produced by soul savants Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis—pairs the punchy with the vulnerable. Jackson's voice drops low as she fantasizes about someone going "down da down down down da down down." She then soars high, adding sweetness when she sings "If I was your gi-irllll, all the things I'd do to youuuu." Its lust is fleshed out by the humanity and made more delirious by the chaotic instrumental beneath it.
Clarkson's version was great, too. In addition to her formidable vocal approach, her band added a horn section that exploded in the chorus. At the time, I fantasized about an album of hers produced by Jam and Lewis, or at least an unauthorized cover of Jackson's 1986 landmark Control.
Neither of those things happened, but in the six years since I had the thought, the roads of Clarkson and Jackson have actually run parallel several times. Taken together, they paint a celebrity portrait of 21st-century problems and perseverance, where stars with very public troubles have worked the media to create second or third chances for themselves. In 2015, with new albums out or on the way, both Clarkson (who canceled her Saturday night date in Raleigh due to vocal strain) and Jackson (who arrives Thursday) have done exactly that.
Clarkson's neon-bright Wanted represented a penance of sorts. In 2007, the inaugural American Idol champ released her third album, My December, and encountered a lot of strife. TMZ reported breathlessly on her creative conflicts with industry titan Clive Davis, then leading the Sony-BMG label group. A knotty, obstinate record, December drew inspiration from Alanis Morissette's Jagged Little Pill. Clarkson described it as "a story of the past two years, all the highs and lows."
It tanked. The vituperative debut single, "Never Again," peaked at No. 8 on the Hot 100. Its tour shifted from arenas to theaters.
While Clarkson and Davis tussled, Jackson tried to restore her reputation. In 2004, at Super Bowl XXXVIII, Justin Timberlake ripped off part of Jackson's shirt. Jackson fared much worse than Timberlake did in the court of public opinion. In 2006, as Timberlake flew high with FutureSex/LoveSounds, she released the inert 20 Y.O., the final piece of her $80 million, four-album deal with Virgin Records. Two years later, she flopped yet again with Discipline, an album whose first single had a line about her swag being "heavy like a first-day period."
These faulty marketplace landings weren't just Jackson's fault. In the late '00s, pop radio shied away from R&B. And as the popularity of gossip blogs like Perez Hilton and TMZ skyrocketed, ageism dominated discussions of female celebrities. But the albums also felt tentative, following current trends too closely and obscuring the independence, clarity and attitude that made songs like "If" and "Control" such strong statements.
For extremely different reasons, 2009—the year Clarkson covered Jackson—became a turning point for both singers. Wanted's first single, the relentlessly upbeat "My Life Would Suck Without You," hit No. 1, and Clarkson returned to pop nobility. In June, however, Jackson's brother and role model, Michael, died while preparing for his "This Is It" run at London's O2 Arena. That fall—about 10 days after I'd gone to Pennsylvania, actually—she paid tribute to her brother by performing their pressure-cooker duet, "Scream," at the MTV Video Music Awards. The moment seemed cathartic for Jackson.
Both Clarkson and Jackson followed with statements of intent in 2011, Clarkson with the album Stronger and Jackson with her greatest-hits tour. Stronger was a slightly more demure record than its predecessor, with its title track proclaiming her resilience. For Jackson, even more recent songs like "Feedback" (the one with the menstrual metaphor) became elevated in the fierce company of the crackling "The Pleasure Principle" and the sumptuous "Love Will Never Do (Without You)."
Jackson and Clarkson come from extremely different places: Jackson's a member of American pop's first family. She spun a thin, high voice into platinum status. Clarkson, the lusty belter, attained stardom on network television. But their music resonates because of shared humanity; even less commercially successful efforts like My December and "Feedback" work because they are products of artists who are willing to let their scars show.
Clarkson's latest album, Piece By Piece, is her seventh, and her setlist for her summer tour relies on it heavily, even if it sounds like a stopgap. (It's the final piece of the recording contract she signed after winning Idol.) But Clarkson's shows are still vibrant affairs, even when her material doesn't soar like "Since U Been Gone." She's a chatty, ebullient presence, and her "open mic" segment, where one audience member gets a shot to wow the crowd, goes far beyond the normal "come up and dance a little" offerings of most big-ticket tours.
Earlier this month, Jackson released the title track from her forthcoming Jam-and-Lewis-produced album, Unbreakable, which she's releasing on her own Rhythm Nation Records. "Our love is divine, and it's unbreakable," she sings. This is the most settled she's sounded in years; the record's devotionals could be addressed to those fans who have remained loyal, her husband, Wissam Al Mana, or both.
That self-assured stance and sparkling chorus reinforce what seems to motivate Jackson and Clarkson when they are at their best. As Clarkson sort of sang in "Stronger," what doesn't kill you makes you a better pop star.
This article appeared in print with the headline "Dream street"