Most 21st century pop stars work overtime demonstrating how different they are from the general populace: dressing up as mermaids, executing military-precise choreography, flying above crowds on cotton-candy clouds. But Kelly Clarkson busts her ass doing the exact opposite — convincing us, and herself, that she is and always has been one of us.
More than any other pop presence of the past decade, Clarkson really is one of us, plucked from thousands of hopefuls as the first-ever winner of American Idol. And despite nine years and five albums in the major-label wringer, onstage at Radio City Music Hall Saturday night in New York, she came off endearingly goofy, genuinely thankful, and above all convincingly normal.
Clarkson's tour supporting last year's outstanding Stronger is devoid of rotating stages and pyrotechnics. The only thing moving and exploding during her 25-song set is her astoundingly emotive voice. Her wardrobe changes consist of adding sequined jackets from what could be the Liza Minnelli fall collection to sparkly tank tops that only occasionally catch the spotlight. But nobody comes to a Kelly Clarkson concert for escapism. We come for the group therapy of belting weepy revenge anthems chased by spunky empowerment anthems. Her show was heavy on both, including punchy "Gone," an older song she said fans had demanded return to the set list, and the crushing new "Let Me Down."
About midway through the concert, Clarkson twisted the focus off of her own catalog and celebrated music she simply loves as a fan, covering Florence + the Machine and a Barbra Streisand song from Funny Girl. For Etta James, who'd passed two days prior, she sang "I'd Rather Go Blind" with her eyes closed and head tossed back, concluding with a heartfelt, "Hopefully she liked that." With her band seated around her, intimate jazz club-style, she launched into a mini set of her older songs reimagined with girl-group shoop, including "The Trouble With Love Is" and "Walk Away."
Vocally, Clarkson was impeccable, nailing every big note and wistful whisper as she worked her way back and forth across the broad Radio City stage. But even as she turned out take-that singles "Mr. Know It All" and "Miss Independent" (sutured together as the one-two punch that ended the show), she kept returning to her default setting: just a girl in the world. Plucking a stray hair from her arm after a stripped-bare version of "Never Again" with her pianist, the 29-year-old singer told a brief, awkward anecdote about being squeamish about bugs, then joked, "I'm rocking so hard, my hair is falling out, what?" When the crowd giggled, she quickly added a second layer of self-effacement: "And that's reason 337 why I'm single right there."
The sold-out crowd lovingly cheered that comment, of course. Kelly Clarkson's fans don't have a cutesy nickname or signature gesture, but there's a reason why everyone fights for the microphone when "Since U Been Gone" comes on at the karaoke bar. And when she commanded the room to sing along to "Breakaway," 6,000 voices — tweens, 30somethings and dads, guys and girls, gays and straights — opened their mouths and set themselves free, just like she did.