Fundamental Independence

People always wants to predict the next Michael Jordan, Tom Brady, Derek Jeter, etc. These comparisons are always made to early with limited bodies of work from which to pull. Young athletes are overanalyzed and are given expectations which are nearly impossible to meet. Once they fall short, the early lauding shifts to criticism. These criticisms come from those who made the expectations. I’ve always felt this was unfair. Let talented individuals have their own greatness. Greatness that shouldn’t be taken away from them due to a separate individual’s greatness. If I eat a delicious steak, but someone I had 11th grade English with enjoys a slightly more delicious steak a few blocks away, my steak is not ruined. We both enjoyed our steaks. I feel the same about athletes. We should be happy to enjoy all the different talents without worrying where they fall on the all time list.

Being on an all time list sets you as the hopeful expectation of those who follow with your characteristics.  Undeniably one of the best of all time, Tim Duncan checks all the boxes of being a legend, except one. Tim Duncan appears to be the least comparable, at least in these terms. Young power forwards aren’t showered with Tim Duncan comparisons. No shoes going unfilled.

Tim Duncan is a different kind of legend. Even though his retirement is recent, his game and demeanor seem part of a different age.  He cemented his status quietly and consistently while leaving few questions to ask throughout his career. The only reason there wouldn't be Duncan statue within the next decade is if he himself speaks against it (which is plausible). Duncan let his work do the talking. Any question about his prowess could be met with a pile of trophies and rings. I believe it’d be a cooler gesture to have your trophies in pile like dirty laundry than a glass case. Albeit, this is the opinion held by a man with only briefcase full of participation ribbons.

These accolades and benchmarks aren’t available for other revered performers. Subjective awards don’t mean as much. Winners are always disputed and the list of those who’ve won extends to a substantially wider range. A list of all the Grammy’s is less of a ‘who’s who’ and more of a ‘who’s that’. Without these benchmarks to serve as a foundation for legacies, those in the arts are largely defined by their brightest periods. Consistency is held at less of a premium. Those with shorter careers at the very top are viewed as superior to those who have been consistently relevant. As music goes, this is most applicable to pop stars. Those whose whole worth is defined by popularity (it’s in the name).

Although NBA stars are too often compared to the players of the past,I think there is a whole world of discourse being missed by not comparing NBA players to the pop stars of their era. They are graded differently, but the effect they have on the public can draw comparisons. One star in particular has a similar path to Duncan, but due to her field of excellence does not receive the deserved amount of respect. Kelly Clarkson is the Tim Duncan of pop stars and should be treated as such.

Duncan won his first NBA championship in 1999. This happened on the heels of a shortened lockout season and in the midst of all the Y2K hysteria. The sure thing had come to fruition. Jordan was gone again and Duncan was there to fill the void. I was nine years old at the time and the NBA was my favorite thing on TV. A few of my other favorite things on TV were also three letter acronyms: MTV and more specifically TRL. This was the year Britney Spears came to power with ‘Hit Me Baby One More Time”.

One school girl outfit worn improperly ushered in a new generation of young female pop stars. Christina, two Simpson sisters, Destiny’s Child, Brandy, JLO etc. Nelly Fertado etc Mandy Moore.. A few years later I saw Britney in concert, and it was fantastic. Dancing, lasers, fireworks, and the hits (what a night).  She was the model for an entertainer. You were discovered as a young  star who could sing to stadiums before you could even drive a car, and then we all got to watch you grow up one VMA ceremony at a time.

Kelly’s rise to fame was on a different avenue. There were less growing pains to be shown to all. Kelly Clarkson incubated more than other pop stars before being introduced to our radios. Others jumped at the first opportunity to get a record contract. Kelly waited patiently. In her late teens, Clarkson was offered with recording contracts, but she turned them down. The opportunity did not seem right. She didn't just want to do it. She wanted to do it right. Much the same way Duncan elected to remain in college rather than leaving early for the NBA draft. Both watched their contemporaries reach higher success before them with the faith that their patience would pay off.

The fruits of their fortitude put them both in a position where they had the highest potential and expectations to live up to. Duncan graduated as the undisputed prize of the NBA draft and Kelly Clarkson was our inaugural American Idol. These distinctions came with high hopes but little certainty. Number one picks in the draft had saved franchises when done right and hobbled others when he could not live up to the hype. American Idol the television show had been an enormous success but guaranteed nothing for Clarkson. Due to the unpredictable and short attention span of the masses, winning American Idol only ensured that Clarkson had the biggest possible distance to fall. Potential and probability don’t always correlate with success. That’s why we watched the games and the bought the albums, and we were made better by doing so.

There was never any doubt that they were the best of their own class. Their peers in the draft and American Idol were of an apparent lesser caliber.  Nothing flashy or particularly terrible about either one. The second selections they were up against were Keith Van Horn and Justin Guarini. Respectable and talented no doubt, but lacking star power. No kid was going to trudge through a mall, past the Auntie Anne’s and cell phone cover kiosk,  to buy a poster of either. Van Horn had a decent career as a solid role player on good teams, but nothing spectacular. Guarini had a less glamorous trajectory. His most memorable moment is losing Idol in a pile of Kelly’s confetti and having the honor of being the first to congratulate our American Idol. The only other news I heard from him was that he almost ran over a child in a Jet Ski. Even starring alongside Kelly in a movie could not give him the bump he needed to stick around. For Duncan and Clarkson, the real question was whether or not their high expectations were warranted or if they were inflated due to the competition surrounding them.

Both quickly made the general public realize that the hype had been politely met right at the front door. Tim Duncan was spectacular from the start. Rookie of the year and all star selection in his first year in the league.He quickly cemented himself as a foundation and remained as such for the coming decades.Clarkson was announced as our first American Idol and sang “A Moment Like This”. Song was perfect at the time and stayed that way for the coming months. The song rose to the top of the charts within three weeks of its release and became the best selling single of the year. The success was proven which left sustainability as the next hurdle.

They both had to prove these weren’t merely flashes in a pan. Having a championship ring or number one single is an admirable thing but not enough to cement you as one of the best. Some questionable and forgettable characters make it into both clubs. Right Said Fred and Adam Morrison both had their time atop the mountain, but they’re not in any all time lists..  Having a flag on the summit says little. You have to spend some time up there. Buy a home and even some rental properties. Only mountaintop landlords go down as all time greats.

Duncan’s recent retirement makes his career easier to assess. The consistency and success are already in ink. Clarkson shares a similar type of resume, and there is still room for more. There’s no way to predict how the twilight of her career will play out much less when that time will come.

Clarkson has showed no signs of stopping over the years. No pivots to other ventures or indications that she wants hide away to a more quiet life. She has carried herself like an individual who takes the title of American Idol seriously. America is still here, so she keeps churning out the hits. Many speculate about a possible World War Three resulting in a nuclear holocaust and the destruction of these United States of America. When I play this movie in my head I picture Clarkson perched atop a pile of rubble belting out a tune to bring us all together again. Through the strife, she’s still our idol. She’s given no indication of leaving and no reason for us to believe she is going to peter out.

Clarkson has remained a part of pop culture for the past fifteen years because she was going to be a star independent of American Idol. The show undoubtedly gave her a catapult into stardom, but it’s not the only reason. It’s like saying Duncan was good mostly due to his height. Many of the idols have plateaued or fizzled out and there are seven footers who are computer programmers. Her patience in her early career moves prove she intended to be around for a while. Other American Idols tried their hands at other artistic ventures or fell out of music all together. Clarkson decided she was just gonna stick with making hits. Ever since “A Moment Like This” top the charts, Clarkson has had a top 100 hit for the majority of the past 15 years. Not always at the top, but always around. Hovering in the lexicon and never leaving or going on hiatus.

As Duncan was lauded for his ability to take a backseat in the limelight, Clarkson’s prowess has been marginalized by not always shining the brightest. One of Duncan’s best attributes was his ability as a great teammate, but there’s no teammate’s in the pop world. In his last two championships, Duncan did not win finals MVP honors. Willing to defer in order for the greater good. The stardom was not important to Clarkson. For a pop star, she has maintained a fairly tame profile. The personal life section of her wikipedia page is only three lines long. She let the hits do the talking, which can leave you on the back burner. Controversy, scandal, and drama keep stars in our minds and directs the public toward their work. Clarkson never had the noteworthy public persona that would drive listeners towards her hits. No high profile romances, public breakdowns, or scandalous award show performances. Kelly seems like the person who would make banana bread for the paparazzi waiting outside her home, which made her an undesirable target for the media and tabloids. At the time, this approach might have hindered her level of success or fame, but in the long run it proves to be a testament to the quality of the work itself.

Both Duncan and Clarkson focused more on the work than the fame. The spotlight was not a precious resource that had be consumed to the fullest at every possible juncture. These two knew they were going to be around for a while. Duncan spent the latter part of his career taking pay cuts to provide his team with best chance at winning. He knew taking less would not impact his value or role on the team and he continued to be the keystone player. Pop stars don’t have physical signs that there career is winding down. The only ticking clock is that of the public’s interest. Clarkson has never made moves in order to manipulate this interest. Kelly has had no disappearance from the spotlight or allusions to this being the last album/tour to drum up demand. She has conducted herself quite the opposite. A decade after she came to popularity, she released her first greatest hits compilation and named it Greatest Hits-Chapter One. Chapter One!?!?! She’s calling her shot for more albums with hits. Mind you, enough hits to constitute an additional album only for hits. She might be soft spoken, but she is not timid. Along with releasing three albums since this compilation she has also began work on a series of children’s books following main character River Rose. These stories include jingles written by Clarkson and are likely to gain her another generation of fans. She has ensure that a younger generation will continue her legacy much the same that Duncan fostered younger players in order to continue the success he pioneered.

Duncan will have a statue and a jersey retired, but there aren’t similar ways to cement Clarkson’s legacy and body of work.  First, I think we should make the phrase American Idol synonymous with Clarkson. The terms should be interchangeable rather than related. Anytime a competition is judged by three people immediately following his or her performance it should be referred to as ‘Kelly Clarkson’ style judging. All Idols following Clarkson should be referred to as Kelly sequels.

Finally we need to campaign to get her into the Super Bowl halftime show. She has sung the national anthem for the game before, but never been a part of the halftime show. Why not? Our idol has found herself in the sweet spot where she will never be eligible to be sing and dance on that halftime stage presented by Pepsi. These halftime performances go by the model of one main attractions with surprise guests sprinkled guests. Kelly does not fit the archetype for either role. The headliner. The one who makes the announcement by jumping out of a cake or something. That’s not gonna be Kelly. She has the star power to do it, but is too wholesome for the gimmicks to come along. The producers want a pop star who will make dudes think “man, I wanna bang her” not “oh boy if only I could marry a girl with that talent and perspective”. Not the the right kind of star to carry months of ads. She’s also not one to be surprised with. Unlisted guest are always expected so the surprise results from what type of performer it is. Someone who you wouldn’t expect to collaborate or someone who has dipped out of the limelight in recent years. Too bad for Kelly because she fits with everyone and SHE HAS NEVER LEFT. An obvious pick for the anthem because it’s no question that she should be at the party just not on the mainstage. Duncan was always an All Star but did little outside of play in the game. No showboating during the game or participation in the contests. For some, just getting the invite is enough and they can leave the life of the party to someone else.

In the coming years, someone will be tasked with making the order on all the material for the Duncan statue. Probably metal for the figure  and  a stone base. These products will be morphed into a pose that can be used as a teaching moment. Whatever snapshot they choose to solidify it will be of Duncan doing exact right thing for that moment. The right position, form, and choice all encompassed in one because he was Mr Fundamental. Miss Independent might have to remain that way for a while. Independent from regular pop stardom, any specific period, and of a niche. Clarkson has been simply great the whole time and will continue to be. There is not going to be a statue for Clarkson anytime soon because statues are for looking back and she leaves us looking forward for the Greatest Hits Chapters to come.

Conor Delehanty