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Frampton, Clarkson: A fair comparison

The Kentucky State Fair prides itself on tradition, right down to the music it presents.

At first glance, the 14 concerts slated for the fair's 11-day run in Louisville seem no different. The roster is heavy with popular country acts, classic rock staples and a lineup of free performances showcasing guitar rock, contemporary Christian music, '60s pop and, yes, more country.

But something unusual — and perhaps unintentional — will highlight the fair's opening on Thursday. Simultaneously, two pop stars from different generations, who obtained chart-topping popularity in contrasting ways, will play that night on stages separated by only a few thousand feet and stalls filled with prize mules and cattle.

Outside at Cardinal Stadium, the site of the fair's free concerts, '70s pop-rock poster boy Peter Frampton performs. Across the grounds, indoors at Freedom Hall, the very first American Idol, Kelly Clarkson, will hold court.

If nothing else, the single-night billing underscores how differently pop "idols" have ascended to stardom over the decades.

Frampton's reign at the top was brief but substantial. His 1976 concert album, Frampton Comes Alive!, was released when live records were essential to a major-label rock act's commercial life span. It hit No. 1, sold 6 million copies and scored three top 20 singles.

But by the time the 1977 studio follow-up, I'm in You, emerged, Frampton's time in the limelight was waning. By the end of the decade, he was a spent commercial force despite strong early-'80s albums including Breaking All the Rules.

Upon winning the inaugural season of American Idol in 2002, Clarkson hit the pop charts with a No. 1 hit, A Moment Like This. She would score eight more top 20 singles by early 2007 and amass worldwide record sales of more than 20 million.

There have been misfires in recent years — openly aired managerial shake-ups and a substantial slip in record sales until My Life Would Suck Without You took her back to No. 1 this year — but Clarkson remains one of the two American Idol winners (Carrie Underwood being the other) to have any kind of lasting performance career.

But a look at the bigger picture evens the score a little. Clarkson entered her 20s when her career took off. When Frampton was 20, he was wrapping up a three-year stint with the British post-psychedelic pop and boogie band Humble Pie to embark on a solo career and was recording the landmark All Things Must Pass with George Harrison. Frampton Comes Alive!, with material pulled from four early-'70s solo albums, was six years away.

In short, Frampton attained stardom after years of recording and touring, only to lose it in a critical — and, eventually, commercial — backlash. Clarkson was the nearly instant creation of a wildly popular television program, and she had no previous professional performance exposure.

Today, Frampton lives in Cincinnati with his third wife and maintains an active touring career. The surprise, though, came in 2006, when his often-overlooked skills as a guitarist were spotlighted on an instrumental album, Fingerprints. It won Frampton his first and only Grammy. Perhaps, then, a better name for his next album might be Frampton Stays Alive.

Clarkson won a pair of Grammys in 2005 for her single Since U Been Gone and its corresponding album, Breakaway. But it's hard to imagine a career renaissance for Clarkson 30 years from now that would compare to Frampton's recent success with Fingerprints. Despite the initial popularity of My Life Would Suck Without You, Clarkson's current single, I Do Not Hook Up, sits at No 82 on the Billboard Hot 100 (it peaked at 20). And although it hit No. l, All I Ever Wanted remains the weakest seller of Clarkson's four albums.

Another possible indication that Clarkson's strength as a concert act might be suffering: For two days last week, the fair offered half-price tickets to her concert.

It's a fickle thing, this pop-star business. Whether you come to life on a TV screen or celebrate the commercial afterlife with a record on which you keep your mouth shut, it remains a field in which performers are embraced and disposed of as readily as chewing gum.

But on Thursday, the fair will show us which surface two pop giants of the present and past are sticking to.

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