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Treacle or Claymation?

UNCC alum Clay Aiken thrives as America's Sweetheart

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If you're unfamiliar with the milquetoast vocal stylings of Clay Aiken, then I envy the sound-proofed cave you've been living in for the past three years. Even those über-hip underground music aficionados who successfully manage to immerse themselves in artists who are destined for a career in lawn care cannot have entirely avoided the crooning of the UNCC and American Idol alum. If you have dodged Aiken's rise to fame then count your blessings or the cash in your wallet -- Aiken performs with the Charlotte Symphony Orchestra for a Christmas Concert on Dec. 22nd at the Blumenthal Performing Arts Center.

Criticism of Aiken is nothing new. In fact, it seems part and parcel of success that comes as part of being associated with American Idol. Had Aiken merely relied on his boyish charm and Eisenhower-era musical aesthetics to propel him to the top of the charts, he might still be the curiously androgynous Special Education teacher in Charlotte or Raleigh that he set out to be.

However, thanks to the gloriously mediocre tastes of middle-class Americans who are so poorly educated that they find it a wise economic choice to spend their money on the bread and circus of "voting" for the next American Idol, Aiken has been propelled to stardom. As Hasselhoff is to Germany, so is Aiken to the world's fastest declining superpower. In fact, one could probably not have selected a better poster boy for the decline of western civilization than Aiken. (Then again, his most recent album, A Thousand Different Ways -- which should have been subtitled " ... to Deny Your Sexuality" -- has sold nearly two million fewer copies than his debut, Measure of a Man, which perhaps indicates that Americans are either waking up or demonstrating their usual brief attention spans.)

But perhaps I crack the rhetorical whip a little too harshly upon Clay (though if Frank Zappa were alive today, I've no doubt that the lyrics of "Punky's Whips" would be adjusted to accommodate the revelation of Aiken's appearance in today's rapidly changing world ... ). Despite the fact that his anachronistic style puts him at odds with critics who are actually less musically talented than he (and I'm certainly in that group), Aiken doesn't completely squander his fame.

Along with Charlottean Diane Bubel, Aiken co-founded the Bubel/Aiken Foundation as a way to assist children with special needs to integrate more easily into the world around them. The organization is an outgrowth of Aiken's work while a student at UNCC with Bubel's son Michael, who is autistic. Whatever two-cent critique of Clay's career I might have, it takes a pretty classy guy to continue to work on such noble causes when it would be just as easy to shut the limo door on his modest past. In this regard, Aiken stands out amongst the other former Idol contestants.

It's much more enjoyable, though, to use Aiken as a punching bag for everything that's wrong with the music industry today. And he is a product of an industrial society. There is no pretense of great art behind Aiken; if he is little more than a box of Kraft Macaroni & Cheese rolling off an assembly line, then American Idol is the focus group that mastered the masses' desire for well-designed powdered cheese.

Aiken is a particularly lush target for those who wish to opine about the omniscient tentacles of the Entertainment Machine, as he is deeply entrenched within its evil womb. Since his win on American Idol -- oh wait, he didn't win. He came in second. What happened to the guy who won? You know, that somewhat overweight African-American fellow, Reuben Studdard? I'm only allowed 1,000 words for this piece, and that does not permit me to form a coherent argument about this point, but if you are under the impression that there isn't a bias toward slender, pretty Aryan people in the entertainment industry, then you are most likely white and living in a bubble of delusion so impenetrable that you decided early on in this article that I am a giant douche. Fair enough.

It is not Aiken's fault that his success and Studdard's apparent abduction by aliens (where else could he be?) reveals some bit of nastiness about The Machine and how it works. And the truth of it looms around Aiken like flatulence in a crowded elevator: everyone can sense it, but no one will say a word about it. However, everyone is more than willing to say plenty about his sexuality (or lack thereof). We are a culture obsessed with sex and mediocrity, but not one willing to acknowledge the ugly facts of our prejudices. That's the real lesson learned from American Idol and its "winners," and perhaps that is one reason why Aiken is so reticent to acknowledge which way he swings. (Note to Clay: if you were actually straight, you would have used the phrase, "I love pussy" by now in print. That's what straight men say. We're not that complicated.)

All of this doesn't mean, however, that you can't have a good time with your partner and the kids at Aiken's performance at the Blumenthal Center. In fact, there are probably few things you could do with your family so close to Christmas that would be as well-suited to please every age group. Let us not overlook the fact that Aiken is performing with the Charlotte Symphony, and they are indeed an oft-overlooked treasure of Charlotte. The symphony will perform a set of holiday music before Aiken joins them. It is no easy thing to be a classical musician in this country -- one more or less consents to a life of hard, unappreciated discipline. If Clay Aiken can help bring in an audience who might not otherwise have any interest in the symphony and turn just one of his "Claymates" onto the wonders of what all those musicians can accomplish in unison, well, that might just be a Christmas miracle that makes the rest of his music forgivable.

Clay Aiken performs with the Charlotte Symphony Orchestra at the Blumenthal Performing Arts Center; Dec. 22; 8:00 p.m.; $35-$75; visit www.charlottesymphony.org/ for more details.

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