In September of 2003, pictures of Clay Aiken were everywhere. It seemed the press couldn’t get enough of his smiling face. He was the new pop sensation in the United States and it seemed that everyone wanted all the news about the talented young man.
The September 3rd issue of Entertainment Weekly featured Clay on the cover of their magazine. Inside, there were lots of pictures and an interview that was conducted while Clay was still on the American Idol Tour. They labeled Clay a “guilty pleasure.”
Do you remember this article? Did you buy the magazine? AND, (gulp) do you still have the magazine? (I do!!)
And The Geek Shall Inherit The Earth
Part Howdy Doody, part Davy Jones, 100% stud, America’s favorite redhead (sorry, Lucy!) dishes on Ruben, stardom, and that hair. Our heart’s Aiken for Clay!
By Dave Karger Dave Karger
”It smells like urine in here!” says the American Idol runner-up as he strides into the cavernous bathroom — complete with two stalls and a group shower — that’s serving as a makeshift office backstage at the Wachovia Arena in Wilkes-Barre, Pa. ”I bet you’ve never done an interview in one of these before!”
Yep, it’s a first on this end, but Aiken had better get used to the surroundings: Just hours before he’s to take the stage as part of this summer’s American Idols Live! concert tour, the potty is pretty much the only place he’s safe. Around the corner lurks a throng of ”Claymates,” as the most obsessed Aiken freaks call themselves — including beaming moms, screaming daughters, and one 27-year-old therapist who had ”Clay” permanently tattooed on the small of her back earlier in the day. When the arena lights go down, the 24-year-old special-ed teacher from Raleigh, N.C., is the performer who elicits the most earsplitting shrieks from the suburban crowd. As one oaktag sign in the cheap seats proclaims, ”Elvis, the Beatles, and now Clay.”
The correct progression might be more like ”The Monkees, O-Town, and now Clay,” but we get the picture. At some point since the cheesy early Guarini-esque ballads, the ubiquitous Ford Focus commercials, and the sad-sack lone dance move (you know the one, the shoulder pump crossed with the knee bend), Aiken has become one of the most natural, confident, and addictive voices in contemporary pop music. And thanks to his Queer Eye-popping physical makeover and his show-stopping vocal range, he’s emerged as the biggest star from Idol’s second season. Earlier this summer, his debut release, ”This Is the Night”/”Bridge Over Troubled Water,” shot straight to No. 1 on the Billboard charts, trounced the offering from American Idol winner Ruben Studdard by 200,000 copies, and became the fastest-selling single since Elton John’s ”Candle in the Wind 1997.” ”I was going to be a teacher or a principal,” Aiken says of his pre-Idol plans. ”Thank Jesus I came back for the wild-card show!”
We’ll give up a hallelujah as well. With the Backstreet Boys MIA and Justin Timberlake essentially an R&B artist, the world needs a new prince of pop. ”There’s a lot of singers that have incredible instruments,” says Steve Ferrera, RCA Records’ senior vice president of A&R, who, along with mogul Clive Davis and Idol creator Simon Fuller, is helping to oversee Aiken’s musical output. ”Clay is one of those rare singers who has the chops, but he’s also able to make the connection to the lyric. So when some people might be just doing vocal histrionics, he’s imbuing the lyric with passion and feeling.”
Although cuddly crooner Studdard won the right to release his CD first, the pair’s labels, RCA and J Records, have now pulled a Rehnquist and reversed America’s decision, opting to debut Aiken’s album on Oct. 14, a month before Studdard’s. ”It was with Ruben’s blessing,” insists a rep for both singers, adding that Studdard isn’t finished recording yet. ”He didn’t want to hold up Clay’s record.” That’s the noncynical take. Here’s another: Idol execs recognized they were wrong to throw so much weight behind Studdard during the competition. (Some speculated they did so because they were afraid to be put in the position of having to back Aiken, who was rumored to be gay. The singer has said he is straight.) Publicly, Idol judge Simon Cowell says marketing Aiken is a no-brainer. ”He is the clean-cut American boy, and he has the advantage of being able to appeal to 3-year-olds and 80-year-olds with pretty much pure pop music.” Aiken’s life story, which resonates with so many, is also a draw. ”If I was naming Clay’s album, I’d call it The American Dream, because he encapsulates all of that,” Cowell says. ”He is the American dream, which is the geeky little kid who went on to win over the hearts of America through a singing competition.” (Start lobbying, Simon: Aiken has yet to decide on an album title.) The goal for today’s hottest preteen pinup is to win over postpubescents who wouldn’t know how to text-message Ryan Seacrest if their lives depended on it. ”We’ve definitely tried to take it a little edgier than what he sang on the show,” says Ferrera, who connected Aiken with a posse of young, unknown songwriters. But don’t expect him to stray far from his comfort zone. ”There are no up-tempos on this album,” Ferrera says. ”But there are definitely some midtempo ballads.”
One of those, ”This Is the Night,” wasn’t exactly music to the Idol judges’ ears — when Aiken first performed the song, Cowell dismissed it as ”American Idol: The Musical.” ”I think they probably thought it sounded a little cheesy,” Aiken says now. ”Not as cheesy, I might say, as [Kelly Clarkson’s] ‘A Moment Like This.’ I don’t care what they say — I like the song.” His fans did too: ”I don’t think they went out and bought one,” says Aiken, offering an explanation for his record-breaking sales. ”I think they went out and bought 15. I don’t know what they did with them — used them as coasters, Frisbees, something.”
Cowell, of course, has a different theory. ”If Ruben had had ‘Bridge Over Troubled Water’ on his record, he’d have had the No. 1,” says the judge, who often saved his highest praise on the show for Studdard. ”I think that was the hit song. If you asked 100 record buyers who bought Clay’s single ‘What song did you want to buy?’ I wouldn’t be surprised if 70 percent at least said ‘Bridge Over Troubled Water.’ People will disagree, but that’s my opinion.” (We’ll never know; RCA doesn’t track those statistics.)
Whatever the case, Aiken would like to put the Clay versus Ruben showdown to rest. ”The whole country wants Ruben and me to be at each other’s throats,” he says, tugging at the bottom of his orange shirt. ”We spent nine months competing with each other. And we both got what we wanted. He’s got a title, and I’m nothing but proud of him. We don’t look at who’s No. 1 and No. 2. Because it’s not worth it to us.” (Studdard puts it more succinctly: ”Clay is my dawg.”) Even after the disaster that was From Justin to Kelly, which made just $4.9 million at the box office this summer, Aiken still hopes to make a movie with his supposed nemesis. ”That was a premise that’s not necessarily original,” he says of the first Idol-inspired film. ”With Ruben and me you’ve got a completely different thing. Look at us! We could just stand there and people would laugh.”
At least they’re no longer laughing at Aiken’s looks. The budding star, whose formerly reddish brown eyebrows will completely disappear if they’re lightened one more time, says he’s totally receptive to all the fashion help. ”We were doing the video shoot for ‘This Is the Night,’ and the people from the record label were putting me in all these different outfits,” he remembers. ”I just stood there and was like, ‘That’s fine, that’s fine’ — all indifferent to the situation. They finally called my management rep and said, ‘Is he okay with these?’ If I knew enough about this industry, or enough about fashion, to know what was cool to wear, then I wouldn’t have needed American Idol to get into it. So I’ll be willing to do whatever you want me to do, but I’m going to say no if I’m really against it. There’s not really much middle ground. I’ll do it, or I’ll say, ‘That’s ridiculous.’ I pick my battles.”
For instance? ”There was a particular person who did my hair on the show,” he says. ”For a period [afterward] they said, ‘Let’s use some other people.’ And I looked like a greased pig. It was horrible. So I finally picked a battle there and said, ‘Listen, we’re getting him from now on.”’ Aiken also gladly recorded cover versions of Neil Sedaka’s ”Solitaire” and Carole Bayer Sager’s ”When I Need You” but scoffed at Rick Astley’s ”Never Gonna Give You Up.” ”I said that’s just a little corny, because there are already enough comparisons that can be drawn.” (Whaddya know? We’ve drawn them too; see sidebar.)
Still, we doubt Astley would have influenced the scores of fans who flooded the FCC with letters demanding a recount of the neck-and-neck Idol vote. ”I guess on one hand it’s flattering because people really wanted me to win,” Aiken says of the grassroots campaign. ”But it’s over. And I’m perfectly fine. I think people feel like I feel slighted. ‘Oh, poor Clay, we want to fight for him.’ You don’t need to fight for me. I’m perfectly happy. I would be much happier if these people would put their time and energy into the Autism Society. Leave the FCC alone, leave Ruben alone, leave me alone.”
Given today’s fickle pop-music world, Aiken knows that wish could soon come true. Maybe his album will be the beginning of a long musical legacy (we can dream, can’t we?). Or perhaps today’s Idol will indeed be tomorrow’s aspiring high school principal. ”How many eggs do I put into this basket?” says Aiken, his voice still echoing through the bathroom. ”In two years, am I going to be [first Survivor winner] Richard Hatch? Is this going to be my life and my career, or is this going to be a great summer-camp memory for me? I don’t know. That’s what makes it scary.” Frightening enough to make someone head straight for the john.