Wednesday, May 26, 2004

In Defense of Clay

On this, the eve of what has the potential to be the most upsetting conclusion to any reality show ever (though I wasn't a Ruben fan, either), I want to take a moment to defend Clay Aiken. When I included him on last month's Fun With Playlists, I got some flak for it. Now first of all, anyone who's been following my music entries knows that along with the Beatles, Ani DiFranco, Sondheim and Bernstein, I have a real taste for vapid pop music. That's sometimes sprinkled with irony but, I actually like Clay Aiken, and I'm not ashamed to admit it. Yes, I think he's cute (though I actually thought he was much cuter before they Seacrested him) and say what you will, the boy can sing.

Let's remember that American Idol is first and foremost a singing competition. It is, secondarily (or maybe primarily, even if they won't admit it) a looks, charisma, and popularity contest. But at no point does it pretend to be a writing competition. So yes, Clay's album is dull as dirt, but that's not his fault and I look forward to seeing what else he comes up with when he's free from his iron-clad AI contract and can hire his own handlers.

There was an article in Entertainment Weekly recently about Justin Guarini and his disastrous album release. In short, it said that Guarini had no control over the songs that were chosen, and he generally felt that the selection did not suit his voice or his personality, but he was forced to make this bomb record anyway. It's hard to feel a ton of sympathy for Justin, since even the audition release for American Idol is a terrifying document that should have given him (or his parents) some clue of what he was getting into, but based on what I've heard (granted, only two full songs and a bunch of 30-second clips on iTunes), I'm surprised Clay didn't suffer a similar fate.

When I put "Invisible" on my playlist, m.e. commented, "How can you not find 'Invisible' horribly creepy? Not to mention insipid, grating, boring, etc..."

I DO find "Invisible" horribly creepy, and that's why I love it. More on that in a bit. As for insipid, etc., I disagree; I think it's an almost perfect pop song. Now, keep in mind that "a perfect pop song" is not the same as "good music." A perfect pop song is catchy, hooky, easily-accessible, and simple enough for the for the listener to project his own meaning onto while still conveying some kind of emotion. For a low-brow example, see "I Want It That Way." For a high-brow on, check "Yesterday." (And please, no hate mail for invoking the Backstreet Boys and the Beatles in the same breath. They are clearly worlds apart, but both serve my point.)

Anyway, one of the things that makes "Invisible" work so well is its seemingly perfect marriage of song and singer. There's something sexy about Clay, but also something awkward and a little bit creepy. I completely buy him as (in my interpretation of the lyrics Clay didn't write) the shy nerd in the corner, stalking the popular girl and dreaming of superpowers: "If I was invisible / then I could just watch you in your room / if I was invincible / I'd make you mine tonight... / If I was invisible / Wait, I already am."

Wait, wait, wait. "If I was invincible, I'd make you mine tonight?" Dude, he's talking about raping her! How can you not love that? Not that I love rape, of course, but I love the idea of something so fucked up and subversive coming out of American Idol. Yeah, I said it, "Invisible" is subversive. And this, to me, is another hallmark of a great pop song -- Make it catchy enough so that no one, at first glance, will realize just how twisted and fucked up your lyrics are. Think back to some 80s classics. "99 Red Balloons" is about nuclear holocaust. "Turning Japanese" and "She Bop" are about masturbation. The entire Culture Club catalog is about the toxic relationship between Boy George and Jon Moss. Sure, it's catchy and peppy, but can any song called "Church of the Poison Mind" be about a healthy love affair? I refer you also to my very first Fun With Playlists: Songs About Stalking.

Anyway, this is why I love "Invisible."

Getting back to Justin's failure, I'm less convinced by Clay's delivery of these lyrics: "Heaven starts here / tonight in your arms / wanna drown in your body / get lost in your charms... / All I want is your touch / all I want is your heaven right here by my side / every night / girl 'cause your touch is so right." Even putting aside that pesky "girl," I'm just not buying it. He sings the song well, and if I didn't know what he looked like, it'd be fine. Not that I doubt that Clay is a sexual being, but I wonder how the same people who came up with his safe whitebread image (though how much more could they do with him?) thought that it would be a good idea for him to sing "wanna drown in your body?" This is why I don't understand the music industry in general, and the Idol phenomenon in particular.

It's also why I'll cut Clay some slack, and can't wait to see what Clay does next, be it a more appropriate album, or a (more appropriate still) stint as Mark in Rent. And if it turns out Mr. Aiken is a flash-in-the-pan who we never hear from again, then I'll always cherish him for the greatest stalker anthem ever.

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