Friday, March 10, 2006

What I Know about Clay Aiken

Three years ago this week, I was diagnosed with breast cancer. I can scarcely forget what a tumultuous year 2003 was for me and my family. In addition to the constant stress of life-threatening illness and harsh medical treatment, I had to deal with upheaval at home and at work. Then my only sister died unexpectedly. For years she served as caregiver for our oldest brother, who has been handicapped since birth. Within two weeks of her passing, we moved from the cozy home we owned into a larger rental to accommodate my brother and his service dog whom my husband had to relocate immediately from Florida.

When I reminisce about 2003, I tend to focus on my many blessings. The final visit I had with my sister that summer which healed longstanding rifts between us. My amazing husband Luis, who held my hand through every chemotherapy infusion and dispelled my vain fears after disfiguring surgery. My son’s silent strength and newfound maturity as he watched over me anxiously. Remarkable friends who lifted my spirits and prayed for my recovery. And the charming stranger who made a challenging year seem magical.

I will probably never meet Clay Aiken, so I have to thank him publicly. Here.

When he first appeared on our television screen during the 2003 auditions, Clay sang a few memorable a cappella notes of Always and Forever and my husband said, “There’s the next American idol.” His look and sound were new to the competition, unlike any of the season one contestants. After his masterful performance of Superstar, I became a Ruben Studdard fan. But Luis and I were both discouraged when Clay initially failed to advance to the final round.

Three years ago this week, Clay was the viewers' wild card selection and began his domination of American Idol. He captivated us right away with his undeniable vocal talent. However, his engaging individuality and artistic growth are what made him and the second season so phenomenal. As we got hooked on Clay’s personal metamorphosis from week to week, American Idol was transformed into something more extraordinary than the crass star-making machine it really is. Like a classic drama, there was the villain, Simon Cowell, versus the underdog, Clay. Whenever the judges openly favored Ruben while nitpicking him, Clay would apply their criticism to improve his next performance and come back for more. No matter how many limitations the show’s format and crew would impose on Clay, he transcended all of them.

When I was admitted to the hospital for cancer surgery on the morning of Monday, May 5, I told my medical team that they better get me home in time for Tuesday’s broadcast of American Idol. The next evening I was back in my living room, rooting for Clay. For two nights every week, my family was transported to a parallel universe where we completely forgot our earthly burdens. Reality TV became our escape-from-reality TV.

After an anticlimactic finish to a close contest that was overshadowed and rendered irrelevant by its celebrated loser, we spent a few months watching Clay’s American Idol video clips online until Measure of a Man was released. We snapped up the album and quickly replaced our first copy when the CD player ate it. The songs were strong and well written. Regrettably, on too many cuts, the heavy-handed mix muted his powerful vocals.

Radio essentially ignored Clay. The music industry didn’t understand his appeal or how to exploit it. American Idol moved on but without the Aiken magic.

In 2004 we purchased Merry Christmas with Love. We will buy his next recording, too, and hope for a better showcase for his talents.

I think Clay would make the perfect judge on American Idol. He knows the show, the process and the industry. He would be articulate and constructive, a combination missing from the panel. Simon Cowell and Ryan Seacrest were never more likable than when interacting with Clay in season two. I don’t know if Clay or the AI team would ever seriously consider my suggestion, but now is probably not the right time.

Recently Clay has been the object of tabloid allegations and lurid speculation. Barring criminal behavior, Luis and I don’t care to know about the most private aspects of anybody else’s life – ever. Clay’s attraction for me was never romantic or sexual. However, to countless other female fans, Clay has been the embodiment of a softer, sweeter masculine ideal. I figure many see Clay as the non-threatening boy-next-door type they regret bypassing in favor of the bad boys they couldn’t resist. But what do I know.

Well, I know what I know and what I don’t know. I know that Clay owes his success thus far to his large, devoted fanbase who collectively created an industry niche for him. Like most entertainers, he is always vulnerable to fan expectations and gossip because the commodity he is selling is himself.

Clay is a singer of other people’s songs. He doesn’t write, play or produce music. His recordings are only as good as the production team in control of them. The quality of the production team depends on Clay’s position in the industry to command higher quality. Clay’s position in the industry depends on his loyal fanbase purchasing his recordings.

Here is something important that I know about Clay Aiken. He has a very special talent for entertaining. The world needs entertainers who can make us forget our troubles. I don’t know how Clay conducts his private life, but I do know that his public life has been admirable. He uses his microphone and his spotlight to help children in need all over the globe.

I also know that those who publicize and spread these allegations have contempt for Clay and his fans. Those who want to believe that “outing” is somehow noble are fooling themselves – it is intentionally destructive, malicious and selective. They specifically target popular icons who are Christian and/or have Christian followers. The outers’ faith is the cynical belief that all Christians are intolerant hypocrites. In this case, they are trying to shake up and shake loose so-called “conservative Christians” who support Clay.

Let me tell you about one conservative Christian fan of Clay Aiken: me. I am very political and politically conservative. When Clay began to move in political circles after leaving American Idol, I noticed they were on the opposite side of the spectrum from my deeply held views. So what! As a conservative, my shelves and my soul would be pretty bare if I boycotted artists, performers and writers who disagree with me politically.

Clay is tangled in a “catch 22” not necessarily of his own making. His fanbase includes many heterosexual women who began to fantasize about him from his earliest appearances on American Idol when he was just being his gawky, adorable self. Without any obvious manipulation on his part, the fanbase multiplied faster than the most aggressive cancer and carried him triumphantly to impressive sales success. Ever since, Clay has been on a rarified pedestal where no mortal can remain happily or permanently. Inevitably, Clay would do something – get married or whatever – to disappoint the unrealistic expectations of some fans and imperil his career, which is so dependent on fan support.

Clay knows the facts regarding these allegations and so far he is not really responding to them. I do not know the facts and am not making any assumptions. Speaking strictly for me, I don’t need any explanations from Clay. I understand that other fans may feel differently.

For the sake of argument, let’s pretend that Clay is gay. How would that diminish his genuine talent? The audience saw the real Clay Aiken blossom on TV week after magical week and many of us were enchanted. I know that much was true. His gift to entertain was an unexpected joy during the hardest year of my life.

Is there any monolithic Christian reaction to these allegations? Of course not and once again I can speak only for myself. I will never forget a news segment I saw in the mid-1980s. A small town pastor was interviewed about his controversial ministering to AIDS patients, to which some in his congregation objected. The reporter asked him, “How do you answer those who say that AIDS is God’s punishment for homosexuals?”

The pastor replied gently, “Maybe AIDS is God’s test for Christians.”

Maybe this is a test for Clay’s fans, Christian and otherwise.