Pop Culture

Audience is clay in Aiken’s hands

Less than a week after kicking off his 25-city “Jukebox Tour,” Clay Aiken performed in Greenville, South Carolina. After performing an energetic review of hits from the ‘50s, ‘60s, ‘70s, ‘80s, and ‘90s, he concluded with a few original songs, including “When You Say You Love Me,” which was on his first album, “Measure of a Man.”

As he began to sing, he stumbled, arriving at the wrong words at the wrong time. The music kept playing but Clay turned to the singers on stage with him and said, “That’s the third night in a row!” He laughed. “I don’t know the words to this song!” Then Clay pretended to sulk off stage, letting one of his back-up singers take over, but he quickly came back to give it another try.

Then, in the front of the Peace Center’s auditorium, near stage left, a fan held up a sign. But she wasn’t proclaiming her love for Clay; instead, she was offering assistance. “Are those the cue cards for that song?” he asked, walking over toward her. In her hands were, in fact, homemade cue cards with the lyrics to “When You Say You Love Me.” Having known of his tendency on this barely week-old tour to have trouble with the song, someone had constructed cue cards to help him out and passed them to the front of the auditorium. His fans knew he was going to mess up before he did.

“Although I feel completely, miserably embarrassed, I’m going to try to continue, if that’s okay,” Clay said. Then he asked, with mock incredulity, “How do you know I’m going to do the same ones I did last night?”

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That’s a good question, but there’s an easy answer: Clay Aiken may have been the runner-up on “American Idol 2,” but two years after he lost that competition, he has become the single most successful and popular reality TV show contestant ever. No other reality TV stars—and few stars of any other origin—have managed to build a fan base like that at the Peace Center last Wednesday. Other reality show participants have recognizable names (such as Omarosa, Richard Hatch), and others have gone on to successful careers (like Clay’s “Idol” predecessor Kelly Clarkson, for example), but Clay has an audience like no other.

Even though Clay lost “Idol,” he easily outsold winner Ruben Studdard in both singles and albums, and his debut record landed at number one upon its release. His fans are obsessively devoted to both Clay and his art, going online to discuss his music and his charity work (as a UNICEF ambassador, among other things).

There’s even a Clay Aiken credit card, which can be used to buy everything from a Clay Aiken bucket hat to .

Play that not-so-funky music, skinny white boyWhy exactly is this “skinny white boy,” as Clay described himself in Greenville, such a sensation? I went to Greenville to try to find out. What has inspired the rabid devotion that characterizes Claymates, as his fans are known? What sort of performance causes fans to attend concert after concert on the same tour?

Although a single concert just skims the surface of the phenomenon, from the moment Clay strutted out on-stage arm-in-arm with his back-up singers, the audience was, well, clay in Clay’s hands.

Before the concert began, I asked a fan sitting in front of me to explain, in a sentence, why so many people loved Clay Aiken. “We came for the music, but we stayed for the man,” she said.

This enthusiasm for both Clay and his art didn’t subside the entire evening. Throughout the two-and-a-half-hour show, the audience stood up (during the fast songs) and sat down (when Clay was telling a story or singing a slower song). Waves of energy rippled throughout the auditorium as he performed medleys of well-known hits from the past half-century, more than capably tackling covers of songs by everyone from Elvis to Prince.

As Clay moved on stage, camera flashes strobed constantly, and tiny images of the stage were visible on dozens of video cameras’ view screens. Some fans stood with cell phones open, broadcasting the concert to others around the country, who transcribed it online for the benefit of other fans. The audience cheered wildly when Clay accompanied himself on piano, because, someone quickly told me, he was just learning to play.

Everyone who’s heard him knows that Clay can sing. But on stage, Clay is also energetic, humble, and awkward. He mixes self-depreciation with a dose of pretend, over-exaggerated ego, and genuinely appears to be having a great time interacting with his audience and his band. Far more experienced performers would have been thrown off after forgetting words to a song, but it didn’t really phase Clay at all; in fact, he embraced it. His personality and persona are as much a part of his performance as his music.

During the performance, Angela Fisher and Quiana Parler sang back-up for him throughout the evening, but the phrase “back-up singer” doesn’t really apply to either one. Clay literally shared the stage with them, as they performed their own solos as he stepped aside.

His gawkiness is especially endearing. Clay may be able to sing exceptionally well, but his on-stage talent drops off rapidly after that. Primarily, he dances like a wooden puppet on a stick.

But every time he’d awkwardly attempt a dance move, or just attempt to move a body part, screams would ripple through the crowd. And he played along, giving them more of what they wanted.

Watching Clay and his audience interact was revealing, but in many ways, the concert seems to be just the public side of his popularity. Fans gather online and in person, and have two and a half years of history with Clay; I don't know if I'll ever fully be able to see the Clay phenomenon in exactly the same way they do. But the performance made it clear that, in this era of manufactured pop, where top-40 music is constructed for the benefit of the audience by marketers and radio station conglomerates, Clay Aiken's fans believe they have found something real. That's ironic since Clay Aiken, the phenomenon, was born of "American Idol," which, with its narrow focus and snap judgments, is a televised look inside the machine that produces our entertainers.

At the same time, Clay’s fans were introduced to him and his music and saw him work his way up throughout the competition. His talent and his personality are genuine, or at least appear to be, because we’ve watched him grow along the way. Clay Aiken may be a product of the "American Idol" factory, but to some degree, what went in is what came out, and that’s just the way his fans like it.

is a writer and teacher who publishes reality blurred, a daily summary of reality TV news.

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