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Clay, Ruben can’t remain ‘Idol’

Ventre: TV stars must find distinctive styles for long-term success
/ Source: contributor

One of the driving forces in the entertainment business is the idea of creative abandonment. Simply put, in a partnership, when one party no longer needs the other, it’s time to bail. It happens every day with actors and managers, with bands and record companies, with stars and publicists, with chefs and restaurants. Although it may sound disloyal and distasteful, and can result in the filing of lawsuits and the uttering of foul language, oftentimes it is the only path to enlightenment for the artist.

This concept comes to mind in the cases of singers Ruben Studdard and Clay Aiken, the Nos. 1 and 2 finishers on the last “American Idol” respectively. And no, I’m not suggesting that Ruben terminate his posse and Clay dispatch his entourage. An imbroglio of that magnitude would necessitate the mobilization of U.N. peacekeepers.

No, I think in order for Ruben and Clay to reach the next level, they need to destroy the last one. They have to use that “American Idol” bridge, and then burn it.

“American Idol” is a cheesy national obsession, but there is nothing wrong with that. Americans thrive on a steady diet of fromage. One need only look to the California recall for evidence of that. The acid that rolls off the tongue of Simon Cowell goes down like nectar. Teenage girls devour Ryan Seacrest with giggly glee. The show has all the elements to make you nauseous and keep you riveted at the same time.

Ruben and Clay were wise to use that “American Idol” cache for springboard purposes. But now that they’re launched, it might be time to chart independent courses. The career of a gifted singer can be long and rewarding, depending on the choices he or she makes. The lifespan of an “American Idol” product is, by its very nature, all too brief.

Musically, “American Idol” is cut above a karaoke bar. Ruben and Clay have real singing talent, but the show gave only glimpses into their potential. Just like it is intriguing to imagine what types of music deceased legends like Buddy Holly and Jimi Hendrix would have gone on to create if fate hadn’t interceded, it is just as mysterious and fascinating to forecast which directions Ruben and Clay will go if not restricted to belting out American pop standards.

(And by the way, Ruben and Clay, stay out of small planes during bad weather, and keep away from drugs.)

Ruben entertained us with such classics as “Imagine,” “If Ever You’re in My Arms Again” and “Ain’t Too Proud to Beg.” But which way will he go? When left to his own volition, which direction will he drift creatively? Who will serve as his influences? You get as much of an indication about that from “American Idol” as you get policy specifics from Arnold Schwarzenegger.

All we know about Ruben is that he leaned more toward soulful fare, whereas Clay skewed toward sweetness. Clay did a splendid job of crooning such favorites as “Bridge Over Troubled Water,” “Vincent” and “Here, There and Everywhere.”

Both should take career advice from one of Clay’s earliest selections: “Don’t Let the Sun Go Down on Me.”

Put 'Idol' in rear-view mirror
In order to do that, they need to use “American Idol” like a cheap date, and then dump it. Put lots of distance between that quickie. Fast.

Make no mistake. “American Idol” would not be the wronged party in this estrangement. The show has gotten gobs of mileage from Ruben and Clay in the critical areas of ratings, publicity, concerts and personal appearances. “Idol” made “stars” out of Kelly Clarkson and Justin Guarini — although doing the film, “From Justin to Kelly” may have shortened their timeline considerably. “Idol” has become a massive hit, and if Ruben and Clay set off on their own divergent roads, it won’t matter a lick to the folks at Fox. They’re already revving up the generator for the 2004 edition.

What I would really like to see is for Ruben and Clay to take risks.

That will set them apart. That would ensure that their CDs will be more than just hot novelties. That will push the boundaries of their popularity.

I don’t know what Ruben has in store for us with his disk, but I’d like to see him use that magnificent voice for good (working with the finest producers to discover his own unique sound) rather than evil (continually mining Luther Vandross/Donnie Hathaway territory). I’d like to hear him explore hip hop, reggae, rock, folk and jazz. I’d like to watch him use the opportunity he earned through “American Idol” to carve his own niche. Granted, it would have to be a roomy niche, but that’s a subject for he and his nutritionist.

Clay is more problematic. Not immediately, mind you. Because the contest was so close — you may recall that Ruben bested him by just 134,000 votes out of 24 million cast — there is speculation that Clay’s CD may be more accessible and a bigger seller. Who knows? He may just have enough clout to knock Outkast out of their place of honor atop the best-seller list.

But Clay needs to mess himself up a little bit. If he continues along this sweet warbler path without any variation, he’ll stagnate until the next “American Idol” heartthrob comes along. He described his own style as a bit of Harry Connick Jr., a dash of Elton John, a dollop of Jon Secada. That’s not a style, that’s a tasteless puree. With his considerable talent, Clay should be mixing more unusual influences, like half Beck and half Bobby Darin. Push the envelope, Clay, don’t just lick it softly.

“American Idol” is a good place for Ruben and Clay to start. I just hope they don’t finish there as well.

Michael Ventre is a Los Angeles-based columnist who writes regularly for