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Revenge of the geek heartthrob

Brown: Nerdy Clay Aiken stays true to values, still earns pop success
/ Source: msnbc.com contributor

The anticipation is mounting. Thousands of “Claymates,” as they call themselves, have been organizing and mobilizing for months. From CD release parties, to radio play campaigns, Clay Aiken’s new album “Measure of a Man” is debuting with plenty of “fanfare.” So what type of music does the American Idol runner-up sing anyway? And how will this North Carolina native, who doesn’t drink, smoke or sport tattoos, fit in the current pop scene? As it turns out, there are no simple answers.

“When the stars go by, and the darkness starts to flood your eyes, I will carry you” — Lyrics from Aiken’s original song “I Will Carry You”.

It sure doesn’t read like most pop lyrics out there today. Is it possible this is Christian pop masquerading as mainstream pop music? You can’t help but ask this question especially since Aiken hasn’t exactly hidden his devout southern Baptist beliefs. On the cover of Rolling Stone magazine, he wore a “What Would Jesus Do” (WWJD) bracelet and this week’s Time magazine reports his struggles with his record label, RCA, to keep his videos and music “clean.” It’s not everyday such Christian symbols grace Rolling Stone’s cover. Does his Christian sensibility translate into his music? As it turns out, Clay Aiken’s wholesomeness, and the audience it reaches, could just be the genius in his new album.

The album and the artist himself have managed to tap into an audience the music industry has arguably ignored — the middle class, Christian, soccer mom, who wants to be able to listen to pop music with her family and not worry about sex, drugs and explicit lyrics. Clay Aiken himself has said he won’t sing about sex and drugs. And since there isn’t much mainstream pop music out there right now without references to sex and drugs, Aiken is emerging as a new pop phenomenon.

So he’s got the mini-van driving, Oprah-watching crowd. But, what’s more interesting about Aiken is, that despite his straight-laced image, he has also reeled in a respectable amount of average pop listeners, who normally wouldn’t be caught dead listening to Christian pop music.

With the No. 1 selling single of the year, “This is The Night,” Aiken even managed significant radio play on national top 40 pop/hip hop/rap stations, alongside the likes of Christina Aguilera and Eminem. How did this “smultzy” ballad even make it to Top 40? Probably because of a lot of radio requests, but also, there is a sense that, despite his conservative upbringing, Aiken seems willing to reinvent himself, at least on some level. He did after all, with the help of some highlights and a makeover worthy of “Queer Eye for the Straight Guy”, transform himself from geek to geek heartthrob and bare his chest and belly on the Rolling Stone cover.

Wide-ranging audience
There’s no denying that most of Aiken’s following are women and girls. What’s surprising is the range of age of his fans. From “tweenies”, their moms, and even grandmas, generations are finally finding some music in common. Of course, you can’t forget the men. They might be few and far between, but you’ll find them lurking in record stores, on Internet chat boards, and on Amazon.com, secretly pre-ordering “Measure of a Man.” Many only listen because their wives have brainwashed them, others simply enjoy Aiken’s music. It’s not just about his music for most of these women and men, it’s about Clay, the man, the boy, and everything for which they believe he stands.

If you ask any of his fans, they just might say “thud.” That’s because many of them are part of a rabid Internet fan base that’s not quiet with its support. They watch and document his every move, analyze, fantasize, obsess, and yes, even write fan fiction. They write scathing letters to radio DJ’s who bash Aiken, and act as his unofficial public relations machine. Visit one of these fan sites and you just might find yourself wrapped up in a world unto itself, where a mere mention of Clay Aiken’s lily white, bared knees could result in a discussion that lasts days.

So what is it about this goofy, 24-year-old beanpole that inspires such devotion? It’s a combination of girlishly pretty looks, an unusual man/boy vulnerability, an incredible voice, and most significantly, approachability. You see, Clay Aiken is the type of guy that you actually believe you could just go up and talk to. He just happens to be a pop star.

Remember back to high school when the geeky, nerdy guys didn’t get many dates and it was all about the dreamy football players? Something tells me that Clay Aiken wasn’t the star athlete or homecoming king, and didn’t have a big female following. But that was then, this is now.

In a culture where Justin Timberlake, P. Diddy and Britney Spears reign, this nice Southern boy may have single-handedly brought back the “geek”. That is what sets him apart from most of today’s young male pop stars. His obvious awkwardness somehow translates into a magnetic charm that seems to have broken the mold.