After 2003 American Idol runner-up Clay Aiken performed in Syracuse, N.Y. (backed by the Syracuse Symphony Orchestra, no less), the Web site Syracuse.com dubbed the pop singer “the beloved singing teddy bear placed near a young girl’s flouncy canopied bed.”
Aiken, as his devoted fans (known as “Claymates”) can attest, is often given short shrift, celebrity-wise: Benign-geek status was not exactly the reputation favored by rock gods like Jim Morrison or Robert Plant. But the N.C. native (whose pre-Idol aspiration was to become a school principal and someday raise a family) is probably better suited to tender ballads and sports jackets than primal screams and leather chaps.
Following in the footsteps of good-guy crooners like Wayne Newton, Mel Tormé, Burt Bacharach and Engelbert Humperdinck, Aiken has carved out his own corner. That is, if playing widely accessible “concert[s] the whole family will enjoy”—as one fan dubbed them—can be considered a niche market.
The entertainer’s most unique quality, ironically, may be his bid for across-the-board acceptability. Sneer if you must, but when the Top-40 charts are clogged with angsty Avril Lavigne and Amy Lee numbers, a reprise of the feel-good Laverne & Shirley theme song kind of hits the spot.
Part of what differentiates Aiken from his fellow touring Idols is that, at each stop, he teams up with the symphony of that particular city.
“It’s rare and exciting for us to be able to do something like this,” enthuses Asheville Symphony Artistic Administrator Sally Keeney.
Whereas a typical symphony concert involves 85 to 90 musicians on stage, the group backing Aiken’s Biltmore Estate Summer Evening Concert Series appearance numbers 42. “It’s a more pops-y size,” Keeney explains. “It will give a nice, rich sound with all those strings.”
What will Aiken be performing to the orchestral wall of sound? Don’t expect an aria from The Marriage of Figaro. The pop star’s fans are treated to a program of Aiken’s hits along with medleys of easily recognizable tunes from radio and television. At the Syracuse show, Aiken and his musicians ran through such unlikely selections as “Like a Virgin,” “(Party Like It’s) 1999” and “Beat It.” At another concert, he led a singalong to “The Way You Make Me Feel.” (Lyric sheets were circulated through the audience beforehand.)
But fans are quick to argue that sound bites of the Welcome Back, Kotter intro don’t equate to Clay-lite.
“He sings [“Baby Got Back” and “Sexy Back”] to make fun of how commercialized and soulless most of the songs that get radio play today are,” fan “Natalie” commented on the Xpress blogsite, responding to an open call to defend Aiken’s talents.
In fact, symphony Executive Director Steve Hageman feels that Aiken’s appearance “increases our credibility.”
Apparently, a Michael Jackson cover doesn’t spell flippancy as much as tasteful and talented sardonicism.
“Clay Aiken and his managers are very good musicians,” Hageman continues. “They have to be, at that level.”
In this case, the Biltmore Estate contracted with the local symphony as support for Aiken’s performance, a reversal of a more common arrangement where the orchestras hire the vocalists. (The Asheville Symphony was working with a group of orchestras to book The Moody Blues on a yearlong tour, an effort that eventually fell flat.)
“There were a heck of a lot of symphony people having their socks knocked off after watching Clay’s performances,” blogger “Kayla,” who’s attended four out of nine shows on the Aiken tour, told Xpress.
“It is [RCA chairman] Clive Davis who put him in the ‘Manilow’ box,” she charges. “But believe me, Clay Aiken is so much more than that.”
It could be argued that Barry Manilow himself, with his countless hit singles, multiplatinum albums and worldwide record sales numbering more than 75 million, is something more than a tawdry troubadour. Aiken actually might be lucky to follow in the footsteps of the man who wrote, you know, the songs.
But Aiken, seemingly uncomfortable with accepting overnight stardom outright, is going beyond introducing Claymates to civic orchestras. Pre-Idol, the Raleigh native was a special-ed teacher, and he continues that particular line of work through the Bubel/Aiken Foundation charity he co-founded.
He’s also a celebrity ambassador for UNICEF and has traveled in that capacity to Uganda, Indonesia and Afghanistan. The latter trip earned him more press for the beard he grew out of respect for local customs than for his charity work.
Celebrity—even that gained from an oft-panned reality series—is a bumpy road. Aiken himself admitted to Ability Magazine, “Somebody once said, ‘You asked for it.’ And I thought, ‘Did I really ask for it?’ When I auditioned for [Idol], I never for a second believed that I was going … to be in the top 15, much less the top two.”
Three albums on, Aiken’s tenuous stardom is finally looking less like a fluke and more like the real thing.
“He is the best all-around entertainer I have ever seen,” blogger “CarylAnn” (who’s seen Elton John, Billy Joel and Journey) told Xpress. “Clay has it all. The voice, the comedic timing and the way he interacts with his fans and makes fun of himself is hilarious.”
Or, as Claymate “Carol” puts it, “People are finally starting to ‘get’ Clay.”
Clay Aiken and the Asheville Symphony Orchestra play the Biltmore Estate’s Summer Evening Concert Series on Saturday, Aug. 11. 8 p.m. At press time, tickets for the show were sold out. (800) 624-1575.