Forming Clay into rock

After 2003 American Idol runner-up Clay Aiken performed in Syracuse, N.Y. (backed by the Syracuse Symphony Orchestra, no less), the Web site dubbed the pop singer “the beloved singing teddy bear placed near a young girl’s flouncy canopied bed.”

From Idol to icon: Although American Idol runner-up Clay Aiken may lack the artistic credibility that comes with a long career of paying dues, his devoted fans — the “Claymates”— don’t seem to mind.

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.

Getting Clay

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.

About Alli Marshall
Alli Marshall is the arts section editor at Mountain Xpress. She's lived in Asheville for more than 20 years and loves live music, visual art, fiction and friendly dogs. Alli is the winner of the 2016 Thomas Wolfe Fiction Prize and the author of the novel "How to Talk to Rockstars," published by Logosophia Books. Follow me @alli_marshall

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27 thoughts on “Forming Clay into rock

  1. janet

    i cannot believe you put Clay Aiken on the cover. Did you filter it with Photoshop Deluxe’s “Mock Mod Andy Warhol” filter just to try and make it appear to be a story about an artist? and you call yourself an independent paper. geez.

  2. clayaikenrulez1

    Thanks for putting the sensational amazing singer and fabulous entertainer CLAY AIKEN on the cover. Keep it coming! I love Clay Aiken. Clay Aiken is my favorite male singer and male entertainer. Clay Aiken Rules!!!

  3. Carol

    Am traveling thru the NC area, actually on my way to Cary Friday for Clay’s concert. And I was nicely surprised to see your paper with Clay on the cover. Oh, yes, he belongs there. It was a great article as well. People are definitely starting to “get” Clay. He is a fabulous performer, magical in person, with the best voice on the plant plus a natural comedian. He grabs the audience and we’re putty in his hands. Why the heck else would I travel from Chicago just to see this guy? He’s so worth it!

  4. ER

    Thank you for putting Clay on the cover. I just atttended my first Clay concert in San Diego and he was so good thatI had to watch him again in Pala and at the Greek in Los Angeles. I thought it was going to be borring beacause his last album were a lot of slow songs, but I was wrong, He has an amazing vocals that it sounded like the covers song were brand new. His sence of humor and charisma on stage is electrifying, That you just can’t get enough of. If you have not seem him yet, Get a ticket , it will be worth every penny .Make it a family affair

  5. Fran

    Treat yourself and attend just one concert and you’ll more than “get it”! What a breath of fresh air Clay Aiken is to this dull and repetitive what is referred to as “music industry”; actually, it’s music boredom! YOU GO CLAY!!!

  6. DizzyDollyDee

    My husband and I attended our fist cocert in Calif. We flew down from Wash. Have been a fan since American Idol. The concert was better than I ever expected. He is so talented and such a wonderful singer. I hope he can stay true to his cnvictions in this crazy world and it sure was nice seeing a family friendly concert. Thank you for featuring somebody of this caliber – you get tired of all the notoriety given to those with no morals or talent.

  7. CW

    Thanks for the interesting article. I live in NC and flew to Los Angeles to see Clay Aiken at the Greek because my friend wanted to. What an entertainer! The voice is just magnificent. I am now going to Cary and will be at the Biltmore too. I wouldn’t miss it!

  8. kfc-canada

    After viewing all the videos of Clay’s summer concerts to date, I just want to say how fascinating it’s been to watch the expressions on the faces of the symphony orchestra members! They seem to struggle to wear their most staid and inscrutable ‘symphonic look’ on their faces, but ultimately fail and exhibit ‘that look’ we Claymates have come to recognize so well..pure admiration for Clay’s talent and downright hillarity at his outrageous comedic banter with his fans. If you decide to view the videos yourself, you’ll know exactly who got smitten with the ‘claybug’ as it is so very obvious.

    Clay makes sure that each symphony receives lots of kudoes and encouragement for future support from the local audiences. He shares the stage extensively with his two wonderful backup performers, Angela and Quiana and, his own conductor, Jesse Vargas, is superb.

    I personally think that one benefit that all these local symphonies have gained by backing Clay Aiken is the public display of their ability to adapt to any type of music presented to them. They have all done a marvelous job of performing the music for songs from Clay’s newest album, A Thousand Different Ways..and are to be commended for helping to retain the romantic aura surrounding all of them.

    It is so wonderful that these symphonies have the opportunity to shine in front of audiences they may never have played to previously as well as to clayfans who have travelled from all over Europe, Canada, Japan and a host of other countries who will subsequently praise them locally.

    I also would like to add a personal thank you to Clay for choosing Because You Loved Me as his closing number.This song was originally made famous by Canada’s own Celine Dion, who is definitely a world reknown class act. Clay now owns this song.

  9. Kris

    After learning of the Clay Aiken tour, my family and I traveled to see him in Canandaigua, NY, and then Columbus, OH. We knew since AI of his terrific voice, but was astounded by the talent this man actually possesses. He’s become a multi faceted entertainer with quick wit and great comedic ability. And the way he warmly connects and interacts with audience is impressive, to say the least. However, there is one downfall to attending his concert….knowing the wonderful evening has concluded and there won’t be another concert for you to attend until his next tour.

    Thank you for finding Clay Aiken worthy of your cover, for I certainly do!

  10. Connie Weaver

    Thank you for the very nice article on Clay Aiken. It is so nice to see someone write the positive things about Clay that should have been written all along. He is the best all around entertainer we have today.

  11. Blue10

    Clay Aiken is a class act as well as being a terrific entertainer with an unbelievable voice. He sings better than many I’ve heard. I fell in love with that voice the first time I heard it and the love affair continues!! What a sense of humour – I’m flying down from Canada for his concert in Tennessee, and can hardly wait.

    Besides all the above, he is charismatic and exceptionally good looking!! You go Clay!!!

  12. Sherry

    Thank you for your excellent article on Clay Aiken. I appreciate that you accurately report his humanitarian and philanthropic leanings and give him the credit he deserves. Clay is truly an Entertainer in every sense of the word ~ he is really a comedic genius and makes the audience feel like they are family. He’s amazing!

  13. Patricia Barnes

    Thank you Mountain Xpress for being an independent thinker and putting one of the greatest voices in today’s pop culture on your cover. He’s phenomenal and we’ve only seen the tip of his amazing talent. He is cool in his uncoolness and quite revoluntionary for today in that he refuses to go along with the norm.

  14. Carol

    I went to my first Clay concert in New Jersey 2 weeks ago and was mesmerized from the moment he stepped onto the stage. I have bought all of his CDs, but to hear him in person, well, he has the most powerful and beautiful voice around. His sense of humor is a bonus – we get two for the price of one, his voice and his humor! So if you haven’t experienced a live Clay concert, by all means do so. Go see and hear, the one and only, Clay Aiken!

  15. sue

    Well I’m not sure what “Janet’s” problem is but I think this article is terrific It’s about time someone took the time to write about Clay and his talent and his music ability rather than the other crapola the media usually focusses on. I’ve seen this concert 4 times now and am continually amazed at the show Clay puts on. Not only does he have a beautiful voice, but his comedic timing and his quick-witted remarks are hysterical. I wish people would give him the benefit of the doubt and see him “live” before they start cracking on him from pre-conceived prejudicial opinions. Thank you Mountain Xpress. Thank you for being true to journalism rather than sensationalism! Thumbs up to your writer!!!

  16. Orbit DVD

    These people are great! Can I use you guys for my next advertising campaign?


  17. Sherry

    Thanks Marc! We know the real deal when we see it! So if you’re advertising a decent, honest philanthropist and humanitarian who has character and integrity, go for it!

  18. sue

    What’s your problem Jason??? If you don’t like the “joke’s’ music – don’t listen to it and don’t rain on the rest of us who do. 5 million CDs sold – so somebody must get the joke!

  19. Sherry

    Hey Jason ~ it’s CLAY’s beautiful voice that drew me in, and it’s his personality, humor and kindness that keep me.

  20. ashevillenative

    hi there, I’m just super curious, are any of you Claymates from the Asheville area? If so, where exactly? If not, do you google the Aiken name to troll for ways to support your idol? Like I said, I’m just super curious where you people come from…

  21. Orbit DVD

    I’m sure they’re part of the fan club/street team. I don’t think we Ashevillians could ever be this organized.


  22. kfc-canada

    hi there, I’m just super curious, are any of you Claymates from the Asheville area? If so, where exactly? If not, do you google the Aiken name to troll for ways to support your idol? Like I said, I’m just super curious where you people come from…ashevillenative..

    Sorry, ashevillenative, you’re mistaking Clay’s fans with the ‘trolls’ who actually do as you say…troll the boards to find some way to undermine Clay’s character and talents. If you read all the comments once again, you’ll notice that not one negative or insulting word was used by any of Clay’s fans. In fact, each one of us has given Alli Marshall’s article the praise it deserves.

    Clay’s fans have spent their summer days planning pre-concert parties whereby donations are generously made on behalf of the Bubel-Aiken Foundation and other of Clay’s charities. They have ‘trolled’ the airline schedules to reserve tickets to places like Asheville…a place many people have never heard of before…including the sixteen Japanese clayfans who made it a point not to miss Clay’s concert in your town. All those who must admit to not being from Asheville have spent thousands of dollars in your local hotels and restaurants and souvenir shops and for the concert tickets which support your symphony.

    Would all the local people from Asheville have done all that? Hmmmm, maybe…to accomodate all their out of state visitors who happened to come to see Clay?

    The only bug in the ointment to this entire article can be easily identified by any pseudo-insect expert…’s called locus incompetencus Jasonus Buggus. Too bad Clay’s mosquito spray didn’t work well enough to deter this infamous species….along with all the bats. Hmmmmm, the bats did serve to make Asheville memorable..but that Buggus????

  23. ashevillenative

    ouch canada…that hurts…but it does answer my question, thank you. Like Marc said, I’ve just never seen such…dedication. The only reason I asked was because we tend to be a little more laid back around here with our …fervent devotions.

    Does the $25 for the fan club include internet access as well? Just super curious!

  24. Dan

    “””“Kayla,” who’s attended four out of nine shows on the Aiken tour,””””

    That would be 4 out of 9 TOURS. He’s done over 250 shows in 4 years.

  25. Nam Vet

    Clay Aiken is a pantywaist. I am ashamed he/she is from North Carolina. He belongs in NYC.

  26. Nam Vet: You really need to work on your trolling skills, dude. Insulting his gender? C’mon, that’s diaper-school tactics. You look like a n00b.

    Instead, may I suggest a healthy dose of irony?

    Wrong: “Clay Aiken is horrible. I loathe him.”

    Right: “CLAY is the BEST THING to happen to music since the invention of SOUND and maybe hair gel! OMG! All you HATERS can STFU! CLAY is the REAL DEAL, and the MEAL DEAL (because I could just eat HIM up)!”

    See what I mean? If you’re gonna troll, please put a little more thought and effort into it next time.

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