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Aiken to Be

Posted: May 24, 2003

By Kevin Forest Moreau, America's Idol

"No kid ever grew up wanting to be a critic."
--Paula Abdul

Oh, Paula; sweet, supportive, slightly-out-there Paula. How wrong you are.

As it turns out, I've wanted to be a critic all my life. Well. If I'm being honest, I'd originally thought I'd want to be a journalist, but as Time scribe and Entertainment Weekly columnist Joel Stein recently (and so rightly) put it, having to ask people questions they don't always want to answer is a mirthless and dehumanizing job. Emphasis, if I may, on that last word: Job. Journalism, I'm here to tell you, is work, and really, who wants that? Much better, I soon discovered, to get paid for simply being contrary and spouting off opinions. My aspiration wasn't to be on the cover of Rolling Stone; it was to write for Creem, the irreverent music magazine (sadly, long defunct) that was, in the early '80s, past its Lester Bangs-ian prime but still managed to extol the virtues of the Church, the Pretenders and, well, um, Motley Crue in a clever and insightful fashion that seemed as far removed from work as you could possibly get.

Sadly, there was, and remains, no American Idol for critics, although the increasing fame of Idol curmudgeon Simon Cowell suggests that it's only a matter of time. Cowell is perhaps, at the moment, the world's most famous critic, but oddly enough, his obligatory cruelty isn't the reason I've found myself watching American Idol this season. I've tuned in, week in and week out, for one reason and one reason only (and no, it's not bubbly blonde Carmen either). That reason, ladies and gentlemen, is a North Carolina-raised milquetoast named Clay Aiken.

Critics, you see, more often than not start life as nerds; misfits who channel their social awkwardness into monster record (or movie, or book) collections, and spend the countless hours they're not out on dates dissecting the works of people who, very often, began life as nerds just like themselves. (Few such nerds -- er, I mean critics -- would admit to ever watching American Idol, which most of us view as only slightly less uncool than Pauly Shore. But I digress.)

And damned if Aiken didn't start life -- or at least this year's Idol competition -- in much the same way -- as a pure, unadulterated geek, complete with dorky haircut, dweebish glasses and a totally geeky confidence in his abilities. Who can forget the nervous swagger of his very first audition, right here in my new hometown of Atlanta, when he told Simon he could have easily won last year's competition? And who can forget how quickly he acted on Simon's criticism of his appearance? (What critic doesn't love someone who handles criticism so well?)

Most of all, who can forget his gradual transformation from geek to sure-footed contender? Such is the dream of every nerd, every aspiring critic: to mutate from awkward ugly duckling to confident swan! Most critics realize this transformation by becoming critics, wielding power through their pen (and their opinions) instead of their pipes, but the journey is the same. (This critic, at least, also feels compelled to mention Clay's gracefulness throughout the competition; although he was clearly superior to every one of his fellow competitors, Clay never once gave any indication that he felt superior to them. And although critics enjoy feeling superior to others, it's not a trait we admire in performers; critics love restraint.)

Sadly, as the whole world knows by now, Clay was denied that ultimate moment of redemption that all geeks and critics crave. Having made it to the finals of American Idol, he ultimately lost to rotund Ruben Studdard, the 300-pound teddy bear. That Ruben's singing during the final two weeks of the competition simply wasn't up to par -- not to mention up to Clay's level -- seemed to escape the 13,000-odd fans whose dexterous telephoning and text-messaging catapulted "Roo!" into the winner's circle. (It also escaped the notice of the judges, whose pointed non-criticism of Studdard can't help but have exerted some influence on swing voters.)

But that's okay. Every critic loves an underdog (not to mention a conspiracy theory). And like Underdog, the canine superhero, Clay Aiken evolved from a nerdy shoeshine boy into a vocal powerhouse, able to sell even the schmaltziest material with his amazing vocal talents. Let's be clear on this point: This critic doesn't just champion Clay because of his inner geekiness. That boy can sing.

So let Ruben take the crown, and, let us not forget, its attendant pressures. Let's leave him to fret over the task of following in the million-selling footsteps of last year's Idol, the perky Kelly Clarkson. Let's instead raise a glass to Human Clay, who molded himself into a graceful loser and an inspiration to geeks everywhere, even if he'll be following in the footsteps of Justin "Sideshow Bob" Guarini. Heck, he's clearly inspired me: I'm already practicing for the audition of American Critic. "I'd travel back in time and annihilate your entire family line just to prevent you from singing that awfully again." Move over, Simon.

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