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Human Clay

 

Clay Aiken: Measure of a Man

RCA, 2003

Rating: 2.8

 

 

Posted: October 31, 2003

By Kevin Forest Moreau

It seems unfair to criticize Measure of a Man, the debut album from American Idol runner-up Clay Aiken, for being a safe slice of bland, generic MOR pop. That, after all, is exactly what the wildly popular program promises, and on it, Aiken never gave audiences any reason to suspect he'd aim for anything else. It's the one medium for which his voice -- to say nothing of his personality -- seems perfectly suited. Sure, Aiken seems like a natural for Broadway, as many have claimed, but it would depend on the production -- Aiken's definitive lack of edge would seem to preclude his being cast in, say, Rent or The Lion King, although of course there's always Jesus Christ, Superstar or The Fantasticks.

Still, the unrelenting homogeneity of Measure of a Man can't help but seem disappointing. RCA label head Clive Davis certainly can't be faulted for playing it safe by playing to Aiken's strengths as they were presented on Idol. But narrowcasting Measure strictly for suburban soccer moms and hormonally nave tweens isn't going to do Aiken's career any favors in the long run. And the album is so insistently slick that it faces the very real risk of alienating even members of those two key demographics. That's because from start to finish, Measure is polished to a gloss so impenetrable that it cancels out Aiken's innate (and crucial) sincerity.

Not all of this is Aiken's fault, of course. When you've marshaled forces as defined by mediocrity as Desmond Child (was Diane Warren unavailable?), you can't expect an end product that does anything other than wallow in formula. And that's exactly what Measure does, from the Idol-tested balladry of "This is the Night" (co-written by, of all people, former '80s MTV icon Aldo Nova), to mechanical, paint-by-numbers fare like "No More Sad Songs" and the title track.

Not that Aiken escapes unscathed: He's still just raw enough not to have fully grasped the advantages of subtlety. And there's a point at which his immaculately squeaky-clean image becomes a hindrance even to radio love ballads. It's a measure of Measure's calculated toothlessness -- even by lustrous Top 40 standards -- that the earnest "Invisible," which contains a borderline-creepy reference (a la "Every Breath You Take") to invisibly spying on a girl in her room, sounds wholly unthreatening in Aiken's hands -- even Aaron Carter would probably make the song sexier than Clay does here.

There are moments, to be sure, when some of the exuberance and sheer vocal talent Aiken revealed on Idol manage to poke through the chastity-belt production, most notably the agreeable "I Will Carry You." But far too much of this album-by-committee comes across as less a showcase for Aiken's skill than a micro-managed attempt to cash in on its singer's personality by pumping out elevator-music pabulum, the kind cynical record company suits no doubt think defines the depth and breadth of the Idol audience's musical tastes.

The thing is, those suits aren't entirely wrong -- both by happenstance (it's just easier for the show's producers to nail down the rights to older public-domain crowd pleasers) and by design (no one ever accused the show of being daring), Idol traffics in the kind of lowest-common-denominator fare that makes the Titanic soundtrack seem cutting-edge by comparison. And the show's success makes a pretty strong argument that a large segment of the American public is just fine with that fact. But those hordes would have still bought an Aiken album containing better material and less precision-engineered, sugary sweetness. Clay's chances of getting to make a second album seem pretty secure, given Measure's successful start, and hopefully either he or his handlers will leave some room for growth. As it stands, however, this scrubbed-clean debut measures up to little more than a spotless platter without a hint of soul.

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