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It's not easy being Clay

Ask Clay Aiken a question and, chances are, he gives you a silly laugh. But behind the cackle, is there a nice guy suffering from post-Idol angst?

By SEAN DALY
Published December 27, 2005


[AP photo]
Clay Aiken speaks to students and teachers at the Learning Project Elementary school in Boston dec 6 this month. The singer thanked them for their tsunami relief fundraising for UNICEF.
[Getty Images]
"There are plenty of times when I wish I could just go out to dinner and not be stared at and pointed at and talked about," Clay Aiken says.

PREVIEW: Clay Aiken performs at 8 p.m. Thursday and Friday at Ruth Eckerd Hall, 1111 McMullen-Booth Road, Clearwater. Tickets $55-$62.50. Call (727) 791-7400 or (813) 287-8844 or (727) 898-2100.

***

Before discussing the titillating appeal of Clay Aiken's singing voice - that varsity-sweater croon that drives millions of "Claymates" bonkers - we must first examine the pop star's tremendous laugh. For that, as you will soon see, is the key to Clay.

It's a cackle really, an exhalation that starts low, brays HIGH, part Keebler Elf, part mad scientist. It's warmly flavored with his native North Carolina, but it's slightly unhinged, too, as if the former American Idol star were contemplating whether to give you a cookie or hook electrodes to your earlobes.

Calling from a tour stop in Washington, D.C., and subsequently hyping his upcoming Christmas show at Ruth Eckerd Hall in Clearwater Thursday and Friday, the 27-year-old spiky-haired redhead spends a great deal of time unleashing that laugh and doing what he does best: playing the strait-laced singer with aw-shucks sex appeal.

If you want to hear the laugh, just set him up to do his shtick:

Hey, Clay, what do you have on your iPod?

"The only thing I have on my iPod right now is Monk."

Thelonious Monk?

"No, the TV show," he says, adding: "Bwoo-hoo-hoo-HEE-HA-HA!!!"

Hey, Clay, do you like any hard rock? Motley Crue maybe? Perhaps some Judas Priest?

"Bwoo-hoo-hoo-HEE-HA-HA!" he says. "I have Collective Soul's Shine on my iTunes. That's probably as hard as it gets. But the only reason I have that is because Dolly Parton covered it on her bluegrass album and I wanted to compare the two. Bwoo-hee!"

Aiken loves being able to name more Neil Sedaka songs than Nirvana hits. That's his thing: look-both-ways Middle America. He's a fine singer with an able gift for phrasing a hook, but he's about as far from edgy as Pat Boone. Aiken knows it, too. During our casual conversation, refreshingly free of vanity or guff, even he calls his nice-boy act "vanilla."

Vanilla, Clay?

"Ha-HEE!"

- - -

In 2003, Aiken placed second to Ruben "Velvet Teddy Bear" Studdard on the sophomore season of reality TV hit American Idol. But there's no doubt as to the real winner. Along with pop starlet Kelly Clarkson - "Her last album was just killer," Aiken says of Clarkson's multiplatinum Breakaway - Aiken is the only other AI contestant who has transcended the tag of reality TV star.

Aiken's first hit, the antiseptically romantic This Is the Night, debuted at No. 1 on the Billboard charts, selling more than 392,000 copies during its first week. When his first full-length album, Measure of a Man, hit stores later that year, it debuted at No. 1 with some 613,000 first-week sales. His 2004 Christmas album, Merry Christmas With Love, also set records for holiday-album sales.

That sort of success makes Aiken laugh really hard. He has to laugh at it. His groupies, the Claymates, rival only Barry Manilow's "Fanilows" in berzerko idolatry for a man with ambiguous sexuality and G-rated skills. Of course, that doesn't mean the Claymates don't have naughty motives: A fan once sent him a very curious kitchen utensil. But more on that later.

Every so often, however, the laugh disappears, and that's when you should pay attention. It's a jarring silence, to be honest, like that moment in musical chairs when someone kills the music.

"There are plenty of times when I wish I could just go out to dinner and not be stared at and pointed at and talked about," he says, suddenly serious. "I enjoy doing what I'm doing. Being able to sing every night. Being able to make a living off of that. But I do get jealous of friends of mine who are teachers nowadays and they have stories of kids that they work with. That makes me jealous 'cause I want that myself."

Then his voice loses all lightness, almost as if he were scolding himself: "You know, everybody makes a choice. You make a choice to do what you're doing . . . and you're gonna have to deal with all the good and all the bad, right?"

If Aiken does decide to leave show biz someday, it would no doubt be to follow his other dream. Before going to Hollywood, he studied special education and worked at a program devoted to autistic kids.

"I was supposed to sub for six months, but I wound up staying for two years," he says. "I literally fell in love with the kids. Each child was different, and it was a puzzle, and you really saw the benefits."

He pauses for a bit, that laugh now a million miles away. "I don't really see the benefits to anybody of what I'm doing right now," he adds. "Yeah, people like to listen but . . . I ain't changing anybody's life."

Soon enough, though, that laugh comes back. It's not so much a defense, but a signpost, letting listeners - and maybe even Aiken himself - know what's real and what's make-believe.

- - -

Hey, Clay, how scary are the Claymates?

"Oh, let's be honest: Sometimes they can be a little bit frightening. It's usually the ones that I haven't met that scare me the most. I look out into the audience, and they look like they're going to eat me alive. Bwa-hoo-HA!"

Hey, Clay, do you ever get scary fan mail?

"Not so much anymore. For a while there it was freaky. I got a turkey baster one time, and I just stopped opening the mail. Hoo-hoo-ha-hoo-hoo! I really don't even want to think about it."

It's only fair that we offer a quick defense of Aiken's core fan base. Meet Tiffany Allshouse, a 31-year-old systems engineer from Kansas City, Mo. Allshouse is the Web master behind hot Internet site All Things Clay Aiken, a smart, interactive dot-com that offers a smorgasbord of Aiken. Tiffany says her husband is very understanding about her hobby.

"So many of Clay's fans are women above 25," says Allshouse, who has met Aiken a couple of times and says he was charming. "They want to protect him. A lot of women are also very attracted to him. He's very self-effacing, and that's an attractive quality."

Hey, Clay, any chance of a new album in 2006?

"I don't know how long I'll be doing this whole thing," he says, suddenly going serious again. "I'm not trying to say I'm planning on quitting, but you know how the business works. I just want to make sure I do everything now that I've always wanted to do."

There will be a new album in the first half of 2006, but Aiken isn't sure what will be on the disc. "I don't want to fall into a formula," he says. "A lot of things are so formulaic right now."

He sighs, conflict was once again creeping into his voice: "We're still trying to figure things out."

Hey, maybe you should do the loungey-Sinatra, I offer, trying to lighten the mood.

"Oh, I don't know if I'm that cool, he says. "Bwoo-hoo-hoo-HEE-HA-HA!!!"

Sean Daly can be reached at sdaly@sptimes.com or 727 893-8467. His blog is at www.sptimes.com/blogs/popmusic

[Last modified December 26, 2005, 13:02:24]


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