IDOL TO ICON
by Sherry Sochacka --
The phenomenon that
is Clay Aiken transcends age, country, class, gender, religion, culture,
and probably color. People are staggered by the way that he has touched
their lives and their hearts.
I know because I
have had the pleasure of receiving lots of emails from them. People are
using words like ‘magnetism,’ ‘charisma,’ ‘magical,’ ‘intriguing,’ ‘that
special something,’ ‘enchanting,’ ‘infectious smile,’ ‘truly unique person,’
‘a boy with charm and character,’ ‘endearing,’ ‘extremely special young
man,’ ‘stunned and delighted by this talent,’ ‘the most genuine, sincere
smile I have ever seen,’ and ‘a burst of sun’ during ‘dark days.’
At the least, Clay
is fervently admired. But more than this, young and old are amazed to discover
that they love again, sometimes after many years.
After writing Clay's
X-Factor, I became aware that I still hadn’t fully captured that ‘indefinable
something’ that Clay was doing for the world. I had gotten near it, but
realized that there was something more.
My mind began to
dwell on two events in particular. One, the way Clay handled the whole
‘Vincent’ incident. And two, the way Clay handled Ruben Studdard winning,
amongst accusations that the judges were biased (especially Simon Cowell),
and that the phone lines were jammed all evening so many people couldn’t
Let’s start with
‘Vincent.’ It has been reported that the producers added in extra words
to the song just before the show, to supposedly make it longer. This must
have been confusing and unsettling to Clay, who as a consummate professional
always knew his words inside out. It led to his missing a few lines, although
he covered it up incredibly well, like the professional that he is, so
that people who didn’t know the song wouldn’t have necessarily noticed
it until Paula mentioned it. It was then apparently reported to the studio
audience that the words had been changed at the last minute. But the TV
show never mentioned it.
And nor did Clay.
Now, a lesser mortal would have started protesting their innocence. I would
have. I would have made sure the TV audience knew it wasn’t my fault. But
not Clay. He just stood there and took the flak from the judges. When Paula
said that his nerves were getting the better of him, he just opened his
eyes wider, as if in acknowledgment.
To me it demands
someone special to do that. Most people would not have held their counsel
in that way. Instead, Clay just blithely announced later that he would
‘Bring it next time,’ to make up for it.
Clay didn’t store
that event up as resentment towards Ruben, or against the producers, or
anyone. Nor did he store up anger from learning that many of his fans had
not been able to get through to vote. He didn't store up anger against
the judges, particularly Simon Cowell, for disparaging his fabulous voice
as ‘Broadway’ or ‘American Idol the Musical.’ He didn’t store up anger
about the final show’s evident manipulation of signs and symbols, intentional
or not, such as Ruben punching out Clay, super-smooth Ruben ordering around
Clay as ‘geek,’ or Ruben’s dark, majestic dressing room as opposed to Clay’s
pink and flowery one.
No, when the result
was announced, Clay seemed incredibly pleased that Ruben had won, and just
grinned at him with that infectious smile full of love and affection. Okay,
so Clay said that he had an idea beforehand that it could have been Ruben,
because he’d glanced at the results card, and the name on it seemed longer
than his. That would have averted a surprised or shocked reaction from
him, but even so, he seemed genuinely happy about Ruben winning and went
on to make an affectionate congratulatory speech.
First off, as soon
as the result was announced, he gave Ruben a hug and started chanting ‘Ru-ben,
Ru-ben,’ acknowledging him as the winner. What a generous thing to do!
He then proceeded to make an amazing speech, which I would like to quote
because it moved me so much.
Ryan: ‘How are you?’
Clay: ‘Oh I’m doing great. You know what? One of the most talented people
I know, one of the best friends I have, I’m so proud of him. So proud of
everybody on this stage ... I couldn’t ... I couldn’t be in a better ...
I couldn’t have had a better experience than this, I am so proud of everybody
up here, myself too, hey.’ Ryan: ‘So no hard feelings between to two of
you?’ Clay: ‘Absolutely not! Absolutely. I’m gonna beat him up later, for
stealing my title!’ (Laughs, and play-fights with Ruben) Ruben: ‘I love
you man.’ (Puts his arm around Clay). Clay: ‘I love you.’ And then: Clay:
‘You know what? We’ll compete again later, on the charts or something!’
(Laughs, and they playfully push each other).
Two words spring
to mind – grace and dignity. Clay was dignified and gracious in defeat.
Yes I know he hasn’t really lost and he’s got a recording contract too,
but it was still something he’d hoped for and dreamed about, worked for
over six months, lived and breathed, and put himself through hell for –
and Ruben got it instead.
He could have been
upset, angry, resentful, and he wasn’t. Instead, he was laughing and joking,
and saying how wonderful Ruben was. He must have been disappointed, I imagine,
deep down, but he showed no sign of it. Then he went around all the people
on stage – his family, Ruben’s family, and gave them a hug or a handshake.
This young man, only
24 years old, has a maturity far beyond his years, and beyond what many
people ever attain. He has a myriad of wonderful qualities. He also has
a wonderful infectious smile – it lights up his whole face and makes others
want to smile right back. He has an incredible voice which touches hearts.
He exudes love when he is on stage, and gets it back a thousand times over.
His vastly improved
appearance is an integral part of that love. I wish I could say it wasn’t,
but it is. Human beings can be fickle, fallible creatures, and are more
likely to love someone if they look cute and vulnerable.
I think Clay finds
this difficult to come to terms with. In an interview, he said, ‘I’m no
different. I’m not different at all. The wrapping is different – the gift
is the same.’ He must wonder why we all suddenly adore him, when we didn’t
before. He may even be quite distrusting of the adulation, for that very
reason, or even be scared by it. But the wrapping is needed to deliver
His gorgeous, cute,
expressive face beams out love to others, and elicits it in return. His
voice comes from Paradise and sings of love and passion. Yet we have also
seen him scared, vulnerable, and at the mercy of the voters every week.
It is a heady mix.
Clay Aiken has achieved
the impossible. He has opened people’s hearts to love. He is loved by a
lot of people. In loving him, these people have opened their hearts. They
have become people who love, and who in turn want to spread that love to
others. He has become a major force for love in America, and beyond.
Not only this, I
would argue that Clay Aiken elicits all sorts of other qualities from people
too. In watching his grace and dignity, they discover their own grace and
dignity, and become graceful and dignified. They watch his generosity of
spirit, and become more generous and more spiritual. They watch his ability
to risk being himself and being seen, and they start to risk letting themselves
be seen too. He brings forth humankind’s best and noblest qualities.
Clay Aiken has become
an idol, crowned or not. He has also been called an American icon. For
example, Alexandra Corbin, in a letter in the NY Times, ‘Why Clay Will
Always Win,’ calls him ‘a vital and enjoyable representation of America
in an exhilarating story of pure will and a willingness to change.’
I believe the word
‘icon’ to be a fitting one for him. I think he has achieved that global
stature. He himself may be bewildered by it, but that is part of his charm.
Just by being himself, he has had an incredible influence on an awful lot
Through him, their
lives have been changed for the better, and they have become better people.
As one fan sums it up: ‘It may sound silly to somebody who does not know
about Clay or the show but he makes me want to become a better person.’
Clay Aiken has shown us how to love each other again. He is an inspiration
Barbara Fox goes
one step further and observes: “Clay (unknowingly) has taken what our pop
culture has vilified and exulted and placed it back into its rightful place.
Clay has taken LOVE – its purity, its depth, its transforming power, its
physical manifestations from pop culture’s idolatrous ‘animal instinct’
and brought it back into the true ‘human experience.’ Clay is eliciting
in each of us the need to experience love in the purest sense.”
‘Clayniacs’ are not
experiencing Clay mania for no reason. “Shakin’ Aiken” has touched people’s
lives in a way that has not been experienced since the days of the Beatles
or Princess Diana. What do icons do? They engender mass adulation and passion.
They fulfill a need in human hearts. Perhaps human beings in this uncertain
post-secular age need someone to worship – and at the moment, Clay is it.
The final results
show was watched by millions of people across America. It had become a
national obsession. It was also watched in diluted form by many in other
countries. It is said that it was watched by an incredible half of American
teenage girls. Last week, fan-mail was already five feet high.
Sure, the Clay Aiken
image has not only been engendered by his personal qualities and gifts.
It was also created by the instigator of American Idol (Simon Fuller),
19 Entertainment, Fox TV network, financiers, producers, directors, cable
TV, amazingly gifted songwriters, all the thousands of contestants, voice
coaches, studio audio and visual technicians, the judges, venue managers,
makeover artists, contact-lens manufacturers, musicians, stylists, the
voters, the audience, phone companies, the media, clothes designers and
makers, people who ran the catering and the house, etc.
No human endeavor
of any import is made in isolation. Yes, Clay Aiken’s image depended on
these people. The phenomenon that he became could not have existed without
The age he lives
in has also played its part. People perhaps needed a ‘savior’ – a force
for the good.
But his image also
could not have existed without him. The winner of the parallel show in
Britain last year, Will Young, had a similarly heavenly voice and a lovely
personality. Yet he didn’t rise to icon status.
Clay Aiken did. And
he did it on his own merit, with all the support mentioned above. He overcame
adversity, and won people’s hearts in the process.
Clay himself said
that whatever happened in the results show, there would be a rhyme or reason
to it in the greater scheme of things.
I believe that Clay’s
iconic status is the greater for not winning. I believe that Ruben’s is
the greater for having won. But that is another story, and one that I don’t
have the knowledge to tell.
Will it last? Only
time, CD sales, and show bookings will tell. The American Idol 2 show has
fallen silent. The lights have gone out, the people all gone. America is
mourning its passing. What is certain is that Clay Aiken has touched people’s
lives in a way they will never forget, leaving the world a better place.
From my Guestbook:
"Thanks, Jan, for posting my article! I'm honoured!
(I am the one who is honored to have
Sherry's wonderful article on my site!)
Sherry Sochacka is
a freelance writer, therapist, songwriting- and life-coach from the UK.
She can be contacted by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.
-by Sherry Sochacka