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Clay Aiken fights to keep sexual "edge" out of 'Measure of a Man' CD - and wins


By Wade Paulsen, 10/07/2003 

Time magazine reports that American Idol runner-up Clay Aiken and his record label, RCA Records, battled continually during the making of his debut CD Measure of a Man over both content and career direction. Clay’s goal, to produce an album free from both sexual innuendo and “edge,” was strongly resisted by RCA executives led by label chairman and music industry legend Clive Davis. However, Clay's CD, scheduled for release on October 14, ultimately came out "clean" -- the way that Clay wanted it.

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The core of the dispute was innuendo, seen in the overtly sexual songs and videos performed by such youthful RCA Group artists as Christina Aguilera and Britney Spears, who are sometimes referred to as “pop tarts.” As Clay said, “Clive tried to tell me that saying certain words in a song—or as he says, 'putting some balls into it'—isn't bad, it's just strong emotion. Well, there are certain words and emotions I don't want kids hearing, and I'm not changing because they think it's going to sell better. This is going to sound horrible, but I got 12 million votes doing what I did.”

For his part, Clive argues that Clay’s approach will cost Clay and the label sales. "You can't be paralyzed by what the public expects of you. We're now competing against Justin and Christina and Avril and Pink, and if you allow the television audience to program your music, you will not be on radio and you won't make MTV. And then where are you? We have to stay ahead of the curve."

However, backed by the strong support of Idol creator Simon Fuller (who has contractual authority equal to Clive's over Clay's CDs) Clay was permitted to make the album he wanted to make, despite the reservations of RCA’s head honcho and his underlings. Fuller’s spokesperson noted that Clay’s focus on the “12 million votes” he received wasn’t misplaced: “You have to serve many masters when you have that many people with a vested interest in you. You can't skew yourself one way and not speak to the people who spent all that time watching you and voting for you.”

Although some people (including us from time to time) have accused Simon Fuller of creating “throwaway” artists, such as the Spice Girls and S Club 8, who create a fad and then can be
discarded in favor of the "next big thing," Clay doesn’t see Fuller, who also manages former Eurythmics lead singer Annie Lennox, as someone focused just on the short-term. Said Clay, “Simon Fuller is the one person I trust in all this.”

Clay has kind words for Clive regarding the final production, saying “I'm very satisfied with my album. I grew as a singer, and Clive deserves a lot of the credit for that.” He is also pleased that RCA’s marketing department has finally decided to “let Clay be Clay.”

As he notes, “There are many people at the record label who are afraid of me. They don't understand the reasons that someone as uncool as me is here. In a way—and this is a horrible word to say, and once I say it you're going to print it—it's a revolution. Revolution is a strong word. But RCA would not have picked me or Ruben. Simon Cowell would not have picked us. America has shown them that they don't know what they're talking about.” We’ll see who's right beginning next week, when Measure of a Man ships and Americans vote in true capitalist fashion: with their wallets.

One thing that is clear, though, is the depth of the media and industry bias against Clay’s success so far. The Time article states, “It's also possible that [Clay’s] denigrators love music—and the process of making music—far more than Aiken can imagine and that they resent having their passion marginalized by anyone with a telephone and a taste for Bee Gees medleys.” Meanwhile, the president of leading “rackjobber” (a company that supplies CDs to department stores such as K-Mart and Wal-Mart) Handleman Entertainment Resources describes Clay’s fans thusly: “These are moms and dads making $26,000 to $36,000 a year ... We're not catering to Napster or Kazaa folks, just people who like a nice song sung by a nice kid.”


We find ourselves amazed that Time magazine doesn’t believe that a professional singer like Clay can even “imagine” how much his denigrators “love music” and “the process of making music” … although, to be honest, we aren’t even sure that we know what “the process of making music” means in this context, since it doesn’t appear to refer to playing or singing but rather to deal-making, manipulating and proselytizing. We find ourselves amused by the wounded sensibilities of this elite, whose “passion” has been “marginalized” by the hoi polloi, who like – horror upon horrors – “Bee Gees medleys.” And we find ourselves skeptical that Clay’s audience is limited to people making “$26,000 to $36,000 a year,” especially after viewing the $150-$400 prices that Clay’s promo-only single of “Invisible” fetched on eBay.

More interestingly, we note that Time positions Clay and Ruben differently with regard to the same issue, even though each was doing the same thing. Both were warned by Kelly Clarkson and Justin Guarini, the first two Idol finalists, that if they were happy with 50% of their completed albums, they’d be “doing real good.” Thus, both fought for more control over their sound and won. However, the different treatments given to these identical battles is telling. Ruben, who apparently fought to be LESS like his Idol image, is praised. Quoting Time:

This is my car," Studdard said, according to an executive who was on the call. "If you guys want to navigate, that's great. If you guys want to drive, then you better get a new car." Studdard is now working with Missy Elliott and R. Kelly on what an RCA executive termed "a credible, clean hip-hop album."

Meanwhile, Clay, who fought to stay true to his Idol image, is blasted by Time:

“I'm a battle picker,” [Clay] says. “I try not to get upset about all this marketing stuff because I'm saving it for the time that they tell me that I need to do a song about 'Let's hook up and have sex.' But I'm like, 'Do not—ugh!—don't pretend that the public are a bunch of idiots! Don't pretend that you know what they want and they don't know what they want.' That's the stupidest thing I've ever heard in my life!" Of course, anticipating the tastes of the public—knowing that the world might be ready for a black woman to sing about respect, for example—is exactly what great creative executives do. They don't make art, but they facilitate it, fight for it and nurture it, often in the face of public opposition or apathy.

Clearly, the only difference between the fights being waged by Clay and Ruben is this: Ruben fought to make the album that RCA executives wanted to make, while Clay fought to make an album different from what they wanted. Time sides with the record executives and cites Aretha Franklin’s version of “Respect” as an example of their acumen.

Of course, the Time writer is either too young or too incompetent to know that Aretha Franklin stands as example #1 of how a “great creative executive” – Columbia’s John Hammond Jr. – completely failed with an artist by not staying true to her style. When he signed Aretha, Hammond called her the “greatest voice since Billie Holiday” and positioned her to sing jazz and supper-club blues. She recorded over 10 albums for Columbia, which was headed by Clive Davis at the end of her tenure, without ever breaking through with a hit. (Anyone hear “Runnin’ Out of Fools” lately?) After being dropped by Columbia (!), Aretha signed with Atlantic, where another legendary executive, Jerry Wexler, took her in a very different direction. Wexler pushed Aretha into “rhythm and blues” by having her record pop songs at the legendary Muscle Shoals Studios in Alabama ... and that combination produced “Respect” among several other classics.

So why didn’t Hammond find the vein of Aretha’s talent? Perhaps because, as this article in Salon points out, “rhythm and blues” wasn’t “cool” before Aretha made it cool; instead, jazz was cool. Thus, in his desire to go against the “cool,” Clay may have learned from John Hammond and Clive Davis’s failure with Aretha. Also, the lesson that Jerry Wexler drew from the experience (in his biography Rhythm and the Blues) was to go with a singer’s strengths, regardless of what’s hot for others. It sounds like both Clay and Ruben have learned these lessons better than either RCA or Time has.

We continue to be baffled by the attempt of some in the record industry and the media to pit Clay and Ruben as rivals or opposites. But at least we aren’t baffled by the multiple name changes that Measure of a Man went through any longer. According to Time, Clive Davis was strongly opposed to Clay’s preferred title and “lobbied for any other title.” Again, he ultimately lost.

Finally, we turn to RCA executives, who are quoted (anonymously, of course) as saying that American Idol is proof that “Americans have no taste” and as describing Clay as “Barry Manilow, but with less talent.” (We note, by the way, that Idol judge Simon Cowell is an RCA executive, but we doubt that his ego would permit him to serve as an anonymous source.) Even the president of RCA recognizes that some of his team has no interest in selling Clay because they’re “skeptical about the selection process and skeptical about selling a pop artist with no credibility.” We presume that “no credibility” is longhand for “uncool.”

At the same time, we read record industry executives lament that sales are so bad – dropping from $40 billion to $26 billion in just two years, according to the RIAA – that they have no choice but to target online file-swappers. So, we have an industry that denigrates popular taste and blasts artists who appeal to it, then turns around and complains about its declining sales. Pardon us, but we don’t think we need our MBA to figure out that file-swapping is only a small part of the problems in the music business; sales can never reach their peak if product offerings are designed to appeal to only a portion of your target audience. Although we thought that Clay's platinum single and streak at #1 would get the point across, we are beginning to wonder if these people in the record industry even understand the concept of a "mass market."


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