Grounded in gospel, singer takes mainstream path

Catching Up With ... Ruben Studdard

An 'American Idol' adjusts to the hard realities of the music industry

January 04, 2004|By Richard Cromelin

HOLLYWOOD -- You'd think they'd never seen a pop star here at the BMG record company offices in Beverly Hills, the way they crowd and cluster around Ruben Studdard as he walks past their cubicles on his way to a conference room for an interview.

Starry-eyed employees shake his hand and wish him well. Some offer him CDs. When he sticks his head into a woman's office and asks if he can come through and pose for some photographs on the terrace, she puts down her phone and says yes, if he'll sing to her. He responds with a brief, gospel-flavored trill.

During his procession, a representative of his management company, who's accompanying him on this day of interviews and photo sessions, tells him that he has to make a decision about a proposal that's been sent to him. Studdard takes the fax from her and reads it quickly. "Super Bowl tickets?" says the former college offensive lineman. "OK, I'll do it."

So it goes for the reigning champion of American Idol. These heady and hectic times have stretched long beyond Studdard's TV moment in May, largely because the Fox network's blockbuster talent contest is having the kind of impact on the record charts that it previously did in the television ratings -- records by the Idol stars have become legitimate hits rather than ephemeral souvenirs. Studdard's album is finally here, and instead of being yesterday's news, he is that massive shape right in the crosshairs of the public's awareness.

Much as he insists that his term with the show, its rivalries and the honed "reality" that brought him here are over, its populist "he's one of us" sensibility is one he's tied to -- for better or worse.

So while his grounding in gospel music and his admiration for such substantial singers as Luther Vandross and Donnie Hathaway might give him a better shot at musical credibility than his Idol peers have shown, the program's please-'em-all mindset holds sway. If your goal is to win as many people as possible, you're not inclined to be daring or challenging. Listening to the music produced by the contestants so far, the word "cringe" comes to mind.

Studdard might be a different kind of singer, but his own goals for his album reflect the Idol process. He wants something for everybody, in the manner of an old-fashioned, inoffensive, all-around entertainer.

Sure winners

Still, the rewards are clear enough. Kelly Clarkson, last year's Idol winner, entered the national sales chart at No. 1 in April when her debut album, Thankful, sold nearly 300,000 copies in its first week, starting it on its way toward total sales of more than 1.5 million. Clay Aiken lost to Studdard in a close showdown that ended the series' second season, but that didn't stop his Measure of a Man album from opening with sales of more than 600,000 in September, one of the highest one-week figures this year. It's since risen to more than 1.3 million. When Studdard and Aiken both released singles in June, Aiken started at nearly 400,000 and Studdard at almost 300,000.

In an odd twist, Aiken's showing makes Studdard something of an underdog in a game he's already won. Though he pooh-poohs the idea of a rivalry between him and his little buddy Clay, this brought a bit of drama to the release of Soulful on J Records, part of the BMG-owned RCA Music Group.

Clive Davis, who inherited the deal that brings the show's winners to RCA when he became chairman and CEO of the group of labels a year ago, scoffs at the notion that the music business could become a passive assembly line.

"We listen and go see artists," says Davis, an executive famed for both reviving faded stars (Santana, Rod Stewart) and finding new ones (Alicia Keys). "I'm still out there, going to see artists, and my A&R staff is combing the corners of the country to find the artists. There's no dangerous trend. Here is a situation which might provide one or at most two artists a year. I don't think that it's anything that's going to affect [the music business]."

'The king of cheese'

What does Studdard think of all this?

"You always give people what they want," he says. "If you give it to them they'll buy it. If people like corn flakes, don't give them raisin bran. If people want Coke, don't give 'em Pepsi."

This is the post-conversion Studdard speaking. His first impression of American Idol wasn't too favorable.

"I saw the end of the first season. It was fun to watch, though I didn't think I would ever be doing it. I thought it was kind of cheesy." He smiles. "Now I'm the king of cheese."

"Do you mind if I play a CD?" asks Studdard, as he gets ready for the interview. "I'll let you pick the volume."

He takes the new Cee-Lo single from the stack of CDs he gathered on his stroll through the office, and the music thumps gently in the background as he lowers his frame into a chair.

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