`Idol' loser revels in laughter

Hung's new CD is revenge of the nerd

April 07, 2004|By Jonathan Pitts | Jonathan Pitts,SUN STAFF

In an old episode of The Simpsons, America's favorite cartoon dad, Homer, lands an upaid gig in a Lollapalooza-like rock music show. His job: to go onstage between acts, display his ample, middle-aged gut and absorb a cannonball in the breadbasket.

In the crowd, two kids are puzzled. "Oh, here comes that cannonball guy," says one with a nose ring. "He's cool."

"Are you being sarcastic, dude?" asks his flannel-clad buddy.

There is a pause. "I don't even know anymore," he says.

That's pretty much how you're liable to feel if you choose to treat yourself to the unique postmodern experience that is Inspiration, the new CD/DVD featuring the vocal artistry of one William Hung, the 21-year-old California grad student who, thanks to a wildly popular television show, has come to embody a Huey Lewis adage that is by now so dusty it has to be au courant: "It's hip to be square."

If you're even glancingly familiar with the showbiz phenomenon known as American Idol, you know that Hung is, to put it kindly, musically challenged. When dormmates at University of California at Berkeley voted him winner of a university talent contest, it's unclear whether they were humoring him, asserting an irony of cosmic proportions, or just trying to get the guy off their campus for a while.

But when the Hong Kong-born Hung, flush with success, shared his version of Ricky Martin's "She Bangs" on national TV, it redefined tunelessness, made a spectacle of physical unattractiveness and left viewers across America wondering whether the joke they were in on was good-natured, cruel or a little of both.

The CD package, released yesterday by Koch Records, promises "a surreal look at what it's like to be Will Hung," whom they describe as "America's favorite reject."

Like most things surreal, the project walks a fine line between the serious and the absurd. What's serious appears to be Hung, who, on vocal tracks among the nine cover songs, extemporizes in tortured English about working hard, staying true to yourself and holding onto your dreams. What's absurd is his earnest statement that "my singing might not be the best in the world, but I sing with passion."

Whatever you choose to make of this musical train wreck, Hung's "Hotel California," "Can You Feel the Love Tonight" and "Y.M.C.A" are so out of synch with the rudiments of rhythm and melody they can't really be called singing at all.

Which, of course, is the point.

The visionary folks at Koch Records (and FuseTV, which produced the CD and DVD) know that if you actually create something awful on purpose, anyone pointing out the fact will look more absurd than their star. It is other, deeper questions you're supposed to confront. What does it mean that Hung's so bad? And hey, what does "bad" really mean? Is it really so important that pop artists be hot, slick, well-packaged? What kind of consumerist shill are you, anyway?

The star is oblivious to such cogitation; he's having too good a time. When he croons R. Kelly's "I Believe I Can Fly," he's like an Acela Express train taking a curve too fast: Sparks and squealing fill the air, though no one quite rolls down the embankment. Is he in on the joke? On Inspiration, the answer is pretty clear: He isn't. He grooves on the tunes, completely untroubled by his incapacity to apprehend them.

Some pundits find that cruel. Are the layers of irony here just the cover to allow a new generation to romp merrily on the landscape of racial hatred? Though his schoolmates say they love him, Hung's thick Chinese accent, conspicuous dental disfigurement and innocent grin plainly evoke stereotypes of Asian-Americans almost anyone would consider offensive today. Does it make the mockery any less serious that Hung, shown here to be a very nice young man, doesn't seem to be offended?

In the end, no one among us is so smart that he can't be made a fool of in some way. Some of us can't sing; others can't write. It's worth noting, for example, that the makers of Inspiration use their end credits to thank Hung's university, where they filmed many of the DVD's scenes. They spell "Berkeley" two different ways, both incorrect.

What saves the project from this kind of smugness, and makes Will Hung endearing, is not that he's a "failure" and thus easy to relate to. That's, like, too obvious. It's that, unlike those profiting from his total lack of musical ability, he seems to know that whether he's a failure in this area or not, it's a valuable thing to make others laugh, even if they're kind of laughing at you.

And that's, like, not even ironic.

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