Clay Aiken is a school teacher distracted by fame

And that's where he'll return if the music stops

Music: in concert, CDs

July 22, 2004|By Rashod D. Ollison | Rashod D. Ollison,Sun Pop Music Critic

He doesn't get it. Clay Aiken never dreamed of becoming a pop star -- never mind a sex symbol. And he is an unlikely one: skinny and gawky with jug-handle ears.

"Hello! Have you seen me?" says Aiken, who's calling from a tour stop in Kentucky. He plays 1st Mariner Arena tomorrow night. "The attention is flattering. Some [fans] are, like, mothers and grandmothers, but the fan base spans different age groups. I don't understand being ga-ga over anyone, especially me."

Last season, he came in second behind Ruben Studdard on American Idol. But with all the media attention, the massive fan base and the double platinum sales of his debut, Measure of a Man (released in October, two months before Studdard's), it seems as if Aiken were the first-place winner. His first single, "This Is the Night," made history by entering Billboard's Hot 100 at No. 1, selling more than 392,000 copies during its first week. It beat Elton John's record for "Candle in the Wind 1997." Measure of a Man moved 613,000 units during its debut week, also entering at No. 1.

The North Carolina native and former special-ed teacher, 25, can hardly go to the grocery store these days without getting mobbed. Security guards shadow him at appearances. He sells out arenas. Last July, he graced the cover of Rolling Stone, rocking a What Would Jesus Do bracelet, his shirt blown open revealing a slightly hairy abdomen.

"I am not a sex symbol," Aiken insists. "It's only been a year since nobody knew who I was or cared who I was. So it has taken some adjusting to all of this. But American Idol was a good boot camp. We had to learn how to perform live, take criticism, do interviews. Now I kinda know what's going on around me."

Regardless of his awkward looks, there's no denying Aiken's charm. On the phone, he's polite and humorously self-deprecating, his Southern twang warm and relaxed. As it has been said several times before, Aiken's booming vocals, though adequately suited for the glossy, bombastic pop songs on Measure of a Man, are ideal for Broadway (or those over-the-top productions at amusement parks).

On his debut -- and it is no surprise -- Aiken says he had very little creative input.

"The main thing with my last record was setting the standard," he says. "I wanted to maintain who I was before all this started. There's a misconception that I had to fight hard to maintain my identity. That's not true. There were some songs I didn't want to sing, and the producers were respectful of that. But I had hardly any input on the songs."

Most of the tunes, including the stalker anthem "Invisible," seem to focus on unrequited love.

"Musically, the last album was much more an album that didn't define who I was," Aiken says. "Much of it was sad songs and downers. The next album will have more of an up side."

No release date has been set yet. But who knows whether his second album will be as well-received as the first? Pop audiences are notoriously fickle. Aiken, however, is not worried. If the fame evaporates, he will be all right.

"I was gonna be a teacher my whole life," Aiken says. "I had no other plans. But doing this wasn't worth changing who I was. If this singing doesn't work, fine. I consider my teaching Plan A and singing Plan B."

Clay Aiken performs at 1st Mariner Arena, 201 W. Baltimore St., tomorrow night at 7:30. Tickets are $35-$45 and are available through Ticketmaster by calling 410-587-SEAT or by visiting www.ticketmaster.com.

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