photo by RCA Records
Monday night found me sitting in a tropical downpour at the fabled Wolf-Trap National Park for the Performing Arts in Vienna, Virginia.
The occasion? One Mr. Clay Aiken and his Jukebox Tour.
Having only been able to score lawn tix the traditional way, the day of the show I rang up the friendly dude at the box office and inquired, in a friendly way, about the possibility of upgrading.
His heinous laugh was deafening.
He was like, dude, you’re on the phone and peeps have been camped out here since at least 9:00 this morning, which, he informed me, was when he arrived at work.
Besides intimating that I was thoroughly insane, he further informed me that I should feel exceedingly lucky to have gotten tickets at all and that, please, the in-house tix sold out in—quote—“like, thirty seconds, I’m not kidding you.”
How he found time to provide me with this exceedingly detailed oral history—what with all the apparently clamoring, desperate throngs of Claymates at his window—I know not. But there you have it.
So, the lawn it was. Which, from a professional blogger point of view, actually has advantages because it allows one to conduct research on several conversations and fan groups simultaneously.
Such as the lady who turned to her friend and asked, quite sincerely, “Why is everyone screaming?”
True, since the concert hadn’t even started, one might legitimately wonder.
Except that, people, this is CLAY AIKEN, after all. The man whom I once described [here] as turning even the Fox people into blubbering wierdos every time he appeared.
Then there was the girl who turned to her BF and said, “It’s intermission and he hasn’t sung one Clay Aiken song yet.”
(Not true if she was talking about songs Mr. Aiken had recorded: though literally interrupted by a bolt of lightening, he had sung “Solitaire,” which most definitely is a Clay Aiken song. Even Neil Sedaka said so.)
But my point is: Lady, it’s called the “Jukebox Tour,” and that means . . .? Hmmm . . . ??
Of course, she was the one who was lamenting that they’d not brought any dinner (a Wolf-Trap tradition) because she’d gotten confused and thought the concert was tomorrow night, but then she heard the concert advertised on the radio and, lo and behold—SCREECH BRAKES AND MAKE U-TURN—it actually was tonight, and well, it was all very tumultuous.
Golly. Somehow it reminded me of last year when I was at one of Mr. Aiken’s Christmas concerts, part of his tour to support his Christmas album, which was called Merry Christmas with Love.
And, oh yeah, it was Christmas.
I heard a young woman say to another young woman at intermission, “I can’t believe he’s only sung Christmas songs.”
Whoa, dude, and I can’t believe that the last time Elizabeth appeared in public they played “God Save the Queen” rather than, say, “Stacey’s Mom.”
What I ended up thinking about as Mr. Aiken sang the stuffing out of everything he touched was how not one song—not one of the several dozen songs he covered over the course of the night—was stronger, deeper, more profound, more rich, more charming, or—yes, better!—than any track on Aiken’s debut disc, Measure of a Man.
Yet, unlike the tracks on Measure of a Man, each one of the several dozen hits Aiken sang had received—often in several different versions over the years—extensive radio play.
So extensive that most everyone in the crowd, ranging from giggly gaggles of pre-teen girls to highly seasoned citizens, could sing along to a substantial portion of the setlist.
That’s not to say the Jukebox Tour setlist isn’t full of great songs. Of course it is. And what’s not to love about anything by Elvis or Motown.
What would life be if we did not have songs such as “Love Me Tender” and “Midnight Train to Georgia”? Or “Jailhouse Rock,” “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough” and even “Workin’ at the Car Wash”?
But are these songs actually stronger, deeper, more profound, more rich, more charming, and—yes, better!—than Clay Aiken’s “Run to Me,” “When You Say You Love Me,” “I Will Carry You,” “This Is The Night,” “Invisible” or “Touch”?
Can someone actually demonstrate how these songs differ so greatly that the one group “belongs” on radio and the other—i.e., the group consisting of songs recorded by Clay Aiken on Measure of a Man—does not?
Recently, I wrote about Bo Bice and The Mystery of Credible Rock Radio, a piece discussing the sheer dumbness—not to mention short-sightedness—oozing from radio’s snarlitude (oh! a word I coined in the context of AI4 contestant Scott Savol [here] and I want credit for it!) toward artists who emerged through our lovable American Idol discovery machine.
In regard to Bo, I wrote:
This is the only way judging a singer’s “credibility” as a “rocker” can make sense: if rock is indeed a club with a Big Rule Book by which The Establishment (a/k/a Credible Rock Radio) judges just who is and who is not a club member in good standing.
And, may I remind that, in this scene the actual music is the least consequential factor in determining whether a person is “in” (i.e., “credible”) or “out” (i.e., not “credible”).
If this were not true, Bo Bice’s version of “Vehicle”—a wondrous, rollicking, head-thumping rendition of a “credible” rock hit by a “credible” rock band sung by a great rock singer backed by a great and “credible” rock guitarist loaded with “credible” hard rock riffs—would be all over Credible Rock Radio.
But it’s not.
Put Clay Aiken in the subject line and WHAT I SAID!
Fact. As multitudes of Claymates can attest, thousands and thousands and thousands of phone calls, emails, and personal visits failed to budge radio off its prehistoric boulder, to wit, “Sorry. We don’t do American Idol.”
Not: “Sorry. We think Clay Aiken’s music stinks.” Not: “Sorry. Clay Aiken’s music isn’t radio-friendly.” Not: “Sorry. Clay Aiken’s songs are 13 minutes long [they’re not] and that doesn’t fit our format.”
No,—as with the DJ Stryker’s comment that the hilariously self-described “Credible Rock Radio won’t go near” the music of any artist found through our lovable American Idol discovery machine—-universally the retort to Clay fans was simply some version of “We don’t do American Idol.”
Well, backatcha, buddy.
Puh-leeze. To repeat myself for the purpose of emphasis: besides the mesmerizing Clay vocals, what struck me most about Mr. Aiken’s tromp through pop music history was exactly how worthy HIS pop music is compared to every radio hit he sang.
And it’s not just pop history that makes this point. We live in a world, as I wrote previously here, where Gwen Stefani has a radio hit with “Rich Girl,” a song she lifted from—
a beloved musical about a family fleeing Jewish pograms in pre-Revolutionary Russia and then turned it into a dumber, and more spoilt, version of Madonna’s “Material Girl.” Yet, apparently, the music industry is still bowing before her, intoning “We’re not worthy! We’re not worthy!”
Today I listened to radio for all of 30 minutes and twice heard this new song by Bon Jovi: “Have A Nice Day.”
I kid you not: Bon Jovi, rock royalty, has a new release called “Have A Nice Day” and IT’S GETTING SPINS.
And this is not some joke title, a clever entendre, an ironic caption on a deeply philosophical, poignant and important thought.
It’s truly a song about having a nice day.
Not that there’s anything wrong with that. But I do think there are songs that take that idea and present it in a way that, despite the “Living on a Prayer” guitars and gnarly Bon Jovi vocals, is more than a cartoon.
For example, the Clay Aiken tracks “Perfect Day” and “Shine.”
They are equally about the optimism and attitude that Bon Jovi is expressing in “Have a Nice Day,” but with the important difference that—lyrically, musically and vocally—the Aiken songs actually provide some insight, depth and real substance into how and why one gets from a rotten place to a better place in love and life.
Sure, “Perfect Day” and “Shine” are still pop songs, not Socratic tomes or Robert Browning poems.
But, tell me, how is it that “Have A Nice Day” “belongs” on radio and the Clay Aiken tracks get thrown on radio’s self-appointed toxic waste dump?
Look, here’s your idolhabit homework:
Check out Fred Bronson’s book, The Billboard Book of Number One Hits. Pick 10 Number One hits at random (excluding “This Is The Night,” the poignant love potion song by Clay Aiken that hit number one based on sales, not airplay) and look up the lyrics.
Then pick 10 tracks between Measure of a Man and the Bo Bice disc, “Inside Your Heaven” and “Vehicle.”
See if you can discern an audible distinction, such that you—light bulb!—understand why radio chose to play those number one hits and chooses not to play Clay Aiken and Bo Bice.
Then compare the lyrics of the songs on your two lists and tell me if you can discern a poetic distinction such that songs such as “Rockin’ Robin” were worthy of radio’s good graces, but songs such as “Run to Me,” “I Will Carry You,” “The Way,” “Invisible” and Bo’s “Inside Your Heaven” and “Vehicle” were not worthy of ample airplay.
The funny thing is that radio has yet to catch on to the fact that, if it doesn’t watch out and start playing what people actually want to hear (be it artists discovered through American Idol or wherever), people have options. Duh.
But, then again, radio is an industry that still compiles its ratings by having people take a pencil and write down on a piece of paper what they listened to that day, and then put the paper in an envelope, seal it, put a stamp on it and turn it in to the snail mail folks to haul it in big sacks to huge radio ratings office where, probably, Dilbert and friends use their hands to open the envelopes and then use pencils to mark down each ballot before sending the resultant mountains of paper off to the paper counting department where this 20th century process is repeated.
That’s why I’m writing next time about radio and the stubby pencil.
True, the industry is changing. Shazamm, it’s the 21st century, Grandma has an iPod, and Arbitron is just about to roll out a—WHOA!—computerized ratings system for radio.
Okay, so radio just showed up in Peabody & Sherman’s Wayback Machine, having—Three Stooges-like—accidentally pressed the “forward” button.
But it may be too late. American Idol generated fan bases that, more than any other fan groups in recent music history, wanted to and were determined to affect airplay.
True, fan support plus, um, industry support made Kelly Clarkson the darling on Top 40 radio [here] (and deservedly so). Her sophomore disc, Breakaway, is brilliant on several relevant scales.
But otherwise, despite massive fan efforts that, by rights, should have catapulted their guys and gals to the top of the charts, nothing happened.
Nothing happened on the airwaves, that is. But out in real life, a sea change happened. And if radio doesn’t figure out how to ride that wave, it’s going to find itself unable to get tickets to the concerts people actually are attending.Powered by Sidelines