As listeners are told several times on his painstakingly assembled debut, ”American Idol” runner-up Clay Aiken is an ordinary guy, a nobody. He’s the one in the bar dejectedly yearning for the most popular girl in the place (”When You Say You Love Me”), the man who, in the eyes of one woman, feels like ”a shadow passing through” (”Invisible”). He may be a television-bred sensation with millions of call-in fans, yet, in ”Run to Me,” Aiken swoons over someone in love with another – and most likely better – man.
”American Idol” is, of course, a celebration of the mundane: average singers in ordinary garb tackling familiar pop standards. Quirks and idiosyncrasies were downplayed, especially once the singing began. Of all the show’s graduates, Aiken appears to have taken the series’ crowd-pleasing lessons most to heart. From his earnest, emotive voice to the music that surrounds it, Measure of a Man works at pleasing his legions with relentless, machine-tooled precision. The album sports a song for every occasion: starting anew after an unrewarding relationship (”No More Sad Songs,” ”I Survived You”), showing support for a friend in need (”I Will Carry You”), reveling in romance (”Perfect Day”), and proclaiming undying devotion (”The Way”). Produced to antiseptic perfection, the tunes add up to an aisle of greeting cards, each set unerringly to glistening pianos, swelling choruses, and every other Lite FM cliche.
”Measure of a Man” is less oversung and overarranged than Kelly Clarkson’s ”Thankful”; Aiken avoids the melisma overkill common to the other Idol finalists. But he and his handlers also avoid anything remotely audacious or saucy. With the exception of ”Invisible,” in which he sounds more like a stalker than a romantic obsessive, Aiken comes across as exceedingly virtuous; even the barroom character in ”When You Say You Love Me” admits he’s ”not looking for a one-night stand.” Clearly, Aiken wants to differentiate himself from the Christinas and Justins of the world: no racy photo shoots or hints of hip-hop for him.
In that regard, ”Measure of a Man,” despite moments of savvy record making, is depressingly fitting for its time. In pop, we always get the musicians we need – everyone from the Beatles to Kurt Cobain arrived at a precipitous moment in the country’s psyche or economic standing. And so it is with Clay Aiken. As a singer with a very theatrical streak, he already knows the importance of cranking the emotion on a line like ”I get all choked up inside.” Yet his voice has little in the way of personality, and he doesn’t seem terribly interested in investing it with one. Aiken likes being average, going with the flow. The product of an increasingly homogenized culture, he’s our first focus-group pop star. It isn’t his fault that he’s come so far in so little time. But it’s telling that his is now the unchallenging voice of America.