''American Idol'' winner Ruben Studdard and runner-up Clay Aiken will soon meet the only judges tougher than Simon Cowell: American record buyers. The pair will release their debuts later this year on Clive Davis' RCA Records, which has already made a platinum hit of Kelly Clarkson's ''Thankful.'' But since 350-pound Luther Vandross sound-alikes and Peter Cetera-style Broadway belters aren't exactly burning up the pop charts, making equally successful albums will be a challenge for both singers.
Because we're always willing to help, EW.com rounded up a trio of proven hitmakers -- producer/songwriters Jimmy Jam (Janet Jackson, Mariah Carey), Matthew Gerrard (Nick Carter), and Peter Zizzo (Vanessa Carlton, Avril Lavigne) -- to offer the pair advice on how they can make albums that'll get 25 million ''Idol'' fans to stop dialing and start buying.
Molding Clay Our panelists agree: Clay's vibrato-soaked, ultra-enunciated vocal style is unlikely to mesh with anything on pop radio. ''I don't see there being room for a new Michael Bolton,'' says Zizzo. But that doesn't mean Clay is doomed to play the Candlestick in ''Beauty and the Beast,'' as Simon once suggested. Pre-orders for Aiken's single are already out-selling Ruben's 4 to 1, which suggests there's a market for his sound. So Clay should simply release an album of Broadway-style ballads, accepting that radio might never play a note of it.
''I think of someone like Josh Groban, who's made a sort of operatic record that introduced young fans to a new type of music,'' says Jimmy Jam. ''It'd be a waste for Clay to do a watered-down pop record.'' Jam adds that Aiken should work with veteran producer David Foster, whose discography includes Groban's album, as well as ''Glory of Love,'' by Aiken's idol, longtime Chicago frontman Cetera. ''Foster understands how to capture drama in a vocalist and make timeless songs that live forever.'' Or at least sell a CD or two.
Studying Studdard Ruben ''205'' Studdard is an easier case. Even if he simply records a predictable album of mellow, bedroom-eyes R&B, he'll tap into an existing radio format and fan base. Says Zizzo: ''Why shouldn't there be a new Luther Vandross, who's just a romantic, who's not singing about bling-bling? Ruben could really be filling a void in R&B music.'' Without ever achieving pop-phenom status, the ailing Vandross has had numerous multiplatinum albums. Ruben could expect similar success, says Gerrard: ''Vandross had an amazing career, and he didn't have to be the flavor of the month. He could sell out concerts everywhere and didn't have to have a top 10 record.''
But if Studdard wants to go in a flashier (if not bling-blinging) direction, that could work, too -- and would help him reach pop fans. Jam imagines an album that incorporates the neo-soul of artists such as Musiq, and even elements of hip-hop: ''If you think about the record LL Cool J did with the Neptunes ['Love U Better'], Ruben would sound right at home on the chorus.'' Jam also suggests that Studdard incorporate a nod to the spiritual music he loves. ''There's a huge growth market for gospel,'' he notes. Better him than Bob Dylan.