One of those, ''This Is the Night,'' wasn't exactly music to the Idol judges' ears -- when Aiken first performed the song, Cowell dismissed it as ''American Idol: The Musical.'' ''I think they probably thought it sounded a little cheesy,'' Aiken says now. ''Not as cheesy, I might say, as [Kelly Clarkson's] 'A Moment Like This.' I don't care what they say -- I like the song.'' His fans did too: ''I don't think they went out and bought one,'' says Aiken, offering an explanation for his record-breaking sales. ''I think they went out and bought 15. I don't know what they did with them -- used them as coasters, Frisbees, something.''
Cowell, of course, has a different theory. ''If Ruben had had 'Bridge Over Troubled Water' on his record, he'd have had the No. 1,'' says the judge, who often saved his highest praise on the show for Studdard. ''I think that was the hit song. If you asked 100 record buyers who bought Clay's single 'What song did you want to buy?' I wouldn't be surprised if 70 percent at least said 'Bridge Over Troubled Water.' People will disagree, but that's my opinion.'' (We'll never know; RCA doesn't track those statistics.)
Whatever the case, Aiken would like to put the Clay versus Ruben showdown to rest. ''The whole country wants Ruben and me to be at each other's throats,'' he says, tugging at the bottom of his orange shirt. ''We spent nine months competing with each other. And we both got what we wanted. He's got a title, and I'm nothing but proud of him. We don't look at who's No. 1 and No. 2. Because it's not worth it to us.'' (Studdard puts it more succinctly: ''Clay is my dawg.'') Even after the disaster that was From Justin to Kelly, which made just $4.9 million at the box office this summer, Aiken still hopes to make a movie with his supposed nemesis. ''That was a premise that's not necessarily original,'' he says of the first Idol-inspired film. ''With Ruben and me you've got a completely different thing. Look at us! We could just stand there and people would laugh.''
At least they're no longer laughing at Aiken's looks. The budding star, whose formerly reddish brown eyebrows will completely disappear if they're lightened one more time, says he's totally receptive to all the fashion help. ''We were doing the video shoot for 'This Is the Night,' and the people from the record label were putting me in all these different outfits,'' he remembers. ''I just stood there and was like, 'That's fine, that's fine' -- all indifferent to the situation. They finally called my management rep and said, 'Is he okay with these?' If I knew enough about this industry, or enough about fashion, to know what was cool to wear, then I wouldn't have needed American Idol to get into it. So I'll be willing to do whatever you want me to do, but I'm going to say no if I'm really against it. There's not really much middle ground. I'll do it, or I'll say, 'That's ridiculous.' I pick my battles.''
For instance? ''There was a particular person who did my hair on the show,'' he says. ''For a period [afterward] they said, 'Let's use some other people.' And I looked like a greased pig. It was horrible. So I finally picked a battle there and said, 'Listen, we're getting him from now on.''' Aiken also gladly recorded cover versions of Neil Sedaka's ''Solitaire'' and Carole Bayer Sager's ''When I Need You'' but scoffed at Rick Astley's ''Never Gonna Give You Up.'' ''I said that's just a little corny, because there are already enough comparisons that can be drawn.'' (Whaddya know? We've drawn them too; see sidebar.)