I'd love to be able to tell Clay that I've never had these types of feelings before, but when it comes to ginger-haired pop stars, I'm no stranger to love. When 8-year-old Clay Aiken was squealing along to Sesame Street, velvet-voiced Rick Astley (below) was singing some of the more profound lyrics of 1987. ''Never gonna give you up. Never gonna let you down,'' he promised me (okay, and a few hundred thousand other girls) with his No. 1 single. And he didn't lie. Between ''Together Forever'' and ''It Would Take a Strong Strong Man,'' this Chet Baker-crossed-with-Chucky looker became my go-to guy for deliciously unapologetic aural bubblegum. And hello, the guy even managed to work the Bea Arthur-size shoulder-pad look! No way Clay could pull that off.
Alas, those swayed by Top 40 charts abandoned poor Rick when Richard Marx and Michael Bolton came along, but not this true lover of pop perfection. Sure, his current material only seems to be available in France (and even if some song scored, the reportedly airplane-phobic Rick might not even be able to tour), but my heart's been aching (and I'm not too shy to say it) for Rick's long-overdue comeback. Luckily, he seems to have the same idea. ''I got a call out of the blue from Rick Astley,'' says Steve Ferrera, an A&R exec at RCA (Clay's label). ''He said, 'I'm still writing songs and would love to write some stuff for Clay.''' Sadly, Clay had already completed his album sans Astley brilliance (forget covering ''Bridge Over Troubled Water''! Get thee a copy of ''Whenever You Need Somebody'' and start singing), but here's hoping there's an Astley-Aiken collaboration in the listening future. Then we'll talk about Idol worship. -- Nancy Miller
''The whole country wants Ruben and me to be at each other's
''The whole country wants Ruben and me to be at each other's throats,'' says Aiken. ''We both got what we wanted.... I'm proud of him.''