“It’s not what you are called: it’s what you answer to.” --- African proverb
Clay Aiken is in the news again.
Seems like some gossiper mocked Clay last week. Seems like some people shrugged, some laughed and some got mad. Lots of energy and passion was expended.
The mention was pretty dumb, so it took little of my time.
There are other things in life much more worthy of laughter or outrage.
As I do with the sometimes hyper-serious Jeremiah of U2, Bono (whose music I adore and whose commitment I admire), I make fun of Clay Aiken myself. Clay’s a bundle of delicious contradictions, he can be melodramatic, he has odd allergies and self-confessed phobias. He’s been known to caricature his own accent, his limbs seem to go off in different directions when he walks and his ever-changing face is a cartoonist’s dream.
He knows this.
Gifted with a quicksilver wit and a sense of self-deprecation, no one makes better Clay Aiken jokes than Clay Aiken.
Four years ago, when he first arrived in the public eye, Clay was parodied as a country bumpkin, a bible-touting, straight laced conservative momma’s boy. The evidence is a bit different: he is a Southerner, but from Raleigh, a major metropolitan area, not from the country; a devout Christian who’s done his own soul-searching (briefly attending the Moravian Church) and a man who lives with an attitude of loving acceptance across the lines of race, gender, age and orientation; a lifelong registered Democrat who self-describes as “progressive,” and a strong, independent man --- who is a proud momma’s boy. What do you know: he doesn’t mind expressing love for the woman who raised him.
Somewhere along the line, the first joke got old, and so a few decided to play with the idea that Clay was some demented funhouse mirror opposite of the man most people had come to know him to be. There was the fan fiction from Bizarro World, which changed with every tick of the clock, the nameless, faceless “anecdotes”, riddled with impossibilities and inconsistencies, supposedly having taken place in locations Clay has never been with people he has never met --- or conveniently invented after the fact, as in an Eastern European hoax which miraculously popped up only after Clay blogged later that he’d vacationed there.
Funny: in the age of communication, there’s never been a shred of realistic evidence. Damn, didn’t anyone have a camera phone when “Clay” was sitting barefoot on the floor in first class, demanding a glass of milk?
With so many over-hyped, half-baked and wholly invented tales in the news, it’s no wonder Clay has mockingly dubbed himself the King of Controversy.
I suppose that for the gullible, the childish, the bored, the shock jock morning zoos, the alien baby tabloids and those who yearn to see good people fall, the fictions held a moment of entertainment value. As for me, I roll my eyes and move on. It's not just laughably fake, it's trifling, and that is just boring.
Call him names based on unbelievable nonsense. It doesn’t make it true.
Clay, despite his faults and failings, is a pretty admirable human being. From his UNICEF Ambassadorship to his own Bubel/Aiken Foundation to his service on the President’s Committee for People With Intellectual Disabilities, from supporting the Jerry Lewis Muscular Dystrophy Telethon to Ronald McDonald House Charities to U.S. Marines Toys for Tots to Trick-or-Treat for UNICEF in support of survivors of the tsunami and Hurricane Katrina, Clay is dedicated to service to such an extent that even some of his fans voice concern that he spends too much time with charitable endeavors and not enough time on his career.
(I think he balances his music career and his activist concerns pretty darn well.)
When did this desire to serve begin?
A "pre-fame" Clayton Aiken (right) with Y camp counselor friends.
Not when he knew he would be in the public eye: it began half a dozen years earlier than his television debut, in his late teens, when he was a YMCA camp counselor fighting with his bosses at the YMCA to include children with disabilities in their camps. At nineteen, he was the lead teacher for a class of students with autism, triggering his desire to understand children who live with that “puzzle.” He was a counselor and mentor for the CAP-MR/DD program (Community Alternatives Program for Persons with Mental Retardation/Developmental Disabilities). There, he met the Bubel family, working with their son Mike, who has autism.
Clay and Mike Bubel. Photo from The Bubel/Aiken Foundation.
Three years before there was an “American Idol”, Clay was pursuing his degree in special education from the University of North Carolina at Charlotte.
And despite these documented truths, some would say that his dedication to inclusion is an act. Unless Clay is unusually prescient, it’s ludicrous to believe that he decided to become a special education teacher on the off-chance that there would one day be a television show that would succeed despite the odds against new shows, on which he would be selected from a field of tens of thousands and survive multiple rejections before making it to the finals, where he would be able to use a portion of his interview time to pretend to be a compassionate person who wanted to make a difference --- and hope that got included in the televised package.
Call him self-serving. It doesn’t make it true.
In his first major television interview with Diane Sawyer in October 2003, Clay talked about how it was both inexplicable and a bit frustrating to him that
anyone would think he was perfect, just because he doesn’t smoke or drink, because he doesn't use the F word (well, at least not very often, as he admitted)
and because he thinks it is important for people in the public eye to be good role models for the children who admire them.
In an Elle Magazine interview with Alison Glock, written during the summer of 2003 and dated that October, Clay told one of the first of his “isn’t life absurd?” stories, an incident where he was amazed and frustrated when a clerk told him they didn’t have any chicken available --- at a still open KFC restaurant. These stories, like Mark Twain’s tall tales, often seem exaggerated for comic affect (the old man in the airport who hit Clay with his cane, the limo driver who ignore Clay’s request to lock the doors until finally bellowing “THEY WILL BE LOCKED!”, Clay getting sick and passing out on the floor of an Eastern European McDonalds, while his best friend Kristy carefully put down her tray before coming to assist him.) To me, the KFC story is mock-bossy Clay at his best.
In the “American Idol: Life On the Road” special in January 2004, Clay is seen walking quickly off the stage at the Chicago AI2 concert, fuming about all of the technical breakdowns that cut off half of his first song, the record-breaking single “This Is The Night,” and forced him to physically haul himself up onto the stage from a malfunctioning hydraulic lift. He is angry, yes, but he makes the point that he feels that, through the incompetence or inattention of a technician, the fans had been robbed of the show they had paid for.
Some fans affectionately labeled this incident Pissy!Diva!Clay! A few other people, through jealousy or boredom or malice, used this and other invented or exaggerated tales (including a tired retread of a fake Josh Groban “Coke or Pepsi?” diss) to try to make a case that Clay is demanding.
Has Clay Aiken ever been rude to a fan or a deejay or someone else he came across during his public life? Undoubtedly, yes --- I know I have been, and not just to fools who deserved it. Might as well admit that I have sometimes been in the wrong. But for the dozen or so tales that are floating around (including a few that are clearly urban myths), there are hundreds and hundreds of verifiable examples from fans, media professionals, other entertainers, school groups and the myriad philanthropies with which Clay is associated of a generous, good-hearted, thoughtful, kind and sometimes bitingly funny man who went the extra mile.
Call him a diva. It doesn’t make it true.
First they ignore you, then they laugh at
you, then they fight you, then you win.
--- Mohandas Gandhi
A good joke has to be based on a kernel of truth. Snark --- wit paired with bite --- is hardest of all to do well, because it requires intelligence and balance. Overdone, it degenerates into cruelty.
I’ll laugh at Letterman and Stewart and Colbert (and now, shockingly, Kimmel, once among the worst of sophomoric, name-calling “humorists”), even when they tweak someone I like and make me wince. As biting as their humor can be, it almost always rises above the simple mean-spirited jibes of lesser talents, whose humor seems to be based more on volume than wit.
There’s been a trend for a while, that I don’t employ but that I do understand the reasoning behind, of taking back words once used to demean. Years ago, out of the blue, a stranger passing on the street called me the N word --- and I laughed at him and saw him deflate like a two cent balloon.
Some African Americans, women and gay people, for example, reclaimed and diffused hate speech, stripping those words of much of their power. But something disturbing happened in concert: neutral descriptors like “gay” became substitute insults, shrieked at volume in comedy routines and adopted by teens as a synonym for bad or useless.
The use of words associated with racism, sexism, homophobia and religious intolerance rarely make for good humor, largely because many people using them don’t have the wit and insight to be able to puncture the armor of those grievous human failings. They seem to think there is something funny in being black or female or gay or Jewish in and of itself, so they shriek those terms or a derogatory substitute and then dissolve into mocking laughter. No work or wit involved.
Set down you chains
And lend your voices only to sounds of freedom
No longer lend your strength to that
which you wish to be free from
--- Jewel, “A Life Uncommon”
So I don’t waste my days railing against that smarmy, puerile doodler or the fourth-tier comic harridan or the late night talk show pairing of Dumb Humor, followed by Dumber. Why bother with people whose schtick is so boring and pathetic?
The most ridiculous of all are those who would deny Clay’s talent. I have no objection to those who don’t care for pop music or a reviewer who opines that Clay should have material befitting his talent. But for those who would attempt to group a singular talent like Clay Aiken with the fifteen minute flavors of the month?
Now let me see: shall I get all twisted up over opinions on Clay’s talent and potential from some obscure community college blog, the psychic network of reviewers who slammed his latest album without bothering to play it --- or listen to the evidence of my own ears? Or consider the generous praise he’s received from Hall of Fame, platinum-selling, award-winning career artists like Neil Sedaka, Gladys Knight, Verdine White, Robin Gibb, Heather Headley and fourteen time Grammy winning producer David Foster, Clay’s mentor and friend?
Clay and David Foster performed together at the Pacific Economic Conference in Vancouver. Among the dignitaries in attendance were California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger and British Columbia Premier Gordon Campbell.(Photo from the Vancouver Courier.)
Clay has sold five million, broken first week sales records for both his debut single and his first album, and shattered the record for debuting holiday CDs.
He’s generated $28 million at the box office, across seven tours in three and a half years --- and counting.
Call him untalented. It doesn’t make it true.
There are people in the public eye whose excesses almost beg to be mocked. There they are: the trio of starlets, stumbling out of clubs night after night, drunk off their pantiless asses. There’s the athlete tainting the game with instant muscles and artificial power, achieving meaningless records courtesy of banned substances. There’s the pompous, morally superior, self-righteous radio guy --- who was a drug addict. There’s the brilliant actor spiraling out of control, crashing cars and falling asleep on strangers’ lawns (now, thank God, sober and succeeding one day at a time.) And there are those who are liars and clowns of both parties in Washington’s corridors of power --- or in a church, government office or school right in your community.
I’ll laugh sometimes, but there isn’t much humor behind it. Too much of this behavior veers from sad to pathetic to disheartening.
Then there are those who are far worse: the actor and the sportsman who hid abuse and violence until it sprang into the news in ugly and tragic headlines, the top selling artist who is alleged to have abused the innocence of the very young, the gun wielding, angry self-haters who delude themselves into believing that their brothers on the other Coast are the enemy. These are serious societal problems, and it’s impossible for me to find an iota of humor in actions like those, least of all in skits with dancing trial judges.
In an era of cyberbullying, insult humor and “legitimate” major media using tabloids as sources, I could literally spend all day replying to people whose raison d’etre seems to be to deride others. I know that most of their dark stars have risen only because some people keep clicking that link, watching that show, buying that publication.
I didn’t need Clay Aiken to tell me to ignore them, but he is right. They don’t deserve to be any part of my life, so I sure as hell won’t open the door and invite them in.
But is silence always the answer? When is it appropriate, even imperative, to reply?
One example in my life is when name calling springs from ignorance rather than malice.
I think of Clay himself, saying that he will speak up when someone uses the R word as a synonym for silly or worthless. I have three nephews, now in their late teens and early twenties, remarkable young men who are a joy to be around. A few years ago, when all of their high school and middle school friends used to hang around the kitchen table playing poker, I’d sometimes hear their conversation while I was making a meal.
Now my reputation among these kids is of the quirky, playful aunt, the one who knows the names of the rap artists and can tease them in their own slang, which elicits many a laugh. So when someone dropped the R word, I didn’t have to get indignant and make anyone feel defensive.
Smiling but straightforward, all I needed to say was this:
“Hey, guys, you might use that word, but don’t use it in this house. Think about it: what you call ‘retarded people’ --- people with intellectual disabilities --- aren’t stupid. A lot of them are working hard to learn and are doing their best. I bet you know some really smart kids who choose to act stupid, don’t you? What’s their excuse? Find a better word.”
I have no illusions that all of those kids stopped using that offensive slang, but there has been a time or two when I overheard one of those kids start to say it and then correct himself, or another of the friends say, “Nah, don’t say that, they’re okay.”
I’ve learned in time not to use a blowtorch to kill a flea. There are times, though, when discriminatory public policy, inequitable laws, leaders misusing the power on loan to them from the people, and inaccuracies or distortions in major media do need to be confronted. I believe that staying silent in the face of racism, sexism, religious intolerance, and homophobia can imply approval, and it must remain to the individual to decide when to say, “I do not approve.”
It just seems pointless to me to live life in perpetual battle mode, seeking a way to get even.
If we fight eye for an eye and tooth for a tooth, then we would have a nation that’s blind and toothless." The Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
In the end, I simply don’t care that some no-name blogger or fourth rate gossiper titters and name-calls people better than they could ever dream of being. They have no power, unless we give it to them.
I know that there have been some who have called me names, mainly based on stereotypes and their own faults and failings. They don’t care about my truths: that I am a left-leaning social activist, a seeker in the Judeo-Christian tradition (with a touch of Zen), an advocate of the fundamental human rights, including civil rights, gay rights, women’s rights, children’s rights and the rights of people with disabilities, an entertainment industry professional, a lover of music from classical to Hollywood musicals to British Invasion to Motown to jazz to world beat to grunge to neo-soul to alt-rock and alt-pop, an African American woman --- and a fan of Clay Aiken.
Clay and I come from very different worlds, but we have at least one thing in common. Call me what you will. It won’t make it true --- and, like my wise African forebears, I will not answer.
You have heard that it has been said, 'An eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth.' But I tell you, do not resist an evil person. If someone strikes you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also. And if someone wants to sue you and take your tunic, let him have your cloak as well. If someone forces you to go one mile, go with him two miles. --- The words of Jesus from the Sermon on the Mount, Matthew 5:38-41.
Imagine that: rather than sinking to the enemy’s level, try lifting him up to yours. It doesn’t always work and it might take years to change attitudes and behaviors, but there is no power capable of affecting transformation greater than love.
I have learned to pick my battles. I don’t waste my energy doing battle with a speck. I don’t mistake a snarky joke or a minor diss for a monumental affront. And I’ve tried to learn when the right thing to do is to take action, in lessons learned not from a pop singer but from Jesus and Gandhi and King, though I think Clay has learned those lessons, too.
Nonviolent social change is not a philosophy for the weak and the timid. It requires patience, understanding, forgiveness and courage. It requires being slow to anger. And it requires the knowledge that, from time to time, the best thing to do will be to go ahead and turn over a few tables.
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