Waiting for Aiken

Since 1989, anyone named after some variation of Urkel has lived a miserable existence.

When it comes to having an obscure name, Oscar Wilde got it all wrong. ‘The only thing worse than being talked about is not being talked about,’ he said, but then he didn’t live to see the day when his given name was most often associated with processed luncheon meat. I’ll bet, were he alive today, Mr. Wilde would shriek each time ‘My hot dog has a first name …’ came on the television. Believe me, given the choice between having an uncommon name and having one attached to an embarrassing cultural artifact, the Oscars, Oswalds, Rips and—yes, the Clays—overwhelmingly choose the former.

Which is why I cringed, the other day, when I came across a recent issue of Rolling Stone. On the cover is the wan, goofy-looking Clay Aiken, by now famous nationwide as the runner-up on the second season of American Idol. ‘Growing Up Clay,’ it says in big, white letters. I’ve never seen the show, and I don’t know much about this guy, but apparently he’s quite the thing right now—according to one poll, 61 percent agreed he is ‘music’s sexiest new star.’ And it’s not ‘Aiken’ who’s popular, but ‘Clay’—his name (and mine) is unique enough. Inside the magazine, it appears everywhere: ‘Clay Time,’ ‘What Is It About Clay?’

‘Clay Time’ is a far cry from my youth, when, living in upstate New York, the closest things my parents could find to a moniker mate were Henry Clay and Cassius Clay, a stretch. There was Clay Shaw, the orgy-throwing character who pops up in all the Kennedy conspiracy theories, but for obvious reasons they didn’t mention him. In Nashville, where I moved in third grade, there were a few Clays—it’s a Southern name, after all—but they were mostly rednecks and country singers. There was one other Clay in my high school; he later became head of his fraternity at the University of Tennessee after reportedly going on an ‘all beer’ diet. I considered changing to Patrick, my middle name, but somehow never got around to it. Things changed, though, as I got older. A name without association makes people pause, I learned, and, in pausing, they commit you to memory. What seemed a hindrance for so long was, I came to see, actually a way to stand out in a crowd.

Until now. Aiken hasn’t exactly stolen my name, but he’s done the next worse thing: He’s attached it to the great narrative arc of musical celebrity. We all know what happens from here. For the next month my autonymous star will rise; claytonaiken.com and clayaikenonline.com will draw tens of thousands of fans; discussion boards about ‘Clay’s Body Parts’ will proliferate; and people I meet for the first time will say ‘Ooh, Clay, like Clay Aiken! That’s such a cool name.’

But, as the months go by and the next season of American Idol gets underway, the cracks will begin to appear. If I’m lucky, he’ll sink into obscurity; if the gods hate me, something really bad will happen. He’ll get caught in delicto with a seal, or we’ll learn that his ‘body parts’ are mostly silicone. Just when people think he can’t get any hotter, he’ll derail. He’ll turn to drugs, or get a bad haircut, or release a duet with Britney Spears. Or worse, at least in the celebrity cosmology, he’ll burn out ingloriously, a la New Kids on the Block, desperately remaking his image with each album until he becomes a parody of himself. Unfortunately, this is the more likely result—the Scylla and Charybdis of fame and fortune (Melissa and Joan Rivers?) guard a narrow and tortuous passage indeed. I might as well have been named Milli Vanilli Risen. In ten years people will look back on Aiken’s flimsy shirts and puckish hair and wimpy remakes of songs that were bad to begin with and wonder, ‘what were those lame-os in 2003 thinking?’ And they will blame it all on a guy named Clay.

Though I know only a couple of other Clays, I’ll bet there are at least a few thousand out there. Where does this leave the rest of us? Some, I’m sure, are making the most of this brief period, out there meeting and greeting, adding ‘just like the American Idol star’ to their personal introductions. They’re going to bars, and when some idiot says ‘um, like, are you related to that Clay Aiken guy?’ they, without a bit of condescension, smile deftly, throw a conspiratorial wink and say ‘not that I know of … but maybe.’ And people are actually laughing. For now.

Me, though, I’m not doing any of this. I’m watching the whole thing closely, ready for the tipping point in Clay-mania. And getting used to the ring of Patrick Risen.


TMN Contributing Writer Clay Risen’s first attempt to build a website fell apart after he learned that risen.com had been bought by a hardcore Christian rock band. Clay is a senior staff editor at the New York Times and the author, most recently, of The Bill of the Century: The Epic Battle for the Civil Rights Act. He lives in Brooklyn. More by Clay Risen