We know D.C. Get our free newsletter to stay in the know.
When an unassuming UC Berkeley student gamely performed a herky-jerky rendition of “She Bangs” for Randy Jackson, Paula Abdul, and Simon Cowell last fall, nobody believed that by spring he would be known as the Hong Kong Ricky Martin. But before the new season of American Idol was even half out, the goofy guy with the dancin’-shoes-print shirt and the “I won’t lose it, Mom” wallet chain had become an Internet sensation as well as the recipient of “a real, live, no-kiddin’-around record contract.” Bolstered by a half-hour special on Fuse, Hung’s recently released Inspiration debuted at No. 34 on Billboard’s Top 200.
This despite—no, not despite—because of the fact that William Hung is the worst singer ever to have 20 million viewers in the palm of his sweaty little hand. His unexpected hold on the American imagination is so groundbreaking a development that the WB has launched an entire series just to find another Hung. Premiering May 17, Superstar USA will have contestants “who have more guts than pipes” facing a panel of judges to include Tone-Loøc and Vitamin C.
Some observers have argued that this sort of thing has happened before, that bad singers have often enjoyed a moment in the limelight before being filed away in Incredibly Strange Music and Songs in the Key of Z. After all, God Bless Tiny Tim went Top 10 in 1968. Around the same time, Leonard Nimoy was in the middle of a five-album deal with Paramount Pictures subsidiary Dot Records.
Those two performers represented the poles of bad singing in the late ’60s: The trilling falsetto of the former Herbert Khaury was a knowing parody of the arty affectations of more proper times. Nimoy’s records testified to the fact that even the loftiest star can make contact with the secret troubadour who dwells within—albeit with little notion of the inherent humorousness of the enterprise. In 1966, when a 58-year-old Republican housewife named Mrs. Miller applied her Presbyterian vibrato, bird whistle, and Sprechstimme to “A Hard Day’s Night,” “Downtown,” and “These Boots Are Made for Walkin’,” affectation and artlessness met in a kind of matter/
antimatter annihilation that shot to No. 15 on the album charts.
It’s no coincidence that Miller got her very own Wild, Cool & Swingin’ CD collection in the ’90s, when hipster irony put a dark spin on the bad-vox celebration. If nothing else, Gen X–ers were masters at having things both ways, so when they took up the musical output of obese schizophrenic Wesley Willis and Down syndrome–afflicted Life Goes On actor Chris Burke, it was hard to tell whether derision or empowerment was paramount.
Hung stands as heir to all these strains of vocal misfortune, even having been positioned as developmentally disabled by wags willing to ignore the whole Joe College engineering-student aspect of his persona. Yet he also stands apart from his predecessors. He wasn’t famous before AI, so he’s no Nimoy, no William Shatner, no Jack Webb. And unlike Mrs. Miller, he isn’t clueless about pop. He picked “She Bangs” because he loves it, not because some producer matched him up with whatever it is the kids are listening to these days.
Though in its public voting scheme AI pitches itself as a popularity contest, in its judging, the show is all about making sure hopefuls measure up to the standards of the industry, which for the past 15 or 20 years has been drunk on melisma. On this score, R. Kelly’s “I Believe I Can Fly,” a cover of which is Inspiration’s pivotal track, is a perfect litmus test—one that a singer of Hung’s abilities is guaranteed to fail in a most spectacular fashion.
The lyrics are almost too cruel: They start out “I used to think that I could not go on/And life was nothing but an awful song”—and then the awful song goes on and on and on, its pitches never in danger of even being grazed by Hung as he blasts away at every note in sight, its rhythms reliably eluding him. All cracks about “specialness” aside, I defy anyone to listen to Hung warble, “If I can see iiiiit, then I can dooo iiiiit,” and not be reminded of Burke, whose Singer With the Band is nothing if not a statement of just such purpose.
And yet, to his legions of fans, Hung signals a return to the real. The compliment that flows most freely from those closest to him—his producer, the Fuse network chief that helped get him his deal, the co-president of his fan club—is that Hung is “genuine,” possessed of a guilelessness that makes him the anti–American Idol.
Surely that can’t be the extent of it, though. Mere “realness” cannot be the sine qua non of Hungness. Despite the image overhaul that won Clay Aiken a slot on E!’s 101 Most Starlicious Makeovers, last year’s AI runner-up has remained genuine, too. And the fact that the pride of Raleigh, N.C., can carry a tune, modulations and all, puts him galaxies away, in the pop universe, from Planet Hung.
It isn’t sheer, unwitting badness that defines Hung, either—legendary “Like a Virgin” defiler Keith Beukelaer was at least as bad, and nobody raced to sign him up. Nor do I believe we’re simply taking advantage of Hung. Commentators of a conspiracy-hungry stripe have turned to Frank Chin and Jeffrey Paul Chan’s theory of “racist love” to position Hung as a Chinese-American Stepin Fetchit, “the Asian Buckwheat,” or even, as one online poster bluntly put it, “a chink dancing bear for white people.” But those of us who’ve grown weary of the plug-and-chug complaints of a generation of oppression-studies majors may suspect that something at once more subtle and more obvious is at play here.
Hung, who knows that people are laughing, is no dupe of the entertainment industry. Hung is a dupe of entertainment itself: He actually believes all the false promises that have been foisted on him by a couple of decades’ worth of pop pap. The protagonist of Nick Hornby’s High Fidelity frets about the emotional damage wrought by a lifetime of listening to somebody-done-somebody-wrong songs, figuring that he’s been set up for romantic failure. Hung has been suckered by a far more insidious beast: the follow-your-dreams anthem.
Elvis Costello recently told Esquire, “There are about five things to write songs about: I’m leaving you. You’re leaving me. I want you. You don’t want me. I believe in something.” It’s telling not just that Hung favors “I believe” songs—of Inspiration’s 11 tunes, the Disney-soundtrack numbers “Two Worlds,” “Circle of Life,” and “Can You Feel the Love Tonight” feel most truly his—but that even the “I want you” tracks—“She Bangs,” “Bailamos”—in his hands become statements of belief.
All the marquee pop stars know they’re pandering to the masses. And somewhere in the back of our minds, even as we’re humming along, we know it, too. But Hung doesn’t know it at all: He thinks the bottle of snake oil he’s holding contains the elixir of life. When Kelly sings, “I believe I can fly,” he really means, “I believe I can get with you before your mama finds out.” But when Hung sings “I believe I can fly,” what he really means—metaphorically speaking, of course—is “I believe I can fly.” And because he believes, we’re happy to join him.
Usually when a “genuine” or “original” sort of performer is held up as a worthy contrast to all the corporate tools, he or she is positioned as an outsider, a rebel even. Any number of underground heroes have rallied the troops in such a manner. And usually when someone who can’t sing is held up as a novel amusement, he or she is positioned as an outsider, as well. Hung, however, is no outsider. He’s an Everyman. A paradoxically exceptional Everyman, to be sure—otherwise we wouldn’t be paying attention—but nevertheless one of us.
Hung is our Bernadette of Lourdes, an ordinary person in the grip of extraordinary visions. Taking at face value the rote ministrations of a clapped-out priesthood—“Be yourself,” “Follow your dreams,” “Reach for the stars”—he reanimates them with a belief that only the most credulous can muster. And as much as the Sleeping Saint of Nevers was the product of her ignorance, Hung is a product of oversimplified notions about artistry.
Industry types know that much chart-aspiring singing has degenerated into technical display, but they figure there’s no point in talking about the sausage as long as it’s selling. Beyond Jackson’s patented “That was pitchy, dude,” rarely do the AI judges venture to correct technique. On Idol, pop chops boil down to whether one’s head is in the game.
To understand the kind of performer Hung is post-AI, it’s necessary to observe that his head is in the game much as a karaoke singer’s is.
Unlike the paragons of unwitting camp who have come before him, Hung sounds less like a natural-born entertainer who simply can’t sing than a karaoke enthusiast who relentlessly pursues the mike, vocal ability be damned. It’s not only his label’s thriftiness that resulted in Inspiration’s off-the-rack sound: The album was crafted to mimic a one-man karaoke show, with corny backing tracks that ape not the original bands but the cut-rate session hacks who crank out vocal-free “in the style of” CD+Gs.
Fans come to karaoke as singalong experts, but the first thing they learn is that it’s not as easy to take the lead, even with the lyrics running along the screen. When you’re belting it out behind the wheel or in your room, joining your voice to a record that still has the singer on it, you’re sucked into the slipstream of the performance. You can come in a split-second behind the star and be guided onto the pitch. And there’s no forgetting the tune on the verses: He knows it cold. You learn well enough and the two of you merge into a single entity—in Hung’s case, William/Ricky, William/R., William/Elton, and so on.
The question is, How much of William/Ricky steps onto the stage when Ricky isn’t around? Explaining his choice of “She Bangs” before his AI audition, Hung seemed to think it would be…well, just enough: “It’s a good song, so either I really do well by lighting up the stage or I don’t.” What’s significant here isn’t the do-or-don’t tautology, but that Hung put ultimate faith in both his innate ability to wow a crowd and the indestructibility of a well-crafted song—a seamless delusion spawned by the lies of a million “I believe” numbers and karaoke. What makes Hung special is that he’s been able to sustain that delusion even after significant evidence to the contrary. Against all odds, his outlandish faith is justified.
By rights, the sacred delusion of the less-talented karaoke singer ought to perish as soon as he hits the big-time studio or stage. But when Hung performs, it doesn’t. Even now that he’s a star, he still doesn’t know how to end “She Bangs”: He blows it differently every time. The figment of William/Ricky lives within him. As Richard Rodgers would put it, the sweetest sounds he’ll ever hear are still inside his head.
When he was shot down in flames on AI, Hung paused a moment, then gave the response that would make him the Nathan Hale of the karaoke nation: “I already gave my best, and I have no regrets at all.”
No kiddin’ around, that’s a beautiful thing. CP