he American Dream—it’s hard to imagine a more magical, tenuous and seductive concept. The brilliant composer Stephen Sondheim perhaps said it best in Assassins, his 1991 masterwork: “I just heard on the news/Where the mailman won the lottery/Goes to show/When you lose, what you do is try again… The delivery boy’s on Wall Street/And the usherette’s a rock star”. Beyond a simple hope for a democratically harmonious and commercially prosperous society, it’s Andy Warhol’s celebrated fifteen minutes, a Constitutional Right to glory and fame, Your Name Here on the cover of Rolling Stone. It seems fitting, then, that the latest product of the nation that took a movie star and made him a president is one William Hung.
Who? For those of you unfamiliar with his rise to notoriety, Hung is a supremely untalented Berkeley University student who had the good (or bad, depending on your point of view) fortune to perform badly on American Idol and be dealt a corresponding harsh blow by the show’s outspoken judges. “Singing” Ricky Martin’s “She Bangs” like a tone-deaf taxi driver and dancing like an epileptic octopus, Hung caught the attention of the American public. It wasn’t long before he was offered a record contract and marched into the studio (though the jury’s out as to whether it was a sympathy vote or a celebratory signing). Capitalising on a few million viewers’ compassion and, presumably, their hunger for pop culture trash, the end result was Inspiration, where Hung warbles his way through a collection of Top 40 hits with a sprinkling of “Inspirational Thoughts” proffered along the way: “I may not be the best singer in the world, but I sing with passion—I enjoy what I do”.
The album will be a joy to anyone who takes deranged pleasure in attending low-rent karaoke bars or those who thought Marilyn Monroe’s Bus Stop take on “That Old Black Magic” was her finest hour. To say that Hung sings the songs would be a very generous assessment indeed; he ekes out most of the melodies in a strangled and slightly alarmed holler. “I Believe I Can Fly” is hysterically bad, as Hung doesn’t just miss a few notes but rather dives below most of them, inducing Olympic-standard wincing and teeth-grinding. “Hotel California” and “Circle Of Life” are similarly woeful. At his best, though, he has some of the charisma of the Vietnamese karaoke proprietor from Ed Norton’s Keeping The Faith; “Shake Your Bon Bon” and “She Bangs” have a certain dementedly energetic charm. But even at its most hilarious, Inspiration does leave you feeling that it’s neither big nor clever to mock the afflicted; you can’t help but feel for Hung as a nation laughs at him, not with him.
But who cares? No, seriously, who cares? The same machine that pumps out Hungs, Monroes and Reagans is just as happy to let them die, rot, go mad, or return to depressed anonymity once they’ve had their time in the spotlight. The usherette may be a rock star, but from 9 to 5 she’s still an usherette. What happens once the public has had its fill of Hung (seemingly) chirruping “you’re heading my horse like a dram”? Will he just go back to college? Will fame have changed him? Will he tire of the celebration of his brilliant failure and pull a John Wilkes Booth? He’d end up on Where Are They Now if he’d been ‘Here’ for longer than five minutes. No matter how hard you laugh at his earnestly dreadful warblings, you can’t help but feel a little cheapened later on for having fun at his expense (come on, do you really think he’s going to make more than a few thousand bucks out of this? Most of the cash will go on royalties for the songs covered). Ultimately, Inspiration will be little more than a cultural curio in the annals of pop history, but it’s important to remember that it represents one man’s aspirations, hopes and, yes, his American Dream—just like yours—that has been capitalized upon by a savvy media and a public as hungry for the triumph of the underdog as they are for an inexpensive and hilarious gift for the office Christmas party. God Bless America.