American Idol reject and diminutive, bucktoothed Berkeley civil engineering student William Hung was supposed to be a laughingstock.
Instead immediately after his awful rendition of She Bangs, aired at the beginning of the season, America rushed to embrace him. Web sites and a fan base popped up out of nowhere, followed by the offer of a recording contract from Koch Records.
The album, Inspiration, a collection of pop standards warbled in a thick Chinese accent, debuted at number 34 on the Billboard top 200 and at number one on the Billboard independent album chart. It sold 40,000 copies in the first week and has since broken the 100,000 mark.
Pop culture history has never seen anything quite this. Hung - who was in Toronto on Sunday to sing Take Me Out To The Ball Game during the seventh inning of the Toronto Blue Jays-Texas Rangers game - has been held up as everything from a champion of the underdog to the poster boy for anti-Asian racism.
It's all a matter of perception, and our perceptions probably say more about us than they do about the Forrest Gumpish Hung, who sits in the eye of a pop culture hurricane, meeting his destiny with a crooked smile and a shrug.
Deftly skirting reporter's queries (with the guidance of his mom), he leaves the question of his involvement in the joke open-ended at a press conference in the Argonauts' dressing room in the Skydome. When asked about his singing talent, he replies, "No comment. I shouldn't be judging myself. Other people should judge me."
A deeper analysis of Hung's popularity calls for a little academic application, so I ring up Rob Thompson, professor of pop culture and director of the Center for the Study of Popular Television at Syracuse University. Hung couldn't have been just anyone, he observes. There's something special about him.
"There are millions and millions of people who can sing and dance badly, but very few people can sing and dance badly as well as William Hung. He is really good at being really bad."
It's pleasantly "ridiculous," says Thompson. "I'd say William Hung is better at being bad than the winner of the competition is at being good."
Of course, Hung is a product of the age of irony. But this will take him only so far. As Thompson points out, the purpose of ironic consumption is feeling superior. "We consume with tongue in cheek and elbow in rib to demonstrate how smart we are and that we know better than to really like this stuff." But once everybody is in on the joke, it's no longer funny. "That's why the objects of ironic consumption these days have shelf lives similar to that of a carton of milk. It's only fun to be ironic if there are people taking the joke seriously."
And, yes, of course Hung's success is due in part to racist stereotypes. Nobody with any sense can deny that. Hung is the proverbial stereotype of the Asian geek. "The early episodes of American Idol pulled an awful lot of laughs out of the racial stereotype game, and I'm surprised there hasn't been more outrage about it," says Thompson.
He also observes that Hung is totally punk. More so, in fact, than the original punks, who were clearly defining themselves in opposition to recording industry traditions. But that only goes so far, because we have to remember where he came from - American Idol.
By accident or design, he is a joke, a racial stereotype, an unlikely, heartwarming fairy tale and a punk rocker, depending on how we choose to see him - all very confusing to those who booed him when he came out during the seventh inning on Sunday afternoon. After all, what's the point of ridiculing someone who's just going to shrug it off and start singing Take Me Out To The Ball Game?