The joke behind Chinese-American engineering student William Hung appearing on ”American Idol” had everything to do with context. Amid the relentless stream of proficient contestants, the dorky Hung was a jarring diversion: someone who could neither sing nor dance yet managed to sneak onto that stage anyway. The only problem was that the joke was thin, obvious, and campy at best, down to the snicker-snicker his last name elicited from the audience.
Hung’s moment in the pop-culture sun should have ended there, but such is not the way contemporary entertainment (or anything associated with ”American Idol”) works. So now we’re blessed — or cursed — with Inspiration, an entire album of Hung hatchet jobs along the lines of his mangling of the smarmy Ricky Martin hit ”She Bangs.” On what is essentially a taped karaoke session, the hapless wannabe takes a crack at tunes from the Martin, Phil Collins, and Elton John songbooks, among others, accompanied by synthetic-sounding, low-rent backing tracks.
Presumably, ”Inspiration” is meant to be comical, a silly novelty album that, in its demented way, is a parody of the smooth, steely singing and top-dollar productions of Clay Aiken and Kelly Clarkson albums. Hung’s strangulated delivery will surely begin popping up on outgoing messages of answering machines nationwide. But only those with the most sophomoric sense of humor will find anything amusing about it. Hearing Hung go flat for entire songs, or ignominiously failing to reach the high notes in ”Rocket Man” or ”I Believe I Can Fly,” isn’t even good karaoke — it’s pathetic, painful, and sad. And if Hung is in on the joke — the jury’s still out on that one, since he seems to take his newfound career very seriously — it doesn’t make the album any more tolerable or any less exploitive.
By now, hideous singing on record is nothing to get worked up over. In past decades, we’ve had to deal with everyone from William Shatner to schizophrenic indie-rock icon Wesley Willis. ”Inspiration” adds a particularly ugly race card to this time-honored tradition. From the way Hung mispronounces ”perseverance” in one of the album’s spoken interludes (it comes out as ”per-sa-re-vance”) to the way he vocalizes as if he had bitten off the tip of his tongue, we’re meant to laugh at him, not with him. He’s a horrific stereotype of the clueless foreigner desperately trying to conform and be ”American” by wearing logo-emblazoned sweatshirts and singing middlebrow pop. His inability to fit in may make unenlightened listeners feel superior, especially in light of recent global events. Even in a business with a high threshold for shame, ”Inspiration” is shameless. Despite its title, there’s nothing in the least bit inspirational — and everything repugnant — about it.