He went in a geek; he came out a star. By the time erstwhile special education teacher Clay Aiken made the final heat in the second American Idol talent competition, he had been transformed from an awkward nerd with a voice too big for his gangly body into a boyish troubadour whose sincerity and youthful idealism informed each golden note he sang. Despite losing the race to “Velvet Teddybear” Ruben Studdard, it can be convincingly argued that Aiken came out on top.

Comparing their albums, which were released within a week of each other (and let me pause here to ask: since they both got recording contracts, what was the difference between winning and placing?), I find much more appeal in the hook-laden, tart-sweet pop that Aiken puts forth than in Studdard’s bland hip-hop stud-muffin same-ol’-same-ol’. But the competition is over now, and the performers involved must stand or fall on their own, if they are still standing at all. (Are you out there, Justin Guarini?)

Detractors are fond of dismissing the entire A.I. pack as plastic and prepackaged, and Aiken in particular as a sort-of insubstantial boy band candidate, but one listen to his rendition of Neil Sedaka’s timeless Solitaire puts the lie to that assessment. Aiken possesses a special voice, distinctive, powerful, supremely expressive. He has the courage to stand up to the suits who would encourage him to vulgarize his image in order to project more hipness. He is very much his own man, and as long as he continues to associate with songwriters and producers who can give him material as strong as his first hit, Invisible, and his number one album The Measure of a Man, then he will continue to prove Huey Lewis’ dictum: it’s hip to be square.