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"It was good all the assholes weren't there," Newman responded. "No offense. It's just not conducive to people sharing how they feel."
Spinetti wears his brown hair in a curly eccentric pompadour and has a big, beautiful singing voice inherited from his opera-singing parents. He plays the piano and other instruments, and composes and arranges his own music. He records himself with gospel choirs and orchestras, and incorporates dancers into his live shows. He describes his sound as chamber pop and loves rock opera.
Spinetti counts Freddie Mercury, David Bowie, and Prince as inspirations, and has dreams to fill stadiums with people chanting his name. "I'm not much for money, not at all. I just want to survive. I want to be able to support myself and do what I love. Um, it just so happens that the place that I want to be, if I do get there, I would be loaded. You know, like, there would be a lot of money at stake," he says.
The only thing holding him back, it seems, is finding the right star persona. At the beginning of the school year, Spinetti was performing under the alter ego Aiden Eve. But by the second semester he dropped it because he'd rather be himself.
"There's been a lot of pressure leading up to this year. In my head at least. I wanted to know exactly what I was going to be by the time I got here. Which is even deeper than recorded music. It's like, know thyself by the time you're 21," he says.
Spinetti had entered the department with the dream of scoring an audition with Davis. But as each year went by without seeing the department's namesake, his hopes dwindled. Still, he figured Davis would make some kind of appearance at the Capstone panel.
"It's kind of pitched as a scout program. Like, oh, he's fostering these new artists and new producers, but he's not there. And none of his people are there checking us out. It's not to say that what he's done isn't monumental and great. It's just not exactly as it appears on paper. Is he going to be there? I'm sure. But is it going to be for the reason everybody thinks? Probably not."
Over the final three days of school, the stu dents pitch their business plans and play their albums during the Capstone to a panel of experts.
None of them is Clive Davis.
Disappointed, Spinetti gamely goes to the piano to begin his presentation. Dressed in black, he turns down the lights, and sits behind the judges. Some turn around to watch him, others don't. He plays "I Was There," a song he says was partly inspired by his parents' divorce. Then he gets up and gives a short talk and plays the album version of the same song.
The judges let him know they prefer the live version to the recorded one, which includes a choir. Overall they are enthusiastic about his voice and his piano playing, but they can't figure out how to categorize the rest of his actthe pompadour, the orchestra, the choir, the dancers, the chamber pop. Comparisons to Jeff Buckley and Rufus Wainwright are tossed about.
"It's a question of direction," says Lesley Bleakley, who oversees British indie labels such as XL Recordings and Mo' Wax as CEO of The Beggars Group U.S. "Is it the show-tunes route you want to go? Or is it alternative? Is there a direction you want to go?"
"I basically want to perform music for the rest of my life," Spinetti answers.
"What's your direction?" Bleakley asks again.
"My direction is rather general in my mind and in my heart," Spinetti responds. "I want to perform for as many people as possible. I enjoy live music far more than recorded music."
Steve Smith, founder of Acme Partners Ltd., who has worked with Pink Floyd and the Who, chimes in, "What's your style? How can I characterize you when I walk out there and say, hey, that guy Mario sounded like fill in the blank."
Spinetti has no idea. And suddenly they can't help him.
"I think some of us feel we see a road for you to go very easily," says the last judge, Celia Hirschman, founder of Downtown Marketing. "And that road has been well laid by some very talented musicians who are doing really well now, but it's not contingent on us. . . . You have to tell us who you are. And with that, we can help get you there."
"Otherwise it's manufactured," says Bleakley, "like American Idol."
They all laugh, except for Spinetti.
After Tom Schecter finishes taking a final exam on the decline of ancient Rome, a part of his general education requirements, he hurries back to his dorm room to get ready for the biggest day of his academic career. He puts on his black leather pants, spikes his brown hair, slips on his sunglasses, and struts over to the studio, where all day the seniors have been pitching the albums to the Capstone panel.