Sanjaya's 'Idol' Style: It's All in His Head

By Robin Givhan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, March 30, 2007

One of the most telling bits of information in the miniature Web site biography of "American Idol" contestant Sanjaya Malakar is the revelation that "I don't get embarrassed." Perhaps he should.

Malakar has risen to fame and stubbornly remained there because of his Michael Jackson-ish, Bee Gees-like dedication to styling his hair. It has been pin-curled into a thick mop of ringlets, slicked straight as if it had been fried by a Japanese perm and, most recently, scooped into a single row of upswept ponytails to create a faux mohawk. During his Tuesday night performance, Malakar was so proud of his hairdo that he wagged his head back and forth, making the energetic movement of his locks the most dynamic part of his performance.

The other contestants still try to convince the audience that they have a strong enough voice to justify a recording contract and enough stage presence to move CDs. They seem to consider whether a song is appropriate for their personalities. Some even occasionally listen to the advice of the guest mentors and try to apply the suggestions to their performances.

Last week, Malakar chose a rock song, "You Really Got Me," that he lacked the grit and confidence to sell. But it gave him the opportunity to shake his shaggy mane and flap his tongue. This week he chose No Doubt's "Bathwater," a song about unrequited love that talks about splashing around in an old boyfriend's bathwater. Malakar grinned through the song, leaving most of the lyrics -- " 'Cause I love to wash in your old bathwater / Love to think that you couldn't love another" -- unintelligible. But who needed lyrics when he had that cockamamie hair jutting off his head like a rooster's comb?

As America's ears bleed, it sounds as though Malakar no longer is attempting to sing -- that is, to enunciate lyrics while simultaneously carrying a tune. How can he compete with Lakisha Jones, whose lusty voice could blow out woofers, tweeters and everything in between?

So Malakar has given himself over to style. Substance, what little of it there is on "American Idol," be damned.

He is fashioning himself into a male pop tart. Not just a smiling Bratz boy looking to exploit a healthy head of hair to juice up his image, but someone using fashion as a steppingstone to fame.

Malakar doesn't just have good hair, he is his hair.

He follows in the long-standing tradition of female pop stars with only the barest whisper of a voice, or a passable croak, who have used style to make themselves into successful entertainers. See: Britney Spears, pre-rehab, meltdown, marriage. See: "Pussycat Dolls: The Search for the Next Doll." See: Diana Ross and her hair -- post-Supremes. See: Cher and assorted headdresses.

Malakar is the rare male performer who relies so utterly on styling. Only those boy bands whipped together in the past by Dr. Frankenstein-like producers came close to being so fashion dependent. Because those bands didn't have gripping vocals or musicianship, they relied on sharp choreography, decent hooks, cute faces and muscular physiques to keep the fans screaming. Styling was important, but it was only part of the mix. Elton John, David Bowie, George Clinton are known for their style, but they don't owe their careers to it. Usher has great style, but he owes a greater debt to his dance moves and his abs. Andre 3000? A 50-50 split between impressive style and massive substance.

At 17, Malakar does not ooze testosterone. He has a slight build that never fills out his studiously hipster clothes -- such as his graffiti blazer from Lulu last week. He typically looks as though he has been borrowing his wardrobe from a grown-up. When he is onstage, he gives no indication that he can dance. And when he races into the audience, one worries that at any moment he will trip over his shoelaces. Historically, he can be compared to Shaun Cassidy or Leif Garrett -- Tiger Beat regulars with bland voices but splendidly tousled hair.

Of the other male contestants, Blake Lewis and Chris Richardson are battling over who can best imitate Justin Timberlake in his skinny-tie-wearing, vest-sporting, bright-white-sneaker-loving "Bringing Sexy Back" phase. It is a distinctive style, but one that is self-consciously reserved. The recently dismissed Chris Sligh, who might have benefited from a bit more styling, looked as though he did little to prepare for the evening's performance other than shower. And it seems that the ghoulish Phil Stacey's pre-show routine involves fluffing his knit cap, drinking a pint of blood and avoiding cloves of garlic.

Malakar plays the asexual pretty boy with the gleaming grin, who always looks like he spent more time primping his hair than rehearsing his song. He is a compelling presence onstage not because he makes the heart go pitter-patter but because he's putting on a hair show. Next week, it would not be shocking if he appeared with his hair teased into a beehive, out of which flew live bees.

Women with only barely tolerable voices have built singing careers by transforming themselves into fashion personalities. Madonna, for instance, would almost certainly not be a one-name pop icon without the help of rubber bracelets, bullet bras and copious amounts of hair bleach.

The door to fame has cracked open for Malakar. And he is working the zeitgeist with his hirsute shenanigans. Nothing about his tactics are unusual. The only surprise is that, in this case, the performer so willing to be reduced to a big smile and even bigger hair is a man.

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