Sanjaya: The Axis of 'Idol'
Let's take a break from Hillary Clinton's "Who does this guy Obama think he is?" crisis and John McCain's "Does anybody know where I might have left my mojo?" crisis to consider another political upheaval that mocks the conventional wisdom, confounds the so-called experts and threatens the established order. I refer, of course, to the worsening Sanjaya crisis.
I try to limit myself to one " American Idol" column per season, and usually I wait until much closer to the end. But events have intervened, and I feel a duty to help an anxious nation grapple with the meaning of Sanjaya.
Regular "Idol" watchers -- and there are 30 million of us -- know that Sanjaya Malakar is an abysmally untalented contestant who not only survives elimination week after week but actually seems to become more popular. He is the worst singer among the finalists, by far. His voice is weak, with such a limited range that it calls to mind Dorothy Parker's famous putdown about running the gamut from A to B. He dances as if he has restless leg syndrome.
But Sanjaya (he has earned single-name fame) is undeniably cute. And he has a world-class head of hair, which he styles a different way each week -- the apotheosis, thus far, was an indescribable "faux-hawk." Wielding his lush locks and his charismatic smile like weapons of mass destruction, Sanjaya has conquered television's biggest show in a demonstration of force majeure that recalls Saddam Hussein's blitzkrieg of Kuwait.
More talented singers are voted off the show, one by one, while Sanjaya survives. In the process, he seems to have grown from a shy, tentative 17-year-old into some kind of passive-aggressive monster. At first, the judges -- Randy Jackson, Paula Abdul and Simon Cowell -- excoriated his lame performances in the hope that viewers would agree and stop voting for him, but this proved counterproductive. That which does not kill Sanjaya makes him stronger.
At this point, the people who run "Idol" are totally cowed. On Tuesday, when Sanjaya -- wearing an all-white disco suit, his hair slicked back -- did a version of "Cheek to Cheek" that must have had both Irving Berlin and Fred Astaire whirring like turbines, even the acerbic Cowell didn't dare utter a word of criticism. All he could manage was the deliberately ambiguous verdict: "Incredible."
Viewers are taking the Sanjaya crisis seriously. The insult is that such a clearly inferior singer has made it this far in the competition. The injury is that Sanjaya's voting constituency, believed to consist mostly of preteen girls and middle-aged women, is being augmented -- no one knows to what extent -- by malevolent forces that seek only chaos and disorder. These include a Web site that urges viewers to vote for the worst contestant (Sanjaya is this season's obvious designee), a crusade joined by fans of satellite shock-jock Howard Stern. "Idol" bloggers see a mortal challenge to the "integrity" of the show.
Which makes me think that everyone should just take a deep breath. The "integrity" of "American Idol"? Puh-lease. We're talking about a brilliantly cheesy television show, people, not voter suppression in Ohio. There is no need to call for Senate hearings.
Sanjaya gets enough votes to avoid elimination primarily because he is better endowed than the other contestants with several qualities found in most pop stars: good looks, sharp-elbowed ambition and the "it" factor that lets a performer connect with his or her audience. Does Janet Jackson have a great voice? Britney Spears? Justin Timberlake?
What hurts the show is the craven capitulation of the judges. They should stop worrying about what impact their comments might have on the Sanjaya sympathy vote. They should stop judging him by lower standards. There are uncommonly good singers in the running this year -- Melinda Doolittle, LaKisha Jones, Jordin Sparks-- and it's unfair to let Sanjaya slide. The judges must look the Sanjaya monster in the eye and speak truth to power.
If they don't, the terrorists have won.
And if the worst happens -- if, somehow, Sanjaya is voted this season's American Idol -- the evil-genius producers of the show will have learned a lesson. They created this problem by sending Sanjaya through to the finals. My educated guess is that they thought his hair and his smile would help build the early-season audience and that his lack of talent would have gotten him bounced by now. In the end, they will probably dodge the bullet. I don't think Sanjaya will win.
But if he does, the "Idol" brain trust will have to try to make a successful album out of nothing more than big hair, a winning smile and an inflated ego. It's been done before.