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Make Mine Vanilla: Season Sanjaya Six and the American Idol Illusion

Once again, I find myself Statler and Waldorfing my way through another season of American Idol.  This year, more than others, “It’s like a kind of torture / To have to watch the show.”  Like anyone in a dysfunctional relationship, I turn to it out of boredom, the fact that it’s comfortable, and there’s nothing better out there at the time. 
And now the picture on my 27-inch color television set is just a little bit dimmer every Tuesday at 8PM since Sanjaya-Mania has wound to a close with the inevitable booting of the loveably off-kilter (and off-key) standout persona of American Idol‘s sixth season.


Seattle’s 17-year-old Sanjaya Malakar found his meteoric rise to fame on American Idol this season after auditioning with his sister, Shyamali.  The brother and sister duo made it as far as the second round of Hollywood auditions together before Shyamali was given the boot and Sanjaya was signed, sealed, and delivered onto Idol‘s main stage, garnering a spot among the coveted Top Twelve contestants and then again among the Top Ten (who reap the lucrative benefits of a summer tour).


Malakar brought his A-game with shameless mugging for the camera, fixing viewers with a perpetual come-hither gaze and waggling his eyebrows like Groucho Marx after a hit of Spanish Fly.  What he sorely lacked in vocal skills he made up for with wildly varying hairstyles and a penchant for cheesy, overly theatrical renditions of whatever thematic song fodder was optioned out to him each week.  In short, Sanjaya was the only contestant with a gram of personality this season.


Don’t get me wrong.  Throughout all of its six-season glory, none of the American Idol contestants ever have stood out as anyone I’d want to go grab a beer with or engage in a rip-roaring night of hellraising out on the town.  Perhaps it’s just that some of the other contestants from previous years were so glaringly obnoxious and inspiring of snark that part of the fun of watching the show was to openly heckle them from the safe confines of the couch.  There were a variety of personalities and vocal styles to choose from, although they were culled from a similar, virtually obscure heap.


This year, in a contest in which the prime function is to find someone suitably insipid, yet talented just enough to imprint them with the American Idol marketing banner, season six has its pick of the flavor-free to brand as they see fit.  Devoid of any prior glimmers of personality—lest it eclipse that, first and foremost, they are American Idol winners before they are any sort of singular pawn of the recording industry operating under the illusion of artistic autonomy.


Vocally, the contestants this year are (debatably) no better or worse their five seasons’ worth of predecessors, however, they might not be as obnoxious.  Let’s face it, last year’s bumper crop was the coup de grace of annoying personalities duking it out for a recording contract, with Taylor Hicks—the bastard offspring of a bar band Michael McDonald and John Belushi-as-Joe Cocker—emerging the victor. 


Most of the contestants of the past five seasons were more interesting to watch not because anyone (with the possible exception of Kelly Clarkson) was a tremendous vocalist, but because of the “trainwreck effect” that has become so ingrained in our culture.  There for the viewing was the possibility of watching one of them either botch lyrics or waver off-key when going for the ubiquitous glory note required within the AI curriculum.  Even better was the promise of being able to laugh out loud at the self-congratulatory egotism dropping from the mouths of bottom-tier talent without a single hit on the Billboard charts, buying into their own disposable mythos, only to be rewarded for their hubris with America voting them off.


Instead, this year, while an abundance of overt ego hasn’t been as readily available as it has in the past, neither has a shimmer of personality among most of the contestants. 


Reviewing this year’s options for the candidacy of America’s next rising recording star, running on the sublimely shallow platform of “Looks Versus Voice”, was Haley Scarnatto and the recently eliminated Chris Richardson.  Both candidates had little to offer besides thin vocals and a great set of legs in Haley’s case, and nasal intonation combined with a vague resemblance to Justin Timberlake in Richardson’s. 


Outcast Appeal was covered with “rocker” Gina Glockson and her off-the-rack Hot Topic ensembles to sell said identity, and the portly Chris Sligh, whose Sideshow Bob hair and grasping jokes reeked of self-consciousness. It was also Sligh who provided this season’s lone dose of ego among the Top Ten with his pish-toshing of constructive criticism as his vocal efforts circled the bowl, culminating in his voted exit from the show.


Somewhere in the middle fell the also recently-axed Phil Stacey, Idol‘s answer to Rich Little, graced with a blandly blank canvas of a voice best suited towards pulling off astonishing imitations of the original male vocalists whose songs he covered with nary a touch of his own style.


Among the Final Four standing, things don’t get much better.  Beatboxer Blake Lewis’s only recognizable trait is the new wave hip-hop infusions he brings to his material.  While his actual singing (as opposed to beat-boxing) voice is mediocre, he gets bonus points for breathing some life into the archaic standards foisted upon the populace at large.  Similarly, LaKisha Jones’ claim to fame lies within her innate ability to shout her way through nearly every song with a keen lack of subtlety.  Initially a front-runner, Kiki’s one-note song stylings have branded her as the “belter” among the remaining four. 


Even with a bit more talent than the rest to distinguish herself from the pack, the effervescently youthful Jordin Sparks, a 17-year-old with a solid voice who lacks the time-acquired ability to pick the songs required to correctly show it off, fails to have any real personality besides being perky.  And then there is the professionally polished, performing dynamo Melinda Doolittle, by far and away the most talented of the Season Six crew.  Yet, she of the incredible pipes manages to showcase a marginal amount of a persona so “gosh-n’-golly” that it would make even Gomer Pyle roll his eyes.  As cynical media consumers, we’re accustomed to believing (regardless of whether it’s the case or not) that if it seems too good to be true, it probably is.


Indeed, the thrill is gone. 


Ratings for American Idol‘s sixth season have dropped compared to Season Five.  Better yet, the episode after Sanjaya was eliminated from the Idol roster plummeted by a solid nine percent in the Nielsons.  While Idol is still by far and away the top rated show on television, it’s a significant drop in numbers.


The sole bit of real entertainment this year was not Sanjaya Malakar himself, his outlandish hairdos, or his often-bizarre renditions of the categorized weekly material.  Nope.  It was the strong feelings that he elicited amongst the “Fanjayas” and the Sanjaya Naysayers, guzzling their Hatorade by the gallon.  Normally, you would have a multitude of contestants with some spark of personality to resonate strongly with viewers.  Any strong reactions would be fanned out and divvied up between at least five or so contestants.  This season, in having only one standout personality, it turned the attention to a singular focus, hence the omnipresent media coverage of all things Sanjaya.


No other American Idol contestant in history—be it golden-voiced poster girls with real skill like Carrie Underwood and Kelly Clarkson, or even the business savvy, gravy train ridin’, blatantly awful William Hung—has captured attention on so massive a scale and for so long of a stretch beyond his tenure in the competition. Any publicity is good publicity, and that oft-used expression is usually reserved for negative attention.  This season, Sanjaya had it in spades.  Even such universally mocked and despised contestants as Kevin “Chicken Little” Covais and Scott “Cell Phone Chucker” Savol had not inspired such a heated emotional response, much less hunger strikes. 


A woman with a MySpace account and only known as “J” embarked on a hunger strike in an effort to get Malakar booted from Idol.  She crapped out 16 days later at the urging of her doctor, but not before she was joined by a fellow hunger striker with the handle “IdolMatt”.  In a similar YouTube video blog, like “J”, “IdolMatt” espoused his disturbingly strong beliefs in the cause to have Malakar sent packing. 


It’s a sad state of affairs when you have people with so little going on in their own lives that they turn to hunger striking over a television show. These are people engaging in the same form of protest used by Mahatma Gandhi to peacefully demonstrate against the governmental and religious injustices he saw in his homeland.  Of all the things in the world you could speak out against, these two clowns decided to stop eating with the hope that it would oust a teen from what is basically a glorified talent contest. 


It’s not just your everyday MySpacers with an open forum to spout their views getting in on the act, either.  Everyone wanted a piece of taking Sanjaya down.  Several online opinion blogs, both well-known and lesser-known, touted headlines similar to “Will Sanjaya Kill American Idol?”.


Treatises penned by professional bloggers —grown adult ones, to boot—urged readers to not vote for Sanjaya Malakar, belaboring the point of what dire straits pop culture and music in general would be in should America wrongly choose another poor leader, this time, one who would apparently wage a war on the musical sensibilities of undiscriminating connoisseurs of popular music. The pandemic furor of the mere thought of Malakar winning the contest was hyped with such insane passion by enraged bloggers, you would have sworn the kid was running for public office.


There is nothing like seeing grown adults with such vehement feelings directed towards a 17-year-old boy who hasn’t even come close to any sort of violent act whatsoever.  Furthermore, if they think that if Sanjaya winning this year would have doomed the state of music and media, then they obviously haven’t observed the sorry state of affairs it has become in recent years.  Sanjaya winning on American Idol would be a drop in the bucket compared to many of the musical atrocities currently waged upon listeners, from pre-canned boy bands, to lip-synching rhinoplasty recipients being pimped to the top of the charts, to cookie-cutter bands that only mildly “rock”.  If you think that the “wrong” contestant winning on a television show will bring about the downfall of American music, you’re one deluded puppy.


At least the throngs of teens and preteens had an excuse in being taken in by Malakar’s boyishly exotic, yet All-American good looks due to their own youth and naivety, even if it rendered them blind to his inadequate singing voice.


That brings us to the “Fanjayas”, the rabid fans of Sanjaya, best typified by “The Crying Girl”, a 13-year-old visitor to the soundstage who, on one vaunted episode of this season, wailed her eyes out with starstruck abandon as if Sanjaya were the second coming of the Fab Four and his magnificently quaffed mane smoothed by the sequin-gloved hand of Michael Jackson himself.


While the squealing teenage fangirls accounted for a large part of his fanbase and success, Sanjaya was also a hit among Idol malcontents congregated at VoteForTheWorst.com.  The site affectionately known as “VFTW” to its regular visitors has been around since season three of American Idol and has promoted voting for the worst contestant each year, ensuring a continuous stream of entertainment for viewers who watch for the “trainwreck effect” and to upset the delicate balance and tastes of those who would “choose” their next popular entertainer.  Shock jock Howard Stern had also endorsed VFTW and encouraged his own horde of listeners to vote for Sanjaya, as well. If you can’t have the best, why settle for mere mediocrity?


For every goof who goes off half-cocked and half-starved, there is at least some resistance, some backlash against what I like to call “The AI Illusion”. 


Idol affords people the illusion that they’re picking an entertainer to be instantly catapulted to the top.  For the longest time, I wondered what the hell the Randy, Paula, and Simon as judges were there for.  They don’t seem to have any real say or genuine hand in picking the contestants.  On other reality-based talent shows, like Dancing with the Stars or Rock Star, in addition to internet- or phone-based fan votes, judges with field expertise give some sort of a tangible numerical score or a verbal final say about who among the bottom-ranking contestants survives another week in the running and who goes home.

On Idol, on the surface, it only seems that the judges don’t vote.  In reality, they’re there to try to sway the audience on the basis of being “qualified” experts based on fame, talent, or past résumé.  By appearing as if they are not doing anything, it enhances the illusion that America is picking its next star on its very own without someone holding their hand.  Whoever actually wins the contest is irrelevant, as it’s the show’s producers who ultimately win with scads of advertising and product placement dollars kicked in by Coca Cola and Ford, among others.  The appeal of the show is seemingly universal, using teens and young adults to sell music that is the familiar niche of choice for the judges, producers, and others footing the bill, who don’t have as much as a finger on the pulse of real, homegrown music.  It’s all very adult contemporary. 


Week after week, the judges preach how the contestants should be “young!” and “fun!”  Then whammo!  Listen to the stuff they sack all of them with on not only theme night, but their prefabricated solo albums.  Clive Davis gets back from his afternoon tea with the Crypt Keeper and dusts off something from the Dionne Warwick Vault of Horror and kicks it on down to Katherine McPhee et al to record on their Idol-sponsored, contractually obligated albums.  Tepid, middle-aged music ensues, all wrapped up in the pretty packaging of youth.


For every one artist who emerges from Idol to a stellar singing career, there are ten or twenty who linger in obscurity, at best.  Even former contest winners sometimes disappear from both the charts and the public’s star radar.  Country is arguably the best-selling genre of the day, with a wide berth of crossover appeal, hence the success of Carrie Underwood and her music’s ability to crossover into not only country, but to the adult contemporary and pop audiences that comprise most of Idol‘s viewing audience.  Kelly Clarkson was the first in this steady stream of American Idol winners, before the show had raped and pillaged the talent pool and left many a lesser performer with false hopes of stardom, and this in conjunction with a strong, clear voice accounts for her great success.

One-trick-ponies don’t have much shelf-life.  Since it’s a seasonal show, American Idol is designed to churn out disposable recording artists to make money.  It operates on the standard of giving the people what they want, which is more of the same… just different.  Somewhere along the way, a singer was defined by image and not voice.  Video, and now reality television, killed the radio star.


The great tragedy in all of this is not who will win or who should win American Idol, nor the popularity of a contestant who, based on talent alone, probably did not deserve as much recognition as he received for all the wrong reasons.  Instead, the saddest thing that the sixth season of American Idol presents is how lazy record labels and A&R have become, no longer taking a longer, harder, but more worthwhile route to pound the streets or clubs to look for new artists that offer something fresh.  Why bother when you have American Idol or MySpace to do all the leg work?


The other, much smaller tragedy is that the world will never hear what Sanjaya could have done with Bon Jovi Theme Night should he have stuck around for one more week.  What I wouldn’t have given to hear his version of “Bad Medicine”!  Alas, the world will never know.

Lana Cooper has written various reviews and features for PopMatters since 2006. She's also written news stories for EDGE Media, a nationwide network devoted to LGBT news and issues. In 2013, she wrote her first novel, Bad Taste In Men, described as one part chick lit for tomboys and one part Freaks and Geeks for kids who came of age in the mid-'90s. She lives in Philadelphia and enjoys spending time with her family, reading comic books, and avoiding eye contact with strangers on public transportation. A graduate of Temple University, Cooper doesn't usually talk about herself in the first person, but makes an exception when writing an author bio.


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