Hail Sanjaya, savior of the first dull ‘Idol’

[3 April 2007]

By Ben Wener

The Orange County Register (MCT)

Thank heavens for Gwen Stefani week on “American Idol.” I was this close to sinking into a boredom-induced coma watching the phenomenon’s sixth season.

Don’t even act like you’ve wised up and taken it out of TiVo. Even some of my staunchest “Idol”-loathing friends have told me they’ve tuned in this time - and found themselves hooked like the rest of us junkies have been since ye olde Justin Guarini days.

Ah, where is that sweet, crazy-coiffed boy now? Now, that is, that a sizeable segment of viewers - and perhaps even greater numbers of hostile, vote-for-the-worst “outsiders” who would never admit their obvious citizenship in Idol Nation - have gone goofy for another sweet, crazy-coiffed boy: the exotic puppy dog Sanjaya Malakar.

That’s “Sanjaya” - from the Bengali tongue, meaning “shaggy rag doll capable of creating faux-hawks and mutilating Kinks klassiks.”

As usual, Simon the Truthsayer’s take on this novelty is spot on: “I don’t think it matters anymore what we say. You are in your own universe, and if people like you, good luck.”

In other words, he’s Kevin Covais crossed with William Hung - inexplicably adorable to some while amusingly awful to others. Preteen girls and Howard Stern fans - those masses could take this befuddled lad a l-o-n-g way.

Unfortunately for Sanjaya, “Malakar” doesn’t mean “music” - and if people start taking “Idol” Cliche No. 1 (“It’s a singing competition!”) to heart he’ll be forgetting the words to “Bathwater” all the way back to ... well, actually, just around the corner, to some posh studio where he’ll cut his inevitable Teen Beat-adored debut.

But I tell you what: Sanjaya wouldn’t be an entirely bad choice for your next American Idol.

At the very least, Pony Hawk lasting until the final four would at least make for an interesting finish. Imagine it: Melinda Doolittle (so far and away the most talented vocalist it’s as if she’s in another competition altogether), Blake Lewis (Simon right again: He’s the best guy), and Evanescence-ready Gina Glocksen or charming, unpredictable Jordin Sparks (fresher, more contemporary choices who may not be such dark horses) ... and, of course, silly Sanjaya.

That would keep me watching, anyway. And given the multitudes of oh-so-clever online commentators and the near-weekly release schedule of “Idol” wares - not to mention the overblown nature of the show itself - I’ve pretty much reached my saturation point.

So about Gwen, forever our girl even if she moves to London permanently: Never would’ve thought she’d be the one to rescue this season from the doldrums. But whether she knows it or not, she hit upon - and in some way represents - the underlying drive of Season Six.

“A lot of the artists that I love aren’t necessarily known for their big singing or amazing voice,” she noted at the outset of Tuesday’s round, in which The Pro (Mindy Doo nailing Donna Summer’s “Heaven Knows” like she’s about to pick up a Grammy for it) and the rest of the amateurs were to tackle either a No Doubt hit (and sound like a copycat) or something by one of Gwen’s influences.

And so we were subjected to Haley “Legs” Scarnato drifting aimlessly through Cyndi Lauper’s “True Colors.” And Phil “Scary” Stacey coming on like an anemic Chris Daughtry on “Every Breath You Take.” And Chris “Beyond Metronome” Sligh, the week’s castoff, losing all sense of tempo on a catastrophically bad song choice, “Every Little Thing She Does Is Magic,” a bouncy Police rush that demands precision.

Not that those slip-ups and shortcomings really matter. Like Gwen says about her heroes, so may this “Idol” contest prove to be: “It’s more about their personality, their character, their style.”

Enter Sanjaya. And exit - eventually, but probably sooner than later - giant, majestic voices like LaKisha Jones’, who week after week seems less relaxed and more reliant on the lone surefire trick in her bag: the booming ballad.

I’d say even Ms. Doolittle is in danger, frankly. She deserves such titling, by the way, not out of respect to her prodigious vocal gifts but because she seems twice as old as everyone else. For all his premature grayness Taylor Hicks still seemed about the same age as Elliott Yamin. Ms. Doolittle, however, often leaves me feeling like she’s out to win “Greatest Gladys Knight Clone” - and not Gladys when she was cutting “I Heard It Through the Grapevine,” either.

Yeah, so she skewed a little younger this week. I still agree with MTV.com commentator Jim Cantiello: “Instead of looking like my grandmother, she looks like my grandmother circa 1978.”

Does Mindy Doo - what a feeble media attempt to make her seem young and hip that moniker is - deserve to run away with this contest? Of course. She should have stepped out of the shadows of backing-vocalist purgatory years ago, I suspect - as should have poor Brandon Rogers, a clear victim of Cliche No. 2 (“That wasn’t my favorite performance from you, dawg”).

But, stupid as this is, the fact that Ms. Doolittle looks ready for the “Dinah Shore” show while most every other female challenger has been shrinking her hemline may work against her. Above all, “American Idol” remains a kids’ game show - and since when are the kids buying Anita Baker?

Which is why Gwen, as contemporary a star as they come, may be on to something regarding this batch of hopefuls.

Never mind that her no-nonsense suggestions (those we saw, anyway) were on the mark, while so many other coaches lately have turned either timid (Diana Ross) or blase (just who thought Peter Noone was a good choice, anyway?). There’s more to being a hot star than having a great voice - and ultimately Sanjaya’s laughable attempts at smoldering or Gina’s and Jordin’s self-empowering charisma could prove more endearing to voters than Mindy Doo’s increasingly immodest gasps of wide-eyed surprise.

Honestly, maybe that’s why I’m so bored: None of these people look like star material to me.

Did you catch last week’s “Saturday Night Live,” when Andy Samberg killed in a spoof of Sanjaya’s “You Really Got Me” desecration, replete with crying girl in braces? Carrie Underwood was the musical guest that night, and she wowed in more ways than one. The songs, especially “Before He Cheats,” were Sheryl Crow country rock strong; the look was glamour-grabbing, Carrie showing flesh like she were Goldie Hawn on “Laugh-In.” She was every bit a star - confident, powerful, seizing her moment and sustaining it.

Now, I see a lot of records getting ground out of this current cast - if Bucky Covington can score one (due April 17), then so can Chris Richardson. But I don’t see anyone with a white-hot future ahead of them, like many of us did with Carrie and Kelly Clarkson and Fantasia. Left-field successes like Clay Aiken or Daughtry? Those are even harder to predict, but do you see any possibilities?

Right: I see only Sanjaya, too. And for all the wrong reasons.

I think Simon senses as much, and is privately fretting about “Idol” losing credibility. There’s an unhappy tension all over his stonier facial expressions that suggest he’s worried about a Sanjaya finale. You can tell: He suspects right now not enough people will buy anything from these finalists - not enough for “Idol”-related product, anyway.

Sanjaya, however, keeps me coming back when I’d just as soon give up and read the results. His horrifically wrong song selections and whacked-out performances leave me speechless, just like Randy Jackson. Yet, astoundingly, I think Paula Abdul may be right. “You can do it. You’re up there. How hard can it be? You can do it.”

Translation: You find just the right tune for you, Pony Hawk, let your full flamboyance flower, and it won’t matter that everyone else sings circles around you. You’ll (Cliche No. 3 of at least two dozen) “sail on through to the finals.”

And I’ll still be watching.

Published at: http://www.popmatters.com/pm/article/hail-sanjaya-savior-of-the-first-dull-idol/