Pity young Sanjaya, the 'Idol' contestant everyone loves to hate

Julie Hinds
Detroit Free Press (MCT)

It feels like a day for thankless tasks, so I'll go ahead and make the case in defense of Sanjaya Malakar.

Somebody has to.

The 17-year-old "American Idol" contestant is the country's new laughingstock. Late-night comics ridicule him. Critics have exhausted the synonyms for awful in their quest to describe him. A young woman from New York is so upset by his presence on the show she claims to be on a hunger strike until he's voted off -- and she's chronicling her protest, of course, on the Web.

Hating Sanjaya is the new fad of disposable culture. Nobody cares much about the diaper-wearing astronaut anymore. The will to wallow in the Anna Nicole Smith saga is waning. Yet nearly every night last week, you could flip the channels and count the references to Sanjaya's ineptness made by ABC's Jimmy Kimmel, MSNBC's Joe Scarborough, Comedy Central's Stephen Colbert and on and on.

Sanjaya-bashing is now No. 1 with a bullet, and I'm still trying to figure out why.

Is it because he's the weakest singer among the Top 10? Fair enough, but I don't remember anyone resorting to starvation when John Stevens was doing Frank Sinatra impressions on the show a few years back.

Sanjaya is merely one of a long line of "Idol" guys who've survived past their logical expiration date. If you thought his performance of "You Really Got Me" last week was a train wreck, picture Kevin (Chicken Little) Covais from last season attempting it. Or burly Scott Soval from Season 4. Or Jim Verraros from the debut year.

Those images aren't pretty, but Sanjaya is, with his warm smile, bronze skin and wavy hair, and that's part of the problem. He has a non-threatening, slightly feminine vibe that appeals to preteen girls, like a many a bubble-gum Tiger Beat poster boy before him. This makes him an easy target. "Idol" producers practically painted a bull's-eye on his back last week by cutting a zillion times to close-ups of Ashley, the sobbing young fan whose Sanjaya worship was parodied over the weekend by "Saturday Night Live."

Sanjaya is undoubtedly loathed by those who are serious about popular music. Although he'd need handlers and heavy tinkering in the studio to hide his flaws, he's already gotten more exposure in a few weeks than many aspiring artists of true vision will get in a lifetime. Somewhere, a garage band that's waiting to be discovered is crying harder than Ashley because of this.

Sanjaya may still be on the show because of and Howard Stern, who are rooting for his survival as a way to mess with the show's premise. Some muse he must have reached the Top 10 because he's needed as a teenybopper draw for the coast-to-coast summer tour. The vote tallies remain a mystery to viewers (there were 30 million votes last week, but who received what?), so conspiracy theories blossom freely.

Whatever the reason, it's worth remembering Sanjaya is just a boy, not a human punch line. When he auditioned, his voice seemed rather sweet and promising, sort of like Stevie Wonder lite. Once he made it to the Top 24, he tended to stand there and sound listless.

As bad reviews from the judges piled up, so did Sanjaya's various hairstyles, which only added fuel to the humiliation fire. Then, last week, perhaps in response to criticism, he took a gamble by tackling a Kinks classic and trying to work the crowd like a Vegas star. The blowback was immediate and painful. Water-cooler tirades about his horridness were louder than any words spoken on behalf of LaKisha Jones, Melinda Doolittle, Jordin Sparks or other contestants considered to belong in the finals.

Dare I say it? Sanjaya wasn't that bad. His voice is thin, but his tone and pitch are OK. As a reader e-mailed recently, he can carry a tune; he just can't carry a performance.

The anti-Sanjaya bandwagon reminds me of the Howard Dean scream frenzy, when the sheer pleasure of replaying the clip of him acting like a crazy man overtook the fact that the guy was trying to whip up enthusiasm in a noisy room.

Perception becomes reality. Sanjaya may be out of his depth, but it's more fun to label him the worst singer in the world. I just wish he weren't 17. That's too young to be a national joke or a nationally spotlighted anything.

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