Wednesday, April 11, 2007

The Sanjaya Factor

This year I jumped onboard the American Idol bandwagon for the first time. Why? A) One of the contestants -- Haley Scarnato -- is from San Antonio, which means that B) Jeanne, being the local TV critic, is currently a slave to this year's March of the Singing Soldiers. I, in turn, chose to be her slave.

Being an Idol virgin of sorts, I'm finally seeing it for the misguided sham I always suspected it might be - only now I have the gory details. I almost feel sorry for these kids who are forced to parade their wares back and forth across the stage every week and then sit on pins and needles the next night, waiting to find out whether or not they're toast...'course they do not until after many words from the people who make the show possible. Almost feel sorry...they took an easier ride to fame & fortune than most, thus sympathy only goes so far.

AI's ugliest feature? Those atrocious Ford commercials the kids have to appear in every week. These little “movies” must take at least a day to shoot – a day the contestants could either be working on their weekly routine or maybe just getting some much-needed rest. Oh man...the legal obligation to suck Satan’s cock (thank you Mr. Hicks) before working your own way to his mighty throne and then deciding for yourself whether or not to kneel. Tragic, I say, tragic!

I’ve tired of Randy Jackson’s “Yo dog!/Listen up!/Check this out!” as each performance winds down. I’ve been denied the Paula Abdul freakshow I’ve heard about for years. Simon Cowell, however, amuses me to no end. I'd prefer Idol if he was the only judge. I’m pretty sure I’d get along with Simon since he's British and I love Doctor Who -- he'd have plenty of ammo for a good time. His “call it like I see it” attitude is admirable, and he isn’t content to let the contestants slide. This guy’s a cupcake compared to what these kids are gonna have to deal with when/if they move into the halls and studios of the recording industry. And Ryan Seacrest is clearly the product of some genetic cloning experiment – he’s too good-looking and gets too much done in a single day to be just one guy. Oh...I'm also tired of the word "pitchy".

But look past the commercial muck & window dressing, see the hard-working contestants, and know that some of 'em are worth the tune-in. Leslie Hunt, the sweet lady I was pulling for, got booted off ages ago. She did a swank rendition of "(You Make Me Feel Like) a Natural Woman" that I still hear in the back of my mind all these weeks later. And her "Feelin' Good" fried my bacon. It's a shame she's gone, but some things are maybe too specialized for Prime Time TV. After Leslie, I had a mild Gina Glocksen fixation, but now she’s gone, too. Hopefully Gina finds her “thang” out there in the fickle music world. It's been too long since we've had a Joan Jett or Chrissie Hynde-inspired rocker babe that wasn't a skank.

As far as SA’s Miss Scarnato goes, she was terrible for the first few weeks. Surely, I predicted, she’d be voted off (and deservedly so) before the Top 12 lap of this journey began? Instead the photogenic Antonella Barba went bye-bye and Haley improved considerably. Two strong back-to-back displays -- Diana Ross’ “Missing You” and The Exciters’ “Tell Him” -- showed what she hadn't been showing. (The latter put her on the Idol radar big time.) Since then she’s given mediocre variations on those perfs and is by no means Idol finalist material. But she’s a trooper, seems to have a good heart and with perseverance and smart management she’ll get some good jobs on Broadway. Two Idol alumnae (Cassie LaBeau & Jonathan Jones) were in my New York City Rhythms play and either would have been a superior contestant, which sorta shows the dodginess of the Idol process. I’m neither for nor against Haley, and all things considered the Alamo City could have been represented by far worse. [The near 9PM (CST) edit: Haley gone! But she left with class...]

And so I come to the ubiquitous Sanjaya Malakar, whom I’ve liked from the moment he auditioned and that’s the truth. He reminded me of Michael Jackson before Jacko went wacko -- which for those who remember that far back is a huge compliment. I really felt for Sanjaya because he seemed like such an underdog – the guy auditioned with his sister (seemingly “just ‘cuz”), thinking she’d have a shot at going to Hollywood long before him. But that didn’t happen and these days his sister, Shyamali, can usually be seen pulling for him in the audience. For the first few weeks Sanjaya’s performances were depressingly mediocre. He knew it and his hangdog vibe said so. Every week when he wasn’t voted off, you could see him feeling bad about it. He knew better singers were exiting in lieu of his je ne sais quoi, and it pained the guy.

But after a while he wised up, dropped the droopy ‘tude and figured out America was voting to keep him on the show. They liked him...and truth be told, what’s not to like? Hell, I like the guy for a half a dozen reasons at this point, and chief among them is his jamming of the wheels of the Idol process. Sanjaya is his own unstoppable machine. He’s the worst thing to happen to the show since William Hung because he’s actually got loads of talent. Well, loads may be an overstatement, but he’s got plenty. Read on…

1. Sanjaya adapts. Week after week, the show trots out some tired theme, and week after week Sanjaya embraces the shift better than anyone else. Randy said to Sanjaya last night, “You’re one of the smartest contestants I’ve ever met”, and he was right.

2. Sanjaya entertains. Even when performing what was arguably his weakest display -- “You Really Got Me” by the Kinks -- he still rocked the goddamn house. Sure there are better singers on the show, but nobody has been as consistently entertaining.

3. Sanjaya is camera friendly. The guy is easy on the eyes and the best looking of the guys…and he knows where the f’in camera is! (At present, he may be the only contestant who does.)

4. Sanjaya has personality. Oh I’m sure the rest of them do too, but you wouldn’t know it based on what they put forth on the show. Sanjaya makes the most of what little screen time he’s got, and manages to throw down something worth noticing each week. Admittedly, his ego may be a tad out of control at this point, but hey, the way I look at it he’s readying himself for his future as a pop star.

5. Sanjaya’s hair. See 1 thru 4 above for more info.

6. Sanjaya can sing. Yes, he can. He can’t sing everything, but who can? Name me a singer that covers any and all genres of music. Idol contestants have off weeks because no singer can cover all ground. A big part of becoming a star is finding your niche. Sanjaya is on the way to finding his, and a big part of it is just being Sanjaya.

Sanjaya Malakar deserves to win American Idol because he is an American idol (nobody else on the show even comes close). Good thing he doesn’t have to win, given the win-win situation he's already in.

Simon insists Idol is a “singing competition”. I disagree; if it were, it’d play on the radio. Look no further than Britney Spears (for example) to see that singing is neither the beginning nor the end of what America demands of its idols. If the show were only about singing, its success rate would be higher; consider the various fates of those who’ve won or come close to winning. It takes dozens of factors – many of which cannot be calculated -- to make an idol. Bob Dylan never would have made it past the Idol audition stage. And neither would Janis Joplin.

Perhaps American Idol will learn a valuable lesson from Sanjaya – judging the contestants on vocal ability alone is not the way America will vote. Besides, any moderately decent singer can be made to sound fan-friggin'-tastic in the recording studio. On the other hand, maybe Idol doesn’t care to learn a lesson, maybe they just want to continue selling ad time to Ford and Coke – which Sanjaya’s been undeniably good for. Ultimately, in this pop culture, dollars make idols before voices do. I preached a version of this rant to my pal Bart recently and he said if he had a time machine, he'd travel back ten years and play my words for the 25-year old Ross, and the dude would refuse to believe it came from the future-him. Bart makes a good point, but sooner or later the ugly truth of the dollar must also be acknowledged.

But so must the entertainment factor. Sanjaya, at the time of writing, is safe once again. I do not know when or if he'll go, but if he does, this show's entertainment value will drop quicker than a tab of acid on Tim Leary's waiting tongue.

I’d bankroll Sanjaya in a heartbeat and become a millionaire in less than six months. And I’m not whistling Dixie -- I’ve got a creative strategy that will work, and it’s bigger, better and a hell of a lot more fun than anything any pop star’s done in years. Interested investors are welcome to inquire at lynchnut at gmail dot com and we’ll take it to the phones, airplanes and boardrooms from there. I bet Coke will help pay the bills.