sanjaya roundup

hello blog denizens. i apolgize for the lack of posts recently, between the end of another academic quarter, spring break, and the beginning of another academic quarter, i've been a little busy. and of course, lazy. i've finally advanced to candidacy in my PhD program, so don't forget to vote for me, now that i'm a candidate. that's such a bad joke, but i've been shoe-horning it in whenever i can. i also had a birthday, so thanks to all who participated in the festivities, which is basically no one. anyways, i contemplated ending this blog madness once and for all by taking an indefinite hiatus. not that anyone really reads this blog, but sometimes i get tired of feeling guilty for not commenting on the interesting sports and pop culture news from a sociological perspective. but there's a certain off-tune south-asian crazily-coiffed subject out there that needs commenting on.

by now, it is basically impossible to read any thing pop culture related without reading about how sanjaya malakar, the worst american idol finalist in years, has taken the country by storm. and much has been written trying to explain sanjaya-mania in terms of a broader cultural zeitgeist. how does someone sooooooo very bad at singing become a pop culture phenomenon? i'll summarize other people's arguments and then present another viewpoint.

1) alex blagg at best week ever ponders the revolutionary power of sanjaya:
...we sincerely HATE Idol, and thus want to see it fail. Sanjaya winning the competition - an unlikely scenario that inches closer and closer towards probability by the minute - would be the arrow through Idol’s Achilles Heel, destroying the legitimacy and relevance of the competition - the lynchpins on which the whole show is held together - by exploiting its democratic nature to expose it’s inherent fraudulence. If Sanjaya can win (even though he doesn’t deserve to), just because a bunch of people who don’t sincerely care about the outcome of the competition think it would be funny if he did, why should anyone bother caring about who else has won, or will win in the future?
this echoes a sentiment that my former pop life (most popular pop culture talk radio show in santa barbara area in the early aughts) co-host JP related last weekend. basically, american idol has been a complete pop culture juggernaut for the last six years. it has laid waste to two mediums, television and music, destroying anything in its path. and this is the slingshot that can bring it down. if sanjaya wins, the show becomes meaningless as an arbiter of american tastes. and while i'm hopeful that this is the case, i'm not sure i'm entirely convinced that america will come to its senses and stop watching idol. let's not forget, sometimes idol can be really entertaining television. i've never bought an album by one of the american idol contestants (and lord knows that there are enough of them out there), but i still watch cuz 1) it's fun to watch people fail and 2) who doesn't like to hear really good singers sing...and there have been plenty of legitimately talented singers on the show.

2) oliver wang at pop licks, not surprisingly, explores the race angle, and what it means to asians and the perception of asians in pop culture:
When Paul Kim became a finalist on this season's American Idol, it set off a light bulb for a NY Times writer to probe the question of why Asian Americans are missing from the pop music field. That story became "Trying to Crack the Hot 100" which appeared at the beginning of March (you can read it here). Several days later, WYNC's Soundcheck followed up with their own take on the story: "When East Doesn't Meet West". Once again, Paul Kim was the "hook."

What is striking about both stories is that by the time they ran/aired, Paul Kim was already voted off Idol and this actually served to "prove" the point of both stories - Asian Americans can't get a break. Without debating that claim - it's true enough - what I found striking...and a little perturbing...is that neither made mention of the fact that even though Kim was gone, there were still two other Asian Americans amongst the finalists: AJ (who is mixed Filipino/Chinese/etc.) and of course...the South Asian wunderkind Sanjaya...for whom "flexibility" would be an understatement in the many ways his racial "passing" allows him to occupy multiple social spaces at once.
again, while i agree with the overall gist that people simplify race and it affects the kind of pop culture that is produced, i don't necessarily think that you can classify sanjaya as asian. while i know that as a person of indian descent, that technically makes him an asian, i don't think that when most people hear the word "asian" they think of someone who looks like sanjaya. they think of someone who looks like me, or like jackie chan. perhaps it is a failing using a continental label like "asian", but i find it curious that i should find some solidarity with sanjaya when his ethnic experience is not nearly the same as a vietnamese person as it would be with a korean or chinese person. after all, it's not like canadians and mexicans all identify under the label "north-american".

3) ann powers in the la times considers sanjaya's popularity in terms of his similarities to other teen idols, particularly in how sanjaya is actually a gigantic wuss.
Tween and teen stars appeal to girls just beginning to explore their sexuality; their fantasies gravitate toward the familiar. Familiar is female. Sanjaya's awkward stance and undaunted prettiness are sweetly girlish; where the other male contestants lamely swagger, he poses and smiles.
as much as i have professed to hating ann powers, i find that in my old age, i like her writing more and more, and i think she has a point here. little girls prefer non-threatening males. it is only later on in life that they seem to be attracted to macho a-holes. however, to equate sanjaya to andy gibb and pete wentz seems like a stretch. to say that his ethnicity doesn't affect how people perceive him is something that predictably, i don't think is possible.

4) zach braff weighs in on sanjaya, in a way that only gigantic d-bags like zach braff can. it makes me not want to have anything to do with sanjaya.

i wanted to propose one more viewpoint that is endorsed by my roommate and fellow blogger, erik love. he thinks that all this talk about sanjaya's social significance is completely contrived by the producers of american idol. he thinks that the producers realize how polarizing someone like sanjaya can be, and that the controversy can only increase attention to the show, which has taken a slight dip in ratings. sanjaya is the train wreck that we can't take our eyes off of, but in the big picture, there's no way that they'll let sanjaya win. even if he gets more votes, when it comes down to determining who will go on to represent american idol in record contracts and future shows, the better singer will advance so that the producers can say, "see, american idol does work and the more talented person beat the sideshow". this makes a certain amount of sense as well. after all, there have been many reports in seasons past of voting irregularities. and like all game shows or reality-type shows, we know that everything we see is very produced. while we know that people actually do solve puzzles and win money, you know that someone controls the wheel on wheel of fortune and when someone wins too much money, they just happen to spin "bankrupt". same goes for idol.

as much as i want to believe that something like idol will implode upon itself, i have to admit that erik's scenario makes the most sense. which scenario is more likely? scenario 1 - the producers of idol are manipulating the public and generating ratings for their show via the spectacle of sanjaya. or scenario 2 - ironic hipsters who hate idol will get off of their collective apathetic asses and vote for sanjaya en masse and cause the normal idol watching demographic to question the authenticity of pop culture institutions like american idol. yeah, if i were in vegas, i'd definitely bet on scenario 1.


Oliver said...

You proved my point though - as a South Asian, Sanjaya (or any South Asian) isn't universally considered "Asian" in the same way someone who is Chinese or Korean is. Yet, we have a political and cultural rhetoric within Asian American circles that's meant to be inclusive of South Asians and Filipinos yet in practice, this isn't always the case. As you might imagine, it creates some serious political problems where you have those kind of contradictions.

In any case, no offense, but comparing "Mexicans" and "Canadians" is a strawman argument. North American race politics, being what they are, creates a very CLEAR divide between a White Canadian and Brown Mexican. The distance between Sanjaya as a South Asian and, say, me as a Chinese person, is hardly as vast. To most Americans, we're both "Other" in similar enough ways where even if no one would confuse us for one another, our social position vis a vis American race relations is much closer than it is far apart. You know what I mean?

Bob said...

hey everyone, let's give it up for oliver wang, one of the ragin' asians behind one of my favorite blogs, poplicks! o-dub, if i can call you that, i am honored and pleased as punch that i got someone as esteemed as your professorship to comment on my blog. love your blog and keep up the good work. you're an inspiration to academic asian bloggers everywhere (all eight of us).

in regards to the strawman comment, no offense taken...it is a strawman, but ,as evidenced by the current draft of my dissertation proposal, as a lazy intellectual i find it much easier to refute strawman arguments than real ones.

i suppose what i was really trying to say is that i don't know if sanjaya is a good poster boy for the inclusion of south asian identities within the larger asian identity, not that that was what you were attempting to do. sure, for solidarity and activism purposes, the more the better, but it just doesn't make sense to me to subsume south asians for analytical purposes. do white people see indians as asian? and more importantly, do indians identify as part of the asian am group? obviously, these are empirical questions, but my feeling is no, white people don't see indians and "traditional" asians as being in the same group, and no, indians don't see their experience overlap with the asian-am experience. while i will agree with you that sanjaya's experience is closer to mine than say a latino's, i think that the divide is much clearer. i.e. i think that in this day and age, that indians are more likely to face the same kind of issues that middle easteners face in the US. to paraphrase one of our professors here at UCSB, reg daniel, phenotype does matter. i know that sounds a little racist, but i promise, i mean that in the least racist way possible. i'm just saying cognitively, phenotype does much to cue social expectations and stereotypes.

i suppose the happy way to look at it that we can include multiple ethnic groups within a pan-ethnic movement from a academic viewpoint as well as a social activism viewpoint, and at the same time acknowledge and maintain the difference between south asians and asians. but i guess i feel ike this is analagous to the whole turkey in the EU issue. is turkey really part of europe?

perhaps this is crazy (and maybe a little bit racist), but seriously, doesn't phenotype matter here? like other pan-ethnic groups, there is a world of difference between the history and identity of chinese and vietnamese people, in the same way there is a huge difference between say the mexican and puerto-rican experience. but i would argue that for both of these pairs, the social position of the pairs are closer because of phenotype. i know, i know, the shape of korean eyes are different from the shape of japanese eyes, etc. etc., but they are closer together than they are to indians.

wow, that really does sound racist. but i would still argue that the eye thing structures how white people view us. whether or not that is right, is another question, but it definitely shapes our ethnic experiences. historically, i have no idea about the indian diaspora. my roommate tells me that indians were also excluded in the chinese exlcusion act, so i guess that is a point of overlap.

don't get me wrong, i'm all about inclusion. i loves me some indian peeps but i think this is a debate worth exploring more, in terms of what are the effects of incorporating a group into a larger panethnic group...can you do it without watering down the ethnic identity of the group being incorporated? do indians even want to be included a part of the asian-am group? etc.

so i guess what i'm trying to say is that maybe sanjaya is the right poster boy for this debate. dammit, i guess you win professor wang.

wow, that's a long comment that i should probably just make a post out of. this is the kind of dialogue i imagined taking place on the this blog when i started it three years ago. thanks again to oliver wang for commenting and getting me to clarify my arguments. i should start linking to his posts more often.

Erik said...

Great post and discussion. You still got it, Bob.

I'd just like to add that it's clear that much of the Asian American intelligentsia (including both of you,Dr Ngo and Dr Wang) clearly see the advantages in an inclusive definition of Asian American. No question.

But Bob points out the empirical questions that always hover around panethnic movements.

1) What does the mainstream society think and do? (ie what's the extent of prejudice and discrimination driving disparate people together?)

2) Is identity permeable enough to allow solidarity across ethnic and "phenotypic" lines?

The position of people who trace their lineage to the subcontinent has always been understudied, so we don't have satisfactory answers to either of these questions.

What we do know for sure is that Sanjaya can't sing a lick. And we also know that the producers of Idol are doing everything they can do get ratings back up -- even if it means riding the Sanjaya wave all the way to the final 2, just to cut him down in the end.

So, how do we feel about the Idol producers highlighting this issue for Asian American activists?