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."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".
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.
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.