The end of last night’s padded-out hour-long American Idol result show was set up as a good-vs.-evil battle, at least from where I was sitting. Every week, Ryan Seacrest solemnly announces the bottom three contestants and then sends one of them back to safety. This week, the bottom three were the utterly detestable cheeseball improv-comic beatbox 311/Incubus fan Blake Lewis, the soaringly awesome raw-throated belter LaKisha Jones, and Sanjaya Malakar, the gawky teenager who’s become the center of one of the weirdest and dumbest pop-cult hysteria-rampages in recent memory. When Seacrest announced the bottom three, before he told Blake that he was safe, the three judges pissed me off enormously by acting all shocked that Blake was up there, completely ignoring LaKisha even though she’s consistently been one of the best contestants of the season. I’m certainly biased; LaKisha comes from Fort Meade, Maryland, an army town about a half-hour drive south of Baltimore, and I’d probably still rep for her on local-pride grounds even if she sucked. But she emphatically does not suck. Her souped-up roar might lean hard on old Southern-soul archetypes, but she knows when to turn it on and when to turn it off, and when she’s done quieter and more nuanced songs like “Diamonds are Forever” or “God Bless the Child,” she’s been remarkably mature and polished. Other than maybe Jordin Sparks, she’s also the only Idol candidate this year who could conceivably make an album worth hearing. Tuesday night was country theme night, and LaKisha sang Carrie Underwood’s “Jesus Take the Wheel,” a song I adore. And she did it well, giving it a straight soul-gospel reading and doing it justice; it might not have been her best performance, but she still owned most of the remaining contestants. The judges, for reasons I can’t quite understand, shat all over her. She hasn’t been pulling the fake-humble act that fellow soul powerhouse Melinda Doolittle has mastered, so she found herself staring down the barrel of elimination, right next to the contestant whose survival has famously confused everyone who’s been watching the show this season. Consider, if you will, Sanjaya Malakar.
Sanjaya’s gotten more press than virtually any other contestant in the show’s history, mostly for two deceptively simple reasons: he does lots of goofy shit with his hair, and he can’t sing that well. He’s a 17-year-old kid from outside Seattle, and he squiggled his way onto the show’s roster of finalists mostly by doing whispery renditions of old Stevie Wonder songs. As soon as the show got out of its endless run of audition shows, the judges savaged virtually every one of his performances, but the viewers persistently refused to vote him off. Still, he didn’t immediately emerge as the worst singer on the show; that dubious honor went to the red-faced fratboy creep Sundance Head. But once Sundance was gone and the show whittled itself down to its final twelve contestants, things started getting weird. Sanjaya never really improved as a singer; if anything, he got worse. But he did begin to seize his moment in the spotlight, a process he signaled mostly by doing lots of crazy shit with his hair: crimped-up curls, a slicked-back Long Island mullet sort of thing, and the now-famous ponyhawk. He also got a whole lot less awkward and flinchy onstage, though none of that newfound confidence made him any less embarrassing to watch. And he began a weeks-long verbal sparring war with Simon Cowell, which didn’t go too well for him. In a lot of ways, though the most interesting thing about Sanjaya’s continued survival wasn’t Sanjaya himself; it was the endless processions of conspiracy theories and of jokers who wanted to claim credit for it. There’s been a vaguely racist hypothesis floating around that Sanjaya’s been hanging in there because the people who work at Indian calling centers have been flooding Fox’s switchboards with votes, but that rumor hasn’t had anything on the smarmy jerks who continued to advocate for Sanjaya simply because he sucks. Howard Stern has been urging his listeners to vote for Sanjaya without really giving a reason, but there’s presumably some irony at work there. And the guy who runs the Vote for the Worst website, who’s also been running a vote-for-Sanjaya campaign and who came off like an attention-grabbing dipshit in this New York Times article, is definitely working through some muddled notions of ironic subversiveness. The idea behind Vote for the Worst is that American Idol will be a more entertaining show if some shadowy bloc of internet jokers keeps voting to keep shitty singers on the show and undermining its judges’ authority. But the very idea of voting for a reality-show candidate who you don’t like feels to me like about the worst waste of time I can possibly imagine. If irony consumes your life so completely that you can’t do something as simple as watching a wildly popular talent-search TV show without being all winky and nudgey about it, I probably don’t want to be your friend.
At least for me, the real entertainment-value of American Idol comes from seeing different peoples’ concepts of what good singing is smash up against each other and struggle for dominance, post-grunge sludge-growlers and gospel-trained howlers and adult-contempo mewl-merchants and obnoxious Broadway-jazz types all thrashing around in the same pot. For his part, Simon Cowell has reacted to the whole Sanjaya episode with absolute horror and barely disguised contempt, even telling some tabloid that he’d quit the show if Sanjaya won. Over and over, Cowell reminds the competitors and the audience that American Idol is a singing competition, that it shouldn’t matter how likable anyone is. Of course, Cowell probably knows just how full of shit that statement is. Pop stardom has a whole lot more to do with likability than technical vocal prowess. Most of this season’s Idol guest-coaches (Jennifer Lopez, Gwen Stefani, the Herman’s Hermits guy) probably wouldn’t make it past the first round of auditions, and most of the show’s winners worked at least as hard on cultivating aw-shucks charm as they did on their vocals. So the whole spectacle of Cowell warring with the internet’s irony-armies has been pretty grisly. When a self-righteous blowhard takes on a bunch of smirky fruitflies, I usually end up hoping nobody wins. I’ve been excited for Sanjaya to get voted off the show mostly so the whole standoff could end.
And now it’s done, and it’s pretty telling how that ended up happening. In reality, Sanjaya’s main base of support probably didn’t come from calling centers or unfunny jokers but from the preteen girls who like how Tiger Beat he is and who felt all protective whenever Cowell would hand him a verbal beatdown. Sanjaya’s best performance came last week when he did “Besame Mucho” and directly engaged that audience, flirting with the camera as much as he could; even Cowell was guardedly impressed. This week, though, he tried to address his own omnipresence in a clumsy-ass way, singing a weak and tentative version of “Something to Talk About,” which really isn’t even a country song. For most preteen girls, that kind of self-awareness doesn’t play, and so Sanjaya finally lost. He did so justifiably and gracefully, subbing out “how about love” with “other than hair” in his show-ending “Something to Talk About” encore. He seems like a nice kid, and now he can get back to being something other than a flashpoint for inane controversy. After all, he’s not even the worst thing about this season, not as long as bald alien ghoul Phil Stacey is still around.