"American Idol," the phenomenon, the nationwide cultural touchstone, has reached a new order of political sophistication. Now in its sixth season, Fox's hit show has long inspired heated water-cooler conversations that reflect the kind of political hand-wringing usually reserved for the Iowa caucuses: A singer may be good, but is she electable? Does she have that "yo" factor? What's her narrative? Does she appeal to the base (pop-music fans) or is she a niche performer (rocker)? And more people voted in last year's finals than in the 2004 presidential election--heralding the ascendancy of Taylor Hicks. But, this year, the hegemonic influence of waifish, androgynous, biracial Sanjaya Malakar over the last six weeks of the competition has captured the public's imagination like never before and reinvigorated Americans' sense of purpose. Not since perhaps the 1960s have times been so tense.
On one hand, Sanjaya, the 17-year-old from the Seattle area, has legions of young fans who fawn over him the way I might have swooned over Shaun Cassidy as a girl (as Slate's "Idolatry" blog has noted, Sanjaya may be the most famous South Asian in America today). His thousand-watt smile, innocent eyes, rakish sense of style, and charming good humor in the face of blistering criticism from the judges (Simon Cowell has called him "ghastly") make him a natural tween crush (he famously made a young girl weep with love). But, better-known for his hairstyles (Sanjaya single-handedly put "pony-hawk" into the American vernacular and inspired host Ryan Seacrest to become "Sanjaya'd"), America's newest sweetheart is by no means the best singer on the program. In fact, most people agree Sanjaya is the worst--and their hatred has caused quite a kerfuffle. And if "Idol" has always spurred the kind of civic participation most pols can only dream of, now it also mirrors the corruptibility of democracy just as well: Sanjaya is America's latest wedge issue.
Like red states and blue states, Sanjaya lovers and haters have been squaring off. One young woman went on a 16-day hunger strike (publicized on YouTube) in protest of Sanjaya's continued presence on the show, claiming the young heartthrob was "ruining 'American Idol'." This in turn sparked a series of retaliatory protests that included "Binge Eating for Sanjaya" and "Slim Fast for Sanjaya." The notorious website VoteForTheWorst.com, which encourages Americans to, well, vote for the worst "Idol" singer, has advanced Sanjaya as their new cause celebre in an attempt to sabotage the show. Though the site has been around for the last few seasons of "Idol," this year shock jock Howard Stern has jumped on the bandwagon, urging his fans to vote for Sanjaya in order to bring down the show, which he hates. The result has been that, each week, despite a lackluster vocal performance, Sanjaya stays on, his surprising longevity due at least in part to millions of anti-"Idol" Americans participating in a kind of voting terror campaign. Between the anti-"Idols" and the fawning girls, there is a kind of uneasy alliance that has created a formidable voting bloc for the willowy teenager.
Surpassing even the inflamed passions of Brangelina-gate (remember the Team Aniston/Team Jolie t-shirts?), Sanjaya has highlighted the startling power of the minority. Take, for example, an issue like abortion: Though the majority of Americans agree that at least some form of abortion should be legal, the potent far right has made the matter a political lightening rod--instilling fear in the hearts of every Republican presidential candidate and causing many to have a come-to-Jesus moment on the issue during primary season. Similarly, while the majority of viewers may agree that the best singer should win the title of American Idol, pro-"Idol" fans spread their votes among the top contenders (Blake! Melinda! Jordin!). Anti-"Idol" fans, however, are unanimous in their dissent and have locked on to their hula-dancing rogue with a zealotry most common to the morally superior. Although, unlike most morally superior voters, the Sanjaya camp is refreshingly self-aware: "We're corrupting the entire thing!" Howard Stern gleefully told listeners.
Of course, in the alternate political universe of "American Idol," the anti-"Idol" bloc has an unusual tool at their disposal: multiple votes. Unlike a true democracy, the show embraces the shiftier ethos of "Vote early; vote often." So, not only are the anti-"Idol" voters agreed on one candidate, they can vote for him as often as they like while the "polls" (phone lines) are open. There was even a Web conspiracy theory that phone-center employees in India were voting for Sanjaya en masse. Though the rumor has been debunked, the idea of outsourcing votes to an ally nation is certainly a delicious twist on the sovereignty of "Idol"-land. And, given that each candidate can receive multiple votes from the same person, this contest may come down to the ardor of the haters versus the ardor of the purists. And that too is the beauty and struggle of any fledgling democracy: As the nascent empire of "American Idol" is discovering, the people don't always vote the way you want them to. Democratically elected dictators are as common on the world stage as borders are on maps. Sanjaya is surely no dictator, but he isn't exactly the epitome of singing prowess, either.
Luckily, this is a contest and not an election. Sanjaya's reign could at worst harm a popular television show--not deny, say, health care to 300 million citizens. Which is of course why it is so galling to see young people initiating protest movements over "Idol" when the country is in the midst of a fricking war. But never mind; who needs to think about something so fretful when there are Sanjaya's doe eyes to peer into? And "Idol" purists should take heart: With so many haters tuning into a show they claim to dislike, the program's ratings may just take another leap forward--beyond its already iron-clad grip on its time slot. Whether or not "Idol"'s credibility takes a hit from the Sanjaya sensation, the show's success surely won't.
Besides, the will of the people may be experiencing the same winds of change that America's political leaders are currently facing. So far, the red states have dominated the competition, producing every single winner. Maybe America is sending a message: It's time for a new kind of American Idol, a blue-stater with killer locks and undeniable star power. Sanjaya may not have a plan for Iraq, but certainly he can remind people that "Idol" is not worth the collective psychic energy being spent on a silly thing like talent. Haven't we all grasped by now that talent and celebrity are more often than not strange bedfellows? Remember William Hung?
Sanjaya gets it. With every new hairstyle, outfit, and stylized performance, that kid is working it. And why not? Sanjaya's pursuing an American dream, after all. Tonight, we'll see if the hegemony of Sanjaya continues. In the meantime, ignore every harrumph, guffaw, and threat to quit if Sanjaya wins coming out of Simon Cowell's mouth. After all, it is the judges themselves who put Sanjaya in the final twelve. So either Cowell's demagoguery got the best of him or he's an evil genius. Either way, it'll be fun to watch.
By Sacha Zimmerman