Bong Hits for Sanjaya

Posted by Cutler on April 06, 2007

Let me begin with a confessionA confession: in all the time since American Idol premiered in June 2002, I have not managed to watch more than one or two episodes.  Looking back now, I wish I had it all to do over again.  (Redemption awaits, courtesy of the “Netflix” Queue.)

Nevertheless, it appears that at least 30 million viewers have been battling a culture war in and through American Idol and the results look fascinating.

As usual, issues of work and sex figure prominently.

One clear sign of a good culture war is the advent of moral panic among Conservatives.

Enter our would-be President Fred Thompson, currently at the American Enterprise Institute, and his missive, “Real American Idols“:

Somehow, I know that Paris Hilton may have violated her parole. I’m not sure how it happened, but I even know a little about Britney Spears’s hairdo, divorce, and trip to rehab. These bits of cultural trivia, I really wish I hadn’t digested.

What I’m not going to do now is scold editors for spending more time on Anna Nicole Smith and Lindsay Lohan than the details of our federal budget. To begin with, it would have about as much impact as it would for me to tell some pop starlet, who has more money than I ever will, to put on some decent clothes and behave herself.

I do think, though, that we should be worried when our children are shown over and over again that people who are rich and famous, and are presented as “idols,” get even more rich and famous due to behaviors that would be rightly deemed tragedies in most families. So, instead of telling our news sources what not to publish, maybe I could make a few suggestions for additional programming.

Thompson goes on to profile several “role models” from the world of women’s college basketball:

There are young women who are succeeding because of all the old virtues that we want our children to learn and emulate…

[The ] did what had to be done to win this year–drilling and working out hard in the off season when other teams were taking it easy…

[T]hese women… have shown the discipline, sacrifice, and desire that anyone can and should aspire too. For the sake of our daughters, they ought to get at least a fraction of the coverage our media gives embarrassing, dysfunctional celebrities.

Set aside, for the moment, the moral panic about the rich “pop starlet” not only refuses to “put on some decent clothes and behave herself” but who–heaven forbid–shaved her head, which can only mean that Spears is insane.

The celebrity of the day is clearly American Idol‘s Sanjaya Malakar.

Eugene Robinson provides the basic contours of the phenomenon in his Washington Post column, “Sanjaya: The Axis of ‘Idol‘”:

Sanjaya Malakar is an abysmally untalented contestant who not only survives elimination week after week but actually seems to become more popular. He is the worst singer among the finalists, by far. His voice is weak… [and he] dances as if he has restless leg syndrome.

But Sanjaya (he has earned single-name fame) is undeniably cute. And he has a world-class head of hair, which he styles a different way each week — the apotheosis, thus far, was an indescribable “faux-hawk.” Wielding his lush locks and his charismatic smile like weapons of mass destruction, Sanjaya has conquered television’s biggest show…

The show’s official “expert panel” has weighed in heavily against Sanjaya, but to no avail.  Judge Simon Cowell has even threatened to walk away from the show if Sanjaya wins.

Sanjaya has had help in conquering the show.  The authority of the show’s judges has been “sabotaged” by an independent campaign, led by “Vote for the Worst” and adopted by Howard Stern.

“We’re corrupting the entire thing,” Mr. Stern said on his Sirius Satellite Radio show Thursday, the day after Mr. Malakar secured a place in the top nine finalists. “All of us are routing ‘American Idol.’ It’s so great. The No. 1 show in television and it’s getting ruined.”…

Mr. Malakar, who at 17 looks like a 1970s pop star of the David Cassidy/Bobby Sherman/Andy Gibb variety, had been among the lowest two or three vote-getters in the first weeks of the season. But after Dave Della Terza, the founder of a Web site called, first appeared on Mr. Stern’s radio show on March 20, Mr. Malakar has not been among the lowest vote-getters.

Of course, Stern matters and he has his own corporate heft.  But a case can be made–and has been made–that in this instance Stern is a lagging indicator, not a leading indicator.

So, at one level, the Sanjaya crisis represents a kind of “disintermediation” phenomenon where monopolistic or oligopolistic institutions (like Fox and its panel of expert judges) give way to unruly markets (like Fox’s own voting system and the chattering blogosphere).

This is how social movement happens now.  The social moves, not through the sweat equity of “collective action” but through turbulent markets.

American Idol producer Ken Warwick insists that everything is under control and discounts the significance of the virus that has swept the nation and infected his show.

Stern exudes the pleasure of a hacker and this is surely part of the story, as it was in the case of the recent “unauthorized” ad against Hillary Clinton.

But there is something else at stake, as well.

It’s about pleasure and the work ethic.

Here is how “Vote For the Worst” explains itself:

Why do we do it? During the initial auditions, the producers of Idol only let certain people through. Many good people are turned away and many bad singers are kept around…

Now why do the producers do this? It’s simple: American Idol is not about singing at all, it’s about making good reality TV and enjoying the cheesy, guilty pleasure of watching bad singing. We agree that a fish out of water is entertaining, and we want to acknowledge this fact by encouraging people help the amusing antagonists stick around. VFTW sees keeping these contestants around as a golden opportunity to make a more entertaining show.

There is in all of this a “guilty pleasure” in some standard reality TV cruelty.  The difference between VFTW and Fox may only be that Fox disavows that pleasure.  VFTW explains:

Because they don’t like our site, Fox has called us “hateful” and “mean spirited”. Doesn’t it seem a tad hypocritical to say that when the show has weeks devoted to making fun of bad auditions?…

How can the producers let Simon mock some of the contestants but then let us be called “vicious” when a campaign exists to help those very contestants? We don’t hate the people we vote for, we actually love them!

In the Genealogy of Morals, Nietzsche’s birds of prey describe their relationship with lambs:

We don’t dislike them at all, these good little lambs; we even love them; nothing is more tasty than a tender lamb.”

Some of the moral panic about Sanjaya is clearly about gender and sexual ambiguity.

Once upon a time the king of pop attempted to turn himself into the princess of Motown, Diana Ross – and he had the hair to prove it.

But Michael Jackson is a light-weight compared to the new king of the Hair Don’ts – the tragically tressed “Amerian Idol” finalist Sanjaya Malakar…

Half the world is asking… why he’s changing his hairstyle more often than Britney Spears….

The first shock to our systems was when Sanjaya showed up for auditions tressed in a full-out Farrah. How did he even find a hairdresser who still knows how to feather?…

Last week, he appeared with Jennifer Aniston’s hair strangely attached to his head. But it wasn’t until he sang for, yes, Diana Ross this week that we went into full toxic shock. Instead of copying her hairdo he showed up as Sally Struthers!

The moral panic that surrounds the survival of Sanjaya is also appears to be about wounded attachment to the “slave morality” of the work ethic and the ideology of the meritocratic rat race.

TV critic Susan Young cites one reader who makes the case:

[The attitude of ‘Vote for the Worst’] has outraged viewers, such as column reader Midge, who wrote to ask if it was true that Stern had asked his listeners to vote for Sanjaya.

“This singing competition is becoming a farce and is grossly unfair to the talented people who are working very hard and deserve to be recognized for their talent,” Midge writes.

“One might even want to think about going back two weeks and starting from there. Perhaps the judging should be like ‘Dancing with the Stars’ where the judges count as 50 percent of the vote.”

Reinstate loyal respect for authority and render hard work and sacrifice the source of all value?

I prefer not to.

2 Comments to Bong Hits for Sanjaya

  • I think the reference made to “Dancing with the Stars” by the column reader in Susan Young’s article is particularly interesting. Currently, this show, which is presumably more in line with our values of “hard work” and “sacrifice” (putting aside for a moment that many of the stars are what many would qualify as b-listers who are desperate for a return to the spotlight) has recently cast Heather Mills, the soon-to-be ex-wife of Paul McCartney who also happens to be an amputee. On first view, putting a disabled contestant on a reality/competition show offers viewers a positive image of the “discipline, sacrifice, and desire that anyone can and should aspire too”. However, a closer look at many of the discussions involving her candidacy reveal that these values thinly veil a not-so-guilty fascination with Ms. Mills’ disability. Simi Linton, who has been following the competition, recounts a portion of the third episode on her Disability Culture Watch blog:

    Finally, Heather’s turn is near. As a teaser, before the commercials, we get a close-up of her prosthesis, propped up against the wall of her dressing room. That image, flashed across your screen, says to viewers: “stay tuned, you’ll want to see this.” The shot of the isolated prosthesis invites voyeurism. We glimpse its form, dis-engaged from Heather’s leg, as the pull to hold us through a long round of commercials to the segment with Heather and her partner.

    An Antigua-based betting site,, is currently taking bets on whether Ms. Mills’ leg will come flying off in the middle of the competition. Perhaps capitalizing on these voyeuristic tendencies, American networks have recently bid on the rights to “Miss Ability,” A Dutch beauty pageant-themed show in which contestants must have a “handicap visible to the eye.” Not surprisingly, Ms. Mills’ name is being thrown around for a panelist position. However, the prospectus lacks any of the subtlety of Dancing with the Stars, reading:

    “Ever whistled at a woman in a wheelchair? Checked out the boobs of a blind babe? If the answer’s ‘no’, this barrier-breaking show will put an end to that.”

    However, as crass and borderline-fetishistic as it may seem, Miss Ability reveals something that the “isolated prosthesis” of Dancing with the Stars only alludes to–beyond all those “old virtues” of “discipline, sacrifice, and desire” lies something much more clandestine. Did the producers of Dancing with the Stars really cast Heather Mills as a way of educating viewers on disabilities, or to feed into some “guilty pleasure”? The argument around Sanjaya’s singing abilities reveals what Fred Thompson’s article neglects to address–the pleasure of watching “these good little lambs”

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