Oh, to be a 15-year-old again. That’s the thing to be these days: 15, male and brown. And living in Sanjaya Malakar’s America.
Without a doubt, the odds of being attractive to members of the opposite sex—specifically girls in the 10 to 14 age bracket—have never been better. The young ladies, they love Sanjaya. Week after week, they vote for him on American Idol, dialling in repeatedly until they get through. They also cry—they weep for him, openly. Because he’s so sweet, and everyone’s so mean to him. They’re all haters—they hate him because he does his own thing. And because he cries, too.
If I was a 15-year-old guy, I’d be seizing the opportunity.
“Hey, do you want to watch Idol at my house tomorrow night?” you ask her. “We’ve got this huge TV that really does justice to Sanjaya’s skin tone. Guys like him and me.”
That last part is crucial, when said in an offhand way—a throwaway line—it establishes in her mind that you have something in common with her unattainable dream boy.
“Um, I guess,” she says. “What’s your name again?”
You tell her your name, how the two of you have the same history teacher. She perks up.
“That’s a cool name. Is that, like, Indian?”
Why, yes it is, you say, taking care to repress your glee. This is going to be easier than you’d imagined. If Sanjaya stays on the show, you stretch out your window of opportunity by entire weeks. And if Sanjaya gets axed, well… there are going to be many, many broken hearts that need to be mended. Oh, youth.
For the rest of us, Sanjaya remains an enigma. He is the most famous, most talked-about Indian-American ever.
And he also happens to be the most notorious. His name has come to connote, for millions of Americans, the notion of an “anti-meritocracy”, as he’s survived week after week on America’s most popular TV show, despite his vocals being inadequate, and his song choice embarrassing.
Who’s keeping him on the show? Aside from the teeny-bop contingent, there is an irony voter bank at work. The radio host Howard Stern has teamed up with a website, VoteForTheWorst.com, to produce a high-impact campaign: Vote for Sanjaya because he’s the least-deserving among all the contestants on the show.
We don’t know how many people are actually going that route, but it’s managed to make the shortlist of explanations for Sanjaya’s lasting presence. For Stern, a shock-jock and troublemaker who left traditional radio for the newer, less popular platform of satellite radio, it’s been a chance to reclaim some of his own importance.
But the campaign also represents something of a backlash. Popular as it is, American Idol is vilified. Some people hate it simply because it is so popular, year after year.
Others find it too earnest, too middle-American. And then are those who are rejecting the notion of a popularity contest. Like the rise of blogs and user-generated content, the dial-in format of American Idol is often touted as a form of people-power. Forget the judges, they say, you be the final arbiter. But the VoteForTheWorst crowd is saying the show’s not nearly as transparent and empowering of the masses as it claims to be, but of course, as with all self-proclaimed revolutions, VFTW’s motivations are questionable.
For many in the media, Sanjaya’s success is so inexplicable that they’ve clung to the immigrant-solidarity theory. I’ve been interviewed thrice myself, by reporters and talk show hosts who wonder how much impact the Indian community is exerting, as if there might be some NRI conspiracy to influence the outcome. And yes, there are some Indians—and Pakistanis—who are excited by Sanjaya. But coordinated? We can only dream. Perhaps the biggest consequence of all of this will be in the political arena, when our elected leaders get the (mistaken) impression that Indian-Americans know the meaning of being unified.
And then there’s the cross-border conspiracy theory: Are nefarious call-centre employees in Bangalore banding together to help Sanjaya by dialling in for him? I have no reason to believe that’s true, but I do know this: If I were an India-based journalist hoping to score big with an American daily, I’d be interviewing dozens of call-centre workers right now. Money in the bank.
The call-centre theory is unfounded—some might call it a little xenophobic. But Sanjaya isn’t under the microscope just because he’s Indian (half-Indian, actually— his mother is an Italian). He’s in the news right now because so many hate what others so intensely love: his sweet demeanour, broad smile and outrageous hairdos, his resilience and, of course, his voice. That’s made for good TV.
(Arun Venugopal is a New York-based writer. Write to firstname.lastname@example.org)