Can one man topple an empire? "American Idol" has reigned supreme as a popular-culture juggernaut, scoring huge television ratings, turning unknowns into huge stars, and delivering barrels of cash straight to Fox's door. And up until very recently, "Idol" showed no signs of slowing down, as this season -- the show's sixth -- kicked off with the highest ratings ever. But out of nowhere -- well, out of Federal Way, Wash. -- came hope for resistance, in the form of a skinny 17-year-old named Sanjaya Malakar.
It was a mild surprise when the not overly talented Malakar survived the first cut, to 24 contestants. But mild surprise turned to shock when show after show came and went and Sanjaya was still around, smiling as he delivered one earnest off-key performance after another. Even withering comments from the judges (Simon Cowell went so far as to tell a tabloid show that he wouldn't be back if Sanjaya won) had no effect. It would be a stretch to say Sanjaya is thriving -- he seemed overjoyed when Simon said last night's performance of "Besame Mucho" "wasn't horrible" -- but somehow, some way, the kid is surviving.
At first, it could've just been his puppy-dog, Tiger Beat looks that got him by. But in recent weeks a conspiracy to derail the show has been promoted by Howard Stern, who put his considerable leverage behind Sanjaya in order to make fools of Cowell & Co. Stern's goals aligned nicely with the Web site VoteForTheWorst.com, which supported Sanjaya under the pretense that by subverting the show's goal -- rewarding real talent -- "Idol" would become even more entertaining.
So: What to make of Sanjaya's unlikely celebrity now? Is a vote for Sanjaya a subversive act against the oppressive "Idol" machine? If Sanjaya wins, could "Idol" be maimed or worse? Or does the "Text for Sanjaya" campaign simply enrich Cowell, Rupert Murdoch -- and "Idol" partner Cingular -- even more? To help answer those questions, we turned to some of our favorite cultural observers, whose responses appear below.
-- David Marchese
"The notion of the subversive act is one that should be adduced with extreme caution in discussions of popular culture -- it's a self-congratulatory cliché. Also, I haven't looked at 'American Idol' for more than 15 minutes total this season, in part because my daughter is now 21 and is getting sick of it. Those two things said, I am rooting for Sanjaya. I'd love to see 'American Idol' devalued, and I'd love for a popular uprising to be part of a process that in the long run is presumably inevitable, but don't tell 'Saturday Night Live' that. What a great story it would be. I might watch a show yet."
-- Robert Christgau, music critic for Rolling Stone and NPR
"I was surprised to hear that anyone thought voting for Sanjaya could be subversive. He's a perfectly legitimate 'Idol' contestant, and in fact more admirable than some -- instead of stumbling when he failed to satisfy the surface requirements of this 'singing competition,' he found his pop appeal and is working it for his full 15 minutes of fame. Unlike this season's other younger contestants, whose prefab eagerness reads totally Disney, Sanjaya's got that MySpace aura -- he's a savvily exhibitionistic child of the future. Never mind the nuevo-retro hair -- his sarcastic streak and gleeful deployment of limited skills are totally of the moment. He's a little bit Tila Tequila, a little bit lonelygirl15. The 'Idol' crew should be grateful that he's keeping their amateur hour up-to-date. Who else are the IM kids gonna vote for?"
-- Ann Powers, music critic for the Los Angeles Times, author of "Weird Like Us: My Bohemian America"
"As neocon dreams of American Empire recede, replaced by the daily body count from the slaughter bench that is Iraq, we're moving into our Caligulan phase. Little surprise, then, that as a nation we're in a schadenfreude mood. We're living in a world of pain, and it's some cold comfort to know that somebody else feels it. With his desire to pole-ax America's Favorite Show, Howard Stern has his finger on the mass pulse. 'American Idol' has always been about schadenfreude; Stern is simply retargeting that free-floating emotion, training our cross hairs not on the show's painfully lame contestants but on the Lord High Executioner, Simon Cowell. Strangely, Stern hasn't been very expansive about his motivations, which seem to be (as always) about salving his gnawing sense of inadequacy with a public display of demographic muscle. Of course, there's the sneaking suspicion, voiced by 'American Idol' producer Ken Warwick, that the self-styled King of All Media is naked -- that Stern's fan base simply isn't big enough to have any appreciable effect on the show.
"But if Stern and his legions of arrested adolescents do end up bringing the show to its knees, what will it mean? That the logic of Google-bombing applies offline, too? That 'You,' immortalized as Person of the Year on a recent Time cover, are giving Big Media the finger? Too bad shock radio's best-known Alpha Dweeb can't rally his fandom behind a smarter cause -- like, say, media-reform issues such as corporate concentration or the FCC's utter capitulation to media moguls like Murdoch. Imagine what Stern's American idol, Lenny Bruce, would have done with the obscenity police off his back, a bully pulpit like Stern's and Web 2.0 at his command. For all his FCC-rebel posturing (Stern's Web site features a logo that rips off the clenched fist of '60s radical chic), Stern is about as politically subversive as Nelson Muntz. His 'American Idol' campaign is on a par, intellectually, with a YouTube video of a mailbox whack. OK, so it's Rupert Murdoch's gold-plated mailbox that Stern is whacking. It's still mailbox whacking."
-- Mark Dery, cultural critic and director of the undergraduate media criticism program in New York University's Department of Journalism
"Is it 'subversive' to vote for Sanjaya? It's fun, and defensible -- which ought to be enough to justify a minor activity. In a tiny way, it twists the pseudo-democracy of a media-saturated universe. But subversive? Any more subversive than not watching the show? It would seem to me more 'subversive' to apply the precious minutes you would have spent watching 'American Idol' lobbying for universal healthcare, or against mindless war spending. I note, by the way, that the VoteForTheWorst.com, yes-on-Sanjaya campaign accepts the premise that voting for singers is a worthy activity. Thus: 'Many good people are turned away and many bad singers are kept around to see Simon, Paula and Randy so that America will be entertained.' Fine, but please don't tell me that there's anything 'subversive' about the goal of 'making a more entertaining show.'"
-- Todd Gitlin, author of the upcoming "The Bulldozer and the Big Tent: Of Identities and Ideals in the Uproar of American Politics" and professor of journalism and sociology at Columbia University
"As long as people vote in huge numbers the show will soldier on. If someone profoundly untalented was to win or make the top two I think it will require some changes in the format and irritate much of the audience. But the downfall of 'AI' will ultimately be boredom with the format and oversaturation of 'winners' in the market, so that victory in that competition will mean less and less. What 'AI' makes clear, however, is that while the record industry is dying, people still love music, even if it comes from folks with strange hair."
-- Nelson George, author of "Hip Hop America" and director of "Life Support"
"If we lived in a futuristic dystopia where the state forced the totality of its populace to watch 'American Idol' every week after constitutionally decreeing that this program would serve as the sole arbitrator for creative integrity, then, yes, voting for Sanjaya would be 'subversive.' As things currently stand, I would classify purposefully voting for a television personality you don't like as 'astonishingly idiotic.' It is difficult to understand why people would direct effort toward negatively impacting a TV show they could just as easily not watch, especially since their efforts will (clearly) have the exact opposite effect on the very program they (allegedly) despise."
-- Chuck Klosterman, author of "Chuck Klosterman IV: A Decade of Curious People and Dangerous Ideas"
"The question as I understand it is, 'Is a vote for Sanjaya Malakar' -- currently the subject of a Howard Stern-led campaign to 'vote for the worst' in aid of getting rid of 'American Idol' once and for all -- 'subversive'? Alas, obviously not. Clearly, any vote at all is a form of participation with 'American Idol' (as well as with Mr. Stern), thus providing for both a measurable sense of their own damn worth -- and a nice round fat countable number to sell to their advertisers. Hell, you don't even have to vote to accidentally have participated in the perpetuation of these particular media conglomerates. You could, like me, merely have gone to YouTube and watched the guy perform, and you would have left a footprint for corporations of one kind or another to take note of. These days, true subversion is not knowing who Sanjaya is -- nor Simon, nor Paula, nor 'American Idol,' nor even how to access any of them with the touch of a button. Sadly, that kind of subversion has no purchase in the world of the media. True, it's hard to dismantle the master's house without using the master's tools -- but these particular vandals are merely serving to make the master's house into a goddamned mansion.
"So no, it's not subversive. But the question may have a more serious import, which is how and why the people (or the People, as it were) are able to believe that by voting for Sanjaya, they are somehow expressing some kind of opposition or resistance to mass culture. Therein lies the rub. Voting for Sanjaya is definitely not subversive, but the clearly expressed wish to see the demise of 'AI' by making it look stupid demonstrates a complete lack of understanding on the part of votees of the media's iron grip. Also, I'd give the impulse (to dismantle 'AI') a hell of a lot more credence if the person chosen to represent 'the worst' weren't someone as obviously differently raced and gendered as Sanjaya Malakar. Somehow I can't imagine ol' Howard choosing a fattish white guy like himself as the subject of his prank (just as I can't imagine Don Imus characterizing a successful all-white men's basketball team as 'incipiently-balding future thugs'). The fact that people can straight-facedly interpret a vote for Sanjaya -- a nonwhite and slightly effeminate guy with very strange hair -- as a subversive act pretty much says it all, especially given that Sanjaya's 'terrible' voice is no better or worse than that of the singers of approximately 7,000 rock bands, and that those whom he is supposedly 'unfairly' trouncing in the voting are fine, but automatronic, karaoke singers without an ounce of authentic emotional pitch. Q: How would Neil Young, Bruce Springsteen or Bob Dylan fare if one of their voices was secretly, synthetically, linked to Sanjaya's performance? I'd fain suggest that that little experiment might be a subversive act, since it would all just lead to more participation in what some scholars have characterized as the main job of television viewers, i.e., 'the work of being watched.'"
-- Gina Arnold, author of "Kiss This: Punk in the Present Tense"
"The notion of controversy over people voting for the guy whose hair stands up assumes that the previous winners are not national embarrassments."
-- Greil Marcus, author of "The Shape of Things to Come: Prophecy and the American Voice"