Friday, April 06, 2007

American Idol - The Sanjaya Factor

It seems every good TV show on American airwaves eventually becomes a parody of itself.

I am a regular watcher of the show, but I have no real interest in who wins. My wife, however, really enjoys it (even voting some weeks) and some weeks I actually let her enjoy it in peace. To me, the show has always seemed flawed, and yet perfect for our mob-mentality culture. Anyone can audition and anyone can vote. Unfortunately, what was originally a talent search has morphed into a sad parody of what it means to be a pop star. Just like "America's Funniest Home Videos", American Idol has lost its purity and with it a certain amount of its appeal.

Currently, the sixth season of American Idol is whittling down the contestants. As with all such talent shows, people with genuine talent must be dropped in order to crown a winner. Yet, this season, there is a contestant who is still in the running to win who is plainly without talent whose only draw seems to be his big stupid teenager grin that he can't ever seem to shake. For those who don't know, I'm referring to Sanjaya.

I'm willing to concede that being a pop star is not all about musical talent. There are too many N'Sync, and Brittney Spears clones in pop music today to testify to that effect. What bothers me about that is that musical talent should factor in at some point. This is part of the reason pop music no longer appeals to me. People like Brittney Spears are performers, not musicians. They look good on stage and that seems to be their only real talent. If you disagree, just ask yourself if someone like Phil Collins, Eric Clapton, or Elton John could become pop stars today or if groups like Led Zeppelin could ever become popular if they had to start out today. Each are great vocalists and play multiple instruments, but aren't exactly the most beautiful people in the world.

This is the problem with Sanjaya. He's got a certain boyish charm. His audition was great. He does have a good singing voice (though I thought his sister was better). But his performances just seem to be getting worse as time goes on. His performances lack soul and his vocals are not distinctive enough to warrant him being in the top 10 of a nation-wide talent search. I won't even discuss his radical hair alterations that, to me, speak volumes about his immaturity.

Sanjaya has received two very important endorsements that are keeping him in the show. A celebrity and a prominent American Idol blog. The first is Howard Stern whose motivations are a little unclear for me. The second is the blog, This website is devoted to keeping the least talented person in the show as long as they can. I'm not sure if it is for entertainment purposes (keeping the show amusing by having someone terrible persist through the show), or more noble (keeping someone whose singing can't land them an independent contract like Clay Aiken or others who have not won American Idol). In either case, a celebrity and a popular web site are enough to keep you in the running for a while.

This spells trouble for the producers of American Idol. If this web site and celebrity endorsement prove formidable enough to keep Sanjaya in the show through to the final four or five contestants, American Idol's premise will have forced a jump the shark moment for the show. If Sanjaya lasts through to the final four or five, expect to see more celebrity endorsements of contestants with little talent next year.

All is not lost though, Sanjaya could get voted off next week. However, since he wasn't even in the bottom three this week, I don't expect that to happen. I do have a modest proposal that could end up saving the show.

Instead of everyone being able to vote as often as they like, I would humbly propose the following to the producers of American Idol: sell a subscription to the show. Not in a pay per view sense, but more along the lines of what conservative talk radio has done. You can still listen to Rush for free on the radio, but if you want podcasts, then you have to subscribe to his website (Rush 24/7). Of course you get other extras, but everyone will have their own reasons for subscribing. The primary reason will be voting rights. Only subscribers will be allowed to vote. The real value for the subscription will be early release of the CD made by the winner of that season which every subscriber will receive.

If you set the price point right, say about $20, you'll weed out those who vote only to screw things up for the show. Additionally, you'll give people a vested interest in who they vote for. Will I really want this person's CD in my collection? Will I really want the ridicule of my friends when they see a Sanjaya CD on my shelf or in my iPod? It doesn't even have to be a CD that is delivered. Allow a special gift card to go out to iTunes users so they can download it.

I don't propose this to help keep the show on the air. As I've said, I have no vested interest in the show other than the fact that my wife likes it. The reason is that I hate to see good people loose out when a supposedly talent-based competition really becomes a popularity contest, or even an anti-popularity contest.


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