There’s one every year: An “American Idol” contestant who dominates the show despite not really having a chance at the top prize.
Some, like William Hung, don’t even get past the auditions. But when they do, they shake things up every week, exasperating fans and other contestants, spawning endless chatter about their perplexing ability to avoid the ax.
This year, it’s the vocally suspect Sanjaya Malakar, who has turned into a media sensation mostly because of the vast media chatter — including ours, admittedly — about his suspect vocals. Conspiracy theories explaining his popularity have credited everything from the VoteForTheWorst.com Web site and Howard Stern’s lobbying efforts (see “Is Howard Stern Behind Sanjaya Malakar’s Staying Power On ‘Idol’?” ) to phantom phone banks in his father’s native India flooding the show with fake votes (a theory that has apparently been debunked: see “A.M. Surf Report: Fergie Responds To Alanis; Game Slaps Vida Back; Avril Denies Britney Trash Talk” ).
So instead of trying to think of more reasons why Sanjaya should be booted, we present 10 reasons (besides Howard Stern) why he’s gotten this far.
1. Every Season Has One: From Ryan Starr and Nikki McKibbin during season one to Julia DeMato (season two), John Stevens (season three), Mikalah Gordon (season four) and Kevin “Chicken Little” Covais (season five), it seems like every year, one marginally talented singer manages to make it to the finals. Personality counts — but it only gets you so far, and if elimination history is any indication, it’ll probably only buy Sanjaya a few more weeks at best.
2. The Little Girls (and Grandmas) Understand: As we saw in week two of the finals with Ashley Ferl (a.k.a. the “Crying Girl” — see “Move Over, David Hasselhoff — ‘Idol’ Has A New Star Crier” ), Sanjaya has the breathless-tween-girl vote all wrapped up, which is a huge voting block for any “Idol.” Combine that with pinchable cheeks, and you have the grandma and soccer-mom votes sewn up, too.
3. Stumbles by Other Contestants: Chris Sligh couldn’t find the beat and Gina Glocksen said it best: “You can’t rock out Tony Bennett” (see “Gina Glocksen: ‘You Can’t Rock Out Tony Bennett’ “ ). On the other hand, while his vocals are not stellar, Sanjaya always surprises, which brings us to #4 …
4. He’s Got Style: He may not be the best singer, but between the pony-hawk hairdo and last week’s cheeky dance with Paula, Sanjaya puts on an entertaining show while most of the other contestants primarily stand — or sit — around.
5. The Media Circus: The media has hyped the question of Sanjaya’s talent (or lack thereof) so much that it’s only brought him more attention and, apparently, more fans. Even judge Simon Cowell has thrown up his hands and uncharacteristically admitted that it doesn’t matter what he says anymore (see ” ‘Idol’ Recap: LaKisha Crosses Tony Bennett; Gina’s Headed Back To The Mall” ). “Idol” Executive Producer Ken Warwick has basically agreed, quipping, “He’s still [on the show]. One of the key things is to keep people interested — and he’s certainly doing that.”
6. Burnout: After six seasons, it’s possible that viewers are simply tired of watching the same predictable Whitney and Mariah-esque R&B throwdowns every Tuesday night. Maybe they see Sanjaya’s wackiness as a welcome shot of life into an hour of, at times, numbingly similar performances.
7. The World Loves a Trainwreck: The only thing Americans like more than peeking into the lives of the fabulously wealthy and famous is ogling their car crashes and public flame-outs (see Britney, Paris, Antonella Barba, Mel Gibson). Sanjaya’s efforts to make lemonade out of lemons add a refreshing twist.
8. Pity, or Contrariness: Given the beating he’s taken in the press and from the judges, maybe people are voting for Sanjaya as a way to get back at Simon — or just out of pure sympathy for the battered underdog with the 1,000-watt smile.
9. The Coattail Effect: From the hunger-strike girl to the “Eating for Sanjaya” guy who vowed to keep stuffing his face until Sanjaya’s kicked off the show, from the morning talk shows to his sister (rejected “Idol” contestant Shyamali), Sanjaya is creating a whole economy of hangers-on. Kentucky Fried Chicken even got in on the action, offering Sanjaya a free lifetime supply of its chicken bowls if he rocks a bowl haircut on the show. And as any rock band knows, merchandise counts for a lot: At press time, in addition to Sanjaya T-shirts, mousepads, trinket boxes, tote bags and earrings, someone had even posted a (seemingly fake) item on eBay offering the www.fanjayah.com domain name for the low, low price of $2 million.
10. Sanjaya Figured It Out: Like William Hung, Sanjaya seems to understand his place in the world of pop culture, and after looking like a deer in the headlights early on, he’s begun to embrace his renegade popularity. Presumably resigned to his minimal chances of winning, he’s having fun, seeing where it all can take him, and not worrying about what the haters say — which is the best revenge. Plus, after that pony-hawk, he knows people can’t wait to see what he’ll do next.