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msnbc.com contributor
updated 4/17/2007 10:42:50 AM ET 2007-04-17T14:42:50
COMMENTARY

One of the executive producers of “American Idol” recently promised that Sanjaya Malakar won’t become the show’s sixth winner. “It’s not gonna happen. Trust me,” Cécile Frot-Coutaz told Entertainment Weekly, in a statement that will undoubtedly fuel conspiracy theories about who really chooses the winner.

“Eventually America gets it right. We’re not worried. We love Sanjaya, but he’s not going to win,” she said.

Perhaps he won’t, but perhaps Frot-Coutaz missed his appearance on the show last week, when, for the first time, the possibility of a Sanjaya win became clear.

How is that even possible? The answer came at the first and final performances of the hour, and in the judges’ critiques that followed. Melinda Doolittle, by far the most talented and favored performer this season, opened the show, and while the judges’ responses were mixed, she did not hit another vocal home run. Judge Simon Cowell told her, “I didn’t like it.”

After six other finalists performed, Sanjaya Malakar, perhaps the least talented and definitely the most controversial performer this season, sang “Besame Mucho.” After he was finished, Simon Cowell actually praised his performance — kind of. He said Sanjaya’s rendition “wasn’t terrible.”

Last Tuesday was not, according to most calendars, Opposite Day, and Simon’s criticism and praise was genuine. His comments about Sanjaya and Melinda, arguably the best and worst performers, illustrate how Sanjaya might win “American Idol,” or at least how he might stick around a lot longer than any smart gambler would have predicted.

Melinda can't stumble, Sanjaya only needs to improve slightly
To win praise this past week, Sanjaya merely had to improve a little bit from his previously weak performances. To earn criticism, Melinda only had to stumble slightly from her previously strong performances. Sanjaya didn’t become a singer of Melinda’s caliber overnight, nor did Melinda become a performer on Sanjaya’s level.

The audience’s diminished expectations for Sanjaya have, therefore, made his potential for growth unlimited, while viewers’ exceptionally high expectations for Melinda have made her potential for failure much more possible.

By underwhelming viewers and then impressing them with his growth, never mind his well-coiffed personality, Sanjaya may have found the key to winning “American Idol.” An F student has a lot of room to show improvement and growth, while any extraordinary work an A student completed will only keep them at the A level.

This may also explain how other talented performers have left the competition before their less-talented counterparts in earlier seasons. While votes for a contestant could drop for any number of reasons, familiarity and the boredom it produces cannot be discounted.

Chris Daughtry, for example, has gone on to a strong post-“Idol” career, but was sent home last season after simply giving a string of consistently strong performances. However ironic that may be, his continual success and ability to do his thing well didn’t inspire enough viewers to pick up the phone and call for him.

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Sanjaya, on the other hand, does nothing but inspire viewers. Some are driven to insanity, while others eagerly consume his weekly offerings. Up to this point, he’s reminded voters that he’s there by using his hair and individuality.

Melinda, on the other hand, is really kind of boring. She is not forgettable, but her individual performances on the show are easily forgotten as just another amazing Melinda performance.

While that may be both sad and ironic, Melinda doesn’t inspire strong reactions from anything more than her incredible singing, and anyone who thinks that “Idol” is about the musical performances alone is more delusional than someone who shows up to audition dressed as a Trapper Keeper.

Sanjaya appears to be acutely aware of this tendency to reward those who stand out, but even if he isn’t, he’s certainly benefiting from it.

Perhaps he’s also watched a lot of “America’s Next Top Model.” On that show, Tyra Banks and her team of judges routinely drop aspiring models from the competition even though those women have looked fantastic in their photographs. Yet they still go home because, as Tyra frequently lectures her girls, some of them do not show desire, personality, and growth week after week.

Tyra tries to make an argument to the competitors and to viewers that those characteristics make good models, but that is a tough argument to make when the models with stronger pictures leave before those who stay.

That’s been a painful reality of “American Idol” for its entire six-season run. Never before has someone gone from Sanjaya’s position all the way to the end and won, but this could be the year that changes.

Sanjaya’s sister suggested that possibility in an interview with TV Guide last week, saying that her brother and Melinda could make it to the final round of the competition. “I could see Sanjaya and Melinda in the end, which would be crazy. It all depends on who is more popular,” she said.

While Melinda will have a difficult time increasing her popularity at this point in the competition, all Sanjaya has to do is continue to show a little bit of growth and inspire passion in his fans. His only alternative is to bore America, and for Sanjaya, that seems far less likely than the possibility that he will actually win.

Andy Dehnart is a writer and teacher who publishes reality blurred, a daily summary of reality TV news.

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