Pop Culture

Sanjaya was an ‘Idol,’ and reality TV, original

So now what? As of Wednesday night, the wonderful, horrible reign of “American Idol”’s Sanjaya Malakar came to its inevitable end. On the surface, everything looks to be in order. His country-theme performance of “Something to Talk About” was his worst vocal since the early semifinals as measured by the only yardstick that matters for him: it was boring. Despite boot-baiting performances by Lakisha Jones and Chris Richardson, it’s hard to argue that Sanjaya didn’t deserve, at long last, to go.

And as he does, “Idol” loses the best and worst thing that has happened to the show all season, and maybe going back even further. For two and a half months, the 17-year-old with the endless parade of hairstyles (flatironed! permed! the now-infamous, never-to-be-bettered pony hawk!) has dominated discussions about the show as both his fans and detractors couldn’t help but try to figure out just what the heck was going on with this kid. He was, in short, the star of “Idol” 6.

That’s because there’s never been anybody like Sanjaya on “Idol” before. In a very real way, he was the single most original contestant that the show has ever seen. That’s all the more impressive in light of the fact that he was let through to the semifinals out of demographic necessity, filling the seemingly obligatory teenaged-boy slot previously held by Kevin Covais last year and John Stevens IV in season three.

Everything seemed to be in order, with personality-free renditions of Stevie Wonder’s “Knocks Me Off My Feet” and Tony Bennett’s “Steppin’ Out With My Baby” seemingly guaranteeing a quick exit, to be followed by a shrugged “We tried!” on the part of the judges. But Sanjaya kept dodging one bullet after another, and it became clear that the Covais story — that of an immature talent far outmatched by that of his competitors — was proving ineffective.

That left the Stevens tactic, so the judges dutifully heaped all sorts of verbal abuse on him and all but told him that he didn’t belong in the competition. (A competition, it should be noted, that they seemed to forget they selected him for). But somewhere along the way, Sanjaya seemed to realize that he had a choice: he could either do what Stevens did and let the constant criticism wear him down until he was wracked with guilt for his continued presence, or he could fight.

The decision to do the latter seemed to come during British Invasion week, when Sanjaya opted against the sunny mindless pop of “I’m Into Something Good” in favor of the Kinks’ far more raucous “You Really Got Me.” It was simultaneously pathetically unconvincing and unironically brilliant an extended middle finger to “Idol” and (as Joe Reid of Television Without Pity pointed out) the single most punk rock moment ever on the show.

From that moment on, Sanjaya became a wild card. Having twigged to the fact that he was considered a joke, Sanjaya started pulling the strings himself and proceeded with a quiet but unwavering confidence. The judges had no control over him, with Simon in particular going through every weapon in his arsenal, from insults to dismissal to extravagantly sarcastic compliments, before he finally crumbled last week and admitted defeat in the face of a thoroughly acceptable “Besame Mucho.”

In short, Sanjaya ended up as precisely the self-aware contestant that 10th-place Chris Sligh tried so hard to be: offbeat, clever and able to beat the show at its own game. But where Sligh appeared to have that role in mind from the very moment he auditioned, Sanjaya fell into it by accident. And the teen turned out to be a natural, with a degree of effortless flexibility that his rhythm-challenged competitor had no room for in all of his scheming.

Never been anybody like SanjayaIt’s tempting to compare the lemons-into-lemonade angle to the cottage industry surrounding King of the Bad Auditioners William Hung, but there’s really never been anybody like Sanjaya in the history of the “American Idol” franchise. In fact, his only real precedent in all of reality television was Zayra Alvarez from “Rock Star: Supernova.” One of the singers vying for the lead spot in the ill-conceived (and currently imploding) Tommy Lee supergroup, she was initially dismissed as a musically ignorant, caterwauling performer who couldn’t hold on to a pitch with both hands.

There was some truth to those charges, but like Sanjaya, Zayra quickly learned to own her weirdness and start driving it without fear. Where Sanjaya expressed himself through his ever-changing hair, she declared her stylistic independence from reality through a succession of skintight outfits that looked like they had been snapped up at a superhero yard sale. Her seemingly incomprehensible performances, meanwhile, began to take on a curious logic of their own, and without changing her style or even necessarily improving, she revealed herself to be what allmusic.com’s postseason roundtable referred to as “the most exciting, original, and audacious” singer in the entire competition.

While it might be a stretch to say the same about Sanjaya, there’s something undeniably compelling about the kid, whose typically adolescent awkwardness can’t disguise an obvious charisma. Just as judge Dave Navarro suggested that Zayra might be better suited to “Rock Star: Planet Pluto,” Sanjaya thanked Simon for pretending to offer a compliment by announcing, “Welcome to the universe of Sanjaya.”

In short, both singers gave their respective shows an air of real, actual unpredictability. It was impossible to guess what either of them was going to do on any given night, nor to figure out how that would play out in the voting. But Sanjaya was the bigger spoiler of the two, thanks to the simple fact that that Zayra never could have won, since Supernova always had the final say in who got the boot. Sanjaya, on the other hand, needed only outdraw one other contestant each week. And, just as what happened to “Rock Star” after Zayra’s elimination, “Idol” is certain to be a far less interesting show for his absence.

In the end, Sanjaya’s story may have simply run its course as soon as last week’s “Besame Mucho” forced Simon to offer up reluctant praise. It was a resolution so dramatically perfect that, with a few details changed (but only a few), it’s essentially identical to the ending of “Nineteen Eighty-Four.” Once the bullet entered Simon’s brain, there may have simply been nothing more to discuss, which makes “Something to Talk About” not only a poor fit for Sanjaya’s voice but, for the very first time in this competition, an ironic choice for him.

So the clock finally ran out on him, and the question again needs to be asked: now what? “Idol” will cruise along for the next month without its star, as if Zach Braff took a powder on the last five episodes of “Scrubs.” The overall level of singing will be better, no doubt, but there will be a hole in the middle of what is first and foremost a television show. But don’t worry. Sanjaya will be back for the finale. And he’ll put Kevin Covais singing “What’s New, Pussycat?” to shame.

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