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Will Sanjaya save or destroy ‘American Idol’?

Weak-voiced Seattle teen has found himself center of controversy. By Andy Dehnart
/ Source: msnbc.com contributor

Most of the conversation during “American Idol” has not been about its group of who have flat personalities. Instead, the nation’s “Idol” focus has shifted from one “Idol” cast member to the next, and our biggest obsession of all is named Sanjaya.

Before he captured the nation's attention, there was , swaying and slurring her way through a series of satellite interviews with local Fox affiliates. As she’s done in the past, Paula said things that made absolutely no sense, and she bobbed in and out of the frame as bewildered anchors tried to engage her in conversation.

Paula addressed her behavior and speculation that she was intoxicated or otherwise impaired by telling The New York Times, “I’ve never been drunk. I’m not under the influence of anything.”

She blamed her behavior on audio problems, although at least one critic who interviewed her in person said she was similarly weird. Paula’s strategy, it seemed, was simply denial.

Then there was , a semifinalist who shot to the top of search-engine rankings after photographs of her partially clothed found their way online. While the world talked about her photographs, she and “American Idol” basically ignored the controversy. Her friends spoke for her, but on TV, she was silent.

The series addressed the photos only when Simon Cowell said, “I feel for you, ’cause you’ve taken a lot of stick in the media. I think you’ve handled yourself well throughout, and I don’t think anyone should be put in that situation.” The strategy with Antonella was to pretend that all of the attention was so prurient and beneath the show that it didn’t even deserve a direct reference.

Sanjaya's the most interesting thing about ‘Idol’
And now we have Sanjaya.

Viewers first met Sanjaya Malakar when he auditioned with his sister. He was shy and demure, but the judges liked his singing better than his sister’s. A kind brother, he didn’t tell her that they’d praised his singing relative to hers. That empathy continued when she got cut during the Hollywood round; instead of celebrating his own victory, he cried for her.

Once he found his way into the top 24, Sanjaya seemed out of his league. Even his fans have to admit that his voice is not the strongest in the competition, and at this point, it’s pretty much the weakest. Because he’s still around, though, other “American Idol” fans have begun to resent him, while others mock him.

Unlike Paula and Antonella before him, Sanjaya seems to be taking a different approach to all of the negative attention. At first he seemed a little embarrassed that he had fans or was even on the show, and that, of course, made those people love him even more.

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But having obsessive fans isn't enough to keep one around or in the national conversation week after week. His continued presence on the show has been attributed to multiple sources, some of which are just conspiracy theories: Howard Stern’s discussion about Sanjaya has mobilized his listeners. People are actually listening to Vote for the Worst and voting for the worst instead of just laughing at the site’s jokes. Call centers in India are jamming the phones. Hawaii is once again banding together to keep a young, talent-challenged contestant with connections to the state on the show, like the state did with Jasmine Trias.

Whatever effects these things have, if any, Sanjaya is now officially the most interesting thing about “American Idol 6.” He is not the best singer, the best dancer, or the most engaging personality. But Sanjaya has in some ways begun to embrace those things that people ridicule, and that makes him far more remarkable than the assortment of cardboard cutouts alongside him.

He’s even begun to show that he can laugh at and mock himself.

How else to explain the seven-ponytail faux-hawk he wore during last week’s performance episode? His hair had previously been the subject of conversation both on and off the show, as he changed it every week, from straight to Paula Abdulish. The ponytail faux-hawk was the ultimate “See? I get it” statement.

Also last week, Sanjaya fought back against Simon Cowell for the first time. After Sanjaya’s performance with the faux-hawk, the judge said bluntly, “I presume there was no mirror in your dressing room tonight.” Instead of just smiling awkwardly, Sanjaya told Simon, “You’re just jealous that you couldn’t pull it off.”

Simon smiled and agreed, and then said, “Sanjaya, I don’t think it matters any more what we say, actually. I genuinely don’t. I think you are in your own universe, and if people like you, good luck.”

With that, he essentially gave up, and Simon Cowell doesn’t usually give up. He was baffled not just by Sanjaya fever (obsession over contestants is nothing new; just ask Clay Aiken or a half-dozen other “Idols”), but by how Sanjaya has managed to stay above the bottom two or three during weeks when he clearly belongs there.

That may be in part due to an unusual sort of backlash. People who think he’s a horrible singer (who, confusingly, refer to themselves as “Fanjayas,” as do his real fans) are supporting him. At least, they’re talking about supporting him; actually picking up the phone and calling during the two voting hours on Tuesday evenings requires a different sort of commitment than laughing at the possibility.

Others are just annoyed. Everything Sanjaya’s fans seem to like about him — his ever-changing hair, his awkward stage presence, his massacring of popular music — irritate some “Idol” fans to the point of absolute hysteria, just as they delight the anti-Sanjaya Fanjayas. The media loves all of it, because there are so many new angles to follow.

And that is the key to the Sanjaya mystery: He is something to everyone.

He has genuine fans who love him and fans of the show who loathe him for dragging down what they see as a legitimate singing contest. There are also the people who resent the show and all that it stands for, who see him as their messiah capable of bringing “American Idol” down once and for all.

Together, by talking about him, they’ve lifted Sanjaya up higher than he or the producers could have ever expected.

Because of that, Sanjaya Malakar has become the center of a perfect “American Idol” storm, and his continued presence could destroy the show, save it from itself, or both.

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