'The Axis of Idol'

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Eugene Robinson, columnist for The Washington Post, discusses the op-ed he wrote about American Idol contestant Sanjaya Malakar. Robinson describes Malakar as an "abysmally untalented contestant who not only survives elimination week after week but actually seems to become more popular."

Copyright © 2007 NPR. For personal, noncommercial use only. See Terms of Use. For other uses, prior permission required.

REBECCA ROBERTS, host:

This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Rebecca Roberts in Washington, D.C., sitting in for Neal Conan.

Right now, the "American Idol" phenomenon that is Sanjaya Malakar.

(Soundbite of song, "Cheek to Cheek")

Mr. SANJAYA MALAKAR ("American Idol" contestant): (Singing) Heaven, I'm in heaven, and the cares that hung around me through the week, seem to vanish like a gambler's lucky streak when we're out together dancing cheek to cheek.

ROBERTS: Every year, Washington Post columnist Eugene Robinson saves one of his columns to talk about the latest run of "American Idol." Usually he waits, but this year, it came early. Let me read you a line or two from the column that ran last Friday.

There are uncommonly good singers in the running this year - Melinda Doolittle, LaKisha Jones, Jordin Sparks - and it's unfair to let Sanjaya slide. The judges must look the Sanjaya monster in the eye and speak truth to power. If they don't, the terrorists have won.

So what keeps Sanjaya in the running? Is it the hair? If you're an "American Idol" fan, should Sanjaya stay or should he go? Our number here in Washington is 800-989-8255. Our e-mail is talk@npr.org. And you can also join the conversation at our blog at npr.org/blogofthenation.

Eugene Robinson's with us. He's a confessed "Idol" watcher.

Eugene, the terrorists have won?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. EUGENE ROBINSON (Columnist, Washington Post): Well, that might have been slightly over the top, but only slightly.

(Soundbite of laughter)

ROBERTS: So you're not a Fanjaya?

Mr. ROBINSON: No, I'm not a Fanjaya. I - look, he - I have a certain amount of aberration for him in that he - what does he have? He has hair. He has a smile, and clearly, he has ambition, and he's managed to parlay those into quite a long run on "American Idol" and the likelihood of going further.

ROBERTS: We should explain about the hair, because I don't know how much overlap there is between the NPR audience and the "American Idol" audience. Although with 30 million viewers, there's got to be a pretty serious one.

Mr. ROBINSON: More than you think.

ROBERTS: Describe what's going on with Sanjaya's hair.

Mr. ROBINSON: Sanjaya has hair - lots of it. He has a Farrah Fawcett quality head of hair. I mean, he's just got huge hair that he does in a different style every week. So one week it's curly and poofy, and the next week it's straight. And the kind of highlight was what was immediately dubbed a fauxhawk, when he kind of had a line of ponytails down the middle of his head like a mohawk, only huge. It's indescribable.

It baffles my powers of description to say what this hair looked like. And he had it slicked back when he did his not immortal version of "Cheek to Cheek," which certainly had Irving Berlin and Fred Astaire spinning - nay, whirring -in their graves.

ROBERTS: So he is - at best - an average singer. He is an awkward dancer. He has exceptional hair.

Mr. ROBINSON: Mm-hmm.

ROBERTS: Why does he keep getting voted on to stay on "American Idol" week after week?

Mr. ROBINSON: He has a lot of charisma, and he seems to have that it quality. He seems to - you know, the theory is that the people voting for him are kind of young, preteen girls who think he's just cute to die for and older women who also think he's cute to die for. But I don't - I don't know if that's really his constituency.

There's also a Web site that's been active for several seasons - which is called Votefortheworst.com - that tries to subvert the whole process. You know, I'm speaking as if I'm talking about, you know, voting in Florida or something like that - subvert the process. But they urge people to vote for the worst contestant. And so naturally, they have they have adopted Sanjaya this year. So that's probably having some effect as well.

ROBERTS: And Howard Stern has weighed in.

Mr. ROBINSON: That's right. He has piled onto the vote-for-the-worst bandwagon, and so there's a group I think called, you know, Stern Fans for Sanjaya or Stern Fans for the Worst or something like that, but they are also mobilizing to vote for him.

You know, given that 30 million people watch the show, and they get 35 or I don't know how many million votes every week, it's unclear whether all this vote-for-the-worst stuff really has much of an impact on the voting. I think, you know, he's popular among some people.

ROBERTS: Let's take a call from Judith in San Jose. Judith, welcome to TALK OF THE NATION.

JUDITH (Caller): Hi, good afternoon. Thank you for taking my call.

ROBERTS: Sure.

JUDITH: I really think he needs to go. "American Idol" is about showcasing talent, and when you have a particular singer who has no talent and is constantly winning every week, it really says something about the integrity of the show and also the voting. It makes no sense. It really makes no sense.

ROBERTS: Judith, thanks for your call. So do you think this is that "American Idol," Eugene Robinson, has been around long enough, everyone's getting a little bit tired of it, and now people are, you know, sort of monkeying around with it because they're bored?

Mr. ROBINSON: Well, one would think that would happen. I mean, the show has defied the normal arc of a successful television show. It refuses to go away. It refuses to diminish in its appeal. The ratings are down slightly from last year, but they're still almost I think double the next-most-popular show on television, so certainly nothing to worry about.

So you know, what does it take to be an American idol and to be a pop star? Traditionally, at least these days, you can become a pop star without having a great voice. I mean, nobody ever accused Britney Spears of having a great voice. Nobody ever accused Janet Jackson of having a great voice.

Now granted, the two of them can dance, and Sanjaya can't do that either, but pop stars have become huge with, shall we say, limited talent, and so, you know, why not vote for Sanjaya in that sense?

ROBERTS: There's e-mail from John in Cleveland who says here's my theory. Yes, you have the pranksters, such as the Howard Stern listeners, inflating his numbers, but then he's the first person of Indian descent to make it to the Top 12, so you have a lot of people of Indian descent calling also, inflating his numbers, and that's over one billion calls.

Mr. ROBINSON: Well, you know, it is as if we're talking about some sort of, you know, electoral shenanigans in a presidential vote or something like that, but the producers of the show have actually answered that question, and they have said that their system doesn't accept bulk calls, has not been getting, you know, calls from the Indian subcontinent, and so…

Now, he is the first contestant of Indian descent, and perhaps Indian-Americans are voting for him. We don't know if that's true or not. There sometimes are regional patterns to the voting, apparently. This is all kept very secret, but apparently Hawaii is the state that votes most per capita, and so if there's a contestant from Hawaii in the contest, they do pretty well.

ROBERTS: So why do you think the judges have backed off on Sanjaya?

Mr. ROBINSON: I think they're afraid of making him more powerful than he already is. I think they're - they seem to believe that their initial harsh comments on his performances created a certain sympathy factor, and it probably did.

Sanjaya very cleverly plays to that, and so I think they figured they were - if they want to convince people that this guy is not good enough to be the American idol, they needed to back off, let people figure that out for themselves and not try to compel that result because it - you know, he seemed to be getting more-and-more votes. That's my theory.

Now, they don't release kind of, you know, vote totals. They just say who got voted off and who did not get voted off. So we don't know that he's been, you know, the biggest. We think he's not been the biggest vote-getter, but he seems to be in the middle of the pack, and so he'll stick around for another few weeks.

ROBERTS: Let's hear from Janet in Reno, Nevada. Janet, welcome to TALK OF THE NATION.

JANET (Caller): Hi.

ROBERTS: Hi.

JANET: I think that it's little girls that vote for him, kind of like when I was little, you know, The Monkees were really popular. I mean, he is absolutely adorable, and they showed this little girl a couple weeks ago, a little girl, she was probably about 10 or 11, and she was just crying. I don't think there's any conspiracy or anything like that.

I myself have never voted and never will, but I really enjoy the show. At the beginning, it's just really, really funny, and then, you know, now there's several really good singers who, even if they do get voted off, they'll do really well. I mean, I think some of the ones that don't make it to the end do better than the ones that actually win, so…

ROBERTS: So you think he's just got that sort of it factor that Elvis or The Beatles or someone had that makes women go crazy.

JANET: Oh, no, not like Elvis or The Beatles, more like…

ROBERTS: Shaun Cassidy.

JANET: He's like a puppy. He's like a little puppy. So that's why these little girls, these little 10-year-old girls vote.

ROBERTS: Well, that's an interesting theory. What do you think, Eugene Robinson?

Mr. ROBINSON: I think that's - I think all that is probably true. I think there's one other factor this season, and that is there are several really good singers. I mean, you know, I think one contestant this year, Melinda Doolittle(ph), may be the best singer they've ever had come through there. She's certainly the most polished.

But you know, none of the really good singers has that it that we're talking about, has that sort of dazzle that you, you know, that says a-ha, that's the obvious winner of "American Idol."

So I think - and Sanjaya does have a lot of sparkle, even though he doesn't have the voice, and so, you know, I think if there were another contestant that had the whole package, we wouldn't be talking about Sanjaya so much.

ROBERTS: You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

So when you do talk about Sanjaya, Eugene Robinson, do you get a hard time?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. ROBINSON: Well, I - you know, I wrote this column about Sanjaya, and I got quite a large response, most people essentially agreeing, saying he's no good, da, da, da. I got a couple of interesting responses that you could almost call treatises. One gentleman wrote a long, long e-mail about how I didn't understand that this was a seminal moment in American popular culture because it revealed the whole kind of corporate nature of the pop-music industry, and it was really a kind of righteous rebellion for people to vote for Sanjaya, and it went on and on and on for hundreds of words.

ROBERTS: Goodness.

Mr. ROBINSON: But not a rant, very kind of well-reasoned and impassioned commentary, and so I got a couple of those, and you know, it was quite interesting. I mean people do get passionate about this show.

ROBERTS: Let's hear from James in Grand Rapids, Michigan. James, welcome to TALK OF THE NATION.

JAMES (Caller): Hello?

ROBERTS: Hi.

JAMES: Am I on?

ROBERTS: You are.

JAMES: I would like to say to Janet in Reno that there is a conspiracy, and I am part of it. I vote for Sanjaya every single week, even though I hate "American Idol."

ROBERTS: And why do you do that?

JAMES: The comic value alone is right up there. I love it. It's just hilarious to me.

ROBERTS: The comic value of seeing Sanjaya perform or of being able to subvert the so-called talent contest rules?

JAMES: Yes.

(Soundbite of laughter)

JAMES: It's all funny to me. I just love it, and my sister-in-law and my wife, they get so hardcore into "American Idol" that it's just funny to me, because they get so mad every week that Sanjaya's still in it.

ROBERTS: So James, do you watch, or do you just sort of call in at the end to vote?

JAMES: I just waste two minutes and 15 cents every week and just call in sometime and vote for him.

ROBERTS: James, thanks for your call. Now, Eugene Robinson, you watch.

Mr. ROBINSON: I do watch, and Rebecca, I've got to warn you, I'm going to have to run in a minute, but I do want to - I do want to say one thing, which is that I think that viewer has a great attitude about the show. I watch. I started watching because I was running the style section of the Washington Post a few years ago when "American Idol" started, and it was kind of my job to watch, and the first time I saw the show, I said this is going to be really big. You know, there's something about it.

So you know, I'm a faithful watcher, but the thing is, you know, not to take it all that seriously. It's a brilliantly cheesy television show, and…

ROBERTS: Sort of a guilty pleasure.

Mr. ROBINSON: It is, and we shouldn't - and we don't even have to feel guilty about it. Let's enjoy the pleasure, but let's not take it all that seriously, and if Sanjaya wins, the republic will stand.

ROBERTS: Well, let's take one more call. This is Kenneth in Cincinnati. Kenneth, welcome to TALK OF THE NATION.

KENNETH (Caller): Hey.

ROBERTS: Hey.

KENNETH: I just wanted to call because I think that it's his personality that comes through in his singing. I mean, I am a singer and I'm a music student in college, and I really don't think his voice is that bad. He doesn't have much presence, but his voice matches his personality perfectly, and I think that's why people like him, and maybe they can respond to that because not everyone in America is a great singer. So they like him because they're like him.

ROBERTS: And for those of us who haven't seen it much, describe what you think his personality is like.

KENNETH: I don't know, I just think he's really shy. He's quiet and he's reserved and he's cute and, you know, precious like, you know, like a 13-year-old kind of, like almost kind of like a Michael Jackson thing except he's just not that good of a singer.

(Soundbite of laughter)

ROBERTS: Kenneth, thank you for calling.

Mr. ROBINSON: Michael Jackson without the talent. That's kind of it.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. ROBINSON: But he's got it, he's got it, you know, he's got something.

ROBERTS: So do you think he's going to go all the way?

Mr. ROBINSON: Do I think so?

ROBERTS: Yup.

Mr. ROBINSON: No, I don't. I think he's final four, but I don't think he goes all the way.

ROBERTS: And do you think he parlays final four into a career, or is this his 15 minutes?

Mr. ROBINSON: Oh you bet, you bet.

ROBERTS: Oh, really?

Mr. ROBINSON: What we've learned is that if you make the final 12 or 10, you have a shot at a career, and I think he has enough ambition and presence to have a career. So yeah, I think so.

ROBERTS: You heard it here first.

(Soundbite of laughter)

ROBERTS: Thank you. Washington Post columnist Eugene Robinson. You can read his column, "Sanjaya: Axis of 'Idol'" online. We've posted a link at our blog, npr.org/blogofthenation. This is TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. I'm Rebecca Roberts.

Copyright © 2007 NPR. All rights reserved. No quotes from the materials contained herein may be used in any media without attribution to NPR. This transcript is provided for personal, noncommercial use only, pursuant to our Terms of Use. Any other use requires NPR's prior permission. Visit our permissions page for further information.

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