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RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

Another contestant was voted off of "American Idol" last night and it wasn't Sanjaya Malakar.

The young man of many hairdos has become a phenomenon, although not because he's good at singing. In fact, it's become clear over the last few weeks that some people are voting for him simply because they want to mess with the seemingly unstoppable "American Idol" machine.

NPR's Kim Masters has more.

KIM MASTERS: Whether Sanjaya Malakar is the worst singer in the very successful six-year history of "American Idol" is one of those questions that fans love to debate. What seems beyond dispute is that he's not among the best.

(Soundbite of song, "Ain't No Mountain Higher")

Mr. SANJAYA MALAKAR (Finalist, "American Idol"): (Singing) Ain't no mountain high enough, ain't no valley low enough, ain't no river wide enough, to keep me from getting to you, babe.

MASTERS: Just 17 years old, Sanjaya has maintained an affable demeanor despite some very bad reviews from all the judges, including Randy Jackson.

(Soundbite of TV show, "American Idol")

Mr. RANDY JACKSON (Judge, "American Idol"): That song was almost un-listenable for me, man. It was really, really weak. But do you know what I love about you? You know that I look forward to you, man, every week? Dude, you've torn down some different 'dos with the hair. I mean, the hair's rocking, though.

(Soundbite of laughter)

MASTERS: Every week, Sanjaya has repackaged himself and his hair in a fashion that seems to rivet at "American Idol" fans. But not all those who vote for him are acting in good faith. Radio personality Howard Stern and his crew have been urging listeners to back Sanjaya just for the perverse fun of it.

Mr. HOWARD STERN (Host, "The Howard Stern Show"): Imagine we're responsible in some way for wrecking the most important in show…

Mr. ARTIE LANGE (Comedian): So you're more into that than you are a fan of the show?

Mr. STERN: Of course.

Ms. ROBIN QUIVERS (Co-Host, "The Howard Stern Show): The show is not that great.

Mr. STERN: I mean, I can live without that show. In fact…

Mr. LANGE: (Unintelligible) he's been telling me it's that great for five years.

Mr. STERN: No, if it's on, it's on. If it's off, I'll live. I mean, I would like to have more free time.

MASTERS: Stephen Battaglio is a senior correspondent with TV Guide. He doubts that the subversive pro-Sanjaya movement can affect the voting.

Mr. STEPHEN BATTAGLIO (Correspondent, TV Guide): Going on Howard Stern, starting a renegade Web site, I just don't see it moving the needle.

MASTERS: Battaglio points out that every year, some bad singers have done well on the show. And he thinks Sanjaya has sincere fans.

Mr. BATTAGLIO: He changes his look almost every week; he is not afraid to try anything. I think there is a musical artist - her name is Madonna - who did that for about 25 years and ended up doing pretty well.

MASTERS: Media analyst Stacy Lyn Schulman(ph) doesn't dismiss the Sanjaya phenomenon so lightly. Fox may be enjoying the attention that he brings, she says, but ultimately it might not be good for the show. She believes that disaffected voters can sway the results every week. And even if they can't, they contribute to a perception that the voting isn't fair.

Ms. STACY LYN SCHULMAN (Media Analyst): What happens is that the true fans feel that those who should be winning and should be progressing in the contest aren't because of some contingent that the broadcasting or production company can't really control for. And that is what will unravel that fan culture in the end.

MASTERS: The Fox Network has a great deal at stake. "American Idol" has propelled Fox from last place to first in key demographics while decimating the competition. In fact, Battaglio thinks morning talk shows on rival networks make a fuss of Sanjaya in part because they hope his success represents a chink at last in "American Idol's" armor. But Battaglio says that's wishful thinking.

Mr. BATTAGLIO: The jump-the-shark moment will come for "American Idol" when you see the ratings go down, and they're just not going down yet.

MASTERS: The show's producers didn't respond to our request for an interview. But Battaglio says it's clear that whatever the short-term benefits they may reap, they don't want Sanjaya to win in the end. And Battaglio doesn't think he will.

But this past Tuesday, Sanjaya threw the audience and the judges for a loop. Fixing his soulful brown eyes on the camera, he turned in a performance on Latin Night that turned out to be perhaps his best to date.

(Soundbite of song, "Besame Mucho")

Mr. MALAKAR: (Singing) Besame, Besame mucho, que tengo miedo a perderte, perderte despues -

MASTERS: Even the feared Simon Cowell was impressed. Sort of.

Mr. SIMON COWELL (Judge, "American Idol"): You sang like a 14-year-old. And I'm going to hate myself for this, it wasn't horrible.

(Soundbite of cheering)

MASTERS: Can Sanjaya actually sing better than America thinks? No doubt millions of viewers will tune in next week to find out.

Kim Masters, NPR News.

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