Thursday, April 05, 2007
One Little Indian
The great H.L. Mencken said it best:
"Nobody ever went broke underestimating the taste of the American public."
The veracity of this statement becomes bulletproof when you realize that this summer, Michael Bay will once again spread his figurative ass-cheeks and unleash a putrid load of cinematic diarrhea on the theater-going public; that Hinder and Nickelback are able to play venues larger than the Wings & Things off Route 4 in Tampa; that George W. Bush has been allowed to occupy the White House for the past six years; and of course, that American Idol remains an unstoppable pop culture juggernaut.
I'm certainly willing to admit my own complicity in the success of Idol; I've watched it on more than one occasion and taken a passing interest in who wins and who doesn't -- mostly out of the desire to know which democratically elected singing sensation I can expect to have forced down my throat for the next eight months. Kelly Clarkson was cute and went on to record one or two good songs, for which she may have received entirely too much acclaim; Ruben Studdard wound up being the only guy whose ass runner-up and perpetually-closeted homosexual Clay Aiken will ever be capable of kicking; Fantasia went pretty much nowhere and has since reinvented herself as the subject of a Lifetime Insipid Movie of the Week; Carrie Underwood now sings love songs about Jesus while her penultimate, Bo Bice, makes the kind of music that I'm still wishing had died in the same plane crash that took out Ronnie Van Zant; Taylor Hicks has wound up being just one of last season's thirty-eight Idol contestants to be awarded a recording contract -- such is the star-making power of the show.
This year though, something's different.
American Idol is under siege.
As you're no doubt well aware, at the center of the maelstrom is seventeen-year-old borderline-retard Sanjaya Malakar.
I debated whether or not to comment on the ridiculous "controversy" involving Sanjaya's admittedly inexplicable presence at this stage of the competition -- his cockroach-like indestructibility and unyielding belief that he does, in fact, have even a specimen-cupful of talent. Although everyone's entitled to a little mindless entertainment, the idea that such nonsense, even for a moment, occupies the same news cycle as an unnecessary war, the complete collapse of the most corrupt and dangerous administration in American history and the rapid disintegration of our planet's atmosphere -- well, it just seems a little shameful. Makes you swell with pride at the knowledge that young American men and women are fighting and dying overseas to preserve "our way of life."
It took this week's elimination to finally tip me off the fence.
When I first learned of Howard Stern's Durdenesque plot to bring down the most inescapable cultural phenomenon on earth, I admit to feeling a rush of anarchist adrenaline which involuntarily curled my mouth into a smile. American Idol had, after all, foisted more musical mediocrity on the general public than the entire career of Kiss; the idea of an organized campaign to subvert the show's credibility by using its own system against it brought out my inner-insurgent. I understood at the time that as a proper misanthrope, I'd have to find a way to put aside my considerable loathe for Sanjaya himself -- rationalizing the benefits he'd indirectly reap -- were I to fully get behind the scheme. I looked at it this way: his victory would be nothing more than collateral damage in the war against the larger enemy. (For the record, I had no idea that the kid was so hopelessly naive that he'd actually believe he was earning his weekly gift from the anonymous legion of merry pranksters). I'll tell you though -- it was tough to not want to see a dumbass like that fail miserably.
A couple of weeks ago, when it became clear that there was malfeasance afoot, the argument against voting for the worst contestant began popping up on message boards, in newspapers and magazines, and on television. It came in the form of a simple and heartfelt plea which declared that keeping Sanjaya on Idol just for the hell of it was not a victimless crime; obviously, if the worst singer stays, that means that somebody better has to go. Once again, I thought -- collateral damage -- an unfortunate but necessary concession for the greater good. I even wondered if someone shouldn't type up letters to the families of the fallen, in appreciation of their sacrifice -- with the thanks of a grateful nation.
In an effort to spin Stern's personal Project Mayhem and marginalize the growing number of juvenile TV-terrorists behind it, Fox executives last week claimed, with a collective straight face, that Sanjaya's ascendancy should in no way be credited to -- or blamed on -- Stern fans, visitors to the website votefortheworst.com, or any other single group.
Oh yeah, unless you count the entire Asian and Indian population of the United States and, quite possibly,the earth.
In the kind of broadstroke ethnic generalization not seen since the opening of the Prison Camp at Guantanamo, a lot of armchair sociologists are pushing the theory that every U.S. resident of Asian or Indian descent believes that his or her life will improve dramatically should someone named Sanjaya Malakar become the next American Idol. Whether or not the hypothetical Sanjaya Malakar in question can actually sing -- which, as it turns out, this particular one can't -- makes no difference at all, as these mindless drones would be basing their allegiance on name, skin-tone and of course the obligation to show solidarity with the motherland. It's entirely possible that many young people of Indian descent are in fact rallying around Sanjaya -- simply because they were born without ears due to the 1984 Bhopal chemical disaster; aside from that though it's hard to imagine anyone being able to overlook his inability to hold a note -- particularly not the same people responsible for all those kick-ass Bollywood musical numbers.
A diabolical offshoot of the main theory -- its militant splinter group, if you will -- posits that the rise of Sanjaya isn't merely the underhanded work of nationalistic terrorist cells living here in the United States; it is in fact nothing less than the overthrow of an American institution by a foreign state -- one that our own government inadvertently empowered. To come face-to-face -- or at least voice-to-voice -- with the enemy behind this nefarious conspiracy, all you'd have to do is pick up the phone and call any toll-free customer service number that happened to be handy. The rumor is as far-fetched as it is clever-as-hell: call center operators in India are making millions of free calls to the U.S. -- stuffing the virtual ballot box with votes for Sanjaya. And how did these operators get their jobs in the first place? Because American corporations outsourced their customer service positions to India, where the labor's cheaper. And who greased the wheels and cleared the hurdles, making it easy for the corporations to do this? Why, the prostrate apostles of free-market capitalism in our own government of course. And who put the leashes around the necks of these "distinguished gentlemen" and made them such servile little bitches? The corporations, their lobbyists and their money, of course.
If it were ever proven true, my first reaction might be to marvel at a guerilla campaign far more ingenious than anything Stern could've dreamed up. My second would probably be outrage at the audacity of another country's citizens seeing to it that someone of their own descent triumphs in a singing competition called American Idol, at the expense of everyone else involved (yes, I'm capable of jingoistic gut reactions) particularly when that person has no business being anywhere near a microphone. My third thought -- the one in which a measure of logical resignation comes into play -- would definitely be that there's no greater irony, and we got what we deserved.
The reality though?
Chances are, there are just a bunch of Indian-American kids, and American kids, and really fucking stupid Indian-American-American kids who think Sanjaya's cooler than Hello Kitty -- either that or Michael Jackson's dropping three-million votes at a time simply for the "pleasure" of seeing that childlike face every week.
When you factor that support into the exponentially increasing number of joke votes he's getting each week, Sanjaya's unwitting rise to pop culture infamy becomes all but assured.
As it turns out though, the early detractors were right -- the seditious fun to be had spray-painting a big "FUCK YOU" on the altar of America's Temple of the Trivial does come at a price, as was evidenced this week.
As someone who grew up listening to Gang of Four, the Replacements, Killing Joke and the Pistols -- and someone who still stands in reverent awe of Tom Waits -- I always valued the passion behind a voice rather than the quality of the voice itself. I have no doubt that very few of the singers who have ever moved me in one way or another throughout my life would be welcome on a show like American Idol; most would be mercilessly ridiculed, then shown the goddamned door. Likewise, I've never been a fan of the way Simon, the drunk to his immediate right and the black guy from Journey tend to Breakfast Club the contestants -- sizing each one up in an instant and branding him or her with one of a handful of generic and recyclable designations. ("The Soulful One," "The Little One with the Big Voice," "The Modern One," "Justin Timberlake," etc.)
This season, Gina Glocksen was "The Rocker."
Although not as powerful a singer as last year's designated "Rocker" Chris Daughtry, she also wasn't anywhere near the worthless, preening dick that last year's designated "Rocker" Chris Daughtry was. Overall, Gina had a good voice, chose a nice range of material, owned it pretty damn well on-stage and, above all, seemed genuinely humble.
As much as I was still fully behind The Sanjaya Agenda and wanted nothing more than to see Stern put on a Guy Fawkes mask and detonate a pound of Semtex under Ryan Seacrest, I was secretly pulling for Gina to at least nab a place in the top four or five -- an achievement which would all but guarantee her a record deal somewhere.
This week, she was eliminated.
A couple of years ago, in one of the many "scandals" that bounced benignly off American Idol's Adamantium hull, someone behind the scenes claimed that the show was rigged -- the winners and losers predetermined. I had always assumed the claim to be bullshit, considering the complete social upheaval that would result from something like "Idolgate" -- not to mention the fact that, aside from playing the numbers in Vegas, there's little to be gained by such collusion.
But as the axe came down on Gina Glocksen; as the stunned crowd began to shout in protest and as she began to cry uncontrollably; and, in a tragically ironic coup de grace, as she was given the stage one last time and was forced to perform the same song she had sung the previous night, which happened to be Charlie Chaplin's Smile, I found myself shaking my head -- amazed at how the entire scene was just so perfect.
It was the perfect object lesson.
It was as if God himself -- either as an Idol enthusiast or simply in keeping with his long-standing practice of crushing the insignificant for the hell of it -- had come down from on high and engineered the ultimate ruthless comeuppance aimed at all those who dared to fuck with the natural order of things. In one moment, it was made crystal-clear that if we chose to spare the undeserving, the innocent would suffer; the fact that this week's innocent turned out to be the contestant most likely to appeal to Howard Stern's target audience -- the cute girl with the purple streak in her hair and the barbell through her tongue; the "Rocker" -- seemed to make the point only that much more viciously.
It worked -- at least on one person.
Once again, in an act of seemingly divine inspiration, the shot of Gina's tear-streaked face as she toughed her way through the lines, "Smile, though your heart is aching," and, "Though there are clouds in the sky, I'll get by," slowly dissolved to show the face of -- him.
And I found myself suddenly filled with rage, and the overwhelming need to rip every fucking ridiculous hair out of Sanjaya Malakar's stupid little head and shove them down his fucking throat -- the one that had failed to produce one decent goddamned note all season. I realized that I'd been wrong; that subverting American Idol by catapulting a dingbat into its upper echelon wasn't worth shattering the dreams of a profoundly more deserving young girl; that the collateral-damage was, in fact, an unacceptable loss.
So maybe I owe Gina Glocksen an apology.
And maybe it's time the American public took down Sanjaya the way it should have from the beginning.
If that's not possible -- if it turns out that his popularity is legitimate and not the product of the country's biggest practical joke -- then perhaps the only thing left is to once again invoke the words of H.L. Mencken:
"Democracy is the theory that the common people know what they want, and deserve to get it good and hard."
Think I'll go put on the Stones' Street Fighting Man and order vindaloo from that place up the street -- then not tip the delivery guy.