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American Idol: Sanjaya, Simon Cowell, Howard Stern, and Dave Della Terza

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Last week, Sanjaya's surprise appearance on the Tonight Show with Jay Leno followed hot on the heels of Jon Stewart and Aasif Mandvi's brilliant Partial-Birth Abortion skit ("America Decides") on The Daily Show about his being voted off American Idol. One was relieved to see the kid still on television, shy and charming, and free of anger as ever. And he was wise, saying he felt that he hadn't lived up to the potential Simon had seen in him, and had no hard feelings, taking the wind right out of the sails of anyone looking to pick a fight with him. He said he's not a country singer and knew he had bombed when he saw his Tuesday performance played back. Then he made a point that should not be missed. Who will win, he said, is "totally unpredictable, based on each week's performance." That is to say, there is no way to predict who will win American Idol because you don't know ahead of time what genre is next on the calendar.

Clearly, many people have picked up on the perpetually and perennially boorish Simon Cowell's special animosity towards the kid, since he never bothered to disguise it, except in being careful, after Sanjaya's not-so-CBGB downfall, not to emphasize "American" when he said, "Based on the fact that we're supposed to be finding an American Idol…" Obviously, industry players know quite well that America Does Not Decide. But Sanjaya is an American kid, half Italian-American as well as half Indian-American. He cannot recognize Simon's carry-over-colonial style, nor Simon's oblique manner of exerting his strangely assumed authority, because this very American teen has no prior knowledge of where it's coming from. Each show gave us a glimpse of his utter bafflement at the way Simon treated him.

Simon Cowell is a denizen of another era, when Indian pop stars disguised themselves as Englishmen. Cliff Richard never made it to America at all, and mostly hid his Indian roots like Merle Oberon; Engelbert Humperdinck needed a ludicrous name borrowed from a deceased German composer to arrive piggybacked, if I recall correctly, on Tom Jones' transatlantic voyage; Freddy Mercury, sweet Parsi boy from such a nice family in Bombay, was only identified as Indan posthumously and fictionally by Salman Rushdie in The Ground Beneath Her Feet. If you were Indian, you had to go through Britain to access the rest of the world. Nowadays, it seems, if you're going to be a rock star of Indian descent, you still need to count on positive guidance from the West to win support in India. The Indian press has been inclined in many quarters to report or redistribute more of the bad news about Sanjaya, and less of the good news — essentially, whatever is being said here — although American Idol is shown in India a day later and audiences can figure it out for themselves. Is it possible that no Indian viewers noticed the American Idol band's complete unpreparedness and inability to support his very fluid but on target microtonal inflections that are a regular feature of Indian vocal music?

Howard Stern and the highly prescient Dave Della Terza of VoteForTheWorst both have good reason to want to bring down American Idol. It's a bogus formula forced upon a home-grown art form. Clearly, the panel of judges is composed to reflect the notion that Simon Cowell is a WASP, but he is not. What extraordinary effrontery to suppose a fellow with a voice like an animated gekko's cantankerous cousin should sit in judgment of what works in America, let alone be its gatekeeper — even if he is a Sony executive.

Perhaps the Idol routine makes sense in England, or once did. There isn't (or certainly once wasn't) any problem with looking for a pop song generalist there. Despite all internal distinctions (i.e., I can tell Johnny Rotten from Boy George, and still download Cream and Pink Floyd tracks when I'm feeling nostalgic), all British pop forms a distinct and unified subgenre in that it is always in some part a highly abstracted imitation of American music. But in the U.S. of A, where we never expected Bruce Springsteen to give us salsa, or Eddie van Halen to play Copacabana, or Beastie Boys to sing Motown, the Idol competition makes little sense. It is shaped like a baccalaureate of pop, with a series of courses administered in surprise sequence with a trip-you-up trickery aspect to the testing method that smacks of preparation for managing distant colonies in the midst of hordes of unwilling natives. In other words, the show's management can direct the sequence of styles especially to eliminate particular contestants on the management's whim. This sort of manipulation is not entirely unfamiliar to past generations in India who had to cope with the colonial imagination, but maybe now rock 'n' roll natives should become more completely unwilling to put up with this nonsense.

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About Zade

  • Rhonda

    This si absolutely the BEST article I have read that explains the idol judge and weirdo hardcore fans’ reaction to 17 year-old Malakar.
    I was amazed a the undertones of racism esposed–not only on blogs and the internet, but on our TV evening news!
    One newscaster in my area even said, “He doesn’t even look American.”
    The hobophobia (unfounded) was also rampant. This same newscaster called him the “girly-boy”. If I’m not mistaken, an even more radical mohawk, much worse vocals, and contestants with way longer hair have been shown on idol before without this kind of backlash.
    Interesting to me was they way this same newscaster lambasted Imus for his comment in the very next breath!
    Also, we have ageism at work here, with most bashers being men who also had an affinity for anothe contestants legs. Even with human beings, there is that urge among males in the herd to cast out or even kill the young males. Could this be another source of middle-aged Simon’s tirades against this innocent kid?
    It all struck me as a play by idol to appeal to the lowest common denominator and their prejudices. Remember that the producers-Lithgoe and Warrick are also English and of similar background to Slimon.
    Really, the author of this article nailed this issue so well!
    There are deeper things going on here!
    Kudos!!!

  • insaneinthesfv

    This is an EXCELLENT article – way to go!

    I’d hate to see AI go away, but I’d love to see it become more of a realistic competition. Simon has obviously lost whatever touch he once had, and is way too full of himself at this point…he really needs a good humbling right about now.

  • janet

    I agree, this is one of the best article. I personally don’t think that Sanjaya was his time to go, it is just that the judges didn’t want to draw too much attention on Sanjaya instead of the American idol give back. Sanjaya is a cool kid who is trying real hard to fulfill his dreams.By saying that he is not an American he is Indian, what is American idol trying to tell us now that people who are Americans but with other nationality are don’t stand a chance in this country? I have to congratulate Sanjaya for courage and good stamina he has shown America since he left American idol. He is the true American idol.

  • Glyn Reece

    Zade, you know nothing!
    The idea of using different genres each week is to test the vocal skills of the contestants, to find their true vocation in the industry. The problem with American Pop Idol is that you americans can’t see the wood for the trees! Simon is a very experienced pop producer, he knows talent when he sees it, e.g: Il Divo. But he – like most British people- dosn’t beat around the bush, if you perform badly, if you are not good, he will tell you, but at the end of the day, it is YOU the american public who decide. You can have your audience jeering at Simons’ comments, but surely the votes from the general public show the real feeling?

    I think your other comments are almost racist. And to suggest that we [British] are racist is awful. Our country is formed from more ethnic backgrounds and cultural diversifcation than the US of A will ever be. I could talk on this subject all day, you are so wrong in your assumptions Mr Zade, but getting back to the point, if a guy has talent, it will be found, worked upon and used. Take the good example of a previous UK winner, Gareth Gates, he won, I believe, due to the “aww” factor, a sweet kid with a ‘pop song’ voice, who became a ‘one hit wonder’ voted the winner by the public, but the guy who came second, Will Young, had longevity, and has gone on to make many many albums and is still be there in the limelight, long after Gareth had been forgotten. The whole point of talent shows like Pop Idol is to find someone who is going to make a go of it, and, unashamably make $$’s for the producers – If it’s not going to work, the guy can’t hold his own, or, cant hack it, Simon will tell him/her…. If you can’t stand the truth, you shouldn’t be in the industry, but remember, when all is said and done, it is YOU the AMERICAN PUBLIC who decide who stays and who goes, not Simon or the other panel, they just express their opinion based on their own track record in the industry.

  • suzie

    Glyn

    Just to make sure you got your facts right.
    Will Young won, not Gareth. Gareth was runner up.

    Gareth has had 8 chart hits to date – 7 in the top 5 and 2 albums. After a 3 year break he has a 3rd album about to come out. He had mega success in some parts of Europe and in Asia.

    Will has had 3 albums, is hugely successful in the Uk, but less so elsewhere. He also has a pretty successful acting career.

    Both are thankfully free from having to deal with Simon Cowell – who is undoubtedly a great business man but cares much less about the development of the artist

  • Jane

    Gareth Gates mega successful in europe [ please as if] if he was so successful why was he dropped by his record company – which he as admitted in a tv interview, no he did not take a break he was dropped !!!

    and as for his come back the first single as been a fantastic flop his chart run so far 163-14-42- he as sold about 10k in the uk.

  • chitti

    Glyn,

    Zade is spot on. Moreover the American public did vote. Sanjaya was the fifth highest vote getter among seven and was still booted. AI is a sham.

  • Carol

    I never saw Simon’s comments as racist, thugh it is an intersting take on Simon. This is the first season I really watched the show and that was because of Sanjaya. Simon seemed to be having more hissy fits the more he stayed. It was amusing. I think he was just mad that Sanjaya was there and people didn’t want to listen to his comments to not vote for him. He always says this is a singing competition but it’s more than that it’s a voting contest that goes with how popular you are. Besides AI has a disclaimer at the end of their shows stating they have a right to delete power dialed votes. I know that they want to erase votes brought in by some software or something, but a lot of fans of the contestants also vote multiple times using their phones. How do they distinguish between them? What if a conetstant voted over 1,000 times like some claim to vote? If they erase power votes from one contestant shouldn’t it be erased from others?
    Also, in AI every year there’s always a pimped chosen one. This year it’s Jordin. The girl has talent but some of the judges compliments are just overrated. What they would call another person out on for doing they don’t with their chosen ones. If Lakisha screams some notes than so did Jordin did also on top 6 night.
    In the end I don’t care much really, because the show’s boring a reason I never really watched it before and Sanjaya made it interesting enough for me to start knowing more about it and now I can just forget about the show again and do other stuff again.

  • JJ

    The “idol routine” and trickery in terms of expecting contestants to perform in genres they are unaccustomed to does sound like a bad idea in a way. However, if they didn’t do that, then it would be too easy to have inflexible singers advance. We might end up with one trick pony singers that can only do one thing. I do agree to some extent, but at the other extreme it might become dull as well to have for example one contestant always sing one genre. As for Dave and Stern wanting to bring down AI and you saying that’s a good idea. I disagree because people find the program entertaining. THAT’S why the program exists. There is no logical reason to bring something down that many people enjoy. That’s just silly.

  • scott

    This is a very insightful and accurate article. And it doesn’t seem one-sided either. You’re right that Simon and Howard Stern both have issues. But a lot of American find it entertaining.

    Go to davedellaterza.com to see the ultimate sattire/sarcasm. It will crack you up.

  • http://idol-mania.com/american-idol-fan Idol Fan

    Great Article! Gave you a Digg and a Trackback, and a Digg Blog for this one!! Good Job!!

  • http://www.taylorhickblues.blogspot.com Jewels

    Great piece, I love your style. I’m not sure if I agree 100 percent with your assessment that Slimon has racially biased feelings against Sanjaya. I think it more in the line of his preference in music and what he personally imagines the American Idol machine should crank out as their yearly mascot. I mean, he cranked out Il Divo, enough said on his musical preferences.

    As Carol stated above it is obvious to anyone really paying attention to this reality show that Jordin is their chosen one this year. It is also true whether any of the blinded dye-hard fans want to admit, the producers can pull votes and alter the true results.

    Regarding insaneinthesfv I’ve been thinking the very same thing about Simon – began last year to see that he really is out of touch.

    Sanjaya was the only bright light this season and the The Powers That Be running this show pulled the plug on the boy – too soon. I am convinced that the consensus was running with this show that should he get to top four there would be no stopping him.

    Regarding Howard Stern, he just tagged along on Dave Della Terza’a coat tails. (Hi Dave.)

  • http://www.friendlymisanthropist.blogspot.com alessandro Nicolo

    Racist? Hardly. Misguided probably. But spare me the racism card.

    Personally, I simply did not think he should sing and belonged. End of story. He’s probably a great kid. No hard feelings.

    I didn’t know he was half-Italian.

    Good piece. Original take on AI.

  • Fanjaya

    I think Simon is just “mad” not necessarily at Sanjaya but to those Americans who vote for him.
    It’s true that AI is primarily a SINGING competition but you have to remember that for a singer to sell, he/she must also be “packaged” very well. Not all famous artists have “nightingale-like” voices..what makes them famous is the way they were “sold” and “packaged”. And Sanjaya has that! He may not be a really really good singer but hey, he is the MOST interesting AI contestant I’ve ever known. Haven’t you noticed..AI has become boring and repetitive every season and Sanjaya just made the show very popular again!

    I want to make a “prophesy” here: Sanjaya will sell MORE albums than whoever will win the American Idol.

  • Barely Bolshie Bengali

    I haver read the blog as well as the comments with great interest – as an Indian American who has had to often deal with odd British behavior (including a comment from a British boss who said “you used to belong to us” said in a completely matter of fact way)I have to point out that the Simon’s attitude is not racist in black/white sense that is easily understood in the US because of its clear context.

    Ask a white Australian how s/he is constantly reminded by supercilious Pommies that regardless of who they may be today – their grandfather was a criminal.

  • Anna

    Simon racist?
    I dont think so as his last three girlfriends have all been black or asian.

  • http://www.cdbaby.com/jimsanchez2 mjs

    Sanjaya, sing this!

  • http://adreamersholiday.blogspot.com Lee Richards

    It’s not religion, philosophy, social commentary, politics, or nuclear physics. Why give it so much weight and significance? It’s a televison program presented to advertize and entertain. If it doesn’t entertain you, then don’t watch.

    Was it Freud who said, “Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar”?

  • http://www.infinityfoundation.com rajiv malhotra

    An excellent insightful article on how racism is now underground and subtle, and thus able to fool a large number of people today.

  • Kelly

    Some interesting points raised, but I don’t think Simon was being racist in the true sense. He was being arrogant, and up himself with those comments, but there is nothing new there.

    I agree with Glen in so much as the different genres each week are a way to help the viewer imagine how each artist may progress in the future, but the UK music media is much more open to artists moving between genres throughout their career, and mainstream radio typically includes a broader cross-section of musical styles than is common in the US. The UK show was also called Pop Idol, making no secret of the fact they wanted a pop star, whose work might be influenced by rock or R&B, but would be firmly rooted in pop.

    I have to say though that the bit about Gareth Gates is totally wrong. Mixed race, working class Gareth was runner-up to white, middle-class Will, however, remains one of the most successful artists from any of these shows, having had multiple number ones in multiple countries. He is preparing to release his third album, and is still a household name. Will has done very well in the UK, although his failure to break any international market demonstrates that tastes in music and singers are very country specific. After a shaky start, Kelly Clarkson has had substantial success in the UK, but so far she remains the only one, and probably because she has found a style that fits in with what UK radio stations are playing.

  • marvin katz

    Religous watcher of American Idol, My votes are attributed to the better singers, I look at weekly performances before I judge, Sanjaya did not have the vocals to have carried him beyond his time, I really thought he would have been off way before, This show is about Talent, not sympathy.

  • http://zadeblog.blogspot.com/ zade

    I appreciate all this generous feedback! The sort of misconduct Simon directed at Sanjaya might well be received differently across Britain, as it is more readily recognizable there. I noticed that The Times Online (London) has been extremely supportive of Sanjaya’s talent, but I doubt that this alone would make Simon Cowell and his team reset their clocks to the present or reorder their priorities accordingly. It’s worth considering as well how Simon Cowell has abused the power of language to guide public perception. Where Tony Bennet, Diana Ross and Jennifer Lopez have said quite emphatically on camera that Sanjaya can indeed sing, it’s remarkable that Simon Cowell’s immoderate badmouthing of the boy has overwhelmed their expert opinion, so that he is now identified by and for many people as someone who can’t sing very well at all, although he might be most amusing. That downgrading is the essence of old-style British racism. Yet the genius of American culture is that it periodically renews itself by allowing infusions of new blood and fresh talent into the mix. Making seventeen year old boys and girls tremble and weep before tens of millions of TV viewers indicates an entirely un-American style of talent search, more related to a tradition of corporal punishment, which never produced music of any kind.

  • Subhash

    I enjoyed this article. Sanjaya has shown grace. I think the reasons for Sanjaya’s immense popularity so long he was on Idol were a mixture of his innocence and charm and the desire of the viewers to bring down the show.

    But can we really trust the vote totals?

  • I hate American idol

    I had no idea that Cliff Richard, Englebert Humperdink and Freddie Mercury were East Asian! Cool.

    I think your thesis regarding Simon Cowell acting like a colonialist in the way he treated Sanjaya is nonsense. Cowell doesn’t come out of that era. I think he was hard on Sanjaya for much simpler reasons – Sanjaya can’t sing.

    Katharine McPhee described American Idol best – “It isn’t a singing competition, it is a reality show about a singing competition and we the contestants, and the judges, are just actors.”

    Or something.

  • Jetaime

    I wasn’t expecting an article about Sanjaya to also include a brief view of the historical relationship between Brits and Asian Indians, but thank you for the interesting insight. The unpredicitability of AI results that Sanjaya mentioned when asked who he thought would win, I feel, is due more (as a previous poster commented) to AI’s authority to disqualify (inappropriate?) votes. As the previous poster mentioned and from articles and comments I’ve read, Sanjaya came in 5th, not 7th the night he was eliminated. I find that disturbing. Yet, many columnists out there, some who are two or three times older (and supposedly wiser) than Sanjaya, find it easier to trash an innocent and naive teen than tackle the more telling issues. The anger toward Sanjaya has been totally misdirected. That’s even more disturbing. And when did bullying become vogue?

  • smile

    Simon did seem harsh towards Sanjaya. In his words “this is a singing competition” , yes , it is and you chose Sanjaya cause the lad could sing. So why the hatred and spite? Being a good singer is not just about singing, its also requires to involve the listener in the song to a certain degree …and Sanjaya could do just that. Nowadays i listen to songs and think , what would be Sanjaya’s take be on this one… and I guess that is important. He performed each song in such a distinct style. Moreover his charming, polite attitude was such winner. He took all of Simon’s and America’s hate and gave back love and warmth. Thats a superstar!

  • Steve S

    I hate American Idol

    I’m not even sure why I do. But it stirs something deep inside me like few modern phenomenoe of the 21st century can. I mean I just don’t dislike it. I loathe it. More than the terrorist or the War in Iraq. More than people who commit heinous crimes, or do bad things to puppies.

    Maybe its due to the fact that three already wealth showbiz types are making millions more by contributing nothing to society; they are not educating , training or encouraging the wretched masses that come before them yearning to hit it big; nor are they displaying a modicum of talent themselves ( unless you consider Paula’s penchant for being a smart, successful showbiz type off screen while lapsing into fits of ditziness on screen to be a talent.)

    Maybe its due to the fact that that it brings out a cross section of all that’s wrong with America. The hopefuls who want to be famous are silently endorsing Americas idol’s themselves; the latter being the do nothing, know nothing group of the latest paparazzi hounded bubble headed pretty boy’s and girl’s who’s legacy will be to survive eight bouts of rehab, or shave off their hair in a barber shop window.

    Or maybe its due to the fact that the early rounds of each season’s auditions are more a three ring circus than a serious competition. Even the Miss America pageant pales in comparison. The hopefuls, for the most part, are either clueless as to what talent they possess ( like bad breath, even their best friends won’t tell them), or shameless masochist willing to do anything to attain Warhol’s proverbial minutes of fame, or in on the joke being perpetuated on the American public that the show has any redeeming value.

    Paula, Randy, and Simon each have their own style. Paula is the typical mediocre wanna be almost Diva,
    who before “Idol” would have been best remembered for her album “Forever Young Girl” (which by the way took 62 weeks to hit #1 on the Billboard 200 album sales chart, the longest an album has been on the market before hitting #1.)

    Randy , although he tries to be cruel , comes across as a sincere, nice guy who would be better off
    going back to playing bass for the rock group “Journey” or producing, promoting and cheering other artist as he did in his former capacity as a high powered executive for Columbia and MCA Records .

    And than there is Simon, the true star of the show. Simon is probably the third most influential American alive today, behind our Commander in Chief and the new president of Microsoft.

    The future of peoples lives and careers are determined by his decisions and words. The two things about Simon are his unpredictableness and his meanness. Simon is like the Sword of Damocles. Talent or no talent, you never know which way his is going to go. A female singer with whom the others are enamoured might get the axe because Simon doesn’t like the shade of eye shadow she put on that morning.
    On the other hand an obviously marginal voice might get his thumbs up ( after his trademark mildly scathing critique of course) because God Simon believes he can be the muse, the pivotal person in someone’s career whose prodigal insight can propel an otherwise lost soul onto a career of grandeur.

    But what I really dislike about Simon is his meanness. There is not a glint of compassion in his eye when he pronounces the death knoll to even the most naive, starry eyed hopeful . His critique’s, albeit usually accurate, are full of sad cliches and drone on and on like an incessant Howard Stern. Don’t get me wrong. I love Howard Stern. Stern possess a keen, insightful sarcastic sense of humor and the ability to pinpoint upcoming American trends and recognize farces better than the crew at Fox News or Talk Soup . And the guy is creative AND funny. Simon is neither. He just happened to come up with the right variation of a talent show at the right time, and was in a position to pitch it to the right people which will land him a place as an icon of American entertainment, and keeps him scowling all the way to the bank !