Thursday, April 19, 2007

Sanjaya, Simon, Howard and Dave: Strange Brew

And so it begins! Last evening, Sanjaya's surprise appearance on 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 peformance 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"... etc." 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. 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, 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 (see Yahoo! Times of India, Indian Express, indiatimes, The Hindu, but see also NDTV). 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 VFTW 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 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.


AI audition

Some Kind of Wonderful

Stevie Wonder

John Mayer cover

Irving Berlin

Diana Ross


Gwen Stefani

Tony Bennet



Keith Olbermann

photo of Sanjaya by Shirley Halperin

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