The Republic of T.

Black. Gay. Father. Vegetarian. Buddhist. Liberal.

Sing, Sanjaya, Sing!

287745I’ve never watched American Idol, or at least not an entire show. I’ve see performance highlights online, but that’s as close as I’ve gotten to having anything to do with the show. (Except once when I was told I resembled a contestant, back when I had dreadlocks and the show had two black guys with dreadlocks.) I tend to think the show, along with most of the “reality TV” genre plays to and encourages the worst in people.

But I may have reason to watch now. That is, unless there’s a way to vote without watching the show. Because if there is, I’m going to vote for Sanjaya every chance I get, even though I’ve never heard him sing. I don’t even know if he can sing. But I still want him to win. Turns out, as I discovered from talking to people in my office, lots of other people do too. They’ve got they’re reasons, and I’ve got a few of my own.

Jill’s reasons seem pretty good to me, to start with.

But I’m not just spouting liberal claptrap here. I really want this kid to win. Why? Because it’s clear that he SO gets it. He knows he can’t sing. But while he’s bad, he’s not William Hung bad. There’s nothing to feel superior to in Sanjaya Malakar, because he is playing this show like a fine violin. Here is this scrawny, 17-year-old kid with a smile as big as all outdoors. He’s got the whole 1970’s Shawn Cassidy/Andy Gibb thing down pat — the moves, the sly smiles at the girls, and an even bigger smile for the rest of the audience that says “Fuck you — I suck, I know it, and what are you going to do about it?” He’s all style and no substance. He has an amazing way of distracting people from what’s really important even as he gets more outrageous all the time. For whatever reason, he’s been able to get millions of people to forget about the damage he’s causing the particular ship he’s steering at the moment and vote for him. In short, Sanjaya is the perfect American Idol winner for the waning days of the George W. Bush administration.

Sure. Why shouldn’t America’s preferred music style harmonize with its preferred leadership style? We got the government we deserve, why shouldn’t we get the American Idol we deserve? The one that best represents everything we currently stand for? Why should Americans vote for the worst in one arena but not the other?

I’m not comparing Sanjaya to George W. Bush. For starter’s, he way cuter and I’d lay money he’s a lot nicer and light-years more harmless. But there’s an interesting parallel, I have to admit. Keith points to a fairly succinct assessment at the Black Agenda Report.

Like Fox’s television channels, Fox News deals in entertainment. Both bend truth and reality. Fox channel claims Idol is a reality-based show, featuring the hopes and dreams of people that want to win. Contestants believe that the best will win, that if they work hard and get the right amount of support they will be successful. Fox channels give those contestants a forum. Unfortunately, Mr. Malakar has gotten a forum. Better contestants have lost that forum. And so it is with Fox News and George Bush. Fox News provides Bush with the right support; it makes President Bush’s reality (his policies) the truth. …Better analyses or ideas on how America’s challenges can be addressed have been lost or, sadly, been repressed. …Truth becomes a casualty.

The Idol voting public is fickle; it values style over substance. The best people or ideas don’t win. This mimics the electoral voting public; it is fickle. It appreciates style over substance. Empty terms such as “Bring ‘em on” or testicle-grabbing international foreign policy is sexy and is desired. A majority of American public wants to believe “The War on Terror” can be “won.” It re-elected Bush. …A majority of the American public accepts his style. It supports his policies. Opinion polls indicate that a majority of the American voting public does not support his policies. This is a lie because if America truly did not support his policies it would impeach him and remove him and most of his administration NOW! The American voting public is exactly like the Idol voters; both enjoy poor performance or mock good performance.

Like I said, I wouldn’t go quite that far, but a Sanjaya win would be poetic on many levels.

I’ll admit, a bit of it’s personal. Besides being a writer, I’ve always been a singer. My first time on stage was in the second grade, when our school did it’s own version of The Wizard of Oz. I told my teacher I could sing “Somewhere Over the Rainbow.” So she asked me to sing it right there in class, and I did. I got the lead, which they changed from “Dorothy” to “Danny.” Actually, I shared the part with another boy who played it in the second act, because we resembled each other and the teachers thought it was too much for a kid to do both acts.

Later, I went to a performing arts magnet school and majored in voice and acting, and did a lot of musical theater. Sometime during those years, puberty set in, and my voice changed. I didn’t realize at the time, though that my prospects as a singer had changed too. Not because I couldn’t sing. I got picked each year to be in the boy’s quartet, and we went to compete on the state level. There were probably two reasons I was chosen, both of which stemmed from my vocal shift from soprano to baritone. I discovered a natural gift for improvising harmony after my voice got too deep to sing along with the melody of the songs on the radio, and I learned how to adjust the quality of my voice to blend with whomever I was singing with. (Our chorus teacher would actually move me around in the baritone section, and put me where she felt a “blending voice” was needed.

It was then that I learned how narrow musical tastes were. Suddenly, in musical theater I realized the tenors got all the good parts. (As in opera, though at least in opera they often die before the final curtain. Plus almost everyone knows “The Three Tenors” but “The Three Baritones” are decidedly less well known, though probably no less talented.) When I turned on the radio, I realized most of the male pop vocalists were tenors, or what I now call “stratospheric tenors.” I rarely, if ever, heard voices that sounded like mine, even when I worked to extend my range with every vocal technique I could learn. At best I was a “bari-tenor,” who could manage the lower part of the range but stayed pretty close to the ground when the time came to soar.

Though I know the shift in musical tastes preceded American Idol, it has come to symbolize for me a narrowing of American popular music in a way that parallels the narrowing of American political discourse mentioned above. Listen to the contestants, and especially to the winners, and in terms of vocal type, style, and range they’re all pretty much the same, at least to my ear. And America votes for them. (Though how much their votes count is debatable, just as in politics.)

Don’t believe me? OK. Go back and pick some classic American singer from long ago. Now imagine them competing in American Idol. Do they win? My mental pick was Nat “King” Cole, and I don’t think he’d last more than a couple of rounds on American Idol. Neither would Frank Sinatra or Joe Williams. Not because they weren’t any good, but because they probably wouldn’t be able to cut it in an arena where pyrotechnics are valued over control, phrasing, and interpretation. Where style, in other words, is valued over substance, like Jill said earlier.

We don’t deserve another Nat Cole, and wouldn’t appreciate another one if we got him.

The women would fair only slightly better, but drop someone as unique as Billie Holiday or Judy Garland on the American Idol stage and watch how quickly they’d get the boot. Actually, they’d probably get featured in some of the episodes dedicated to laughing at the people who didn’t make it to Hollywood.

Now, think about politics today. Pick a leader from the past, maybe one known for leadership, intellect, or integrity. Put him or her on a ballot and America vote. Does your candidate win?

Despite all of the above, I’ve been thinking of going back to singing. I tried it a couple of years ago, and auditioned for a male vocalist slot with a local band. I sang an acappella version of “My Foolish Heart,” and they told me the loved the sound and quality of my voice, and how I knew my way around the song. Then they asked the “kiss of death” question: “Can you sing any higher?” If they’d known what they were doing, they might have sat someone down at the keyboard to try it a few half steps up and see how far we could go. But they didn’t.

Still, the place where I took acting lessons a while back also offers a class in a cabaret singing that sounds like it might be fun. And I might as well. I’m already too old for American Idol, and I’ve totally got the wrong voice for it.

But at least I can vote for Sanjay.


  1. Pingback: Minor victories « Greg Prince’s Blog

  2. Interesting piece, it ties in a bit to some comments of mine from a couple nights ago.

    Distrust and disrespect for professionalism and expertise does seem to be a hallmark, of the Dubya era.

  3. wow! i never thought i could buy an argument to hope sanjaya wins but you may have convinced me. thanks, t, for opening my eyes, in more ways than you know. you rock!

  4. Well, all I can say is that hanging out with you at R.J.’s apartment and singing “With or Without You” is a favorite memory of mine from college. I’ve always loved that smoky note you’ve got in your voice! It’s distinctive.

    You mention Judy and Billie … as far as I’m concerned, the world would be a poorer place without Nina Simone’s husky alto.

  5. There’s a narrowing of selection for both women and men, but it works differently for each sex. For men, the higher voices get the attention everywhere: tenors get the good parts in the opera, in musical theater, and tend to rise in the pop charts, even though there have been baritone and bass singers that the world would be much poorer without. For women, sopranos get lots of lead roles in opera and musical theater, but there’s also a perception that lower women’s voices are sexier, so (aside from getting the usually secondary “bad girl” role while the soprano gets the usually primary “good girl” role) there tend to be more lower women’s voices on the radio than lower men’s voices. At the same time, as anywhere in the entertainment world, the ideal for women’s appearance tends to be somewhat narrower than the ideal for men’s appearance. (If I hear one more remark about how terribly ooooooold Madonna is now ……)

  6. “It was then that I learned how narrow musical tastes were. Suddenly, in musical theater I realized the tenors got all the good parts.” I’m in the San Francisco Gay Men’s Chrous and the tenors get all of the good solos. Baritones and basses are left in the oooooo and aaaaaaaa section. Every week at rehearsal I say….in my mind, Effie’s line from ScreamGirls “I don’t sang backup!”