Monday, April 2, 2007

A Sympathy Vote for Sanjaya

100,000 people auditioned for American Idol this year. If “talent-free” Sanjaya made it to the finals, is it not the fault of the selection process, not the adoring ‘tweens and mocking Vote-for-the-Worst folks?

American Idol trades on the pitch-challenged and the quirky, the oddly garbed, the clueless, the mildly talented looking for the express route to stardom. If someone like Sanjaya gets into the finals, it is only because, imho, thousands of better singers were turned away at the gate, or didn’t bother auditioning. Or perhaps because he is sweetly appealing, not commercially packaged, despite his lack of a show-stopping voice.

Imagine a cello idol show. I'm guessing it would be possible to find 12 outstanding cellists among the nation's college students or recent grads. Idol could find 12 outstanding pop singers if they wanted to.

Sometimes I think American Idol would better if it were a serious music competition, if the judges treated an audition like a master class. Imagine Simon giving real advice instead of going for the "humorous" insult. One of the tone-deaf auditioners suggested that the show follow initially bad, but promising, singers, thr0ugh a singing make-over process, showing how they improve over time. That would be more humane, but maybe not as provocative.

Still, the show gives the impression that musical talent is something you have or you don't, not something you can cultivate. And it sends an all-or-nothing message, thumbing its nose at Broadway, cabaret, and wedding singers, not to mention those who sing for pleasure.

I don’t really listen to popular music, so I am not a good judge of this, but is it even a prerequisite that pop singers be great singers?

I’ve been kind of impatient with American Idol this year (yet it is one of the few shows I watch). I was irritated with the nastiness of the judge's comments this year, especially when you know that the insulted singers have gone through 3-4 auditions before they reach Simon, Paula, and Randy, falsely encouraged at each step along the way.

I find Sanjaya and the recently deleted Chris Sligh amusing because they are different. If I were the sort to vote for American Idol contestants, I might actually vote for Sanjaya. Well, maybe not. But it is fun to watch him. I actually thought his singing had improved last week. The ponytail mohawk was hilarious; and even funnier was Ryan Seacrest's copycat hairstyle the next night.

I do have some experience with American Idol auditions—I accompanied my then-16-yr-old daughter on a rainy two-day audition at Gillette Stadium (Boston) last year (Season Five). My daughter has a glorious voice, more operatic than pop, but, I figured she was a shoe-in. She had just been elected president of the high school choir; and I had been elected to (agreed to take) the position of president of the parent support group for the choir. We were planning and fundraising for a choir trip to New York City. How are we going to manage a busy choir year, I was thinking, if we are in Hollywood for the fall audition process? And, of course, she’ll make the top 12…. I wonder if they pay parents to sit in the audience every week. How do families manage this?

Not to worry. She didn’t pass even the first audition. More about that another time.

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