Sanjaya Malakar, Leroy Jenkins, and The Power to Negate

mainsanjaya2.jpg As a long-time American Idol fan, I am watching the current controversy about Sanjaya Malakar with morbid fascination. For those of you who are not following the plot, Malakar is a relatively untalented contestant who is surviving week after week as much more widely praised rivals are biting the dust. Simon Cowell this week went so far as to suggest that nothing which the producers on the show said about his performance would make any difference in the outcome of the voting: "I don't think it matters anymore what we have to say, actually. I genuinely don't. I think you are in your own universe and if people like you, good luck!" Elsewhere, Cowell has fanned the flames by threatening to quit American Idol if Sanjaya wins.

Regular readers of this blog will have already suspected some of the forces going on behind the scenes here to essentially "spoil" American Idol and can only imagine the choice words that Simon and the other judges are uttering behind the scenes. I reported here last summer about a group called Vote for the Worst which has adopted an interventionist stance towards reality television programs. The group has taken credit in the past for the surprising longevity of AI contestants, such as Scott Savol and Bucky Covington[See note at end of post], as well as having gotten a number of lackluster contestants onto Big Brother's All Stars series last summer. Here's what the group has posted over on their home page:

Why do we do it? During the initial auditions, the producers of Idol only let certain people through. Many good people are turned away and many bad singers are kept around to see Simon, Paula, and Randy so that America will be entertained.

Now why do the producers do this? It's simple: American Idol is not about singing at all, it's about making good reality TV and enjoying the cheesy, guilty pleasure of watching bad singing. We agree that a fish out of water is entertaining, and we want to acknowledge this fact by encouraging people help the amusing antagonists stick around. VFTW sees keeping these contestants around as a golden opportunity to make a more entertaining show.

They have a point: research suggests that American Idol attracts essentially two different viewerships. There are people who watch the first part of the series -- up until Hollywood -- enjoying the "gong show" like segments where bad singers get spotlighted. (That's why William Hung remains one of the most infamous contestants to ever appear on the show and why the producers consistently replay the footage of his mangled and tone-deaf performance of "She Bangs.") And then there are the people who tune in once the producers have gotten all of that out of their system to watch the talented few compete, get feedback, and try to win the hearts of the American public.

So, it is hard for the producers to claim that "vote for the worst" is not in the spirit of the show. The Vote for the Worst fans are simply acting out of turn, asserting their own right to pick which bad singers should get on the air and how long they should last.

Vote for the Worst, by itself, probably doesn't have the clout to really carry this very far, in the end, but this time around, the site has won the support of Howard Stern, the self-proclaimed "King of All Media," who is using his satellite radio program to encourage listeners to vote to keep Sanjaya on the show. Stern has drawn real blood in the past. In 1998, Stern ran a successful effort to get a regular on his program, Hank the Angry Drunken Dwarf, selected as one of People Magazine's list of the most beautiful people in the world. This was an early experiment in the use of the web to encourage reader participation. Hank won over Leo DeCaprio, the pretty boy actor who was then riding high off his Titanic appearance, and the dwarf got a lot angrier and perhaps a little drunker when the magazine refused to feature him inside the print edition of their publication.

Of course, as with this earlier election, the whole process exploits several bugs in the system: first, it takes advantage of the fact that viewers can call in more than one vote. It is not just that a relatively small but determined number of people could indeed cast enough votes to keep Sanjaya at the middle of the pack but it is also the case that people can vote for Sanjaya and not sacrifice their ability to also vote for a favorite performer. So, it becomes a no cost gag vote, which can turn out to have bad consequences for individual contestants who have off weeks and end up going while Mr. Malakar remains. Of course, all of this might end quickly if viewers voted to eliminate contestants, rather than to keep them. Surely, there are more people who want Malakar off the show than want him to remain on the air. But the producers have consistently argued against having people vote to eliminate contestants, feeling that would bring a negative tone to the proceedings.

As this has occurring, there have been growing expressions of outrage among fans of the program. Vote for the Worst proudly posts a segment from The O'Reilly Factor during which civil litigator Danielle Aidala tries to argue that the fan's efforts to keep Sanjaya Malakar on the air represent speech that should be exempt from First Amendment protection -- comparing voting for the worst to inciting a riot. For once, O'Reilly comes across as the most rational voice on the program!

And check out the ways that YouTube is responding to the Malakar Matter, including what we can only hope is a tongue in cheek promise to go on a hunger strike to encourage people to vote him off the air.

So, what of the fairly sweet and relatively harmless young man caught in the center of this whole brouhaha? At first, it was pretty clear he was clueless about these efforts on his behalf, shocked when he stayed on the air in the face of seemingly inevitable elimination, seeming fragile in the face of the judge's withering comments. One news story quoted a family friend: "He's so young and so sensitive, it's hard for him to go out on that stage and not have that devastation affect his performance."

By this week, when he appeared in a campy Mohawk and mugged throughout his performance, it seemed to me that like William Hung before him, he had caught onto the joke being made at his expense and was willing to ride things out as long as it kept him in the spotlight. My wife thinks he is still playing to win and is under the mistaken belief that he really does have an army of teenyboppers behind him. Watch the clip for yourself and see what you think.

How might we make sense of all of this?

For starters, we are witnessing the public's periodic fascination with its power to negate. "America", as the Idol judges like to call us, at least when they are happy with our decisions, has a stubborn streak. There have certainly been cases when the public votes to keep someone on the program precisely because the judges were harsh to them and long-time Idol viewers have long speculated that the judges use this power to condemn tactically to generate public support behind certain contestants they want to keep on the air. The fans are also deeply suspicious of other efforts by the judges to game the system and there have been, as I outlined in Convergence Culture, ongoing controversies about the reliability of the voting system itself. In what other context would we trust the results of an election when no vote totals were ever released? And there are certainly cases where backlash emerges when the judge push a contestant too heavily and at the expense of fan favorites. It is telling that the winner of American Idol often sells fewer records than the also rans, suggesting that to the bitter end, the public wants to exert its ability to cancel out whatever the judges tell us to do.

I certainly saw Hank the Dwarf winning People Magazine's contest over Leo DeCaprio as a kind of populist response to the culture of glamor and celebrity -- as a push towards the anti-celebrity, the anti-heroic, the anti-glamorous, and the untalented as emblematic of a segment of the population that feels under-represented, under-counted, and under-appreciated.

In that sense, Hank and Sanjaya might be compared to LeRoy Jenkins, the hapless World of Warcraft player whose misadventures have developed a cult following among hardcore gamers. I was recently asked by a reporter to comment on the LeRoy Jenkins story -- assuming of course that I had to be a Jenkins expert (Can't imagine why?)-- and I suggested that we might see him as a new kind of American everyman, an embodiment of our collective feelings of insecurity and inadequacy. I remarked on the odd happenstance that the American everyman of World War II was Kilroy -- with G.I.s scribbling "Killroy was here" across the landscape as they recaptured Europe from the Nazis -- while the American everyman of the current war in Baghdad might be LeRoy, the guy who never had a chance. As I explained to the reporter, ""For the first time, we as a society get to decide who's famous. Having gained the right to project celebrities forward, we often choose losers, because in the past it was always success that connoted celebrity. If Leroy Jenkins can become a celebrity, anybody can."

Of course, the populist underpinnings of all this are tainted, I would argue, by the fact that this is being taken out of the hands of the grassroots Vote for the Worst campaign and transformed into a battle between two media powerhouses: Cowell vs. Stern.

And here's a question I have been struggling with. My sense is that Stern's listeners were laughing with Hank as he walked away to victory over the Hollywood hotshots, while they are laughing at Sanjaya Malakar as he remains uncomfortably caught in the spotlight, in way over his head, on American Idol. So, how do we account for the difference?

How long will all of this last? It's anyone's guess. My hunch is that it will last another few weeks in any case -- until the pack thins out a bit more -- and then the number of fans needed to stay on the program will grow well beyond the reach of Vote for the Worst and Howard Stern. There are probably a lot more people who want to see some of the other contestants win than want to see Sanjaya stick around but for the moment, the votes are split and so he will outlast many more worthy contestants. Could Howard Stern pull it off with American Idol as he did with People? Probably not. For one thing, the number of votes being cast on Idol far outweighs the number needed to win a web-based contest in 1998 and for another, Stern doesn't have nearly the reach he once did, given the lackluster revenue being generated by Sirius Radio at the present time. At the end of the day, Malakar is going down and Cowell will be able to once again play king-maker on his own program. And if he doesn't? Well, he won't be the first winner on American Idol whose record sales didn't reflect his standings in the competition. And even if Malakar won the contest, the producers would be able to make a mint off some of the other talent in the competition.

Editor's Note: Readers correctly point out that Bucky Covington was never a target of the Vote for the Worst campaign. I have left the original reference so that their comments would make sense and so that it would clarify a common misconception. I have read multiple news reports which did list Bucky as a VFTW target but I can't find any trace of him being so on the actual site. Sorry for any offense caused to his loyal fans. As it happens, I kinda like the guy myself.