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Shvitz Exclusive: Christopher Ames On Sanjaya Malakar

In mid-march, Washington College Dean Christopher Ames set tongues awag and keyboards aclutter with “Schooled by American Idol,” his spirited paean to “this remarkable reality TV show.” Published in the Chronicle of Higher Education and Chicago Sun-Times (and blogged everywhere … Read More

By / April 9, 2007

In mid-march, Washington College Dean Christopher Ames set tongues awag and keyboards aclutter with “Schooled by American Idol,” his spirited paean to “this remarkable reality TV show.” Published in the Chronicle of Higher Education and Chicago Sun-Times (and blogged everywhere from the Wall Street Journal Online to 3 Quarks Daily), the article gushed about the “pedagogical significance” of AI. The show’s great popularity, Ames wrote, indicated that Americans were fed up with talentless showboats and “a world full of people rating themselves highly.” They now “long for the enforcement of standards of taste and judgment.” America, AI proved, had standards.

But in the three weeks since Ames’s article was published, the relentlessly out-of-tune Sanjaya Malakar, regarded by many as one of the worst top-ten contestants in the history of American Idol, has sailed through show after show with America’s support. Has Ames’s theory, so recently minted, already been decisively falsified? Does Sanjaya prove that America has no standards after all?

The Shvitz implored Ames to tell America’s many millions of Idolaters whether his theories have survived the rise of Sanjaya. And he manned up. Below, Professor Ames explains to Shvitzers how Simon, Randy, and Paula have let him down, and why he still believes that AI is a fine expression of American meritocracy.

– Joey

******

American Idol begins with the judges having the final say about the fates of the contestants. It then shifts to audience voting. The judges continue to comment and try to influence the voting, but they no longer render the final verdict. Usually, the judges are quite effective in shaping audience opinion, but at times they fail. Often, interestingly, they fail with the pre-teen or young adolescent audience, and an untalented but cute contestant with junior high appeal outlasts his time. Thus it is with Sanjaya, who clearly is a poor singer.

What's discouraging is that the judges have given up on criticizing him, perhaps recognizing that he's the phenom of the moment and is helping their ratings. So, yes, that's a different current from what I discussed in my article, where the audience relishes seeing talentless swell-headed would-be artistes get cut down to size.

One aspect of American Idol discourse that fascinates me is the competing languages of judges and contestants. The contestants, without variation, speak the trite "follow your dream and nothing can stop you" and "we are each individual in our talents and strengths" myths; the judges talk about good and bad performance, intonation, phrasing, song choice and so forth. Poor Ryan Seacrest tries to straddle the line between these incompatible discourses. Ultimately, it's the two sides of the American meritocracy: a belief that talent or hard work will eventually win out, versus the star-is-born belief in the miraculous transformative power of fame.

–Christopher Ames

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