Hair Today. . .
Sanjaya Malakar and American Idol
by John Demetry
In his farewell rendition on American Idol of Bonnie Raitt's "Something To Talk About," Sanjaya Malakar ad-libbed a new chorus. It proved an audaciously fun political throw down. Wearing tear-stained cheeks, that signature smile (it's wider than his face), and a t-shirt announcing "Life Is Beautiful," Sanjaya modified Raitt's lyric from "Let's give them something to talk about, how about love" to:
"Let's give them something to talk about, something other than Hair - Hair - HAIR!"
First, this acts as a charge to himself -- as undeniably the American Idol -- that he fulfills in his improvised transformation of the song. Setting an example, Sanjaya also appeals to the surviving contestants (dim bulbs who, combined!, can't match his star wattage) to confront the complexity/responsibility of pop expression. Sadly, they don't have IT, but is IT in his hair?
Most obviously, Sanjaya rebukes the media cruelty that would reduce him to "hair." With the uncommon semiotic felicity of a star, he controls the meaning of his hair. Sanjaya recognizes "hair" as part of meaning-making in pop -- a sophistication evidenced by his mastery of flirting with the camera with his eyes. In other words, his "hair" is a part of the system of signs through which he is able to "talk about" something OTHER than the banal. He made a spectacle of his hair as a symbol of his Difference, an emblem of fascination. That's why his weekly coifs enthralled a nation for months.
Sanjaya intuits what most film and music critics will never understand about the appeal of pop art. Of all the contestants, only Sanjaya's performances provide semiotic pleasures. Maybe his appearances will introduce young viewers to the liberating fun of pop. Through his myriad hairstyles, Sanjaya maneuvered through genders/genres.
During his proper Tuesday night performance of the Raitt song, Sanjaya wore his hair curly and beneath a bandana 'do rag. For the night's Country-Western theme, Sanjaya went hiphop. Even the accoutrement is a pun: 'do rag = "Dude, rag on me." The gesture signals the Difference that invites "adversity" (as Paula Abdul put it) AND, through the multi-culti pun, the perseverance by which people survive (and not in the reality-tv sense of survival, either!).
And don't forget the vocals (as most of his critics do). Sanjaya's original performance of the song not only referred to media maelstrom but, more specifically, to speculations regarding his sexuality, thus deepening the Raitt tale. During the soulful lead-up -- almost a rap -- to the big-note climax, Sanjaya charged the following lyrics with meaning: "A little mystery to figure out." Sanjaya stretched the word "out" and twisted it into a curly-cue (like a lock of his hair). No "singer" -- or, more appropriately, "signifier" -- in Idol history ever owned a moment -- attesting to a special solidarity -- so brave, fun, and fascinating; that is, so beautiful.
Sanjaya's hair is the outward expression of the sensitivity that attracted fans while his presence called on the mass audience for. . . acceptance. The resulting embarrassment (anxiety) on the part of viewers (insensitivity revealed, pain recalled) set off the bloodlust of the media and those who bow to the American Idol juggernaut (now an institution as unquestioned as The New York Times). That Difference was removed from American Idol this week.
Sanjaya may be off the show, but his "hair" challenge remains. Hair today. . . Love tomorrow.