Sanjaya Malakar. The name alone evokes an aura of mystery, romance, intrigue, and... confusion. The kid is fairly sweet, I guess, though I detect a bit too much self-satisfaction. He's the "new" American, obviously not your average WASP. He's adventuresome, in the sense that he doesn't mind wearing his hair like a row of feather dusters.
There's only one problem. He can't sing well enough to win a national singing contest. And yet, every week, we've watched many much better contestants leave "American Idol" after being voted off by the supposedly discerning public.
What's happening here? Are people just tone deaf? I'll admit I can barely carry a tune in a bucket, but I'm fairly sure I can tell the good from the bad and the ugly. I can't draw or paint worth a toodle either, but I think I have a reasonably astute eye when it comes to art. We don't all have to be Pavarottis or Picassos to know what works and what doesn't.
Simon Cowell, the most straightforward and dispassionate of the three judges on the show, admits being completely baffled and irritated by the audience's decisions, and has even threatened to leave if Sanjaya wins because his victory will make a mockery of the contest's entire raison d'etre. I can't blame him, though I doubt he'll follow through with his warning, money and power being the seductive mistresses they are.
Apparently, gangly little Sanjaya is hanging on, not because of his immense singing capabilities, but because he's: A) cute (to anyone under 18), B) endearing (to his mother), or C) some kind of bizarre underdog/rebel/oddity.
The folks voting for him are making their choice based on no rational or logical concepts at all. If he were running in the "Can't Sing, But Tries Contest," then he should win, but it's just plain wrong to shut out some truly talented young people just to keep him perversely planted every week.
It sort of reminds me of companies or organizations that fire wonderful employees and let the half-wits and troublemakers hang on forever.
As columnist Tony Hicks say, the whole American Idol/Sanjaya issue is "an insult to hard-working musicians everywhere, who write their own music and pay their dues driving sputtering vans to rotten little clubs where the restrooms are barely fit for humans."
I'm afraid what's happening is that we're continuing to reap what we've sown for the past 20 or so years, and the crop is only getting more and more overgrown and dense. (Pun intended.)
For far too long, we've been putting gold stars on tin behaviors. We clap like maniacs every time someone gets "close" to the goal. We yell "good job" to those who barely tap the ball, much less make it to first base. We plaster our fridges with passing report cards; forget about the honor roll. Waiters expect a minimum 15 percent gratuity, no matter the level of service, while doctors send exorbitant bills before they even determine a diagnosis.
Maybe all this exaltation is fine for those who can do no better, or for 5-year-olds. But what message are we sending to the vast majority of people, especially those still in their formative years, when we applaud mediocrity? Aren't we saying barely enough is fine, squeaking by is sufficient, values and standards are too restrictive and demanding?
As a high school English teacher, I've seldom taught anyone below the junior year. But this term I've had the pleasure of once more tackling a room full of sophomores, and it really has been a special joy, except for the fact that many of my youngest charges have had a difficult time accepting the blunt truth that their work often needs work. They've been used to getting "all A's,"and now some mean old lady is telling them everything they write just isn't always precious and perfect. My seniors long ago quit arguing with me, and now make me promise I'll be around next fall when they'll need continued guidance.
When students are distressed to find I've "bled" all over their papers, I tell them I'm only doing my job, which isn't to pussyfoot around or give them warm fuzzies. I want them to excel honestly; I want their self-esteem to be based upon earned effort and real rewards. Otherwise, we're creating emotional Frankensteins whose foundations will crumble the first time someone tells them they're not brilliant and adorable.
I'm not advocating an "I Hate Sanjaya" movement. He's just a kid who lucked up and got a little more than the average 15 minutes of fame.
But I am saying if we don't stop showering people with phony merit badges and gilded idols, genuine accomplishment will become extinct and unnecessary.
(Mindy Jeffers is a Martinez resident.)
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