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'Idol' politics

He's silly and sweet, but Sanjaya's also savvy

It's time to discuss the Sanjaya Victory Scenario.

Hard to read the words? This would surely be a nightmare for "American Idol" fans who believe that the show judges talent. In a year with a few top-notch performers and several of the borderline singers that "Idol" turns briefly into stars, wispy 17-year-old Sanjaya Malakar stands out for his breathtaking hair and his relative awfulness: the absurdly quiet voice, the dance moves out of middle school, the logic-defying endurance.

Last night, Chris Sligh, the sarcastic singer with voluminous curls, got booted for his off-tempo take on the Police. Sanjaya, who forgot the words to No Doubt's "Bathwater," was safe as usual.

Show after show, he sings weakly, stands to face the judges' vitriol, survives the voting process intact, and returns with increased confidence. So bold has he become that this week, he asked the "Idol" stylists to fashion his hair into a faux-hawk then calmly announced that he "thought it would be fun."

If he's truly having fun, he's either the most thick-skinned 17-year-old in America or the one with the largest sense of self-delusion. The judges treat him with a mix of cruelty and disappointment; bloggers go crazy with bile; a woman with a MySpace page has supposedly gone on a hunger strike until he leaves . Some fans have fixated on the comment "Idol" judge Simon Cowell made to a reporter: "He's not going to win. I won't be back if he does."

That's nonsense, of course, unless the "Idol" money well suddenly runs dry. And the idea that a Sanjaya win would ruin the show is nonsense, too. If anything, Sanjaya's staying power is proof that, despite eternal doubts about the "Idol" voting process, the tallying is legit -- and exceptionally fair. America has a long history of voting for the politicians it deserves.

Yes, politicians. Here's the secret to "American Idol:" Don't think of it as a singing competition. More than anything, "Idol" is a political game, an exercise in building support and rallying fans. Sanjaya, perhaps more than any "Idol" contestant in history, has figured how to galvanize his base.

First, it was by having the sort of sweetly androgynous, flowing-haired look that has always sent pre-teen hearts aflutter; think the mop-top Beatles, Shaun Cassidy, and Hanson. ("Can't you understand why little girls vote for Sanjaya? I can," the show's executive producer, Nigel Lythgoe, said in a conference call with reporters.)

Then, it was by being cute and shy, blinking at the judges with wide-eyed vulnerability, evoking sympathy from grandmothers and sentimental soccer moms.

Finally came the weight of his sheer godawfulness, the sort that brings out the "Idol" haters from, a sarcastic website-slash-movement shilled by Howard Stern. A group of haters called the "Fanjayas" has apparently sprung up; undoubtedly, they loved the faux-hawk.

Lythgoe dismisses the influence of the snarks; "It's like a fly buzzing around a cow," he told reporters. And a bad performance appeals to Brian Brickley , 26, of Burlington, who usually doesn't like the show after the bad-auditions phase. This season, partly for the entertainment value and partly to make his fiancee mad, he's voted for Sanjaya about 300 times.

Kristin Slater , 27, of Jamaica Plain says she consider s a Sanjaya vote a sort of moral imperative. She felt compelled to help him after canvassing her "Idol"-fan friends and feeling bad for the guy. "They didn't like him for really weird reasons, like 'He's effeminate' or 'He's just girlie,' " she said.

Hence the chain of events that could coalesce for an unlikely-but-still-possible Sanjaya win. Let's say the front-runners, big belters Melinda Doolittle and LaKisha Jones cancel each other out. Let's say the ever-texting tweens push Sanjaya past contestants with mediocre pipes and more adult appeal. Let's say he gets into the finals with the contest's other 17-year-old, the precociously polished Jordin Sparks. And that the fans who don't like Jordin's pop sound -- the ones who chose Taylor Hicks last year over Katharine McPhee -- turn to Sanjaya out of protest.

Will it mark the end of "Idol?" Not at all. Given the success of the "High School Musical" soundtrack -- last year's top-selling album on the Billboard charts -- he might even sell a lot of records.

But a Sanjaya victory could also change the way "Idol" is played -- could make the public more cynical and strategic, aware of the hidden rules. "Idol" voting has always had to do with skillfully managing an image, making wardrobe choices that appeal to specific factions (Haley Scarnato), offsetting the judges' harsh comments with a well-timed pout (Gina Glocksen).

Sanjaya just happens to be brilliant at the game. Whether that's an accident or the work of a teenage mastermind is anybody's guess. But as long as he has America talking, the "Idol" producers can't possibly mind.