By Jim Schutze
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Sanjaya, gone from American Idol! Alas, I barely knew him. Our time together was but brief, comprised of stolen moments on YouTube and furtive glances at celebrity gossip blogs. And though now the Indian warbler is forever gone from the Idol ranks, he will always be in my heart. For he is the latest phenomenon to milk America's love of unexceptional celebrity, raising high the dim torch of relentless mediocrity. Sanjaya could kinda-sorta sing, looked like a Madame Tussauds intern's first go at styling a wax mannequin and had the stage presence to match. America loved him, even as we wondered at his success.
American Idol has paved the way for an all-out "talent" show assault. Just last week, a small-scale battle was waged right here in Dallas at a Holiday Inn on Central Expressway, and I was embedded with the troops on the front lines of Making the Next Hit, a reality show pimped by five-time platinum Southern rapper Lil Wayne, to be broadcast online.
I no longer wonder how a minimally talented caricature such as Sanjaya manages to make it to prime time. I know exactly how it happens: He smiles his goofy smile and plays on the charitable good nature of people afraid to say "no," plus The Man's desire to make a buck off it. During five hours behind a table, seeing nearly 100 of the most forgettable rappers, singers, producers, comedians and models in Dallas, this charitable, good-natured girl herself became part of the Sanjaya-making machine. You can thank me later, after Making the Next Hit, broadcast on TheNext.tv, becomes your regular one-stop-shopping destination for talent train wreckage.
Sanjaya's career likely started much the same way the Making the Next Hit kids' did: standing in a long line in a hotel, humming to themselves, squeezing Mom's hand and taking deep breaths before showing their stuff to a panel of industry judges. For Making the Next Hit, that panel consisted of just one person, an old-school rap MC who's been calling himself Chief Rocker Busy Bee for 25 years now.
A big guy in a track jacket introduced me to Busy Bee by swinging the door of a conference room open and gesturing toward a table where Busy sat wearing a pair of wrap-around shades and a headful of nearly waist-length dreadlocks. Busy, this is little white girl. Little white girl, this is a man who got served in a mean rap battle with Kool Moe Dee back in the Bronx before you were born.
I found out about the Kool Moe Dee rap battle after the auditions. Busy just said he was "the first MC representing for hip-hop," and I was content to believe him, thankful for a seat beside the legend on a very early Saturday morning. But the folks auditioning didn't seem to care much about the identity of this icon who would be their first hurdle on the way to the top of the charts. As each aspiring artist left the room, Busy repeated the same hook: "Google me, man. Busy Bee. Get on Google, man, see who I am."
Later, I did get on Google, and I found out Busy was an instrumental part of giving rap its modern lyrical power, just not in a good way. Back in the day, MCs got the crowd going, calling out names and zodiac signs, shouting gibberish and comedy to get everyone in the mood. Busy Bee was good, and he bragged about it. One cold day in December '82, though, he boasted in front of a crowd that included Kool Moe Dee of the Treacherous Three, who called him out in one of the first and most famous rap battles of all time. Behold, the modern rhyme was born. No longer was an MC just a crowd-pleasing comedian with a slick tongue; he was a commentator and a storyteller. Now in 2007, Busy Bee could again be on the edge of the next big thing.
Talent shuffled in and out of our tiny conference room as Busy judged rappers and singers and determined whether models (for the videos), comedians and promoters (to run the live shows) had what it took to put the finishing touches on the final product. To our left, a shoulder-high window let hopefuls gaze in at other auditioners, analyzing Busy's behavior and, because of my coveted seat next to Busy, leading them to believe I was someone of import. People started shaking my hand as they came in, calling me "ma'am." Before each rapper started his 16-bar rhyme, Busy laid it on them straight: "It's not about how fast you can spit, how well you can spit. It's about making a hit record."
Here at its most basic level, was the unabashed honesty of the pop/hip-hop machine, focused on bling and the bottom line. (Making the Next Hit: Indie Rock Edition would have taken place in some dive bar in Brooklyn, and five people would have auditioned because it was announced only on a music blog belonging to a bearded dude in Omaha that three people read; the other two found out about it because they "know a guy." The grand prize? A limited-edition pressing on 7-inch vinyl, available at two underground record stores in Denton.) But Busy didn't mince words about this show's big ambitions. If Budda Brown, Tatum Baby, Tekk Dogg or any of the other rap star hopefuls had what it takes to make a hit, "We can get rich."
The problem was finding "what it takes." Most everyone who came into the audition room could rap a little, sing a little, look a little pretty in some tight jeans. And Busy Bee kicked out just four of about 80 singers and rappers, taking both the girl who absolutely killed on Etta James' "At Last" and the Knockout Clique, a pack of five screaming MCs, with pictures of themselves on their own T-shirts, who had way more flash than flow.
I sympathized, appreciating the nervousness of each act, watching them guzzle glasses of ice-cold water and repeatedly flatten the fronts of their shirts with sweaty palms. She tried! No, she couldn't sing or he didn't have clean rhymes, but gosh, they waited in line four hours! If Sanjaya had been in the mix, Busy probably would have turned to this little white girl, as Busy eventually did with several borderline folks, and asked me what I thought. Send him on, natch.
Of course, neither Simon Cowell's nor Lil Wayne's motives are entirely pure, though Making the Next Hit is more straightforward. Wayne's the president of New Orleans' Cash Money Records. That is, literally, the name of the game. I may have given a thumbs-up to the amazing Jackie Herrera, who sang Alicia Keys' "If I Ain't Got You" better than Keys herself, because she was talented, but Making the Next Hit wanted her because she'd be selling tons of $20 tickets to her performance at the show's Dallas showcase at the end of May. Of the performers who make it to the showcase, only a few will be filmed for the online reality show. And what do you know, having a "following"—folks willing to fork over that $20 to Making the Next Hit to see the showcase—is one of the judging criteria to make it to filming.
Even if the über-loud Knockout Clique can't rhyme like Jay-Z, they've got something that gets a crowd behind them, just like Sanjaya. And whether you're Wayne or Cowell, if you're in the business of making extraordinary money off average talent, real ability is just a small part of the equation. After watching those performers give it their sincere, mediocre all in a 9-by-12 conference room, I learned to appreciate the extraordinary power of averageness. You want greatness? Throw on Sgt. Pepper. You want pure, unadulterated Americana? Buy Sanjaya's—or the Knockout Clique's, or that guy down the street's—inevitable upcoming chart-topping album. After all, you helped get 'em there.