Washington native Sanjaya Malakar became one of the most famous faces from "American Idol's" sixth season. The teen captivated pop culture watchers with his ever-evolving hair styles and always toothy grin.
The result: "Sanjayamania" and a devoted following of "Fanjayas."
But the judges weren't as enamored with Malakar, often dismissing his performances. Now, the man who ended up placing seventh in the singing competition has penned a memoir about his "Idol" experiences and life. Read an excerpt of "Dancing to the Music in My Head: Memoirs of the People's Idol" below.
My "American Idol" experience was a constant race against the clock. If I wanted to eat, I had to shove it down and then run right over to the next rehearsal, interview, meeting, shoot, or sound check. It was all Get up at 7:00 a.m. and hurry to the van ... then wait at the lot for forty minutes ... then shoot some B-roll . . . then hurry back to the van ... then wait at the studio ... then hurry to the van ...then wait for the mentor to show up.
Since the producers and directors had to set up shots and locales—and because they wanted us to be available the second they were ready—we did a whole bunch of sitting around, chilling, talking, napping, and staring into outer space. We were sleep deprived, undernourished (or badly nourished, depending on your attitude toward catering), and stressed about auditioning for Simon Cowell, Paula Abdul, and Randy Jackson—aka the Big Three—show after show after show.
I think that part of the reason they ran us so ragged was to emotionally strip us. They wanted to see what we could do when we were at our most vulnerable. If our nerves were right at the surface, that could lead to onstage meltdowns, or offstage drama, either of which would lead to better ratings. Also, they wanted to see how we could handle the pressure of having twenty-five hour-long commitments in a twenty-four-hour day. None of us knew if a successful (or even semisuccessful) career in the music industry would be that difficult, but at least we'd be prepared.
Nothing, however, could have prepared me for the Howard Stern situation. Howard Stern had gotten behind me, starting what he called the Sanjaya Revolution. He and his sidekick, Artie Lange, began a campaign to have the fans vote for me to stay on Idol again, and again, and again. I'm well aware he wasn't doing it because he loved my singing; it was because it made for good radio.
I never got a chance to listen to Howard Stern during Idol, but I wasn't completely blind to what the public and the media thought of me. The question has been asked, "Was Howard Stern the reason for my staying power on 'American Idol'"? Howard was an unlikely campaigner who had been advising his fans to vote (in jest) for the first contestant of Indian descent to make it into the show's Top 12. From what I understood, he'd called me his favorite contestant, and confessed he wanted to see me win.
Although I'd tried to avoid going online and seeing what the bloggers and the media were saying about me, I couldn't help but hear whispers about the general opinion of my singing. I realized that I wasn't as good (or as experienced) as the likes of such fellow contestants as Jordin Sparks, Phil Stacey, and Melinda Doolittle, but I thought that'd I'd been improving as a showman, and according to the Big Three, that's much of what American Idol is about: putting on a great show.
All of which meant that this week—which was British Invasion Week—was even more important than the previous week ... which had been even more important than the week before that ... which was more crucial than the week before that. The pressure was building, and I knew that if I didn't come up with the best performance of the season—no, the best performance of my life—it was back to Seattle.
Really, I wasn't so concerned about going home—I had great friends and my sister, Shyamali, waiting for me, which would be wonderful. I just didn't want to blow my opportunity to hit the road. You see, the Top 10 finalists go on the two-month American Idol tour, a tour that would give me the opportunity to travel across the country and perform for thousands of people each night. Even though I was only seventeen and I had (fingers crossed) a long singing career ahead of me, there was absolutely no guarantee that I'd ever get a chance like that again, so I had to step my game up and make sure that Simon didn't trash me too badly, which might convince the viewers to let me go. If I got cut, I'd move on to the next phase of my life, and that would be okay.
But you know what? I didn't want to get cut.
British Invasion Week, the brainchild of Idol's England-born executive producers Ken Warwick and Nigel Lythgoe, was the first week that I waited until the very very very very last minute to pick my song. Twenty-four hours before the performance, I hadn't decided whether to go with the Kinks' "You Really Got Me" or Herman's Hermits' "I'm into Something Good."
"I'm into Something Good" is a cheerful, poppy, feel-good kind of sappy tune that's supposed to make you happy all over. Lyrically speaking, "You Really Got Me" is equally feel-goody ("I always wanna be by your side / Girl, you really got me now / You got me so I can't sleep at night"—if you didn't know the melody, you might think it's a Bryan Adams ballad), but musically, it's more grrrrrrrrrr. Crunchy guitars, hard-hitting drums, growly vocals; if I could pull it off without looking silly—and avoid people thinking Oh, look at Sanjaya, Mr. All About Love, trying to get all gritty—I might be in pretty good shape.
So I went with the rock song. Unfortunately, that week's mentor was none other than legendary Brit rocker Peter Noone, leader of Herman's Hermits. In my one-on-one meeting with Peter the day before the live telecast, after I told him I couldn't decide whether to sing his tune or the Kinks song, he said, "Well, I'm a bit biased. If you did Herman's Hermits, that would certainly make me look good. But you choose what you'd like."
After I finished performing both tunes for Peter, and after he told me that I'd done a good job, he seemed kind of disappointed when I explained that I'd decided to go with the Kinks. I felt a little badly about rejecting his song right in front of his face, but I felt in my gut that "You Really Got Me" would give me a better chance to survive. Peter was cool about it, though, and gave me some good advice: "If you're going to sing the Kinks, you really have to go for it. You have to go all the way there. Don't be afraid." Paula had said the same thing several times over the past eight weeks, but it made a bigger impact on me to hear it come from a guy who was friends with Ray and Dave Davies.
My song selection surprised most everybody associated with the show. They probably didn't think I could do justice to a Kinks song, because I was the mellow crooner guy who, when it came to choreography, walked around the stage and did a little Gospel Rock dance move. To them, "Sanjaya" and "garage rock 'n' roll" didn't add up.
During dress rehearsal, I ran through "You Really Got Me," and it felt all wrong. Maybe everybody was right. Maybe I wasn't that guy. Maybe I wasn't a rock singer. Maybe it wasn't my thing. But I took Peter Noone's suggestions and went for it, went all the way there. As a matter of fact, I went farther than all the way there, jumping off the stage, running through the aisles, generally acting the rock 'n' roll fool. The arrangement ended on three percussive hits—Bap! Bap! Bap!—during which I leapt back onstage and fell right on my butt, then raised my arms to the sky, as if falling on my butt was my plan from the get-go.
Ken and Nigel stared at me, frozen. It looked to me from the stage like they were freaking out, but I wasn't sure if it was out of happiness or horror. I was certain, though, that they never expected that sort of energy burst out of me. How could they have known that when we Malakars get excited, we get excited. It's a heredity deal.
After a few moments of awkward silence, Ken cleared his throat and said, "Um, wow. Wow. Wow. I didn't even know you could do that. And, um, I don't even know if you should try that. Maybe you should go with Herman's Hermits."
The last thing I wanted to do at that point was kick into "Woke up this mornin' feelin' fine / There's somethin' special on my mind"—after having fun with the grungy Kinks song, it would be hard to be all cheerful with the Hermits—but I was a good soldier, so I gave it a shot. But I wasn't that good of a soldier; I completely overdid the song and cheesed it up as if it was a piece from a Broadway show. In other words, I tanked it. Ken rolled his eyes and said, "Do whatever song you want." I'm sure he had plenty of other fires to put out and didn't have the time to argue with me about tune selection. He probably thought that if I got voted off, it was my own fault.
Since I was planning an all-out performance, I wanted to keep my style relatively simple, but still be bold. The stylist found a gray jacket with the alphabet printed all over it, and we built around that. We kept the hair natural so I could toss it while I ran around. I thought it looked good. And apparently, so did the Crying Girl.
Ashley Ferl, aka the Crying Girl, was a pale-skinned, blond-haired, blue-eyed preteen from Riverside, California. She and her parents won tickets to the March 21, 2007, Idol dress rehearsal, and they got themselves some great seats; they were close enough to the stage that I could read her hand-drawn sign: MY DREAM IS TO MET SANJAYA.
As the contestants and I lined up onstage for our weekly introductions, I gave Ashley a little wave, and she immediately started crying. The producers noticed, and thought having her bawl during my performance would make for a great Idol moment, so they gave her tickets to the live show and hoped for the best. I decided to use this to my advantage. She would be a responsive soul to sing to, and I thought that her energy would help my energy.
Even though the Kinks tune was set in stone, there was still some confusion among the team, so when Idol host Ryan Seacrest introduced me that night, he said, "Well, singing either 'You Really Got Me' or 'I'm into Something Good,' here's Sanjaya Malakar." I prayed to have the energy to make it through the song, and then bolted onto the stage.
On a certain level, I didn't even care what the judges thought. This week I was doing it for myself. I was going to be free. If I was going to get cut, I wanted to at least be able to say that I put my heart into it. Anything that happened beyond that was out of my control.
From note one, I incorporated Peter Noone's suggestions and tried to channel the Kinks. I purposely oversang and sneered my way through the first verse, so I sounded as if I'd been drinking and smoking and not sleeping for weeks. (The fact that practically everybody on the show had a killer cold and a runny nose all week, myself included, made it that much easier to come across as throaty.) Since my hair was nice and loose, I flopped it around, not quite to the point of headbanging, but enough so that there was some noticeable movement. The audience was on their feet and clapping, far more enthusiastic about me than they'd been the entire season.
And the good news for the producers was that Ashley got more into it than they could've hoped for. She cried and cried and cried, and was having trouble catching her breath, so much trouble, in fact, that she wasn't able to clap in rhythm on two and four. And the cameras captured it for all eternity.
I ran around the stage almost as much as I did during dress rehearsal, and it affected my vocals, particularly my intonation, but I didn't care. That night was about performance. During the second verse, I took a chance: I walked onto the table behind the judges. I wasn't sure that that was the right move until Paula, who was bopping around in her chair, waggled her fingers right in front of my face. That jazzed me up. At least I had one of them on my side.
And then it was time to sing for Ashley. But being that the arrangement was only two minutes long, I had to do a quick walk-by. When I saw the tape later, I realized the producers were right: crying girls make for good television.
On the final verse, the entire band except for the drummer dropped out, so it was just me and the groove. I whispered the lines, hoping I sounded evil and mysterious. Then when the rest of the rhythm section came back in, I screamed the lyrics. I'm not sure if people liked it, but it sure felt good. And then I did my little jumps on the outro and, thankfully, managed to not land on my butt. The crowd's response was more muted than it had been in the past, probably because they didn't know what hit them. What was that about? Who was that kid yelling all over the place? Was that really our little, sweet, gentle Sanjaya? My guess was that they were totally confused. The Big Three, on the other hand, were another story. Randy gave a whoop. Paula gave a whoo. Simon cracked a teeny-tiny smile. It was the best reception I'd ever had from them.
Randy, as usual, started things off. "Yo, man, listen, all right? I've got to tell you, you shocked me tonight." I thought, Uh-oh. Does "shock me" mean he hated it more than anything I've done before? He continued, "Usually, you're this kind of reserved, just kind of this mildly meek kind of cool guy. And you came out of your shell tonight. That was your best performance to date, baby." He turned to his left and said, "I'm in shock, Paula."
See? I made it all about performance, and it worked.
Paula said, " That's what we've been waiting for."Randy said, in a silly, booming voice, "It's the new Sanjaya."
Paula said, "Yeeeeeeeeahhhh! Go for it. Go for it. You went for it. It was a lot of fun. I like this. I hope you had fun up there."
"I did." I'd been having fun onstage for the last two months, but I guess they hadn't felt my vibe from the table.
Paula gave me one of her cute little rounds of applause, then Randy, still shocked, I suppose, cracked up and said, "Oh-oh-oh-oh God." I'm not sure I wanted to know what that was about.
Then Simon, who, shocker of shockers, was smiling, gestured over to Ashley and said, "I think the little girl's face says it all." And that was it. Unbelievable. I'd rendered Simon Cowell speechless . . . and in a good way. I put my heart into the song, and I think he recognized that. Yay!
And then over came Ryan. He gestured over to Ashley and said to Simon, "I actually think she liked him."
Simon said, "Really?"
"Yeah," Ryan said, then asked Ashley, "You liked that, right? It was good? You're a fan?" All Ashley could do was nod, smile, and raise her hands up in the air. Ryan said to me, "Why don't you go say hi to this little girl?" then turned back to Ashley. "What's your name?"
"Ashley, great." He gently ushered me out into the audience. "Ashley, this is Sanjaya. Sanjaya, this is Ashley."
As I gave her a little hug, Randy, who had suddenly become my biggest fan, let out a long "Awwwwwwwwwwwwwwww!"
After the hug, Ryan asked Ashley, "Are you having fun? Do you need anything?" Confused, she shook her head. "Well, if you do, let us know. We'll be right here." Ryan was all about trying to make people feel at ease, to relax them, to make them happy.
Unfortunately, he wasn't able to make my fellow contestant Stephanie Edwards happy. Stephanie, who'd sung what I thought was a stellar version of Dusty Springfield's "You Don't Have to Say You Love Me," was voted off by the viewers. As for me, despite having been Simon Cowell's Punching bag for the last month, I lived to fight another week.
But truthfully, I wasn't sure how much fight I had left.