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Stacy Parker Le Melle Headshot

The Real American Idol Story (Forget Sanjaya)

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Take a deep breath. Some of you will not be able to handle what I'm about to write. At this point in history, George Bush has probably lost his ability to shock you, or get your heart-rate going, but the following might do the trick. Are you ready?

American Idol is the most magical show on television. At her best, she is the dream come true.

For a few months each year, we witness the elusive beast known as the American Meritocracy. The singing talent comes from the field, not from the drawing board of some corporate office. This is not to say that your "best" singer is always going to win. But chances are if she has the chops, she will go far. Yes, American Idol, like any other zillion dollar business, is concerned with money and making more of it. The contestants do awful Ford ads, and they're packaged and sold to the max. But so what? I forgive Fox their sins (on this). I forgive them their rabid materialism because when Idol rocks, we see the Dreamgirls story in reverse: the Effies of the world triumph. They need not be "smooth." Our winner can be a velvet teddybear or the next Michael McDonald. The point is each year we get to celebrate the whole beautiful dynamic package of a performer who is never some suit's warmed-over idea of what he thinks America will buy.

As I write, I've just seen Sanjaya live to sing another week. More ink will be spilled in his slander. But let me offer you the following. The real American Idol story has nothing to do with this young man. The real story is about two women and how their starpower will never be pushed to the sidelines again, and how historically beautiful and significant this is. I am talking about two ueber-talented, amazingly gifted, beautiful young black women who do not resemble Beyonce. Their names are Melinda Doolittle and LaKisha Jones.



Back-Up No More: Let's Hear It for the Real Stars, Melinda & LaKisha

Musical history is filled with one raw deal after another. I am reminded of poet Kate Rushin's poem, "The Black Back-ups." Until I read that poem, I had never thought of the plight of generations of black female vocalists kept in the background, stuck supporting singers less talented them themselves. In her poem, she repeats the line we know from Lou Reed's Walk on the Wild Side, "and the colored girls go...dododo..do...dodododo." Yes, as if that's all they are, song and dance props--or all the industry will let most of them be. We listen to them blend so gorgeously, or add power to a track, and never think twice about them as vocalists. But for many amazing black female vocalists who didn't have the right breaks, or the right look, their careers kept them stage left.

We know Melinda's backstory is back-up. And now, she's taking, and owning, center-stage.

In the magical meritocracy (yes, because you need magic if you want a meritocracy), this is no surprise. Melinda's artistry is flawless. Just last night, Simon bemoaned the fact that they may never criticize her. Ever. She turns it out every week. But let's acknowledge something here. We already have a Gladys Knight. We love her, we know she's a legend. Yet I can go weeks speedpressing through my radio dial and never hear a Gladys Knight song. I doubt that Tommy Mottolla sits up nights thinking, gee, I need to find me a new Gladys Knight. Yet, Melinda's amazing talent has been utterly embraced and celebrated and enjoyed by millions of viewers. We are getting to have these heartpiercing moments of song on national television--moments that sometimes leave my face soaked with tears--that would just never happen without Idol.

And then there's LaKisha. All glory. All soul. There is nothing girlish or surprised about this powerhouse talent. Yet, just like Effie/Jennifer, she doesn't have a slim body, and she doesn't look 12 years old. She is fully self-possessed, standing proud on that stage, a younger Patti LaBelle meets Mary J. Blige. She delivers everytime.

Melinda and LaKisha will never be back-up again. They will never have to be chicks to the left of Lou Reed, given a few syllables to sing. They are front and center. And America is loving them.

Just like they're loving a young man named Sanjaya.

Can the Sanjaya Crisis please end now?

Enough already. Didn't we already answer all these questions six years ago? Remember when journalists, um, investigated the voting patterns of American Idol voters and determined that there was never going to be one single motivation for 20-30 million voters each week? Yet in comic book fashion--or in one nation vs. Osama fashion--we get sucked into the idea of one single man (this time Howard Stern needing to kick the K out for good) wielding God-like powers over our destiny--or the destiny of our beloved television show. Please.

It is so easy to hate on Idol. Who wants to root for the behemoth? Sort of like rooting for the Yankees used to be, I guess. So much money and starpower that will never be you (or your team) that you feel like a sucker for cheering them on. But scratch at the Sanjaya Crisis and I think this hubbub reveals a certain ignorance on the part of many writers and watercooler gossipers. What's so surprising about a young Indian man becoming a teen idol? Take off your biases, clean off your glasses and take a good look at him. What about his beauty and appeal don't you get? Even if he's a mediocre singer, he's a major cutie. People dig him. This is also the power of Idol: for a few hours a week, you don't have to embrace the same US bodies, the same corporate copycat beauty norms they try to drill in our heads and make us ape every other minute of the day.

So, for the next weeks, live it up. There is more magic to come. At least until the winner is chosen. Then Melinda and LaKisha will have to fight like crazy for a Beyonce future, as opposed to a Reuben or Fantasia (or a missing Gladys Knight) one, for they will leave Idol dreamland to find they are back in corporate reality, heard only on R&B radio, mainstream play a distant memory...