Yesterday I skipped having drinks out with Mark to watch the Wildcard episode of American Idol. We have a DVR, which I’ve used to postpone the Grammys, the Superbowl, and the Presidential debates, but I’m so obsessed with the show right now that I have to see it as close to live as possible.

This has never happened before–my interest in American Idol usually dies after auditions and Hollywood week. I don’t root for singers, I just like to see them fail. But this year I’m crazy, like batshit, Google-image-searching, YouTube favoriting, Tweeting crazy for Indian American contestant, Anoop Desai.

It started early. He told the judges that he was a graduate student in folklore at UNC at his audition. The judges sort of immediately dismissed him (as did I) as a huge loser. Then he sang Boys II Men’s “Thank You,” and out came this weirdly soulful, totally earnest, not-perfect-but-pretty-great, smoky voice. I was totally in love1 .

Really I think I fell in love during the auditions when the judges gave him these comments:

Paula Abdul: Didn’t expect that soulfulness. Anoop. Simon Cowell: It’s all a bit geeky at the moment though. You look like you just came out of a meeting with Bill Gates.

Bloggers have rightly pointed out how racist this is: why not wonder how the other white singers came in with “soul?” Why not question the other frat boy prepsters who look like computer programmers? Oh yeah, he’s brown.

So that bothered me and made me root for him, because so much of American Idol is supposedly based on how much you “feel it,” or how much you, as this EMP paper pointed out, “make it your own.” Desai doesn’t look like how he sings, and so it’s just that much harder for him to appear authentic and “real.” It’s not like when they tell little white girls that they didn’t expect that “big voice” to come out of them; that’s biology. And the soulfulness of the show’s white male contestants is rarely discussed. They have been getting a pass for years and years on American Idol.

Desai kept the R&B going by singing “My Prerogative” during Hollywood week. Then, for his first live song, Monica’s “Angel of Mine.” Dude loves his 90s R&B. After he sang there was this exchange:

Simon Cowell: Why did you chose that song, out of interest? Anoop Desai: that was the first R&B song i could remember hearing on the radio, and wanting to hear over and over. That song got me into R&B.

Hearing that song on the radio changed his life, really. I just want to quote something Anand Wilder, from Yeasayer, said to me during a Stereogum Progress Report interview:

There’s some music that can make you feel happy and good, and there’s some that can make you feel inadequate, like you’re not cool enough to be listening to that music. I want to go for that kind of style. If you listen to really hardcore gangster rap, it’s like, “Oh man, this is the real stuff. These guys are so cool, I’ll never be this cool. I can’t even seem cool when I’m listening to it.”

I think Wilder was talking about being a suburban kid listening to gangster rap. He’s Indian too, I think, but I think his point was more physical removal, rather than cultural removal, from something he loved. Wilder is okay with this removal–he’s not trying to become a rapper, he couldn’t authentically pull it off. But Desai decided, at some point, that he could be cool enough.

Let me just bring up that Merriam Webster definition of soul again too:

Function: adjective Date: 1958 1 : of, relating to, or characteristic of black Americans or their culture 2 : designed for or controlled by blacks

Another thing I love about Anoop is that he also reminds me of what it’s like to struggle with trying to become part of a culture you have no place in. When I was in love with TLC—my entry point into girl R&B and still my favorite, I’d dress up like TLC to go to school. Sometimes we’d “play” TLC during lunch. I always got stuck as Chili because she was of unknown, mixed heritage, like me (uh, except I know what I am). I didn’t want to be Chili, I wanted to be Left-Eye, but my two friends were black. I could pull off her rapping, but I didn’t look like I could.

So, I get that feeling, and I sympathize, in a small way with what he wants to do. Desai has to pass muster as an “American” for “American Idol” (just Google for the Anoop Dog Millionaire and “Harold and Anoop Go To White Castle” videos to see what America still thinks of Indian Americans), but then he has to prove that he has soul. And since he’s chosen 90s R&B as his thing, he further has to prove he’s believable as a guy that girls are dying to have sex with. I mean, what is Bobby Brown’s discography except variations on “fuck you, let’s fuck.”2 He was pure sex, and now Desai has to be too. Of course, when I pointed out to Mark what a hard sell that’d be, he had the best answer: no one means it more than a horny college boy.

Still, I didn’t believe it until last night. When Desai sang “My Prerogative” last night, girls screamed, they screamed at his microphone humping, shirt-pinching, and eye-winking. He’s still a little bit awkward, but he’s pulling it off. And he didn’t always. There’s old video of him singing “I’ll Make Love To You,” by Boys II Men (subtext: “let’s fuck”), with his UNC men’s a cappella group the Clef Hangers (wow), and girls are sort of giggling and laughing when he removes his tux jacket. He’s not believable, or sexy. But between then and now (probably through the intervening years of sexual experience, singing experience, and/or good stylists at American Idol), he’s a genuine and believable singer of hyper-sexual R&B. Girls think he is, as one anoop-dogg.com commenter wrote, “sex on toast.” Holy shit!

By choosing a song that is explicitly about stating who you are, and then making it his own, Desai’s shut down any questions of authenticity. In other words, having the balls to do it proved he has the balls to do it.

Paula Abdul called his dance moves “nasty.” Randy Jackson called him “Anoop Brown-Dogg,” then quickly added that Desai was “you know, like Bobby Brown’s cousin.” “Oh, because I thought you meant…” Desai responded and trailed off. I know what Desai was thinking: “Oh shit, I didn’t pull it off.” Because when they start calling you the Indian version of X (the best Indian singer, the best Indian dancer, the best Indian actor), you aren’t convincing your audience. It’s a weak compliment. I think he was relieved when he realized Jackson wasn’t making a comment about his race, or his “surprising” soulfulness. I was relieved too.

Desai made the top 13, by the way. I’ve been daydreaming about all the R&B songs he could do next. Silk’s “Freak Me,” anyone?


  1. I like Indian guys in general, in what might be a racist way, I admit. When I was in college I worked the desk at the electrical engineering department’s computer lab and spent most Saturdays talking to many Indian guys working on math projects (white students for some reason never used that lab, just Asians). I am filled with fuzzy memories of those Saturdays.↩
  2. A bonus: “My Prerogative” is so explicitly about authenticity, that the best line in it is “Some ask me questions / Why am I so real?” Also, don’t you dream of the day someone asks you why you’re so real?↩