Who is David Archuleta, really? Aside from the next American Idol, that is. In this second round of boys' night, the dewy teen pulled out so far ahead of the competition that we might as well all go to the gym Tuesday evenings for the next few weeks and skip the show.
Risking "Imagine," a song forever wedded to the Liverpudlian nasality of a certain martyred Beatle, Archuleta defined what "Idol" means by "making it your own." Without denting his aura of innocence, he switched up the melody, inflecting it with soulful touches that had Paula's upper lip visibly moist. She called him a superstar, Randy said it was one of the best "Idol" vocals ever and Simon called him "the one to beat." True to form, the Chosen One feigned mild astonishment, like a child gazing in wonder upon his birthday cake.
But don't let this 17-year-old "Star Search" veteran fool you, America. Archuleta's blessed, no doubt, displaying an effortless musicality that nearly recalls the grace of the young Michael Jackson. But his "Imagine" was all worked out. And, by the way, borrowed.
Unlike Blake Lewis, who gave the song an effectively straight reading last season, Archuleta's young enough to not be weighed down by Lennon's legacy. (Also, as a Mormon, he's unlikely to espouse the song's agnostic ideal -- that's the real reason he didn't sing its early verses, with the line about "no religion too.") But he'd have to be Mozart to have come up with that artful arrangement. It takes experience to so subtly rethink a song embedded in our shared consciousness.
The person with that experience was Eva Cassidy. The Washington, D.C.-based Cassidy was a deeply intelligent singer with a wide-ranging repertoire who gained only local fame before dying of melanoma in 1996, at age 33. Her recordings, and her tragic story, led to a wave of Eva-mania in the late 1990s, but it didn't last. Few people remember her now -- except singers, who treasure the subtlety of her arrangements and her pristine voice.
Cassidy recorded "Imagine" in the style Archuleta basically copped (you can hear her online at youtube.com/watch?v= qVYpTFgeWwc). And he didn't just happen upon this version lying on the stereo in the "Idol" dorms. Archie waxed wise on the song at age 13 on the morning show "Good Things Utah" (youtube.com/watch?v=kIBC6 WigZYo). He hit those same high notes. Cassidy's recording had been available for around two years.
It's no sin to borrow another's arrangement -- Chris Daughtry pilfered Live's version of "I Walk the Line" in Season 5, and Carrie Underwood got her Faith Hill on for "Piece of My Heart" in Season 4. Daughtry's was the more egregious move, since he got called "original" for it and initially didn't speak up. And did he pay? Au contraire. Live frontman Ed Kowalczyk cast his unofficial vote for Daughtry, and the band even performed with him on the season finale. I guess ripping off a washed-up post-grunge band is a bold move in "Idol" terms.
But not as bold as imitating a long-deceased jazz-pop songbird.
The flaw in Archuleta's artistry is his complete lack of affect beyond bashful awe at everyone's enthusiasm. Chalk it up to youth, except this isn't how a real kid acts. Prematurely booted Josiah Leming acted like a real kid: He cried, got angry, traded overconfidence for desperation. Archie is a creature of the stage -- an interpreter of his own life -- and that makes him just a little hard to trust, or love.
When he's singing, though, he's golden, no matter whom he imitates.
So maybe this is a singing competition after all.