It's Time to Stake the Claim
It’s hard not to feel protective or defensive of an artist about whom you feel so passionate. It’s also hard not to make comparisons, almost always a misguided proposition. That’s why when Adam Lambert appeared on the cover of Entertainment Weekly toward the end of the season eight American Idol competition as the crown certain, I couldn’t help but feel a little tweaked that David hadn’t gotten similar press love when he was in precisely the same position. But then again, I quickly told myself, EW never liked David. Or, more accurately, never got David.
Neither do I put much credence in the opinions of that publication anyway; the editorial staff reminds me of a gaggle of bitter queens and their fag hags, the kids from high school who got chorus parts in the school musicals and then proceeded to snark and snipe from the wings about those with real talent and a passion for hard work. David was never marginal enough for these wannabes. He was too clean, too mainstream, too morally grounded, too freaking nice. EW proclaimed Adam to be a “true original — and just what the show needed.” What a bunch of malarkey. Where I come from, Adam is about as original as every third twentysomething walking down the streets of the East Village or Williamsburg. Since when does guyliner make you original? No, Adam got EW love because he was way more their type: flamboyant, iconoclastic, insecure, and over-the-top.
But then came the Rolling Stone cover, at a point when Adam was officially #2 — the same role, again, that David was in a year ago. Why the press love for Adam? Or, more to the point, why the absence of same for David? I think tagging Adam’s not-so revelatory acknowledgment of his sexuality as the basis for the attention is a little too facile. It is a story (I guess), an easy one anyway, one that still — for perhaps just a few more cultural minutes, at any rate — retains the faintest wisp of something scandalous or at least unconventional, but it does not on its own account for the high profiling.
No, I put it down to identity entertainment. Just as all the debates over identity politics during the long presidential election gave us insight into the difference between using personal attributes (race, religion, history) as a primary measure for competence rather than performance and policy, so too it is easier, for both press and public alike, to assess and embrace an entertainer based on similarly dubious measures. Familiar models outpace true originals in almost every case. Far from being original, Lambert’s glam-rock goth boy persona trods a well-worn path, blazed decades ago by the likes of David Bowie, Ozzy Osborne, Pete Burns and Boy George, among others.
The David Archuleta persona does not fit into any neat, familiar models. There are highly original, even revolutionary aspects to his persona, but they are deep rather than broad. Indeed they are unspectacular, even as they are rare and even transcendent. David’s generosity of spirit, his remarkable compassion, his gentle nature staked with a steel spine — these unusual qualities don’t lend themselves to shortcut symbols or iconic illustration. David, to put it simply, is not a type.
But neither, I would argue, has David given the press or the public sufficient reason, so far, to connect him with any of the more performance-related attributes on which he should be building his renown. As he undertakes writing and reconnaissance for his new album, I pray that David has the wisdom to make something of a return to his roots, and offer up at a least a few pieces that will help to seed the market with the one attribute by which he will inevitably come to be known and revered. Namely: The Voice.
On one level, David’s first album was an obvious attempt to answer a chorus of critics whose expectations of him as the boy balladeer seemed already entrenched. But beat-based pop music doesn’t test the mettle of vocal prowess, nor does it reveal true vocal sophistication. There is nothing wrong with that, of course. The appeal of beat-based pop music lies in other dimensions. But when it comes to the expressive sophistication of the human voice alone, nothing offers as suitable a setting as the ballad. For all their successes in up-tempo numbers, great one-for-the-ages voices like Ella, Frank, and Barbra were never more revered than for their work on ballads.
By being balladeer, David solves two critical issues in the trajectory of his career. First, it provides a shortcut-hungry media with a tag, a category, a bucket for the David Archuleta brand. Like anything else, categories have their pluses and minuses. At one extreme, without any way at all to identify an artist, they simply won’t be covered, or will be covered in too vague a manner to seed memorability or even interest. At the other extreme is the risk of being pigeonholed. My sense at this point is that David’s first album went too far in the anti-ballad direction, which resulted in proof that he could successfully take on other categories, but failed to illuminate what makes him so uniquely gifted and powerful in the first place. And second, being balladeer will capture new fans in broader demographics by bringing the The Voice in all its glory to the market: the enormous subtlety of phrasing, the sleek charcoal tone, the hunger and yearning that opens caverns of emotion. In a phrase, David needs to make us cry.
Even if he does get pigeonholed to a certain degree, I’m left wondering what is so god-awful about that. Who is the contemporary male singer who owns the ballad? Is there anyone? Not only is David the Balladeer an opportunity for strong identity, it is a thrilling prospect for sublime heart connections all over the world. Then, David can finally be recognized for what is truly his, and which no one else can conceivably match.