Some Archuleta fans are a thousand-percent supportive of anything and everything David does, and cheer just as loudly for an adorable tweet as for a stunning performance. It’s all good to them, and that’s a beautiful thing. Then, there are those of us who hang on, rather more enduring the random tweets and the cheap, horrible album covers (don’t get me started) in order to get to the moments of sublime transcendence such as occurred last week when David sang Contigo en la Distancia at the ALMA awards. For those of us who see this young man as having the potential to stand in history alongside the true greats of the world’s vocalists, it is performances like these that not only validate our obsession, but remind our hearts why it matters.
The broadcast recording of the performance has already become so addictive to the fan community that ABC Television ought to be brought up on drug distribution charges. Families are going unfed, lawns un-mowed, workout regimens discarded (raises hand), all because people can’t seem to tear themselves away from just one more play. But it’s not just the fan base this time. The whispers and gasps and spontaneous cheers you hear in the audience at Royce Hall were matched by the sound of jaws dropping all over the world. Rapturous reviews are peppering the web, and even the one-time anti-Archies at places like MJ’s have not only acknowledged the sheer magnificence of the performance, but have suddenly undertaken the debate familiar to any hard-core fan of just what it is Jive is doing with him and why.
If experiencing this performance were merely an academic exercise of artistic appreciation for remarkable craftsmanship, extraordinary musical sophistication, and a rare combination of delicacy and power in vocal production, there would be little inclination toward such compulsive repetition. Although technique is certainly part of it. The diminishment of the notes at the ends of the phrases, for example, particularly in the first part of the song, are nothing short of miraculous. I just don’t know of any singers other than possibly Streisand who are able to diminish a note with what seem to be nearly infinite increments of denouement before it ends, and without losing any breath support along the way. As a one-time fairly legitimate singer myself, I know how difficult it is to do this, and I shake my head in amazement every time. But let’s be clear: David doesn’t work his Basque butt off to accomplish that because it’s a challenge or because it’s uncommon. He does it because it’s beautiful.
But technique alone cannot account for what happens when certain people sing. The Norman Maine character in the Garland version of A Star is Born tries to explain a certain something, a star quality, by likening it to that “jolt of pleasure” one feels when, say, hooking a big fish or watching a prize fighter go in for the kill. It’s a rush, a thrill, a surge of visceral energy that great performers have the ability to share with an audience. They couldn’t say it outright in 1954 but what James Mason’s character was saying is that the feeling is a run-up to the promise of satisfaction like the anticipation of an orgasm during sex. Yes, friends, there is a very simple and human reason why we keep repeating the experience: It is so gosh-dang satisfying.
This level of thrill and deep satisfaction is only possible for a performer when technique doesn’t get in the way. And that’s a critical factor. Most contemporary singers use far too much technique. At worst, it’s showboating, mere pyrotechnics, and not only is it a poor substitute for true expression and connection, it is often the thing that obfuscates the possibility of connection in the first place. I’ve said from the beginning that beyond his gorgeous instrument and god-given talent, David’s genius is his unerring sense of taste. One of the things that makes this performance of Contigo en la Distancia so riveting is not what David does, but what he doesn’t do. One of the comments on Mike’s wonderful article pointed out how the younger David’s version of this song was populated with considerably more vocal runs and experimentation. Taste is often a matter of maturity, and it is revealing to observe the evolution of David’s choices.
Which brings us to the question: Is it possible that after only a year of being on his own, David has already matured to the point of being able to deliver a performance of such intensity and maturity that the possibility of further evolution is moot? Are we there yet? I think the answer is yes and no. I submit that by all rights it doesn’t get better than this. It just doesn’t. But just because David is able to attain this height of achievement at this nascent point in his career does not in any sense suggest that we are “here to stay.” Material is a big part of the equation, of course, in addition to the fact that any career is by nature dynamic. This is further complicated by the fact of David’s versatility. He is terrifically accomplished in a broader scope of genres than perhaps any other singer of his generation, but not equally so.
We have a long way to go. What a blessing.