These theme nights are for the most part perfectly awful. Since when is the test of a contemporary American pop star that they can perform Neil Diamond songs? This format takes what is already a limited and contrived arrangement and makes it considerably more likely to reveal weaknesses rather than strengths. In this regard, David Cook must be singled out and commended for making stellar lemonade out of thematic lemons in almost every case. Whether that ability is really the one that ought to be used exclusively to determine a performer’s artistic viability, however, is another question entirely.

David Archuleta’s selections were smart, all things considered, and indicative of his growth as a competitor, if not entirely as an artist. I take David at his word when he says that he chooses to view the proceedings not as a competition but as an opportunity to perform and hone his skills, but the fact remains that it is, after all, a competition. Even if one wants only to continue to perform, one must at some level determine how to stay in. And so for what may be the first time, David made more strategic choices, particularly with America. A far more obvious (and powerful) choice might have been He Ain’t Heavy, He’s My Brother, but almost certainly would have triggered merciless criticism for being too far inside his comfort zone. His lemonade was a tad sweet, and the cheese factor nearly impossible to reduce when working with such material, but he made the best out of a bad situation.

The one truly gratifying aspect of the America performance for me was the increasing presence of David’s maturing vocal strength. An extremely exciting power is beginning to emerge from behind his already well-known control and dexterity, in yet another indication of an enormous musical versatility that may still be in its early stages. It is unfortunate, perhaps, that this contest has so far emphasized genre and arrangement capability, skills that are in most cases well beyond the scope of the performer. Would we really have as deep an admiration for Frank Sinatra without Nelson Riddle? Or an entire generation of artists without Baby Face?

It’s great to be able to see David Archuleta in performance every week, frustrating as it might be to endure the shackles of such narrow parameters. One can only hope that such restrictions will serve to highlight for David those musical directions that are truly his own to pursue. That will be exciting indeed.