\”When You Believe\” Live Version

Originally posted on 4/15/08

There can be no argument about who won this night. The unequivocal champion of this episode of American Idol Season Seven was none other than Nigel Lythgoe. Idol wanted a competition and hell’s bells if they didn’t get it. Of course, in order to accomplish such a feat in such a season, they not only had to subjugate David Archuleta to the acknowledged calamity spot, but just to hedge their bets and trounce his odds even further (even if in an unproven, subliminal, yet eerily predictable way), they backed him with the dreaded red lights. It says something about the power of the Archulator that these are the lengths to which the producers must go in order to try and level the playing field.

Cookie and Castro were, in a word, magnificent. I’ve always been a Castro fan and it thrills me to see him gaining confidence and a bit of gravity. He tends to float like a Deadhead in a field of wildflowers, and while that’s delightful on a summer Friday afternoon it doesn’t always translate to Saturday night (luaus notwithstanding). Cookie is cool. Cookie is a standout. Cookie is reaching his prime. Cookie just doesn’t do it for me. The really idiotic thing about the whole hot mess is that it’s going to wind up being a competition between styles, not talents. Like putting Elton John up against Bob Dylan. What manufactured apples and oranges kind of phony contest is that? Oh, right–the American Idol kind.

David Archuleta is not anywhere near his prime. David Archuleta’s prime could easily be ten years out. But David Archuleta is a bona-fide phenomenon. People thought Randy was stuck on some kind of digital loop when he kept marveling at David’s age in audition after audition, but Randy wasn’t marveling at what was in front of him in that moment as much as at what was in all probability to come-–perhaps many years from now. Tonight was thrilling, but as David develops greater ease and assurance, the still-nascent aspects of his instrument become more evident. David’s voice isn’t close to being fully mature. He clearly wants to do things that his physiology can’t quite support. Indeed, his vocal attributes appear to morph by the week. We heard for perhaps the first time on When You Believe a new strength and resonance in the lower register. He powered through the middle as always, and reached into the sky of his range with beautiful, if somewhat diaphanous, high notes. His critics tend to gripe about his supposed lack of versatility, but this is relegated to the somewhat contrived category of song selection. Show me a singer who displays anywhere near as much versatility within the scope of the song itself. Not on that stage, I can tell you.

But there was more to David’s triumph tonight. More, even, than the merits of the performance itself.

Seventeen is a very tough age, especially for an artistic, introverted type. David is bright but he’s not savvy. He is neither experienced nor naturally worldly, and I think the level of attention on him and the magnitude of the circumstances were a enormous shock when the top twelve contestants were all trotted out for the press. I believe things changed for David that weekend. The one-two punch of the media glare and forgetting his lyrics in performance hit him like a tidal wave. He suddenly realized he had to regroup. Be an adult. Get serious. If the critics were right in saying that he started playing it safe, who could blame him?

Even though Maria Carey is in David’s wheelhouse, this was by no means a risk-free performance. We are clearly seeing a new, emerging strength in David. A distinct recognition of his own power–to overcome adversity, perhaps, to trust himself; maybe even to dispense with the whole idea of “little David” altogether. Tonight may in time be seen as the moment David became a man. That he did it with a power diva ballad complete with crazy falsetto high notes and a growl as fierce as anything Christian Siriano could put on a runway is almost as significant as the fact that he didn’t wear a jacket. When you really and finally feel older, there is suddenly less of a compulsion to look it. David mined his reservoir of confidence, the one he needed to dig after the wake-up call of top twelve, and not only reclaimed his fearlessness, but found deeper levels of truth.