the take

Idolbot: Is David Archuleta the Greatest ‘American Idol’ Contestant of All Time?

Photo: Getty Images

Has there ever in American Idol’s history been a better contestant than David Archuleta? It’s not just that he’s the most vocally gifted of this year’s finalists; it’s also that — by nature, design, or mind-blowingly aggressive stage parenting — he embodies more winning characteristics than virtually any other hopeful in the show’s previous six seasons. Sure, his performance last night may have been less than perfect, but we think he’s still a lock for the win. Archuleta almost seems to be built from all the best spare parts of lesser Idols. Is he human? We’re not sure! Can anything stand between him and victory? Probably not. Five reasons why, after the jump.

1. He’s the cute one and the talented one.
On every season of American Idol there’s one adorable, clean-cut contestant whose prepubescent fan base and popularity among old people practically guarantees him a place in the top five, regardless of how he sings (see John Stevens, Anthony Federov, Kevin Covais, and Sanjaya). This year it’s David Archuleta. At the same time, there’s always one steely-eyed professional whose laser-precise singing ability and natural stage presence typically make him or (usually) her a lock to win, even if she’s as charismatic as a head cold (previously Kelly Clarkson, Carrie Underwood, and Jordin Sparks). This contestant, too, is David Archuleta. Never before in the history of the show have these two been the same person, and with both huge blocs of fans dialing his 800 number, his spot in the finals is more or less assured.

2. He’s a guy without a gimmick.
In general, male contestants on Idol have had a problem with mass appeal — which is why almost all the recent successful ones have defined their base early, then played to it relentlessly. Chris Daughtry won over modern-rock-radio fans by singing all his songs like Live’s Ed Kowalczyk; Taylor Hicks and Bo Bice stuck to dad rock; Blake Lewis bravely added mouth percussion to songs in which mouth percussion clearly had no business (like this one), in spite of what the beat-box-hating majority might think. All four required a gimmick, while female finalists Kelly Clarkson and Jordan Sparks could coast to victory on just being the best singer.

But Archuleta has no shtick and he’s still this season’s undisputed front-runner (Paula Abdul told him as much last night, even after he forgot his lyrics). His huge talent lets him be bland (favorite drink: water) and run a national campaign. With no apparent allegiances to any particular genre, and — even more important — no apparent personality, he’s in minimal danger of turning anyone off. As more singers are eliminated, this will help him pick up more of their fans than any of his nichier competition.

3. He’s got a great sob story.

Not since the Book of Job has God been so needlessly cruel as he’s been to this year’s crop of AI finalists. Apart from the two singers afflicted with male-pattern baldness, two female contestants lost their fathers in the days before Hollywood week, and one girl was even hit by a truck (Amanda Overmeyer, and she seems to be okay).

But a few years ago, David Archuleta suffered a paralyzed vocal cord, which, for a short time, prevented him singing; eventually, he made a full recovery without surgery. Sure, it’s not as terrible as losing a parent, or as flashy as being run down by an eighteen-wheeler, but it’s got a happy ending, it’s nonexploitative, and it doesn’t make you feel bad. Most important, it gives him a story that local newspapers, network early shows, and Fox producers themselves can parrot to make him seem interesting. Really, it’s the perfect Idol sob story.

4. He’s pacing himself.

Because Archuleta is the earliest-emerging front-runner in American Idol history, a few have already accused him of peaking too soon. Still, we think his best moments are in front of him. In these early rounds, he’s been smart to offset his abilities by picking some of the worst songs of any finalist ever. During his auditions, we heard him sing John Mayer’s “Waiting on the World to Change” and Bryan Adams’s “Heaven.” Last week, he sang an undeniably excellent version of Phil Collins’s atrocious “Another Day in Paradise.” The judges didn’t love it, but that probably had less to do with Archuleta’s singing than the fact that Phil Collins writes terrible music. Last night he finally attempted a good song, the Stevie Wonder version of “We Can Work It Out,” but still hamstrung himself by not knowing all the words. Still, the ones he sang sounded terrific and suggested that when he finally cuts loose on a great song, he’ll be unstoppable.

5. He was born to do this.

At 17, Archuleta is the first-ever top-twelve finalist born in the nineties. He’s spent more of his life absorbing the phenomenon of AI than any other contestant who’s ever appeared on it. For probably as long as he can remember, it’s been the dominant star-making force behind many of pop music’s biggest success stories (plus Taylor Hicks).

The bio on his now-defunct official Website (archived here), cites the AI’s premiere as a turning point in his life. When Archuleta was 10, an appearance on The Jenny Jones Show got him a meeting with failed contestant AJ Gil, who introduced him to the rest of season one’s top ten. (In the creepy YouTube clip above, he sings “And I Am Telling You” for Kelly Clarkson and Justin Guarini in the lobby of their hotel.) Since he wasn’t yet old enough to audition for Idol (you have to be 16), Archuleta bided his time by winning lesser reality competition shows, like CBS’ Arsenio-hosted Star Search reboot, on which he took top honors in the Junior Vocalist category in 2003. On his own, he recorded a Christmas album and a few cover songs (including Kelly Clarkson’s single “A Moment Like This”), but apparently never had much interest in music apart from the standard Top 40 stuff performed on Idol, or any recording contract besides the one with RCA he’ll probably get after winning the show. In other words, he’s the first contestant for whom AI defines the musical universe. For him, it’s not just a means to an end … it is the end.

Idolbot: Is David Archuleta the Greatest ‘American Idol’ Contestant of All Time?