David Archuleta has an incredible voice, delivers age-defying performances, has charm and charisma, and holds the front-runner status on “American Idol 7.”
He also has a problem: those things are actively working against him. In fact, everything that has led to near-universal praise for the “American Idol 7” semifinalist may actually prevent him from winning.
“Right now, you're the one to beat, and there are 19 very miserable contestants sitting here tonight, trust me, after that,” Simon Cowell told him on Feb. 26, confirming that Archuleta stands out as the competition's best singer.
Still, Simon's comment, while well-deserved, should be a signal to Archuleta that he has to grow significantly or risk leaving the show.
Even though he's the best singer, he has to change, because his status as the front-runner is his biggest obstacle to actually winning. As oxymoronic as that is, it's a reality for the series, on which consistently strong performances can be detrimental. (For examples, see Tamyra Gray, Kimberly Locke, Chris Daughtry, Elliott Yamin, and Melinda Doolittle.)
David's best hope vocally is to follow the path forged by last season's 17-year-old winner, Jordin Sparks. He must perform well consistently, but screw up enough to prompt criticism from Simon, just as Jordin did. The one judge whose opinion matters once told Jordin that she wasn't growing week to week, pointing out the need to show improvement.
Showing vocal improvement is difficult to do when starting at the A+ level, and that's where David Archuleta is right now. It's much easier for his C-level competitors to improve week to week than it will be for him, so essentially, he needs to fail, or at least make a mistake or two.
Give viewers a reason to voteSlipping a little — perhaps by taking a significant, wild risk with song selection or arrangement — also gives viewers more of a reason to vote, because the fear that a favorite contestant will be eliminated motivates viewers and fans to vote. If a contestant is so outrageously talented that not even Simon Cowell has anything negative to say, why should viewers bother voting?
Overconfidence on the part of fans has led to eliminations in the past; after he was voted off the show, Chris Daughtry cited his fans' complacency about his front-runner status as the reason for his departure. Once David's fans tire of picking up the phone or text messaging votes because his win seems so assured, he could easily be eliminated.
Right now, of course, David is certainly inspiring passion. He already has a legion of rabid fans, and the media is fawning over him.
That, too, is problematic. He is peaking too early, and along with the rest of the country and the media, “American Idol” voters tend to have short attention spans, tiring rapidly of familiarity. The competition is first and foremost a television show, and there's no drama in watching one person dominate for 12 weeks, however talented and charming he may be.
Now that the contest has been narrowed to a half-dozen strong singers, Archuleta will have even more work to do.
He can start by working on his post-performance stage presence.
Besides his strong vocal abilities, he also stands out because of his personality, which has manifested itself on the show as endearing humility and shyness.
When Simon offered praise for his performance of John Lennon's “Imagine,” Archuleta seemed embarrassed by that comment and the studio audience's enthusiastic response. He waved his arm toward the other finalists and tried to get the audience to applaud for them, too, indicating that they were also worthy of praise.
Show 'em a full range of emotionsThat was a kind, thoughtful gesture, but not a smart one in terms of the competition. Viewers could interpret those sorts of moments as an indication he doesn't think he's good (i.e., so why should they?) or that he's being fake (i.e., he's so obviously good that he has to know it). Neither are necessarily true, but true humility isn't want viewers want or need over time.
Instead, they need to see a range of emotions, connecting them more to someone they've never actually met. In the personality department, however, Archuleta has yet to offer anything more than moments of humility, shy giggles, and comments such as “oh, wow, thanks.”
That will get old, and fast, and he has to demonstrate a dynamic range of personality in those critical moments that follow his exceptionally strong performances.
That's a difficult space for most of the show's contestants to navigate, finding the right combination of humility and cockiness as he interacts with the judges and Ryan Seacrest.
His performances should be enough, of course, but they are not, because “American Idol” is not a singing competition. It is an entertaining television program masquerading as a singing competition that is really a popularity contest in disguise.
Another finalist who had a humble personality and was Melinda Doolittle, last season's front-runner. She came in third, in large part because she did not give viewers as much personality to cling to as finalists Jordin Sparks and Blake Lewis did. Basically, she was boring, and despite being a better singer technically, voters weren't passionate enough to vote for her to be their idol.
Teenage men on “American Idol” tend to be anything but boring, and seem to largely exist as comic relief that excuses their musical failings (Sanjaya anyone?).
David is the opposite of Sanjaya and all those who've come before him, and as such, appears to be the first teenage male who could take the competition.
If he continues to sing like he has so far, David Archuleta should win. His biggest challenge right now is making it look like he should not.
is a writer and teacher who publishes realityblurred.com, a daily summary of reality TV news.