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'Idol' Banter: Imagine all the prodigies ...

Davidarchuleta Who is David Archuleta, really? Aside from the next American Idol, that is.  In this second round of Boys' Night, the dewy teen pulled out so far ahead of the competition that we might as well all go to the gym Tuesday evenings for the next few weeks.

Risking "Imagine," a song forever wedded to the Liverpudlian nasality of a certain martyred Beatle, Archuleta defined what "Idol" means by "making it your own." Without denting his aura of innocence, he switched up the melody, inflecting it with soulful touches that had Paula's upper lip visibly moist. She called him a superstar, Randy said it was one of the best "Idol" vocals ever, and Simon called him "the one to beat." True to form, the Chosen One feigned mild astonishment, like a child gazing in wonder upon his birthday cake.

But don't let this 17-year-old "Star Search" veteran fool you, America. Archuleta's blessed, no doubt, displaying an effortless musicality that nearly recalls the grace of the young Michael Jackson. But his "Imagine" was all worked out. And, by the way, borrowed.

Unlike Blake Lewis, who gave the song an effectively straight reading last season, Archuleta's young enough to not be weighed down by Lennon's legacy. (Also, as a Mormon, he's unlikely to espouse the song's agnostic ideal -- that's the real reason he didn't sing its early verses, with the line about "no religion, too.") But he'd have to be Mozart to have come up with that artful arrangement. It takes experience to so subtly rethink a song embedded in our shared consciousness.

The person with that experience was Eva Cassidy. The Washington, D.C.-based Cassidy was a deeply intelligent singer with a wide-ranging repertoire who gained only local fame before dying of melanoma in 1996, at age 33.  Her recordings, and her tragic story, led to a wave of Eva-mania in the late 1990s, but it didn't last. Few people remember her now -- except singers, who treasure the subtlety of her arrangements and her pristine voice.

Cassidy recorded "Imagine" in the style Archuleta basically copped; you can hear the original here. And he didn't just happen upon this version lying on the stereo in the "Idol" dorms. This video clip shows Archie waxing wise on the song at age 13, on the morning show "Good Things Utah." Notice, he hits those same high notes. Cassidy's recording had been available for around two years.

It's no sin to borrow another's arrangement -- Chris Daughtry pilfered Live's version of "I Walk the Line" in Season 5, and Carrie Underwood got her Faith Hill on for "Piece of My Heart" in Season 4.  Daughtry's was the more egregious move, since he got called all kinds of original for it and initially didn't speak up. And did he pay? Au contraire. Live frontman Ed Kowalczyk cast his unofficial vote for Daughtry, and the band even performed with him on the season finale. I guess ripping off a washed-up post-grunge band is a bold move in "Idol" terms.

But not as bold as imitating a long-deceased jazz-pop songbird.

The flaw in Archuleta's artistry is his complete lack of affect beyond bashful awe at everyone's enthusiasm. Chalk it up to youth, except this isn't how a real kid acts. Prematurely booted Josiah Leming acted like a real kid: he cried, got angry, traded overconfidence for desperation. Archie is a creature of the stage -- an interpreter of his own life -- and that makes him just a little hard to trust, or love.

When he's singing, though, he's golden, no matter whom he imitates. So maybe this is a singing competition after all.

-- Ann Powers

(Photo courtesy of Fox)

Comments () | Archives (32)

I believe Ringo Starr once said after George Harrison's My Sweet Lord lawsuit that if you are going to steal, steal from the best.

Thank you, Ann, for pointing out the mostly likely reason why the teen dropped the "no religion, too" verse and "Imagine there's no Heaven." I was wondering if anyone in the mainstream media would pick that up. My hat off to Randy for asking him why he didn't sing the first verse. As long as there is organized religion, spiritual "members only" clubs, there can't be a "brotherhood of man (which was Lennon's point) no matter how beautifully you sing that verse.

I listened to both Eva Cassidy's version and David A.'s and while, yes, he sang "Imagine" "in the style of Eva Cassidy," it's not a cookie-cutter copy. He changed it up more from her version that most singers change up from the original. It was also heads and tails a better performance of the song than Blake's version last year, which I found to be odd (a Blake original, yes, but originality doesn't matter if it comes off as weird).

Should also be pointed out that Kat McPhee's version of "Over the Rainbow" in Season 5 *was* a cookie-cutter version of Eva Cassidy's "Over the Rainbow." Down to the last inflection. She got a lot of credit for that one.

I must disagree that his choice of singing the third verse should be called into question at all. Maybe he did want to avoid the "no heaven" or "no religion" lines, but who cares? Or maybe he really did just like the third verse better. There's no rule that says the kid has to inject into his performance all the politics of religion that comes with Lennon's message.

It isn't David's (or anybody's) responsibility to point out the hypocrisy of organized religion. He's a kid who chose a part of a song that meant something to him and left out a part which was his artistic license to do. If 30 years of Lennon hasn't changed anything why would an evening on American Idol? Whether he "borrowed" an interpretation or not (need we get into a hip-hop sampling debate?) is irrelevant. The kid did a kick-ass job and you can't take that away from him. The insanity of the crowds (on the 2nd week of live shows) as soon as he opens his mouth is a tribute to that.

Glad to see the article's been re-titled to make the plaigirism charge more implicit. With American Idol being essentially a cover show, who cares if he's Mormon, who cares if he "took inspiration" from Eva Cassidy who took inspiration from Lennon. Her version made a pretentious song exquisite, and so did David.

Since David Archuleta sang the whole song on a Utah morning show, (you can see the clip on YouTube), this disproves the notion he would not sing the "no religion, too" verse of the song. Maybee it was just like he said, he could only sing one verse, he liked the third verse the best.

Powers contradicts herself when she says Archie didn't sing the first verses because he's a Mormon, and then provides a clip of the kid singing all the verses on a Utah tv show. Since each performer has a time limit, they have to determine what part of their song to sing. Archuleta was honest in his answer when he said the last verse summarized the meaning of the song best for him.

Ann, thanks for a very interesting post. My only question is, if his religion is the REAL reason he didn't sing the first two verses, as you suggest, then why does he sing them on the show Good Things Utah? (In front of an audience that is more Mormon than a national audience to boot.)

He's awesome! Also, about the first verse opt out...give me a break...I think if that had to do with his religious beliefs, he wouldn't have sung the song at all...you have WAAAAAY too much time on your hands for thinking that deeply into it...To Ann Powers- Did you ASK Archuleta if that's why he decided not to sing the first verse? Why is a reporter writing facts that can't be backed up? You're merely writing on a hunch...there goes your ethos!!!!!

When I was just turned 17 and obedient to both parents and organized religion, I wouldn't have sung those first verses, either - I wouldn't have even sung the 3rd verse.

I cringed when I heard he was going to sing Imagine - Lennon so walked the talk of that song - but the kid pulled it off, because he not only has a voice, the kid actually (still) has heart, and it comes across.

I, too, picked that up. I knew immediately why Archuleta chose to omit the first verse of the song, and I think that's what Randy was getting at. I hope, though, that Archuleta isn't pegged as the "Mormon Idol." It would be a shame to attribute his kind and modest nature soley to his religious beliefs. Either way I think he's the clear-cut winner this year, bar none.

Wow. This writer has some sort of axe to grind. So bitter.

Before David becomes the focus of some "Mormon Idol" discussion, it should be pointed out that he's not the only Mormon in this season's competition. He just happens to be from Utah which makes it more visible. Who's the other? Does it matter? Let this go and enjoy the singing.

every american idol contestant is there to compete.no matter what song they choose,
be it borrowed or immitated...that is their choice. they are there to show if they can be
a future artist and a star someday.i salute the style of DAVID ARCHULETA.

what's all this brouhaha bout the 'imitation' or 'borrowing'? Am i deluded or is this not a singing competition? or is it actually a song-composing/arrangement contest? And did Little David A. ever claimed that the song arrangement was his? And what about the other contestants...did they sing their own, very own, arrangement? What's the issue here btw?The kid did great, so why does this need to take that away from him? And the 'imagined' assumption that he doesn't want to do the earlier verse because of he's a Mormon..i'd say it's malicious. He sang it just fine in the All Good Things Utah, so what's the point again? And anyway whatever he chose to sang is up to him, he can just sing the chorus for all I care and he'll still sound drop dead amazing. This is a singing competition, man, (or lady), just let him do what he do best...he doesn't need anymore pressure

Ms. Powers, awfully nasty mood today? This kind of pretentious crap makes me sick. Get a life.

I don't want little pissants on top of the pops butchering the meaning of my song. It's enough to sing a song; you have to know what and why to sing it.

American Idol sometimes manipulates which artist gets credit for the song. Last year Blake sang "Love Song" in the EXACT style of the cover done by 311. However, the song was still credited to the Cure. Blake was credited with bringing his own spin to the song. This seems to be the situation with David A. I don't think he was intentionally trying to deceive anyone any more than Blake was last year. It is a reality show and things get altered by the writers/editors.

your an embarrassment to journalism for bashing this kid. I can wait until your kids beg you to buy his Cd's.

Last I heard, this show was not called American Composer. Did he claim to have written this arrangement? Perhaps Ms. Powers couldn't find anything better to do than nitpick the performance of a 17 year-old. I see she also tried the laughable "Mormon" theory, though two seconds of research by Ms. Powers would have found this video (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XcYNGsf9M8U&feature=related) on YouTube, featuring a younger Archuletta singing the full version on television. I know you wish it was some kind of religious conspiracy that he only sang one verse. The way TV works, Ann, is that sometimes segments are intentionally shortened for the sake of moving the show along and providing entertainment -- a quality that your column could stand to employ once in a while.

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