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‘American Idol’ Banter: Which David rules this playground?

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In a 2006 talk about America’s obsession with precociousness, ‘New Yorker’ writer and noted Big Idea guy Malcolm Gladwell made an interesting observation about what it means to be an adult.

‘What a gifted child is, in many ways, is a gifted learner,’ he said. ‘And what a gifted adult is, is a gifted doer. And those are quite separate domains of achievement.’

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I can’t think of a better summation of the difference between the two nascent stars who stepped into the ‘Idol’ ring for the final time Tuesday night. (That, by the way, will be this piece’s only reference to boxing. Framing this episode as ‘Rocky VII’ really didn’t work, though one understands why the producers found it irresistible).

David Archuleta is this season’s Wonder Kid, a prodigy so innocent he seems like he fell out of a book by J.D. Salinger. He’s awash in natural talent: there’s that gorgeous vocal tone, and his stunning instinct for finding a song’s melodic contours. But he’s also proven himself adept at absorbing guidance. Allowing Andrew Lloyd Webber to persuade him to open those fluttery baby browns -- a happy life lesson revisited tonight -- was an obvious case. The influence of his forceful dad, Jeff Archuleta, has been more fiercely scrutinized. But Archie’s performances are what really prove that he’s a gifted learner.

From his breakthrough ‘Imagine’ (also reprised Tuesday, as a show-topper), to his reverential readings of Dolly Parton and Mariah Carey, to the uptempo numbers that foundered because he’s just too uptight, Archuleta showed himself to be the ideal teacher’s pet.

And his teacher? Certainly not judge Simon Cowell. No, it’s pop itself, the clear source of all of this kid’s comfort and emotional understanding. He is the latest embodiment of that wondrous, somewhat sad figure, the young dreamer who lives inside his chosen art form. The fondness many viewers feel for him reflects not only his singing talent but also the otherworldly aura that comes from Archie’s utter absorption in the world of song. (That same quality makes others find him a bit creepy.)

David Cook, on the other hand, is a red-blooded, baseball-loving, starlet-dating, all-American doer. He came to ‘Idol’ fully formed, his alternative rock credentials forged in the bars of the dusty Great Plains. The judges like to call him ‘original,’ but the gift that kept pushing him forward this season was savvy.

He unearthed the little-known bar-band trick of interpreting R&B songs indie-rock style (Cincinnati band the Afghan Whigs might have started this tradition way back in the mid-1990s), chose relatively obscure numbers by mentors Neil Diamond and Parton, and promoted his favorite just-under-the-radar bands (tonight’s was Collective Soul) whenever he could.

His demeanor is cool; his favorite vocal strategy is to pull the notes out ever so slightly, lagging behind a song’s beat, to create a sultry kind of tension. America thought he’d learned this from Eddie Vedder, maybe, but during Webber week, Cook admitted he’d been into high school musicals, and that’s probably where he picked up his impressively understated style of raising drama.

Cook did develop during this season; his fashion sense has improved, for one thing, though is a faux-hawk really better than a post-Beatles mop comb-over? More important, he figured out a way to negotiate success on ‘Idol’ without compromising his commitment to whatever vision of ‘alternative’ he’s living. (Given that he’s consistently chosen to cover songs by bands with a spiritual if not overtly Christian bent, I’d wager he’s not the super-decadent type.)

It’s important for Cook’s career that he has fully taken on the maverick role that the ‘Idol’ judges thrust upon him early on. ‘For me, this whole thing has been a progression,’ he announced in the face of Cowell’s criticism that he hadn’t reprised a past episode’s hit. ‘Why do something I’ve already done?’ That is how a rock star thinks, at least when he’s young. There will be plenty of time for Cook to revisit past glories in a mid-life comeback, circa 2028.

Anyway, following Gladwell’s logic, the doer should have outclassed the learner in this ultimate test of ‘Idol’ prowess. For weeks, Cook has been the front-runner, growing ever more assured as Archuleta trembled, getting ready for his next role as Chris Daughtry’s little bro on the meat-and-potatoes rock circuit.

But it was Archuleta’s night. Cook was credible singing U2 and enthusiastic with the songwriting competition number he chose, and (I discovered, returning to the moment on YouTube.com), his cover of Collective Soul had more panache than the original. But this final contest just didn’t seem that important to him, even when he dropped a few tears mid-show. ‘I’m playing in front of 7,000 people,’ he said. ‘I feel great.’ You could feel his anticipation of many more thousands of fans to come, and that confidence somehow lifted him away from the role of ‘American Idol.’

Archuleta, on the other hand, went deep inside tonight, completely focusing on those ridiculously short performances, letting the world slip away. When he started to sing ‘Don’t Let the Sun Go Down on Me,’ selected for him by Clive Davis, it seemed slightly ridiculous. One of Elton John and Bernie Taupin’s most stentorian ballads, a favorite of Clay Aiken when he wanted to pull out his big gospel notes, the song expresses the despair of a tired, endangered lover, not a 17-year-old kid who murmurs ‘gosh!’ when surrounded by cheerleaders.

But Archie pulled it off. Climbing the song’s long crescendo as if it were a stairway to the throne, he left his student’s desk for a few minutes and unleashed something visceral. Maybe the motivation behind Archie’s reading was just his burning need to win, but whatever it was, it belonged 100% to him.

The rest was frosting -- two more excellent interpretations, and three moments with Ryan Seacrest, during which poor Little David could hardly speak. But as most ‘Idols’ past know, it only takes one instance of convincing transformation to become the final Chosen One. Making the leap from learner to doer, David Archuleta grabbed that ring. No matter what the voters decide about the contest, which can’t be summed up in one night, Archuleta was your ‘American Idol’ this hour.

-- Ann Powers

Photos courtesy of Fox


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