From the looks of things, 17-year-old David Archuleta is following in the footsteps of another 17-year-old singer — Jordin Sparks, who, at the conclusion of the sixth season of "American Idol," was crowned the victor, making her the youngest winner in the show's history.
For Archuleta, a young Salt Lake City denizen with boyish charm, a stylish look, silky vocals and overly goofy modesty, the road to the season-seven finale is still a long ways away, but early on in the competition, he seems the clear — and perhaps unassailable — front-runner. Even acerbic judge Simon Cowell, who doesn't seem at all impressed with this season's crop of contenders, called Archuleta out as the one to beat during Tuesday night's episode.
While Cowell prefaced his praise by saying that Archuleta's decision to tackle John Lennon's "Imagine" was "very, very risky to do," he admitted it "worked" and added that "right now, you're the one to beat." Likewise, judge Randy Jackson dubbed the performance "one of the best vocals I've ever heard on the show," and a teary Paula Abdul called it "one of the most moving performances I've ever heard," adding that the young singer is "destined for superstardom," as she dabbed her eyes.
Archuleta, who dazzled inaugural "Idol" champ Kelly Clarkson with his pipes at the tender age of 11, has it all: He's cute (his performance ignited an almost Beatlemania-esque response from the dozens of teenage girls in the studio audience), he can sing, and he hasn't yet been tainted by the corruptive music biz. But is Archuleta the earliest front-runner to emerge in the show's seven years? And will his current popularity come back to bite him in the butt later on in the competition?
"It's only the second week, and this guy almost couldn't perform last night because there were so many tween girls flipping out in the audience," Cantiello pointed out. "Peaking this early could come back to haunt him. People may tire of the 'aw shucks' thing, and his 'prior experience' [Archuleta won the junior-singers competition on "Star Search" when he was 12] might eventually turn people off. Even this morning, I read a few upset comments about how he 'recycled' his 'Imagine' performance from a local Utah talk show after a clip popped up on YouTube."
Michael Slezak, a senior writer for Entertainment Weekly who has become known for his "Idol" coverage, agrees with Cantiello.
"I think at this point calling him the 'early front-runner' would be an understatement," Slezak said. "He's that cuddly, cute contestant that tweens and grandmas alike can get behind, and that's a pretty powerful voting bloc. We've seen what Sanjaya Malakar and John Stevens and Kevin Covais did in the competition without being particularly great vocalists, just on the cute, teen merits alone, that I think this kid has that plus — what we've seen so far — a pretty good singing voice. I don't know if I'm ready to call it a great singing voice yet. It's too early to hand him the competition, but on the other hand, if someone said bet all your money on one contestant to win, it would be David Archuleta."
Cantiello said it's obvious that Archuleta has the full support of the show's producers, as evidenced by his cushy closing spot on Tuesday's show. And more important, he's got Cowell in his pocket.
"I would give him some strong advice and tell him that he needs to bomb one of these early weeks," Cantiello said. "For some reason, 'Idol' history shows that the more flawless someone appears to be early on, the harder they fall later for the tiniest mess-up. If he's too perfect up until the top four or top three, and then gives a subpar performance that week, 'Idol' past suggests he'll have a huge target on his back."
Slezak agreed and thinks Archuleta isn't without his weaknesses.
"Nobody likes a contestant to peak too early on 'Idol,' " he said. "It sort of takes the fun out of it for viewers if it becomes a 15-week coronation march for him. I think there will be moments where the judges are tough on him, maybe even overly tough on him, because I don't think they want this season to be a forgone conclusion before we reach the final 12. Also, he does have to watch the 'aw shucks' factor. I think he seems like a genuinely nice kid, and seems genuinely excited to have that kind of feedback. We did see a little clip of him the other week where he was like, 'I never thought I was good,' and you kind of just think, 'OK, reel that in.' It's just hard to believe when you see all the YouTube clips of him singing from 11 onward — you know you're good, don't pretend you don't think you're good."
Like many before him, Archuleta's impact is being felt early on, and it seems he can do no wrong. But looking back at some of the show's other early front-runners, it's clear what you do in week two doesn't ensure you'll make it to week three. During the second season, as soon as Frenchie Davis belted out a note during her audition, audiences figured she'd assume the crown from Kelly Clarkson. Then topless photos of her surfaced online, and she was finished. Season four's Mario Vasquez also seemed an obvious lock for the finale, but then dropped out right before the top 12 for "personal reasons," which changed the entire dynamic of the competition.
Cantiello also points out that America's first "Idol," Kelly Clarkson, "was a slow build, as far as her support went." No one noticed her during the show's first week of competition, but she ultimately came out on top, besting that season's early front-runner, Justin Guarini, who had several detractors — which Archuleta doesn't seem to have just yet.
"This kid seemingly has the entire package," Cantiello said. "He's got [early season-six front-runner] Melinda Doolittle's vocal prowess and bashful modesty, Jordin Sparks' appealing young age, Disney Channel good looks, [season-six contestant] Sanjaya Malakar's fanatical tween-girl fanbase. Plus, he showed off his range by rocking an uptempo last week and devouring a ballad last night. There's no one-trick Taylor Hicks pony show happening."
Season-five champ Hicks was another early favorite who acquired a huge fanbase right off the bat. But his "Idol" popularity couldn't sustain a career, and he was eventually dropped from his label because of poor album sales.
"Compared to every other singer this season — boy or girl — Archuleta seems to be in another league entirely," Cantiello said.
As far as Archuleta's closest competition going forward, Slezak said he's keeping his eyes on David Hernandez and Jason Castro on the men's side ("But neither of them look like people who are going to really be able to get the same number of votes as Archuleta at this point," he said), and on the women's, Asia'h Epperson, Amanda Overmyer and Carly Smithson. "[Smithson] is sort of the front-runner coming in, and has had her share of publicity, and if she can live up to the hype, I think she can give David a little run for his money," he said.
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[This story was originally published at 2:47 pm E.T. on 2.27.2008]