Little David Archuleta's winning performance of ''Imagine'' made all the other men singing tonight look like also-rans, but we saw reason for some of them to hope
Davids Idol

”American Idol” recap: Is the race over?

He has the eyes of Bambi, only darker and perhaps 11 percent more earnest. When the camera catches his broad, open, guileless grin, you can kind of understand how a mother feels the first time her baby looks up at her and smiles. And when he sings — oh, that voice! — grandpas (and Paula) grab their handkerchiefs and dab the corners of their eyes, remembering simpler days when ”nice boys and girls” were the toast of the airwaves.

The judges adore him. The tweens in the audience can’t stop screaming for him. And, perhaps most remarkable of all, he doesn’t give off that whiff of creepiness that too often clings to youthful performers — you know, the forced maturity, the soulless ambition, the ability to come up with a polished but uninteresting sound bite the minute the cameras start rolling.

In fact, as David Archuleta closed tonight’s episode of American Idol with a beautiful, slowed-down rendition of ”Imagine,” I jotted a single word on my notepad: ”Inevitable.” And while that’s an adjective I hate to use only halfway through the second week of the season 7 semifinals, it’s one I cannot ignore, either. So, what the heck, let’s confront it:

Is David Archuleta’s season 7 Idol victory simply inevitable?

Maybe, but I sure as hell hope not!

It’s not that Little David — and we’ll call him Little David for now to distinguish him from the other two Davids left in the competition — doesn’t seem like a genuinely nice kid, or that he didn’t offer a unique, pitch-perfect arrangement of a John Lennon classic, or that he hasn’t shown more star quality and stage presence in two weeks of performances than all the other male contestants combined.

It’s just that a 13-week victory march isn’t going to make for a very compelling season of my favorite television program. In other words, just because the waiter is pushing the Archuleta special with every fiber of his being doesn’t mean I don’t want to look at the entire menu. And let’s not forget, this time last year, Idol‘s sixth season looked like an epic showdown between Melinda Doolittle and LaKisha Jones, and they wound up finishing third and fourth respectively.

So while it’s true that none of the nine other dudes matched Little David’s ”Imagine” tonight, a few of them performed well enough to keep themselves in (distant) striking range of the adorable front-runner. Now all David Hernandez and David Cook (and maybe Jason Castro, Danny Noriega, and Michael Johns) have to do is hope that Little David’s voice isn’t quite finished changing (and for the worse) or that TMZ is about to reveal the kid is secretly managed by Dina Lohan.

And anyway, even if it’s going to be the season of Archuleta, let’s just be thankful that there’s a real race heating up for the five other spots reserved for male finalists. After his uninspired and rote ”In the Midnight Hour” kicked off last week’s show, tonight we got a very special edition of How David H. Got His Soul Back — which he provided by covering the night’s coolest number, ”Papa Was a Rollin’ Stone,” with a vigor and intensity that managed to convert even Simon into a fan. Okay, it’s true, there were a couple of rough patches, especially in David H.’s lower register, but the growling, dramatic way he ended the number was a nice (and rather grown-up) contrast to the teen-dreaminess that seems to be defining the season. If there’s a workmanlike, Elliott Yamin-ish contestant in the field who might outlast some of his more buzzed-about rivals, I’d put my money on David H. Plus, bonus points to the guy for choosing funky, up-tempo numbers two weeks running.

NEXT: Simon hazards!

Also showing vast improvement over last week was David Cook — let’s call him Rocker David for the remainder of this column! — who didn’t take a lot of chances (and went kind of flat on the chorus) with his cover of Free’s ”All Right Now” but at least proved that rock & roll needn’t be an exercise in grimacing seriousness. Watching the ”word nerd” strap on a guitar and cut loose was one of the evening’s lightest moments, at least until he got all huffy over Simon’s totally valid criticism that he needs to up his charisma quotient. Seriously, when are these contestants going to learn there’s no winning a verbal showdown with the cranky British judge? For starters, contestants who kvetch always look petty and insecure, and what’s more, Simon’s retorts are always better. Plus, if Rocker David had really wanted to take offense at a critique, how about Paula’s backhanded compliment that every seventh-grade boy with a guitar knows how to play the riff on ”All Right Now”? Ouch!

Simon was even tougher on Jason Castro, the only other contestant who picked up an instrument tonight, and while I can’t deny that I heard the dreadlocked dude gasp for air before botching that big note on ”Evv-reee-thiiiing,” and that Randy was perhaps technically correct in saying he’s not a ”great” vocalist, if there’s one performance I’m downloading tomorrow on iTunes, it’s his folksy cover of Andy Gibb’s ”I Just Wanna Be Your Everything.” There’s just something so sweet and sincere about the sound of Jason’s voice, and there’s a comfort level he has as an artist, that somehow defies a post-performance critique. Not to mention the fact that his reluctant interview package — in which he expressed his surprise in discovering Idol requires of him ”a lot more of the not-music stuff than I thought” — was the night’s funniest moment.

Of course, first runner-up in the comedy category would have to go to Danny Noriega’s zippy half-word response (”ish”) to Simon’s question about whether, after a week to ponder it, the snappy teenager had come to agree that his week 1 Elvis cover was a mess. Thankfully, though, Danny fared better with his cover of the Carpenters’ ”Superstar,” showing restraint and power, even though he sounded just a smidge behind the band for the first half of his performance. If at this point in the competition, you put Danny in a teen-to-teen matchup with Little David, there’d be no contest vocally, but you’d have to admit the finals would be a lot less interesting without him.

I’m not sure I can say the same for Michael Johns, who seems to be losing steam faster than a teakettle in a freezer. I was stoked when I heard the opening strains of Fleetwood Mac’s ”Go Your Own Way” — that is, until I heard Michael strain every time he wrestled with the upper register of the chorus that Lindsey Buckingham delivered with such ferocity and effortlessness. Which has me asking: If it looks like a star but sounds more like the lead singer for a middling cover band, how far can it go in the competition?

Luckily for Michael, he’s got a big enough fan base right now that he probably won’t have to worry about packing his bags till the finals get under way, unless either Robbie Carrico or Chikezie discover the Fountain of Magnetism between now and next Tuesday.

I’ll admit I’ve run hot and cold — well, mostly cold — on Robbie since his first audition. Although I really liked his take on ”One” last week (if not his Brett Michaels styling), tonight’s rendition of Foreigner’s ”Hot Blooded” was like a karaoke burger with extra cheese. I don’t care how ”hardcore” the guy’s drag-racing habit is, real rockers do not hold up three fingers to signify they’ve ”got a fever of a hundred and three,” nor do they open their shirts and point to their chests to indicate they’ve ”got a fever inside of me.” Also, for some reason, I cannot shake the very disturbing notion that Robbie looks very much like Justin Timberlake with a really bunk weave. If you have not noticed this, please go directly to the DVR and check for yourself. See?

Chikezie, meanwhile, suffered from styling problems of his own, taking the stage in a very ordinary blue polo shirt (with a sea-foam-green one underneath — and also, I believe, a calculator watch) that seemed more appropriate for a backyard barbecue than America’s most popular talent competition. And while his rendition of ”I Believe to My Soul” was much more on key than his ”More Today Than Yesterday” last week, I couldn’t understand what the judges were so excited about. To me, Chikezie’s delivery lacked the necessary ”oomph” to sell such a big, raucous number. I only believed the guy to my dermis, but nothing further than that! (Side note: Tell me I am not the only one feeling woeful that Chikezie changed the pronunciation of the name his mama gave him just because people kept getting it wrong.)

NEXT: Two for the road

Anyway, I’m guessing the Artist Formerly Known as Eze will have one more chance to sell me on his talents, because this week’s dual eliminations seem almost as obvious as the third opened button on Luke Menard’s shirt, or the peculiar blond streak in Jason Yeager’s hair. Seriously, my left ear actually got up and ran around my head to my right ear midway through Queen’s ”Killer Queen” just to confirm it was hearing what it thought it was hearing. The conversation went a little like this:

Left Ear: Is this as shrill and nasal as I think it is?

Right Ear: Oh, my God, times ten! And also, he puts his mouth too close to the mike!

Left Ear: But wasn’t this dude just blathering in his interview package about always having to be flawless because he’s in an a cappella sextet?

Right Ear: Um, clearly those other five dudes just keep him around for eye candy. Now go back to your side of Slezak’s head. I’m trying to hear Paula’s crazy critique!

Neither my ears nor my brain, however, really want to get into a lengthy discussion of Jason Y’s ”Long Train Running,” not after the drubbing the innocuous nice guy took from Simon, Paula, and Randy. Sure I could complain about that bizarre ”head down, arms out” pose he struck at the end of his number, or the way he tended to inexplicably grin through the whole performance, or — oh wait, there’s the Oscar music cueing me off the stage! After a critique that contained little to no constructive criticism, Simon’s suggestion for cutting short the often painful post-performance interviews was one of the night’s best.

What did you think of tonight’s show? Does Little David seem like a shoo-in, and if so, does that excite or perturb you? Who are your picks to round out the top six? And which two men are going home Thursday?

Episode Recaps

American Idol

Ryan Seacrest hosts as Katy Perry, Lionel Richie, and Luke Bryan guide aspiring singers on their way to superstardom.

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