David Archuleta may have been the “one to beat” when season seven of American Idol premiered last January, but he’s facing some stiff competition in David Cook. Both contestants haven’t ever been in the bottom two or three, and while Archuleta is holding steady, Cook has been gaining momentum each week.
He certainly didn’t come out of the gate as a front runner. His rock performance of The Turtles' “Happy Together” showed a lot of potential, but it was good, not great. The next week he did a solid performance of Free’s “All Right Now,” but Simon criticized him for being boring because he said he liked word puzzles in the “getting to know the contestants” video shown right before the performance. Simon believed Cook showing his intellectual side would hurt his not yet established rock credibility. That was a misjudgment on Simon’s part. The word puzzles made him more endearing to viewers, especially those not already inclined to like his more modern rock sound.
The next week he proved he was anything but boring by doing a hard rock version of Lionel Richie’s pop ballad “Hello.” They song drew attention from Lionel Richie himself, who said he wanted to record the song with Cook. The arrangement was vaguely similar to a version the band Incubus had done a few years before, but the similarities were hardly enough to compare the two.
Even so, he seemed to be treading closely to Chris Daughtry’s tactic of doing a “cover of a cover” — that is, taking his song choice and finding a modern rock cover that would fit his style. This landed Daughtry in some hot water when the judges praised him for being “original,” when he was really just doing an already established arrangement. While the onus is more on the judges for making uninformed remarks, Daughtry was never able to fully recover from the controversy. Daughtry backed away from the rock covers and at times he found himself struggling to fit with some of the themes. This may have been one of the factors that ultimately led to his premature departure from American Idol at number four.
Cook took a somewhat different approach than Daughtry. While the arrangements Daughtry chose were fairly well known, especially to rock fans, Cook went for obscurities. For the Beatles-themed weeks he chose cover versions of "Eleanor Rigby" from an almost completely unknown band called Doxology and "Daytripper" based on a version done by Whitesnake in the '70s (who even knew Whitesnake was a band in the '70s?). There were a few grumblings of “stealing” amongst bloggers, but Cook’s popularity was on the rise amongst fans of the show. The next week Cook turned in an outstanding vocal performance of "Billie Jean" with an arrangement based on a less obscure cover, done a few years ago, by Chris Cornell. Despite show host Ryan Seacrest’s mention of Cornell before Cook’s performance, judge Randy Jackson proclaimed Cook to be the most original contestant the show had ever seen, and Simon Cowell said his performance was “brave.”
While Jackson may have been just referring to Cook’s method of choosing songs as original, the grumblings grew louder that he was ripping off other people’s work. Here is where Cook really got smart. He quickly addressed the situation in a pre-Idol interview, saying he knew very well that arrangements were based on existing versions, and that he was simply looking for songs that suited his style. He then abandoned the "cover of a cover" strategy and started doing his own thing.
Most notably he turned the Mariah Carey pop song “Always Be My Baby” into a contemporary sounding hard rocker. He also showed off his vocal capability and kept the viewing audience guessing by doing a straight version of “Music of the Night” from Phantom of the Opera. Simon didn’t like that Cook strayed from his usual style, but it was probably the smartest move he could make. No one could accuse him of being a one-trick pony after that.
That brings us to Cook's ability as a performer and singer. Cook has a powerful voice with a lot of range, perfect for the kind of music he wants to perform, and he has the ability to be versatile if he wants to. This is, after all, a singing competition. Of course, the other front runner, David Archuleta, has a powerful voice too, but he seems more limited in his style. This is where Cook has the most advantage. Cook takes a lot more risks with his songs, and is simply a more exciting and dynamic performer than Archuleta.
David Archuleta spent his childhood becoming a skilled technical singer, and he is very good. However, he almost comes across as too polished, which makes each performance similar to the last. He is very rehearsed, hitting the big notes where he needs to. With his singing skills fairly well honed, Archuleta needs to spend some time becoming the engaging performer David Cook already is. Cook already commands the stage with all the presence of a real rock star. He looks and acts like he wants to be there more than anywhere else in the world. That kind of attitude makes his fans want to keep him there.
There has already been a lot of interest in Cook musically. Prior to Idol, Cook made four independent albums with his band, Axium, and one solo independent album, Analog Heart. All three albums go for a pretty penny on eBay. Analog Heart was self released in 2006 and that same year it won Urban Tulsa Weekly's URBY award for Best Independent Album. The album was also recently available on Amazon, where it quickly became Amazon’s top MP3 album. The album was pulled, after some media speculation as to whether Cook was a “ringer” in the competition. American Idol rules only state that contestants cannot have a current recording contract. Since Cook’s album was independently released, he is eligible.
Despite the unfair controversy and at times being called “pompous,” “smug” and “arrogant” by Simon Cowell, the press, and even fans, Cook seems to approach each week and new challenge with a positive attitude that says he wants to win. In the end I think David Cook’s steadily rising momentum will carry him all the way to the top.