In Chapter 6, David recounts what has arguably been the most talked about, at least outside the fan community, period of his career so far, his run on American Idol from Top 24 to the finale, during which time he became one of the show’s most celebrated contestants.
David begins the chapter discussing the dilemma he faced as a high school student trying to strike a successful balance between his education goals and the sudden realization that his life would soon be consumed by the demands of the biggest show on American television. At some point, given his high school’s strict requirements and his own trouble finding the right balance, which he acknowledges, he had to withdraw from school and direct all his focus on the competition and, hopefully, a music career to follow. The decision did not come easy, “You have to understand that one of the reasons grades have always been really important to me is that as much as I loved music and hoped I could have a future in music, I never counted on music to work out for me as a life path. . . . The idea of risking this almost felt like a mistake. But I guess that was how I learned that sometimes you have to take a risk when there’s an opportunity right under your nose” (pp. 120-21).
Once he threw himself into Idol, David’s schedule was grueling, with still some required schooling, constant, near round-the-clock preparation for the show, and little to no sleep. Here, as always, the support David received from his family proved essential, especially that from his mother and father. But even David’s family would face new challenges. He reveals the conflicted emotions he felt regarding how his decision to go on Idol was impacting his siblings, who, all teenagers or younger and through no choice of their own, had suddenly become known more as “David’s brother” or “David’s sister” rather than as themselves. Difficult decisions and personal conflicts aside, David dedicated himself to the life-changing and overwhelming experience of Idol. Even those who aren’t fans will find this chapter overflowing with interesting, behind-the-scenes anecdotes, as David recounts what it was like to be a contestant: text messages sent with daily itineraries, choosing songs, rehearsals, recording, stylists, photos, press, etc., and always, always the stress that came with competing against people he grew to respect as performers AND friends.
One of the most compelling sections of the chapter begins with David saying, “Looking back, I think I felt freest at the beginning of the competition because at that point even if people did have expectations of me, they couldn’t have been that high. . . . I sang ‘Imagine,’ and even though everyone loved it, I felt that I sort of set myself up for disaster” (p. 127). David didn’t quite understand why his performance, one many now consider a definitive interpretation of the Lennon classic, received so much praise, but he knew his challenge going forward would be to equal if not surpass it. As the section continues, the reader becomes keenly aware that David’s ultimate obstacle, perhaps even more than the show and his competitors, was how to overcome still ever-present insecurities, even if, ironically, his “Imagine” and subsequent strong showings made him a shoe-in for the finale if not the title.
Again, there is much about the “Idol experience” to soak up in this chapter for fans of David, American Idol, and other contestants or anyone interested in how someone so young takes on such a challenge in front of so many expectant and critical eyes. David’s first-hand account of facing the challenges of sickness, saying goodbye to friends voted off, weathering the judges’ comments, the media, and his insecurities are numerous and fascinating. Tellingly, David knew far more about public perceptions, both of the show and him, than many people may have realized—and he endured such scrutiny by relying on his faith. He says, I knew how the show worked, and having been an eager fan of it myself, I knew the Web was teeming with chatter about this or that singer. I was afraid of what people thought of us. I knew that if I looked, I could easily run the risk of getting upset about it, which would only make me go backward emotionally. I had to stay focused on staying positive. I did that by staying close to God and to my beliefs (p. 131).
Two dominant themes in the book, and this chapter is no exception, are family and faith. They are central to understanding David as a person. The further along David got in the competition, as he overcame setbacks (“We Can Work It Out”), met his own Idols (Mariah Carey), participated in once-in-a-lifetime events (“Idol Gives Back”), and racked up one memorable performance after another, he increasingly battled self-doubt. His awareness that he was suddenly very famous brought added pressure, but his return trip to Utah for Top 3 week seems to have been a turning point in how David viewed his relationship with his fans. His description of this realization is lovely and (especially for fans) touching, I could see now that my journey was as exciting to the fans as it was for me, and that even through some of my worst moments of insecurity, they had not once turned their backs on me. My fans were not simply fans; but instead a group of people who, for some reason or another, decided to unconditionally believe in me. . . . Their enthusiasm for my singing would feed me with a new brand of confidence, and I can safely say that their appreciation for what I was doing is what kept me working so hard. . . . It was clear that I sang for them just as much as I sang for myself, so it was fitting that we were now sharing it all together” (pp.136-8).
As we all know, David did make it to the finale, and even though he did not ultimately win the title of American Idol of Season 7, Chapter 6 reveals a young man far more concerned with the lessons he learned from the experience than with winning anything, at least anything measured in ratings or dollars. One thing that becomes clear about David is that he isn’t much of a competitor at all, at least when it comes to competing against others. About Idol “competitor” and Season 7 winner, David Cook, David’s praise is effusive and entirely genuine. Like Cook, David was signed to a recording contract, but the final victory was more personal for David. “In fact, I won something very precious on American Idol: the belief that when I sing, people actually enjoy it. . . . Even though I had lost, maybe I had won after all. I had shown everyone that my passion for music was real all the way to the end. . . . My best, I’d learned, just might be good enough” (pp. 146, 148). [I did not include in my summary anything about the many additional goodies in this chapter—it’s crammed full of them. Please see the many color photographs David includes, my favorites being the one of his mentor session with Dolly Parton, a favorite Idol moment for me, and the one featuring the winning smile he gives even while feeling very sick in the scorching heat at the meet and greet before the Idol concert in Houston—also a favorite because one of my dearest friends happens to be in the photo. More good stuff in Chapter 6, see also: David’s “Top 5 Songs I’ve Covered,” p. 140; “American Idol Songs” sung by David from audition to the finale, pp. 142-3; and David’s “Top 3 Idol Memories,” p. 149. ]
“It was clear that I sang for them just as much as I sang for myself, so it was fitting that we were now sharing it all together” (p. 138). Understandably, Chapter 6 is the longest in Chords of Strength. David is still most known for being on American Idol, at least outside the fandom, so there was much for David to document. He gives the show its due and then some, but most compelling, for me, is the honesty with which he shares his fears and vulnerabilities. Once in an interview (I can’t recall which and I’m paraphrasing), Maya Angelou was asked what quality she thought was most important or vital in a person to achieve happiness. She responded, “Courage.” I remember thinking at the time that I didn’t understand exactly what she meant or that she was wrong. Surely being compassionate, forgiving, intelligent, talented and so forth were more important? Weren’t they? But then she explained that all other qualities or virtues, if you will, were meaningless without the courage to put those virtues to action. David’s battle with his insecurities on the show, which many of us at the time suspected to be daunting and now know as much, seems to me a wonderful example of how courage allows one’s other gifts and virtues to shine. All David needed to hook many of us was that voice. And there was also his optimism, his youth, his endless affability, and his inherent, unshakable graciousness and goodness. All these added up to a delightful young man behind which to throw our votes. But if our ears paid attention first and if David charmed us with his, “David-ness,” for lack of a better word, I’d argue it was his courage that ultimately made many of us devoted fans.
Not all of us are blessed with David’s good looks or unassuming charm or golden voice. And, yet, there he was, possessing so many qualities we admire, and still insecure and doubtful. Many of us sensed how scared David was, even with that beautiful voice, but his courage to stare down his fears and pull off truly magical performances was, well, breathtaking to watch. I will leave others to expound on the source of David’s courage, as that is central to upcoming chapters, and, frankly, there are others in the fanbase who can write more eloquently and with more knowledge about that than I can. I will say that for many of us, American Idol’s Season 7, for all its clunky and cheesy fun, gave us a new Champion in David Archuleta. For haven’t we all been afraid to take a risk or go for something we really wanted? Haven’t we all, at one point or another, been afraid to be ourselves, because people were watching? Haven’t we all thought we weren’t good enough, smart enough, pretty/handsome enough, thin enough, eloquent enough? Maybe this is part of the reason David’s fans, “for some reason or another, have decided to believe in” David. For if we root for David, so courageously himself, to overcome his fears, to succeed, then we share in his victories. We, who’ve known our own fears and setbacks, succeed with him and might even still find the courage to let our best gifts and virtues shine and experience our own triumphs.
There are so many things from this chapter to discuss, favorite performances, what drew us to David, etc. It’s endless. What were your impressions of Chapter 6? Was there any particular revelation about Idol behind-the-scenes that struck you? Were you surprised at how forthcoming David was about his struggles with self-doubt? David lists his favorite songs he’s covered and his top 3 Idol memories; what are yours? What did you think of David’s comments regarding David Cook, the Judges? Have you ever been afraid to take a risk? What has inspired you to be courageous?
Before opening the discussion for comments, I’d like to post links to two videos. One, since this is a chapter about David’s experience on Idol, is his performance of “Smokey Mountain Memories,”—a personal favorite. The other, “Shine,” is a song by Collective Soul by way of Dolly Parton, a serendipitous intersection of his mentor for Top 9 week and the search for inspiration/courage in the face of uncertainty.