That isn’t to say I don’t appreciate certain elements of opera, or understand its importance, or get why I think other people like it. I just don’t really get it myself. It’s the wide vibrato and wandering recitatives maybe, or perhaps it has something to do with suspension of disbelief. All I know is, when I took a humanities class at BYU-Idaho, I was determined to “get” opera. We watched clips from The Magic Flute, Aida, and Wozzeck, which I believe gave me a pretty good cross-section of what opera is capable of, and so I checked out a stage production video of The Magic Flute, determined to watch, appreciate, and ultimately enjoy it. Halfway through the opera I couldn’t stand it anymore and I discovered that I could get the gist of things by fast-forwarding through and just reading the subtitles at the bottom of the screen. I tried. Maybe I’m just too dumb or unrefined, but it was all just lost on me. Maybe I’ll try again someday.
When I wrote a little snarky piece a couple weeks ago about David Archuleta’s memoir Chords of Strength: A Memoir of Soul, Song, and the Power of Perseverance, I was not anticipating the response I would get. You know when you have dinner over at a friend’s house, and when your host or hostess begins clearing the table, you mutter a half-hearted, “No, don’t do that, I can do the dishes,” except you really really hope that they respond with, “Don’t be silly, what kind of a host/hostess would I be if I made my guest do the dishes?” because in all honesty you were just being nice? Well at the end of my little piece I mentioned that if somebody bought me a copy of Chords of Strength at no charge to myself, I would read it and review it.
And somebody actually bought me a copy and sent it to me.
I will admit to you right now that, like opera, I never really “got” American Idol. Sure, when people try to explain it to me, they say, “But Arthur, it’s music, and I thought you love music.” Well, I do! I swear! But just because Tiger Woods and Kobe Bryant both love “sports,” that doesn’t necessarily mean if you put them both at a dinner table they’d have anything in common to talk about. Well, ahem, maybe those are poor examples.
But the whole concept just seemed rather beyond me. Let me share an excerpt from the book to illustrate my point.
So when he came over, the first thing he said after he gave me a hug was, “Come on, I want you to meet Tamyra.” He dragged me by the arm into the lobby and started introducing me to everyone: Ryan Starr, Jim Verraros, Nikki, Christina Christian, RJ Helton, Ejay Day, and yes, Tamyra Gray! There they were live in person! AJ then asked me to go ahead and sing for them. I couldn’t believe what was happening!
Every time I read something like this in Chords of Strength, I would sit there and scratch my head and wonder whether I was supposed to know who any of those people are. Whether they were fashion designers, pop stars, or American Idol contestants, I had no clue. Turns out they’re the latter.
So from the get-go, part of me was determined to read this book and “get” what made American Idol great. Or if not American Idol, then maybe I could at least “get” what made David Archuleta great. Or if not what made David Archuleta great, at least what possible influence he could have on people in the future. I think I got part of the second one and definitely the third one in the book, but it wasn’t easy for me.
The book starts out with David telling us his background. He grew up in a relatively normal suburb to relatively normal parents. His father was a jazz musician who also ran a computer business, and his mother was a Honduran singer and dancer. They moved to Sandy when David was 6, and he spent a great deal of his childhood goofing around, playing outside, and roller blading. Seems simple enough. After some success singing for local contests, David made it to Star Search 2 and actually won at the young age of 12.
David overcame a lot of insecurities to be able to sing in front of others. He spends most of the book seemingly bewildered at the success he has had, and I think this sense of bewilderment and shock worsened the difficulty that came after his Star Search success: partial paralysis of his vocal chords. It came upon him gradually, but eventually, it was a full-blown condition that forced him to quit singing competitively for a time. He was forced to choose between risky surgery and possibly ineffective therapy, but wisely chose the latter.
Finally, after having overcome his paralysis, the next bit of the book deals with Archuleta’s tryouts and rise in American Idol. He actually doesn’t spend too much time talking about Idol, and the narrative breaks down a bit here. I suppose he assumes we were all watching and he didn’t need to explain it any further. I will tell you that I learned a whole lot more about American Idol from the book than I ever did know before. It seems like a grueling trial for anyone involved. Contestants must basically put their lives on hold through the months they are in competition, without any guarantee of success at all. Even those who make it to the very end can have a hard time establishing themselves as career musicians. The frustration, sleep deprivation, isolation, and constant stress of being judged certainly came through in the text.
Then David spoke a little of recording his first album. He is quite open about the fact that he didn’t have too much creative input in the endeavor, but he doesn’t seem to worried about that. He says he has a lifetime to learn songwriting and create albums. Perhaps that’s true. Finally, David tells us how God, scriptures, and prayer got him through the last five years of his life. He devotes a whole chapter to spirituality, the Holy Spirit, and scriptures.
The revolving door of the pop music industry is a notoriously savage place for the innocent – one listen to Kevin Gilbert’s The Shaming of the True will convince you, too – so throughout the book I was admittedly quite amazed that David found the success that he did. He is an amazing, soulful singer, but lots of people are good singers. David really rose to stardom through his sweetness, innocence, and charm, which I really got a taste of as I read the book. So many stories like his end in heartbreak, when the poor naive little sheep are crushed cruelly by the gears of the corporate machine, and I almost cringed as I read the book, wondering when David would finally succumb to the sleazy ways of television and corporate reality. That event never came. David holds his ground and keeps his spirits up all the way through his memoir, and even cites God as his main influence for getting started to begin with. It’s really quite admirable.
So no, David isn’t an artist in the same way John Lennon was an artist. He probably isn’t the next Leonard Cohen or Elliott Smith or Peter Gabriel. Those are the kinds of musicians I know. But on the other hand, pop music is called “pop” for a reason. There is a real place in this world for attractive people who sing happy songs. And after reading about how grueling stardom and American Idol can be, with constant scrutiny, the fear that you’re losing touch with reality and wondering if you’re a phony, and the strange social isolation in the midst of throngs of screaming people, I think it’s obvious that David’s happy-faced naivety and honesty is what’s keeping him sane. Somebody’s got to do it; who would be better than a strong member of the Church, who relies on his testimony of the Lord to guide him? He’s not tortured like Kurt Cobain or Kevin Moore, whose music much more often graces my CD player, but fame drove Kevin Moore into quitting his band and moving to Costa Rica, and… well, we all know what happened to Kurt.
David finishes the book out on his now characteristically upbeat, optimistic note, and he seems excited about the future. I can tell that David wants to help and uplift people. It truly seems like he is what everyone has told me he is: a happy, optimistic kid who really wants to do what God wants him to do. I admit, there’s still a lot that I don’t “get” about pop stardom, but there are a whole lot of people who do. It’s those people that I think will benefit the most from David’s hard work. He has really put his whole heart and soul into this, and there are thousands of fans out there who are reading what he’s saying about God and the Holy Spirit. He’s not exactly an evangelist, but perhaps he’s an Elias for those who are.
I’m not going to tell you that Chords of Strength was a particularly fun read for me. It’s plainly written, without a great deal of substance, about a show I never really liked, and I would feel dishonest if I said that I got a lot out of it except that I like David Archuleta as a person a little more after reading it. I don’t think he intended this book to change any lives necessarily. It seems that his management “nudged” him into writing it, and he has co-opted the opportunity to record some information that his children and grandchildren will really cherish. I think he has a good head on his shoulders and a pretty good perspective on his weaknesses and limitations as an artist. However, he also does seem to have goals to improve himself as his career unfolds. We shall see how his latest foray into actual songwriting goes when he releases his next album. I never thought I’d say this, but I’m actually rooting for him this time. Who knows? He might surprise even a jaded rock snob like me.