Friday, December 19, 2008

WHEN YOU REALLY THINK ABOUT IT, "I HOPE SOMEDAY YOU'LL JOIN US AND THE WORLD WILL LIVE AS ONE" CAN TAKE ON A PRETTY OMINOUS TONE: "X of the year" is a weird and slippery concept, like "most valuable player." It could mean best X, most popular X, or most influential X. In the hands of a different blog, we might put our heads together and try to isolate the best music of the year, or the most popular among the best music, or the best among the most popular music. But this is not a different blog, and so I am hereby awarding the 2008 ALOTT5MA Song of the Year to David Archuleta's "Imagine."

But it is depressing where the original was hopeful, you may object. It is boring filler, pandering to the least common denominator. It is sung by the hollowest of human beings, a husk of a boy shriveling as his dreams of a day without obligations to prepubescent girls, postmenopausal cat lovers, and pedophiles drift away. Hey, I hear you. But it makes no difference.

By my count, Archuleta wheeled out his "Imagine" one hundred and seventeen times during the twelve episodes of last season's AI finals, give or take. In any event, he flogged that horse every chance he got. It sounded as if he took Lennon's sheet music as the merest suggestion without ever hearing the simple, straightforward original, or at least as if he were offended by Lennon's failure to pack in enough vocal runs to make the girls squeal. He gave it a comic emphasis:
no need for greed or hungerrrrrrr
Imagine all THE! peoplllllle …
Allow me this heresy, please: this was never that great a song to begin with. It is a bit obvious, right? Too on-the-nose? I mean, at some point people figured out that a good pop love song can't just whisper "I love you I love you" in reverent tones, so there has to be a better way of conveying "I want world peace" than saying "world peace, please." Yet if the original was a bit adolescent, a bit McCartneyesque, in presentation, at least it had content. Archuleta, however, manages to separate the words from their literal meaning, so that they are just a string of hummable syllables arranged in a melodic order intended to suggest not any kind of specific complaint (religion, commercialism, human imperfection) but rather a generic, abstract unease and a concomitant hope that by really caring about it it will go away. And by separating the words from their literal meaning, Archuleta doesn't alleviate the triteness; he amplifies it. Everything is stickier, slower, more dour, and, paradoxically, more conspicuously, facetiously earnest.

And that's the best thing about the song, the truly impressive part of it -- its lavish, epic cynicism. I've read a lot about Archuleta's quiet paring away of an important part of the song's thesis ("imagine there's no heaven … no religion too"), ostensibly because it's at odds with his own beliefs, but isn't it more likely that the verse was cut because it might offend significant portions of his fan base -- of the aforementioned prepubescent girls and postmenopausal cat lovers, if not the pedophiles? After all, we can't really take seriously the notion that Archuleta agrees with any part of the song at all. It takes a pair of giant, diamond-encrusted balls to sit through the Seacrest dramatic open, the giant spaceship and computerized metallic vocalist and montage of triumphant belters credits, the ads for iPods and talking-dog movies, the Ford skits, the Coke product placement, the SYTYCD and X-Factor cross-promotion, and a series of lectures by Simon Cowell about what will and won't mint money, and then submit, as one's stage-parent-certified entry in the competition for the right to a record contract, a featured spot on the national tour, and the official title of "Idol," the statement that we should "imagine no possessions." The fine print, if you will: No possessions other than David Archuleta CDs, mugs, sparkly pencils, sticker books, and t-shirts (with holes where the dead, dead eyes should be). One must be a special kind of genius, a kind of commercialist-savant, to pull this off and still come out the other end looking more like Benji than Billy Mack.

So what if Archuleta's "Imagine" was more industry than craft (the opposite of, say, my favorite pop song of the year, Someone Still Loves You Boris Yeltsin's "Think I Wanna Die")? So what if he didn't beat that ecumenical music-lover and Daughtry tag-along David Cook? AI is just a battle, and when the key battle comes down to Cook vs. The Archuleta, Archuleta's side has already won the war. And it's muscular displays of mock-earnest sentiment like Archuleta's "Imagine" that prove it.

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