GLAMerican Idol

Adam Lambert’s glittering-up of pop culture, social mores, and my own music-snob heart

The Guy with the Nail Polish on “American Idol”

I’m usually not one for jumping on bandwagons, or any other four wheeled conveyance of mass culture frenzy. Didn’t see “The Breakfast Club” until I was a senior in high school; approached the Harry Potter books with skepticism at first; slid my first actual Nirvana CD (“In Utero”) into my CD player just four years ago. Yet alongside the identity tags that adorn our souls and our Facebook pages — along with writer, music-lover, wannabe punk/goth, and proud short person — I now add: Glambert. As in, fan of Adam Lambert — the singer of higher-than-high notes, he who has black eyeliner and nail polish in his DNA code, and promoter of all things Glam. Yes, the guy from “American Idol: Season Eight.”

Singer/songwriter Jay Brannan nicely sums up my views on “American Idol”: “American Idol/get the hell off my TV.” When co-workers were all abuzz about this singer or that singer in previous seasons, I just stared blankly. I fiercely resented that music, something I love, was being dragged down to the levels of reality TV entertainment — a cattle call of singers (and the hopelessly deluded would-be singers), ranging from horrifyingly off-key caterwaulers to those with technically good pipes but no sincere passion, all trotted out to perform for America’s cell phones.

And as bad as that is, it is ultimately more depressing to me that the winners of almost every season are plastered everywhere for their five minutes of fame afterwards, their CDs drop and … where are they two months later? Many people can sing, but that does not often translate to instant success and artistry. “American Idol” — spinner of cotton candy dreams that evaporate in a puff. So I ignored that which could not be avoided: Conversations at work, magazines, Internet, and commercial after commercial. I cast thee out, musical devil, put on my iPod blinders, and switched to REM.

Then in May 2009, I started reading on blogs that there was a most definitely gay contestant on the show, one Adam Lambert, but the clincher was that he was not out officially. “American Idol,” like your American military, has a don’t ask, don’t tell policy during filming, as another gay contestant from Season Two was forced to take down anything to do with his sexuality on his own blogs. Apparently the pop culture world was aflutter over whether Lambert was gay or not, and then this “Entertainment Weekly” magazine cover caught my eye at the library.

Adam Lambert on the cover of Entertainment WeeklyDisappointingly, the magazine’s inside content was the same flurry of orientation inquiry, sans an actual interview with Lambert — just his refusal to comment a yes or a no, and a snappy retort of a reporter baiting him with “Are you a friend of…?” (“Dorothy” would have been the key answer ) and his response being “of, YOU?” Oh, and the online pictures of a very-much-Adam-Lambert-looking person locking tongues with another guy, plus the requisite drag photographs.

I remember closing the magazine, glancing back at the cover before putting it back on the shelf and thinking “America, my gaydar may be rusty at times, but ARE YOU ABSO-FREAKIN’-LUTELY OBLIVIOUS???”

I did give him props for the black nail polish and eyeliner. Right on, my gay brother — shake up that show’s middle-American sensibilities. I went back to my life, out of sight out of mind, but little did I know Lambert was shaking things up, with a gigantic shaker of glitter.

In Sparkling, Living Color

I looked up Lambert on YouTube a few days later, and came up with “Adam Lambert” and “Ring of Fire” together. What. The. Fuck? The vocals that hit my ears were … well, oddly stunning. Sultry and ear-piercing, octave-shattering — I couldn’t decide at first if I was intrigued or dumbfounded. It wasn’t surprising to find his background was musical theater, the extravagance was there. Most singers use their voices as instruments to deliver the lyrics; this guy was wielding his voice like a contortionist to whirl and catapult the lyrics into the stratosphere. There was the song, though — my ears and eyes beheld Johnny and June Cash’s immortal love song made into a snake charmer trance orgy.

I consider myself an open-minded musical person — everything from rock to punk, metal, pop, folk, jazz, blues, rap, country, techno and new age is on my iPod. And for someone to make Cash’s scar-lean, mariachi-tinged ballad into a ridiculously over-the-top trance synth pop song … well, Johnny Cash himself might have given it the finger — or cheered its audaciousness. The rendition was deeply weird. I loved it for that! Whether it’s fantasy fiction, movies, or visual art, the weird has been a comfort to me ever since I was a too-short kid that gravitated to David Bowie in “Labyrinth” (I didn’t know why he was so awesome but I knew he was), and being too afraid to buy Eurythmics’ “Sweet Dreams Are Made Of This” at nine years old because I thought it would make me too weird.

This Lambert guy was over-the-top — but if a gay guy with this much of his own beat could win “American Idol,” it would, at the very least, make for amusing headlines the next day: The words “American” “idol” and “gay” in the same sentence. Fox News would spin around and explode (they were not fans anyway.)

So the night of the final show, I swallowed my pride and turned on the TV five minutes before the end of the show. Just in time to see Adam Lambert doing a duet with Kris Allen (Lambert’s Southern Christian, year-long-married-straight-guy with puppy eyes competitor) of “We Are the Champions” with Queen’s original members. Not only did he vocally stomp Allen’s voice into the background, but damn if Lambert didn’t sound like the baby nephew of Freddie Mercury himself! In the end, though, Kris Allen won over Lambert — a sort of musical echo of the 2005 Oscars, when “Crash” beat out “Brokeback Mountain” and the ensuing tangle over America’s comfort with The Gay. When it comes down to it, maybe it wasn’t vicious homophobia, but naïve ignorance: Can we really, um, let the AMERICAN, um, idol, be a g-gay guy …?

Again with the weird, though: Lambert and Allen not only were both gracious in their respective second and first places, and about each others’ talents, but the gay Hollywood theater guy and the straight Christian dude were roommates and apparent fast friends on the show. Wait, hold on — WHAT? Gay guys and straight guys can be friends? Isn’t there an invisible line there? With Lambert’s coming-out interview in “Rolling Stone” magazine, he not only set out his personal beliefs of neo-hippie values of love, pure fun, and sexiness in life and music, but unabashedly admitted that, oh yeah, he had an initial crush on Allen. Yet the world didn’t end, the wrath of God did not descend on the gay man corrupting the straight man. Instead Lambert and Allen played the whole thing off with talk of mutual “crushness” and a laugh, earning themselves a smooshed together nickname to go with their celbrity bromance: “Kradam.” Only in Hollywood.

The Kiss

With Lambert’s first single, “For Your Entertainment,” popping up online, I was intrigued to hear his accompanying chatter about paying homage to the gender fluidity of rock/pop stars like David Bowie, Freddie Mercury, and Marc Bolan — and to do so using everything from vocals to costumes, dancers, lasers, and the bejeweled kitchen sink. The idea was to bring back the glamour (heavy on the GLAM) that male artists had abandoned for the rawer structure and style of grunge, and bring the spectacle elements back to the boys.

Well, Lambert threw that spiky studded gauntlet down like all good rock stars do – by pissing off a large number of people on live TV.

I woke up one morning to find all my regular music blogs going on about Adam Lambert and — wait, what was this about him and RISQUE! SHOCKING! SCANDALOUSSSS! Hm., CLICK, and — Wuh? Oooh …

On the American Music Awards the night before, in his huge solo debut in front of his industry peers and a national viewing public, Lambert either made the most gleefully outrageous music career entrance in years, or corrupted the minds of every little kid in America. To read these accounts, the shocking thing wasn’t that his vocals were horribly off-key — a fact he adorably conceded more and more in each following interview about the melodrama of the night, until he flat out admitted they sucked and he learned from it. The most offensive part also apparently wasn’t the bondage outfits, guys on leashes, crotch grinding, leg dragging, dancer pole grabbing, no. The scandal was that Adam Lambert — a MAN — laid one on his keyboardist — ANOTHER MAN — exposing the little angels of America who were still awake at close to 11 p.m. to two guys kissing. The lewd sexual acts done in a playfully over-the-top manner almost put those little tykes to dreamland, but then the male-on-male kissing popped their eyes open and shattered their brains. Apparently.

Let’s let both myself and Adam Lambert admit something here. Mr. Lambert, you first. His explanation — of being carried away in the moment, essentially losing control in the grip of art — makes perfect sense to anyone attuned to self-expression. His emphasis that he didn’t want to disrespect people, but that he wouldn’t apologize for acting sexual in a song about sex, and wanting to honor a rock and roll spirit, made sense, and I cheered. Especially in an industry that thrives on faux lesbian kisses and epithets of hate as misguided machismo. Lambert’s stance was that he was an artist, and only an artist — not a censor, not a parent, and I nodded in agreement. In calmly stating his case and being willing to crack jokes, he showed the other side of the pop star wild-child, and revealed himself as maybe the canniest observer of the Hollywood machine in quite a while, and possibly — just maybe — a genuinely nice, self-deprecating, weirdly normal human being. Damn, I was a bit in love.

Myself, I also understand the awkward factor of explaining simulated sex acts to little kids, unless of course they can explain it to you first, from what they’ve seen in Hollywood movies. Concealment and good judgment, though, starts with the parents and continues with the television executives, who thought … what exactly when they saw Lambert was planning to go onstage with guys on leashes and shirtless people in leather straps? “Ooh, maybe we can do a shoot for Sesame Street next week”? A simple “next performance not appropriate for all ages” text would have done wonders.

Ultimately, though, I don’t believe in censoring art. I can disagree with the message (hellooo Eminem!), but I have a mouth to express my opinion on it, and leave it at that. When your main outrage is two guys kissing — sharing a fun, friendly or loving expression of emotion — that is something more veering to disgust. And loathing. And hate. And passing laws to violate other people’s rights.

(The other guy in the scandal? Tommy Joe Ratliff, the most adorably androgynous straight man ever, was reported by Lambert to be cracking up after the performance and Twittered that night — with wonderful Internet grammar and spelling — “Thanks SOO much to everyone that watched!!!! ‘Rock n Roll is a prostitute…it should be tartted up.’” What is it with Lambert and cute, short, straight men?)

The Cabaret is Open

The CD finally came out, and like all first records, it was not the pinnacle of uniquely new artistry promised by the recording industry. Ain’t hype a downer? It was though, a crazy-fun golem of electro-dance pop, glam rock pop, aggressive disco vibes, campy ’80s metal, and Lambert’s lovely, clear-as-a-bell and belly dancer voice … tamped down? Yup, after a listen or two, I realized — as befalls many artists in the recording process today in the industry — the technology made to project the voice clearly also flattened it a bit, rounding out those gonna-break-out-of-the-asylum! high notes that were his glory. A full-force fireworks display dampened by a rainy day. Though I was still having fun whirling in the splatter.

The music videos, too, left a tad to be desired, fun though they were: A tamed-down version of the AMA shenanigans that showed Lambert is indeed no friend of Indiana Jones; a typical journey through new star self reflection (which, after the AMA debacle, he lobbed smartly back as a genuine question of What the heck do you want me to be? towards both the entertainment industry and the gay publications that vilified him); and, finally, one more US single. Would it be, as consensus seemed to hope, “Fever,” the Lady Gaga-penned, openly-queer and horny song recorded after both artists belted down Jagermeister shots in the studio? Nope, they would go with “If I Had You,” a head-bopping bouncy ode to a celebrity not needing money or fame if they couldn’t have … wait for it … love. Head. Thud. Desk.

The head does bop, but the message is stale, even set in a midsummer night’s rave, with Lambert’s added spice of inviting tons of old Los Angeles performer friends (popular and underground) to romp along with him, and declaring as his intent: “Basically, what it’s saying is no matter what color your skin is, no matter what religion you are, no matter what your sexuality is, we can all party together.” Not Gandhi, but nice sentiments all the same. Where, though, was the return to the old school edginess and revolutionary feeling for music that Lambert had promised?

Lambert’s show at the 930 club in DC this June was the revelation, however. After waiting for more than an hour in a line that stretched down the block from the club, and two opening acts, Lambert came onstage. There was the hype we’d been promised — the operatic full-throttle seizure of songs as a cabaret party with all the glitter and explosive freaky emotion one could want.

Lambert’s home is the live stage, his own personal preening ground and play pit. The whole crowd smashed together like anchovies in a sauna, Lambert gave us (in his words: “Washington DC! You’re a sexy fuckin’ crowd tonight!”) a finally totally queer reading of “Fever,” complete with another kiss ravish of Tommy Ratliff, the AMA keyboardist now bassist, a rendition of “Soaked” (penned by Matthew Bellamy of Muse) that drew goose bumps and a breath-halted silence, and a cover of Led Zeppelin’s “Whole Lotta Love” that — dare I admit it — just might have improved on the original, transforming it into a slower seduction piece. I left that night sweaty, with too many teenage girls’ screams ringing in my ears, but convinced I had just heard someone with a genuine passion for performing.

Behind all the eyeliner and makeup and kissing shocks, it’s like what Lambert told Rolling Stone: “Being a rock star is just playing. It’s Halloween, make believe … I can’t believe I get to play dress up for a living now!” In a later online interview, the host thanked him for dying his red hair, and with a pithy grin Lambert commented: “Opie doesn’t do rock and roll.” Turns out the glitter god himself was a redhead, freckled, overweight gay kid in high school.

We put on clothes, makeup, hats, jewelry, to express what we feel inside, to announce to the world that we can be more, and want to be more, than just what a cursory glance assumes — to rise beyond. I was not announcing my plans to be a music star when I decided to bleach my hair and wear black nail polish in college, but I was expressing something in me. And Adam Lambert, glam pop star and little red-headed kid with freckles, seems determined to express something in himself.

Bring it on, Adam. Bring it on.

Article © 2010 by Chris Herrmann