Pop Culture

How Straight is Adam Lambert?

Adam Lambert (r) and galpal Drake leaving LA club recently
Adam Lambert (r) and galpal Drake leaving an LA club recently

By Tavia Nyong’o

A dirty little secret about American Idol finalist Adam Lambert: a lot of gay men dislike him too. The “shrill,” ” campy,” “theatrical,” “vegas act” epithets thrown at him as he advanced to finals on the recent Idol season were also hurled by many queers who found him equally grating. Now that the show is over, many would be thrilled to have him disappear back under the glitter-encrusted rock he crawled out of. When Andy Warhol prophesied that in the future everyone would be famous for 15 minutes, he failed to mention that 14 and a half of those might consist of pure backlash, and that seems to be where we’re at today (see: Susan Boyle). So where does that leave pop’s Great Glam Hope?

As a performer, some of Lambert’s most articulate defenders have been women, who also make up the majority of his fan base. Jo-Ann Wypijewski, in a pitch-perfect analysis in The Nation of this phenomena, writes

There is a reason people have always needed troubadours. Years ago a close girlfriend told me, “I want a man who makes me feel like music.” What a beautifully simple evocation of eros. The twist, for a straight girl, was that much of the music was imagined, written, performed or inspired by gay men. The double twist, today, is that gay politics, which once made eros a central concern, is focused on something closer to thanatos: hate crime, enhanced penalties, military service, marriage contracts.

The erotic thrill of Lambert’s Idol performances, for those who permitted themselves to be vibrated by them, solicit fandom on non-identitarian lines. So the debate over whether his female fans would be turned off if he came out seem to ignore the palpably obvious: possibility that his success with them could come not in spite of but because of his ambivalent persona.

Lambert’s blurring of the desire/identification boundary places him in a well recognized lineage of pop chameleons, but its also why he strikes a particular chord today. His on-stage ability to transform an otherwise awkward and ungainly body into a sleazy simulacra of heterosexuality is part of this appeal. Girls who like guyliner seem to do so because it distributes the pains and pleasures of self-fashioning more equitably between the sexes. And like a drag king, Lambert openly queered heterosexuality. Who but he could have snuck the Led Zeppelin line “I’m gonna give you every inch of my love” past the family values censors on live Idol? Or growl “I’m gonna be your backdoor man” on the extended studio recording? These hilarious phallic promises may be strap-on, but that’s precisely the point.

Much of the chatter by “tween” girls — or those impersonating them online —  centers on the possibility of Lambert being at least “bi.” Hope springs eternal, no doubt. But this particular fantasy reflects a certain truth of eros, that it is indeed always criss-crossing and undermining distinctions of sexuality and gender. What if, rather than taking  “bi” as code for “straight enough,” we read it as expressing a preference for bisexual guys over straight ones? If all the YouTube videos taken by girls of emo boys kissing are any indication, contemporary sexual identities, practices, and desires do line up much less neatly than often imagine.

Nevertheless, gay bloggers like Perez Hilton, Michael K, and Richard Lawson of Gawker have stayed more or less fixated on why, how, and whether Lambert will officially “come out.” Given that he has already shown up in online photos in drag, making out with guys, and, now, gadding about in public with his current beau, the question of his outness might seem, well, academic. But it is precisely the obviousness of the matter that drives so many crazy. By not discussing it directly, they believe, he makes sexuality a bigger deal than it would otherwise be. In refusing to be a positive role model for the gays — and thus skirting our thanatopic preoccupation-du-jour: gay marriage — he is being a negative role model, holding us back, both by acting outrageously flamboyant and by refusing to cop to it on Oprah or Ellen.

Maybe so. But Lambert, who is nothing if not a showbiz pro, may simply be timing his public “reveal” for maximum career impact. He has to get through a demoralizing summer of group touring under the Idol thumb. Perhaps this is his way of guaranteeing an August magazine cover … timed perhaps with an album release? If this seems cynical, it shouldn’t. Weddings, childbirths, and weight loss are all routinely commodified events in celebrity culture. Why shouldn’t gay celebs get to cash-in on their non-news as well?

And there seems to be another gambit going on, beyond his female fans and gay male naysayers. Unless I’m very much mistaken, Lambert is making a play for a straight male audience as well.

Don’t laugh. Lambert is, among many other things, a first-rate rock belter who, in another age could well have hit it big in hair metal. Once having the won over the emo kids with “Mad World,” the songs he chose in the lead up to the American Idol finale — Led Zeppelin, Aerosmith, Queen, and Kiss — were all rockers that filled stadiums in decades past with ecstatic dudes waving lighters.

What is more, reports that Lambert is holding out for the cover of Rolling Stone (compare his predecessor in American Idol outings, Clay Aiken, who gave the big “reveal” to People), if true, would confirm a canny attempt to see if a rock audience is ready for him, not just a readership eager for celebrity news. Its an uphill climb of course, but so is anything in the music business these days.

I have no idea if this play for straight male attention is actually intended, or whether it will succeed if it is. But it does seem that, in an age when the rapper Eminem — often pilloried in the past for his homophobia — launches a comeback by arranging to have a gay Austrian fashion journalist descend from the ceiling at the MTV Movie Awards wearing Icarus wings and land his naked ass on Eminem’s face — straight masculinity just isn’t what it used to be. The sweet, married Christian winner of Idol, Kris Allen, has also apparently decided if you can’t beat them join as well, going out of his way to publicly express his bromance with Lambert through hugs and a dip in the shared nail polish bottle.

Gay masculinity, the swishier the better, is apparently the latest form of supplementarity propping up whatever is left of straight macho. If Lambert succeeds in winning over a segment of this audience — by touring with Queen, recording with Slash, or any of the other rock projects he’s dangled in front of the media — the question may turn into whether he’ll become just another prop — like Howard Stern’s gay intern or the awful Queer Eye guys — or whether his shriek will shatter the vestiges of straight male privilege in popular music today.

By Tav

Free radical, philosophical dilletante, music completist.

3 replies on “How Straight is Adam Lambert?”

I’ve already posted on some of my preliminary thoughts on how Adam Lambert troubles the simple straightness of rock, so I’ll leave that aside for now.

What does interest me is the contrast between Clay Aiken’s Rolling Stone in July 2003 and a likely Adam Lambert cover in July 2009. I find it fascinating that the Aiken cover/story was an essential gesture in the “in-ing” of Aiken for mass consumption (locating him in the ambivalent place of girl-friendly boy bands), while the anticipated Lambert cover/story is expected to be part of Lambert’s coming out. I’m not sure what it says about the distance of the recent past (2003) but suspect it says much about corporate media’s ability to maintain the “open secret” in the internet era.

Great piece, Tavia. I think some of these dynamics were in play, obviously in different contexts, around Freddie Mercury and David Bowie. The straight line on someone like Bowie is always that he was “just” playing with the image of his sexuality in the 70s “for publicity,” and in his humdrum late middle age he hasn’t done much to counter this line of thinking. But really, what is the difference between manipulating one’s sexuality and *having* one’s sexuality? Why are they opposites? Especially if we’re going beyond the simplistic closet model.

Mercury for me is a different phenomenon because in the hypermasculinity of his body he seems to have tapped into some residual 19th-century blurring of the male homosocial/sexual continuum. But Lambert with Queen, OMG that’s brilliant.

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