By Tavia Nyong’o
Adam Lambert talks a hot fuck. When he boasts on the first single from his debut album that “I’m a work ya ’til your totally blown,” he’s not talking about your mind. And even if the album as a whole doesn’t fully deliver, is eponymous single gets things off to a suitably subversive start. An ode to the joys of the power bottom (even if Mr. Lambert is purportedly a top), “For Your Entertainment” flips the script on a seducer who thinks he or she is getting someone “soft and sweet” for their “entertainment,” only to discover, too late, the radical intensity of erotic passivity. The song might be a metaphor for the future role of the out gay entertainer in American culture. This song and its promise “I’m about to make it rough for you” helps drive a nail in the coffin of the sexless, minstrelized images of 1990s “gay visibility.” The insatiable, omnisexual persona Lambert inhabits onstage — from American Idol to the American Music Awards — is a bitch slap at the era of “limp wrist and a shopping list,” as queer punk Ste McCabe likes to call it. Of course, Lambert the L.A. fashion victim and McCabe the “Too Poor to Be Gay” Mancunian are polar opposites. But they share a discontent — really, a disbelief — with the stultifying norms that increasingly pervade what passes for queer culture these days. In their different ways, each are doing something musical about it.
When Adam covered Sam Cooke’s “Change is Gonna Come” during the finals of American Idol last spring, everyone understood the analogy between African American civil rights and gay rights that he was risking. Maybe in that case he was just another “white boy trying to sing tough and black, with gravel and spit in his voice,” but when he’s not overreaching for gravitas, Lambert has chutzpah enough to burn. It’s still too early to know whether or how his particular change is going to come, but the broad outlines of his unabashedly commercial, unapologetically oversexed approach are already visible — and audible.
Adam does little to endanger his appeal to his straight female fan base. He does so in part through exaggerating his bisexual appeal: planting comments in the media about tongue kissing girls, posing with a naked female model in Details, and miming a strutting, preening cock rocker at his shows. At moments, he also enrolls in the “If I was your girlfriend” school of male effeminacy, encouraging shared identifications over an obsession with makeup and clothes, and a readiness to share feelings. And, in relation to rock masculinity, his approach is mainstream, but not necessarily assimilationist. Instead, his rockist calculations — from holding out for the cover of Rolling Stone to holding his own on-stage with Queen, Kiss and Slash — show he wants to compete with, rather than simply service, straight men. He hopes to redefine what counts as mainstream, not fit into it. And while he demurs from seeing his role as political (which, given the lamentable state of a marriage-obsessed LGBT politics, is probably a good thing), Lambert is too canny to be unaware of the cultural politics of being out in the mainstream. What’s thankfully missing from the album is a tearful confessional song about coming out or wistful ballad about gazing into another boy’s eyes. Instead, he opts for a democratic appeal to all freaks, geeks and weirdos. On “Master Plan,” a bonus track to the new album, he dusts off the”face of a new generation” anthem and gives it a few licks of polysexual, androgynous paint. “Your skin is burning at the sight of me,” he boasts, fronting an imaginary brigade of glamorous weirdos storming the barricades of normality. And, legendary as his wail already is, Lambert does seem to push the envelope primarily in the sartorial division. When his album cover art was first released, I literally couldn’t believe it for a moment. And then I had to hand it to him, not for showing me something that was particularly edgy or radical (it wasn’t), but for reminding me how intimidated we’ve all become by our reactionary culture. His simple throw-back image shows us how we need to liberate ourselves, not from our own particular hang ups, but from the self-censoring positions we take whenever we defer to the broader society’s hang-ups.
Ultimately, all Lambert’s poses are improvisations upon a gendered binary that sits with increasing uneasiness upon the purportedly biological given. Their politics reside less in any simple blurring of femme and macho, then in the sharp cultural fault-line they reveal in American youth culture, one deeper and more relevant than the current over-hyped battle between Team Edward and Team Jacob. While gendered, this split is not necessarily between boys and girls. Cowboy-booted Miley Cyrus tsk-tsking “everyone in stilettos; I guess I didn’t get the memo” is on the wholesome, all-American camp of this divide. Lambert, who definitely got the memo, is on the other, primped, corseted and ready to roll. And if Team Cyrus is all about crypto-Christian earnestness (American Idol winner Kris Allen, obviously, plays on Team Cyrus), Team Lambert is for the godless, glamorous diva in all of us (most of the cast of Glee included). To middle America this remains uncharted gender territory to which FYE hopes to be an audioguide: brave and bold, post-heteronormative, and young, sexy and messy enough to enjoy not having all the answers.
Much of FYE, admittedly, is paint-by-numbers. “Fever” would sound like a rip off of the Scissor Sisters, if anyone in the US had ever heard the Scissor Sisters. “Sure Fire Winners” is a brazen attempt to steal fire from the gods, directly emulating Queen’s “We Are the Champions.” Most disappointing is “Broken Open,” surprisingly the album’s single nod to the goth-musical theater continuum that Lambert rode to American Idol success. The song cynically attempts to reconstruct the opening moments of his cover of “Mad World” note for note, on the condescending assumption that its audience will be too dumb to notice or care. Such transparent recycling bodes ill for the larger promise of Mr. Lambert to be a groundbreaker.
But how many pop albums have no filler? At its high points, FYE joyfully harkens back to an Eighties that I never realized anyone was nostalgic for. Not the edgy New Wave sound that keeps “80s Night” dance floors perpetually grooving to “Don’t You Want Me Baby.” But the mainstream, pop of the era, from Heart to Bryan Adams, replete with guitar solos, power vocals, and bombastic lyrics. This big-hearted Eighties — whose last, transformative hurrah might have been 4 Non Blondes “What’s Up?” (Adam covered the song on his pre-American Idol lounge act, and he recruited former 4 Non Blondes frontwoman Linda Perry to write one of the best tracks on FYE) seems to be the musical address where Adam lives.
Primarily a vocalist, Adam can’t really compete with an artist like Mika, who writes his own material, is a multi-instrumentalist, and exerts a strong creative vision over his stage shows and videos. Adam is more the big kid with a huge voice who is having a ball playing dress-up, while trusting in other people to make the important decisions (if in fact, he has much creative freedom all while in the clutches of the Idol machine). It is indeed an ironic reversal that it should be Mika that is the cagey one about his sexuality, and Adam the forthright. For ultimately, it is the Boy in Cartoon Motion who remains at the avant garde of queer pop, while Glambert, for all his raunchiness, remains careful to hit his mark and follow his cues.
Which makes the spectacle turned debacle on the American Music Awards last night all the more confounding. After all, if you’re staking your career on being absolutely in-your-face about being a cold, calculating entertainer, you better be ready to bring it. It wasn’t the “lewd” sexual play-acting that got me so much as the out-of-key singing, flubbed lyrics, and general schlocky quality. Like most fans, I assumed Adam was too much of a pro to stumble as much as he did. It stung twice as bad to know that all the people who hated him when he was good would be saying “I told you so,” and I couldn’t really answer back. I hope he can recover from his literal tumble on-stage. I hope he can. But if he does, he better wake up and realize that no army of stylists, managers, songwriters, and choreographers can patch together a rock star. You have to seize the spotlight and make it your own.