Adam’s Return

23 Nov

Review of For Your Entertainment (2009:RCA/Jive)

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.

Adam and keyboardist swap spit at the AMAs

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.

12 Responses to “Adam’s Return”

  1. Ernest Hardy November 23, 2009 at 9:40 pm #

    Good stuff. I especially liked this part:

    “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.”

    And I really dug the dig at gay marriage.🙂

  2. StinkyLulu (aka BrianH) November 23, 2009 at 9:44 pm #

    nicely done, sir.

  3. Jessica November 24, 2009 at 6:23 pm #

    Get your facts straight. Lambert doesn’t just play dress up. He also designed all costumes for his AMA performance.

    • Steve November 28, 2009 at 10:29 pm #

      If that’s the case, he just won some points in my book.

  4. Leasing guy September 13, 2010 at 1:47 pm #

    I agree with Steve here…

  5. Danskin Shorts September 13, 2010 at 1:50 pm #

    “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. ”
    … Amen!

  6. Shred October 17, 2010 at 4:44 pm #

    Methinks you better start over and do your homework! Adam put together this album in a couple of months due to working his but off on the summer idol tour where he was the show! He designs his own costumes by showcasing mostly his friends designs, soemthing Adam always does, is showcase and praise other artists! He wrote on 5 songs on his album, and it is his emotional deliverance with his pwerhouse vocals that sells the song! Did you listen to the other artists the night of AMA? Sound was off for everyone, i enjoyed Adam’s AMA performance 1000 times more than any other that night or any night since its been on! Now tell me, what did he do wrong again that night? He blew everyone away and his performance is the only being talked about even to this day! I would say it was pretty damn good, not? Everyone who worked with Adam has said that Adam has the final say and input of everything he delivers, they are honored to work with him, so dont fret any, Adam is here and here to stay!

  7. Millie October 17, 2010 at 6:51 pm #

    I was nodding along with your words until the end. Although I do not care one whit if a singer also writes his/her materials or plays instruments, my primary point of departure from your words was your choice to end the cd review with a call back to a nearly-year old performance. It was an especially … curious choice given that you then give no credit nor make any reference to the tour with its 80+ sold-out shows of his own design and audiences who, I would bet, feel he successfully seized the spotlight at each one.

  8. Suzana Rebecca October 17, 2010 at 11:51 pm #

    A great read, spoiled by one of-the-mark assumption:
    “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)”.
    Lambert is, in fact, being allowed to have full creative control by the so-called Idol machine (which may account for the AMA debacle). Since then, his skills are being honed as he travels the nation and world on his sold-out solo tour. You have to view the YouTube videos of this tour to understand he is indeed “seizing the spotlight” and making it his own.
    FYE was a strike-while-the-iron-is-hot rush-job, cobbled together while he was on the post-show Idol tour, so I wouldn’t read too much into it. It’s still a compelling and eclectic showcase for his vocal ability. Let’s see what happens with his second album.

    • Tavia October 20, 2010 at 3:03 pm #

      Hey folks. Thanks for all the recent comments. But notice this essay was written almost a year ago … right after the AMA performance and album release. Obviously I have new thoughts about Adam based on his post-debut tours, new music, etc. I still stand by my initial impression of him as a talented singer having a ball playing dress-up: isn’t that inevitable coming off a show that is all about cover songs? And having “full creative control” is not the same thing as being fully in control of your creative powers, which I think Mika has, and Adam, not yet. But just to be clear: I am a fan and I expect great things.

  9. carly February 26, 2011 at 3:57 am #

    tavia — i posted your blog on adamoffficial.com last night because i’d recently discovered the article in the ann power’s edited BestMusic2010. a lot has happened there, including the thread being “poofed” because of the article’s opening line (irresistible) — and then reconstituted by a moderator, with some omissions. the book version is a little different . . . i hadn’t noticed your comments until just now. whether or not you are really “a fan” has come up. whether or not you really “know” adam has as well (you couldn’t possibly have logged as many interview or performance hours as many of us). links to sleepwalker from his forthcoming DVD release are now circulating. i’m curious if/how u think he has grown since completing his world tour. i agree that he is not yet fully in control of his creative powers — and consider us fortunate for that. the powers are considerable and the man has just begun this new part of his personal/professional journey. i think we all expect great things!

Trackbacks/Pingbacks

  1. Ziemia Niczyja | Mariusz Herma » Blog Archive » Best Music Writing 2010 - October 18, 2010

    […] TAVIA NYONG’O – Adam’s Return – Bully Bloggers […]

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