You always remember your first. Concert, that is. Mine was Elvis, early ’70s, the spangled jumpsuit period. I must have been about 14. I had already spent childhood years grooving to Motown, play-strutting to the Rolling Stones, falling in love with Janis Joplin, bad skin and all. Janis was dead now; so was Jimi Hendrix. I had been enthralled by a clip of Hendrix playing at Woodstock and had thought to myself, innocent of the mad specialness of the moment, “I’ll be there next time…”
Elvis sure wasn’t Woodstock. Some grown folks were saying he was finished, fat, Las Vegas. I was too young to think in hard categories, though, my musical tastes a-jumble, and I found happiness as easily in the soundtrack from Funny Girl as in Marvin Gaye’s What’s Going On or Sly & the Family Stone’s Greatest Hits. My brother took my sister and me to the concert. I remember it opening with bombastic fanfare, extreme lighting, a silhouette in a cape. From out of the haze, Elvis emerged like a visitor from another planet. Powder-blue jumpsuit, thick bejeweled belt, a flowing scarf that he would later swipe across his glistening chest and hand to a besotted fan. All the normal rules seemed suspended. I thought he was fabulous.
The word fit. It would fit even better to describe David Bowie as Ziggy Stardust, Mick Jagger in full glam-rock mode, Freddie Mercury and Queen, Michael Jackson, Sylvester and disco, Bathhouse Bette Midler: a whole musical accompaniment to something new bubbling up in the culture. Not sexual freedom, exactly–that’s a bumpy road, with plenty of blind curves along the way–but sexual conscience and the chance for self-definition. What the Stonewall rebellion did for sexual politics, the fabulous in pop culture did for sexual being. Whether as question mark or exclamation, it made us feel that we all might be free one day; in the meantime, we could feel awfully good trying.
The phenomenon of Adam Lambert makes sense on the shoulders of that history. He transformed the fairly banal “singing competition” of American Idol into a performance of self-possession and an occasion for all kinds of living-room or Internet chatter about what’s masculine, what’s “theatrical” (the show’s code for too Broadway, too queer) and why artifice is sometimes the surest route to authenticity. It’s been a long time coming, but “fabulous” has supercharged its way back into the language of pop culture. And another generation of kids, some of them anyway, are eyes wide in wonder. “I’m only 11 so I don’t know what to make of it,” a blog-poster wrote after Lambert descended like another visitor from space, part glam rocker, part Goth, singing Michael Jackson’s “Black or White” early in the competition: “I ain’t scared of no brother/I ain’t scared of no sheets/I ain’t scared of nobodaayya!/When the goin’ gets mean.”