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.”
Lambert spun and seduced his way through the performance, releasing his now-famous high scream, bringing all the conviction of anyone who’s ever been called a freak to the line, “You tell me you agree with me when I saw you kickin’ dirt in my eye–yes you did, yeah, yeah,” and somewhere in TV-land that 11-year-old was thinking, “It was, well, like, weird but cool.”
For those who somehow missed it, for sixteen weeks in a row Lambert played with pop music’s trinity of artistry, star power and erotic projection, and then came up short in audience votes on May 20 against a church worship leader from Arkansas called Kris Allen. American Idol‘s host, Ryan Seacrest, had called the final showdown “the guy next door versus the guyliner.” Kris, a small, sensitive, sandy-haired 23-year-old who evokes the coffeehouse school of music, had ditched references to his wife early in the competition, recognizing the value of teenage girl fantasies to his fortunes. Adam, a tall, sweet-faced 27-year-old with bad skin, blue-black hair, earrings and a liking for black nail polish, had once described himself as “your boy next door who decided that he wanted to be a rebel one day, so–I’m a nice rebel.” Despite, or maybe because of, photos of him passionately kissing a boyfriend or semi-clad as some woodland nymph at Burning Man, Lambert had his own constituency of teenage girls, fans who blogged that they’d choose to be stuck on a desert island with him because he could “be my friend (!!!!)” or because he’s “gorgeous” and understands “hair, make-up, and wardrobe,” who identified with him because he said, “I like Rocky Horror” or “I liked the cheerleaders” or “I am who I am.”
It’s easy to make fun of the teenagers, or to read Kris Allen’s coronation as the triumph of red state Christian “values,” as easy as writing off popular culture as the degraded effluent of capitalism, and as pinched. Kris may have represented the conventional boy next door to most of the teens and grannies in the audience, but he also represented the iconic boy next door of gay porn fantasies, the clean-cut guy who meets another clean-cut guy and–Action! Adam may have quickened the pulse of girls desperate to figure out how to negotiate sex roles and somehow transcend them, but he also disgusted some gay men as “screechy,” flamboyant. Gay web discussions oozed with self-hate in the form of put-downs: “I don’t want this queen representing us.” The gay vote, a major constituency of American Idol, was split.
In the end the voting was pretty silly, or sad. But the desires and fears, longings and confusions, even injuries, behind it–the human conditions that popular culture has always provided a platform for exploring–were given expression every time Adam took the stage. From his audition performance of “Bohemian Rhapsody,” his haunting versions of “Tracks of My Tears” and “Mad World” to his anthem call in “Born to Be Wild” to “take the world in a love embrace” and his near-orgasmic interpretation of “Ring of Fire,” he was both Everyman and Everygayman: not any one sex so much as every sex, skating the edge of ecstasy and terror, practiced in all the feints and masquerades demanded by ordinary life but unsettled by them, urgent, wanting, driven to kick the table of hardened assumptions, still in 2009, and rearrange the pieces in the hope of feeling real, “Feeling Good.”
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. That is unsurprising. It never was fair to expect that every homosexual, or even most, should shoulder the burden of defying straight culture’s every convention and trend. That Adam Lambert projected himself as a natural sexual being at ease in the skin of difference at the same time that those convention-centric issues were all on the political front burner, though, was a clarifying reminder of gay culture’s great underappreciated gift to the world. In this time and place, Adam is something of an outlaw, and an outlaw, even a nice, wildly talented, seemingly well-adjusted one, will never win a majority vote.