So I wanted to write a review of the Adam Lambert concert tonight at the House of Blues in Boston, but it being me, I can’t merely write about Adam Lambert without writing about American culture, identity, the music industry, David Bowie, subcultures, queerness, and capitalism. Because I couldn’t talk about the songs or the performance without writing about the context in which they’re being presented, and I had to try to answer the question of why such a fantastic concert is being seen by so few people in the United States.
First the review in a nutshell: Adam Lambert is extremely entertaining. The show is a visual wow that matches the vocal fireworks, and musically it is a hip, complex treatment of pop. The show–like Adam himself?–is slick as hell. A+++ would see again–in fact I’m going to see him again in a few weeks while visiting my parents in Clearwater, Florida.
However. Although the show was technically stunning and Adam is simply great…I was never transported by it, possibly because I found myself interrogating every aspect of it, which I think says far more about me than about the show, though ultimately I do think the show is packed with messages, and in this essay I will attempt to unpack some of them. I did not have one of those transcendent moments of communion with the music or performers or crowd that marks a truly great show. These moments don’t always happen, even with great artists like Peter Gabriel (saw him at the Worcester Centrum in the early 90s, nice but meh, or even The Cure in ’89 when I was at my deepest fanaticism for them, at Great Woods, a show I found out 20 years later that Robert Smith considered one of their worst ever so perhaps it wasn’t just me). So I can hardly give any band or singer points off for not transporting me to a place where I forget myself.
But it was notable to me that the dance floor where I was crammed in with an eclectic mix of concert-goers was the very same dance floor where I’d become a born-again Goth in 1991, while seeing Sisters of Mercy. You can laugh about it now, but in 1991 goth was considered “dead,” a fad that had run its course and was going to end with my generation. (Hah, not so much: Hot Topic came along shortly after and shopping mall commodification is the ultimate legitimization of any subculture in a capitalist society. But anyway.) At that show in 1991, even despite Sisters of Mercy declaring themselves anti-goth (“we’re just a rock and roll band,” Andrew Eldritch supposedly said) and goth supposedly being a dead fad, a Boston subculture coalesced. I wrote and published an essay about being born-again through the ecstatic ritual that the mosh pit at that show became. (I can’t remember which goth subculture magazine published it. Blue Blood? or Propaganda?) It was one of the top five concert experiences of my life, so it’s unfair to compare.
(Aside: I also saw Nine Inch Nails at that same club, and Peter Murphy, back in the day. I’ll be seeing Peter Murphy in two months on his acoustic retrospective tour after not having seen him at all in the intervening 20 years. I wonder what that will be like. Probably nothing like seeing Adam Lambert.)
All this gothiness is relevant to this discussion of Adam Lambert of course not merely because of my personal history of seeing goth acts at this venue, which is now the “House of Blues Boston” but used to be a disco/night club called Avalon and before that The Citi Club and before that Metro–I should note that in the Citi days, this was the dance club where every Sunday night a few thousand gay men (plus some assorted lesbians and bisexuals like me) came out regularly for gay dance night, and so it was one of my regular haunts for that reason, too. The discussion of goth is relevant for two other reasons, one because I’m about to raise some questions about subculture and “cultural authenticity” and two because Adam himself, when he first hit the scene via American Idol, was the closest thing to a goth American Idol had ever seen. I wouldn’t have labeled him goth exactly, but maybe “21st century emo-glam.” Remember, goth was a direct outgrowth of glam, and emo was a direct outgrowth of goth. Where goth and glam seem to diverge most in the popular imagination, though, is that glam held a high level of theatrical artifice (we’ll get to David Bowie in a moment) while goth was supposedly the “authentic” baring of your dark, nihilistic soul.
We have a strange relationship with the thing called “authenticity” in this country. Being authentic is seen as a core American value. But I had to put “authenticity” in quotes because what we often respond to as “authentic” in American culture is actually versimilitude and not reality. An Asian-looking guy with no formal training at all standing behind a sushi counter is more “authentic” to us than, say, a white-looking guy who trained in Japan the traditional way. All too often when we go in search of the “authentic” food–or cultural experience of whatever kind–what actually satisfies people is the thing which meets our US-centric stereotyped expectations.
Among the questions I was trying to answer for myself about Adam Lambert and the show included: who are these people who are here to see him? Why are they here? And why aren’t there more of them? What exactly is the context of this concert? Unlike a goth show where the audience is a gathering of a subculture, what’s the cultural experience or identity that is authenticated by seeing Adam Lambert? Is going to see Adam Lambert a culturally or subculturally validating experience for any group or only for certain individuals?
There was a wonderfully dizzying cross section of people at this concert. I heard people speaking at least five different languages while waiting in line to get in (English, Italian, Chinese, Spanish, and something I couldn’t identify but might have been German or Dutch?). Beside me in the crowd were a Japanese couple and behind me some girls speaking either Portuguese or Russian–I couldn’t quite hear. There were people in their sixties and fifties and forties and thirties and twenties and some people had brought their teens and children. There were queer hipster boys in flannel and hornrimmed glasses holding hands. There were middle-aged Glamberts in glitter. There were black twenty-somethings, both male and female. There were a surprisingly (to me) large number of what appeared to be white heterosexual suburban couples. I was surprised by the sheer number of men there, unlike the show I went to in Worcester during the warm-up phase of the tour (a radio station promo show where Adam and band did only ten songs) which was easily 90 percent female in attendance. (My entire section of the Worcester balcony had not a single man in it.) In Boston there appeared to be plenty of guys both gay and straight. Excellent.
(Adam almost seemed confused by who was there and why, too, as evidenced in this mid-show patter where he asked “Are you here because of Ghost Town?” expecting a cheer and got people shouting “No!”…)
It was wonderful to see such a diverse cross-section. But it made for a kind of strange cultural experience in that no one knew what the rules were. It was like people weren’t sure if they were supposed to dance or sing or scream or what. My impression was that although everyone had a good time, the crowd never fully came to life. I was fortunate to squish myself fairly close to the stage (about four or five people back) among some young women who were happy to dance and sing, but we were partly behind a tall guy (with his girlfriend) who stood there like a lump the entire concert. He finally bopped his head during the encore (during the Queen “Another One Bites the Dust” part of the medley). I wanted to tap him on the shoulder and tell him, dude, it’s okay to actually move.
Maybe he was afraid people would think he was queer if he did. I don’t know.
Which brings me to queerness as a subject. I was watching the career of Adam Lambert for years before I heard any of his music. I don’t have a television, so the only time I saw him on American Idol was while visiting my parents in Florida. (They were big Idol fans.) It wasn’t until a little later that the whole “is he gay or isn’t he?” rumor mill exploded and I sat up and took notice of him. Having been an activist for LGBT and queer rights and visibility since the 1980s myself, I was of course keenly interested to find out if we were really going to have our first “out right from the start of his career” American pop star or not.
The thing is, even if Adam Lambert had turned out not to be gay, the fact that the media went into such hysterics about the possibility was notable in and of itself to visibility activists. And of course it turned out Adam WAS gay and wasn’t even in the closet really, except for the fact that heterosexuality is assumed for everyone. Sigh. (The American Idol media blackout didn’t help–contestants aren’t allowed to speak to the media while it’s going on–which gave people the impression there was something to hide or that they were being coy about it. And how about the fact that various Idol alums came out later, including Clay Aiken.)
We had a supposedly out pop star once before–though not American, British–in David Bowie. You can read my other essays about Bowie (like this one), but my quick summary of Bowie’s sexuality and his career is this: although Bowie was a bisexual role model for me and many many other people, he “recanted” his declarations of queerness in his mid-30s. Ultimately I think what Bowie identified most with was with being an Artist with a capital A, and the necessity of being an outsider to creating such Art. Queerness was a form of outsider status he might have adopted, co-opted, or mistook for his kindred, OR maybe he really was queer and when he “recanted” was because instead of the label conferring artistic freedom as it did initially, by later in his career it was instead boxing him in. In interviews he later said that especially in America he was pigeonholed as “bisexual David Bowie” and if he’d known the label was going to become an albatross around his neck he never would have said it.
Adam Lambert knows this well. It’s unusual to see an article about him that doesn’t call him “openly gay Adam Lambert” as if it’s part of his name. I’ve seen interviews with Adam where he shows that it grates on him sometimes, as if being gay is the definition of being him, which it’s not. But Adam also realizes that he has arrived at a particular moment in the history of gay rights in America. (Though he was a bit reluctant to carry the torch at first, more recently he has embraced his role as standard-bearer and queer role model.) Obama was the first president to talk about “gay Americans” in a State of the Union address. Gay marriage (and bitter fights against it) have swept the nation. Like the first man to set foot on the moon, Adam Lambert gets to be the first one out of the closet, and he’ll always be remembered better than those who follow after him because of it. There have been a bunch of other coming outs (comings out?) of gay male pop singers since (Frank Ocean, Sam Smith, two country stars whose names I’ve forgotten but was able to Google: Ty Herndon and Billy Gilman) and I’m sure I’ve forgotten a few because now they’re in the wake of Adam Lambert.
But does being a historic pioneer for gay visibility sell records or put fannies in the seats?
The thing that grated on Bowie and perhaps Adam, too, is that being queer has nothing to do with whether your music is good. It doesn’t even really let you predict that type of music or genre it is (more on that in a bit.) So although there are the dedicated Glamberts out there, we come back to that question of who goes to see Adam Lambert? And if it’s a little bit of everybody in America, is that why America seems to have no urgency to go see him? He’s playing venues with a capacity of 2,000 on this tour of the U.S. That’s a far cry from the stadiums he filled with Queen in other parts of the world or even the mid-sized arenas that Q+AL played in the US. The show I’m seeing next month at Ruth Eckerd Hall in Clearwater (capacity 2,100) isn’t sold out yet. I heard people in line tonight say that tonight’s show wasn’t sold out and the venue sold off half-price tickets this afternoon (not sure it was true or not). If all Adam Lambert is, musically, a really entertaining show and not an experience of communion with “your people” (whoever they may be) then is he worth leaving the house for? Is the problem of why Adam Lambert doesn’t draw in the USA essentially an image problem? Do people go to concerts because they just want to be entertained or because they expect to validate their own identities somehow by attending? My guess is that you need a core group of the latter in order to interest the former.
Obviously I think he *IS* worth leaving the house for or I wouldn’t be seeing him twice. But like I said, I spent all of tonight’s concert trying to figure out why the heck is it that Adam Lambert doesn’t fill bigger venues in the USA. I thought about a few other factors that could be at work. Is it that the American public is still kinda homophobic? It was widely believed in the late 70s and 80s that the reason Queen never drew well in concert here despite selling out giant stadiums everywhere else in the world was because Americans avoided anything too Queer. And let’s face it, the gay coding on a band called QUEEN is not actually all that subtle. But that was then. Is it different now?
(Here’s a 10-minute compilation of some of the highlight moments of the show that I filmed from my spot on the dance floor.)
Another thought: it looks to me like traditional radio and the traditional music industry have given a lukewarm reception to the past two albums. Why?
I’ll confess: I gave the current album (The Original High) a lukewarm reception myself (and I didn’t love Trespassing either). I think there are two or three outstanding tracks on it (Ghost Town, The Original High, and The Light), and the rest is pop filler. Am I reflective of the American consumer, here, or is it actually my music elitism showing? I can’t tell. I’m an old school alternative radio pioneer. I don’t like my music watered down or over-produced–I confess I’m an authenticity fan, too. However I do appreciate the artistry of a great performer and personality. For example, I think Madonna is fantastic and I’d be happy to see her in concert if the tickets weren’t outrageously expensive, but I don’t own any of her albums. Having worked in radio and being an alternative type, my tastes rarely line up with the American public. So me feeling like a lot of the latest Adam Lambert album is pop filler that Max Martin (the producer and main songwriter) could have just as easily foisted onto Britney Spears or Taylor Swift (to name only two of the many artists Max Martin has produced No. 1 hits for) is NOT probably what most of America thinks. Right?
Truth is Adam is a much more electrifying singer live than recorded. There’s a reason he blew everyone off the stage at American Idol. So the fact that the album struck me as meh was not going to stop me from seeing him live. In fact it won’t surprise you at all to know that one of my beefs with the three Adam Lambert studio albums is I really feel they don’t hang together. They’re too different from one another and each one seems to be searching for an identity and never quite finding it. But in concert tonight Adam seamlessly melded elements from all three albums AND his Idol days into an excellently coherent whole.
One highlight of the concert for me will surprise no one given my lifelong obsession with David Bowie: he did “Let’s Dance.” As I mentioned before, Bowie and Adam are going to be forever linked as queer pop singer icons, so it made sense that in the wake of Bowie’s passing that glam-standard bearer Adam would cover him. What some people might forget (but posthumous articles have reminded me) is that David Bowie’s career had plateau’d after the glam era ended and he was looked on (briefly) as something of an artistic genius but a commercial has-been. Bowie then set out to make a “hit record,” and he tapped Nile Rodgers of Chic to do it. Rodgers talks about how in the early 1980s his own musical career was pretty much dead because of the whole “disco is dead” attitude, but along comes Bowie, they collaborated, and the result was Bowie’s most successful commercial record ever. “Let’s Dance,” “Modern Love,” and “China Girl” were all Top 40 hits off the Let’s Dance album. Rodgers’ career was revived as a result and he has remained in demand as a producer and musical collaborator for three decades since.
So when it came time to make Adam’s sophomore record, Trespassing, RCA Records thought they would have a winning formula playing the Nile Rodgers card (Rodgers himself tweeted from the recording studio working with Adam “I really wouldn’t say it if it weren’t true-Working w Adam Lambert was one of the most organically perfect jams I’ve had since Bowie.”) and also bringing in Pharrell Williams to produce after Pharrell had been the magic touch for several other white pop artists. What you’ll read most places is that Trespassing debuted at number one on the Billboard album chart. What you won’t read is that sales fell off abruptly after that, American radio didn’t much care for it, and overall interest was so low in the USA that Adam did not tour the USA in support of Trespassing.
That’s right, the artist that everyone agrees is even better live than on recording, whose Glam Nation Live album and video charted, Did. Not. Tour. (Except Asia and Europe.) Personally I think part of why Trespassing didn’t hit was bad timing: a year later Daft Punk did a funky pop album with Nile Rodgers and had the biggest hit of the year (“Get Lucky”) and in particular radio was weak and streaming services had not yet filled the gap. So I think some of Trespassing’s disappointing results for RCA had more to do with the state of the industry than the actual album itself.
I also think the perceived change of genre from theatrical slightly gothy rock-pop to funk-pop hurt more than anyone on Team Adam thought it would. Here’s why:
In the 1980s there was a flat-out divide in the music industry between black and white. Actual race did not always matter whether an artist was classified as black or white. Madonna was classified as black when her first hits were on the radio. It wasn’t until after her videos were in heavy rotation and the news coverage of her “slutty” image (showing her bra strap! fishnets! gasp…) became ubiquitous that radio stations like WPLJ in New York were essentially forced to reclassified her from black to white. I was in the program director’s office when the decision was made to reclassify her. It was a big deal. A Top 40 station like WPLJ had this divide so that they would never play too many “black” songs in a row or in an hour, for fear they might alienate white listeners. You might also recall Michael Jackson calling out MTV around this same time (1984-1985) for failing to play videos by black artists (himself excepted). Radio and TV stations of course responded to criticisms of the practice of limit “black” (and even black-seeming) songs that they were in business to make money. They knew their audience, they would say, and this form of institutional segregation was necessary for them to chase the money.
In other words, they claimed the audience was racist, so they had to be racist to keep everyone happy. Hm.
Now it’s 2016 and times have supposedly changed, but looking around at the entrenched structural racism in many other American institutions being exposed by current events (policing, health care, etc) what are the chances that the structural racism in the music industry has changed? And even if the industry has changed, is there a still a perception (trained by this industry!) among the listening public that a line between black and white isn’t supposed to be crossed? (Never mind the fact that white artists have been co-opting and appropriating the sounds and talents of black artists since the music industry was invented–that’s a given and very troubling, but the vast majority of record buyers and music listeners out there aren’t about to start caring about cultural appropriation. Sadly.)
Adam’s American Idol image was very white. Emo-gothboy wonder. His first album, For Your Entertainment, changed his image from boy to man (more on that in a minute) but it stayed in the white lane. The pop-rock lane.
Was the problem that the funk/R&B-heavy Trespassing was such a Pharrell and Nile Rodgers production that it felt like a swerve from the white to black lane? And did people in radio and/or record buyers react negatively because of that?
I definitely don’t think it was a change that hardcore Glamberts wanted. If anything I saw persistent rumors representative of fan hopes that the next album was going to be more “alt rock”–i.e. more authentic (to something, what exactly who knows) and less slick and produced. Is the shift in lane what Adam wanted? Maybe. Is it what RCA Records wanted? Did they miscalculate how strongly people might have bought into Adam’s image and this was too much of a change in whatever direction?
(I love how old-school this video is, right through the Pat Benatar-esque dance-number that will save the world.)
It isn’t that white guys can’t be massively successful pop-soul or R&B singers–look at Justin Timberlake or Robin Thicke, speaking of Pharrell collaborators. But going from a rock flavor to a funk flavor felt like it left behind part of what many fans identified with about Adam. I think it’s notable that the two singles from the album, “Better Than I Know Myself” and “Never Close Our Eyes” are the “whitest” sounding songs on the whole record–both failed to make much of an impact on the charts, though. If you take those two off the album, the entire rest of the album sounds like a coherent R&B album. I do think most die-hard fans came to like Trespassing, but I think some folks basically got off the Adam Lambert bandwagon when it didn’t seem like the ride they signed up for.
Then RCA refused to let him make a third album unless he would do an album of 80s cover songs, which is about the whitest thing I can think of. Presumably this strategy was trying to cash in on the fact that people were still, years later, talking about Adam’s cover of Tears for Fears “Mad World” that was the turning point of American Idol, the song he even reprised during the Idol finals. Him *not* doing it during the Glam Nation tour was pretty much the only complaint I saw concert reviewers have. In other words, RCA was desperate to grasp whatever straw they could — meanwhile Adam was desperate to move on with his actual career. 24 hours after announcing he was leaving RCA, Adam had been picked up by Warner Brothers.
So. Getting back to tonight’s concert. “Let’s Dance” was already in Adam’s repertoire before Bowie’s death because he had played it with Nile Rodgers at a few promo shows they did around New York and such when a Trespassing tour was still a viable possibility. So yes, that made perfect sense in tonight’s show, and it also fit beautifully in a set that managed to meld all three (or four) different “Adams” into a coherent whole.
Adam is a showman, a crowd pleaser. What’s not to like? He’s beautiful to look at and has one of the best voices of a generation. So why aren’t more Americans clamoring to see him? The show opens with the stage dark and a heavy electronica dance remix of “Better Than I Know Myself” playing over the PA. Anticipation builds, then sparkly lights twinkle from the four projection screens at the back of the stage, then WHAM the lights come up on the full band playing a live intro while the letters A-D-A-M appear one at a time. It’s dramatic and visual and tremendous. And Adam himself isn’t even on the stage yet!
When he does hit the stage, it begins a 45-minute-long block of music that has no break, no between-song patter, it just slams right through song after song after song. The set is very cannily arranged, both in terms of which songs are mashed up or medleyed and what songs are chosen in the first place. The first song is “Evil in the Night” from the new album, but it segues directly into a song that should be delirium-inducing for the post-Idol-era fans, “For Your Entertainment.”
This song, the title track from Adam’s first album post-Idol, was notably absent from the Glam Nation tour (as was the aforementioned “Mad World” though I hear he did crack it out during encores once in a while). “For Your Entertainment” was of course the song at the center of the “controversy” that resulted from his American Music Awards performance. Talk about canny: I thought the whole performance at the AMAs was absolutely brilliant meta-commentary on the state of pop music in the USA and especially the whole mess Adam had just been through regarding the intense scrutiny of his possible sexual orientation. Think about what the lyrics of the song are. The song equates being a great lover in bed with being an entertainer — “I’m here for your entertainment.”
A few of the lyrics (and my interpretations):
Oh, do you know what you got into? (hey national TV broadcast!)
Can you handle what I’m ’bout to do? (I’m about to kiss a man!)
‘Cause it’s about to get rough for you (And people are going to freak out!)
I’m here for your entertainment
Oh, I bet you thought I was soft and sweet (Because American Idol enforced media silence)
‘Ya thought an angel swept you off ya feet (I get to be myself now that I’m not on Idol)
But I’m about to turn up the heat (because now my sexuality can be displayed at last)
I’m here for your entertainment
(Honestly to me the most shocking thing about the AMA performance is that Adam is notably flat three different times (!) something I’ve never seen since!)
Adam claims that actually kissing Tommy Joe Ratliff during the AMA TV performance of FYE was a spur of the moment thing, but the rest of the performance, with dancers on leashes and such, was calculatedly over-the-top sexual. And even if that first kiss was spur of the moment, Adam then doubled down on the male kiss as a statement of artistic freedom and visibility by turning into the most infamous piece of fanservice on the Glam Nation tour. Every night during the song “Fever” Adam would kiss Tommy Joe. Dozens of fan videos would appear nightly and there are many many many video compilations of Adam/Tommy liplocks and onstage moments.
There was no onstage kiss tonight during The Original High tour, although there is some lovely hot dancing between Adam and his two sidekicks who do double duty as backup singers and dancers: Terence Spencer, who danced on Glam Nation and is seen in the Ghost Town video, and Holly Hyman, who appeared in a production of WICKED with Adam in 2008 prior to his American Idol days. (Great Instagram picture of them from those days which she posted: https://www.instagram.com/p/BBGnU8hQL3S/)
The absence of fan-favorite TJR is notable, especially since it’s impossible not to think about “the kiss” during that song. The choreography for “Fever” tonight even included some “quotes” of the Glam Nation dance steps. I will state for the record I have no idea why Tommy Joe Ratliff isn’t part of Adam’s touring band anymore. I’m not privy to any inside information. All I know is he was the one band member who was carried forward from Glam Nation into We Are Glamily (switching from bass to guitar, which was his original instrument anyway). When “Ghost Town” debuted on the Ellen show, the Glambert internets exploded with speculation (and rage) about why Tommy Joe wasn’t in the band this time. (Meanwhile Camilla Grey, of the duo Uh Huh Her, who had played keyboards on the Glam Nation tour, was on keys on the Ellen performance, so bringing back old cohorts at various times is definitely something Adam does, see aforementioned Holly and Terence.) All I’ve ever seen Adam say about the subject is one tweet that asserted each “era” he’s “changed up” band personnel and exhorting fans not to “live in the past.”
But it seems many fans felt that although everyone else in the band was changeable, Tommy Joe was special. Finding out they were wrong about that was rage-inducing for some. I find it likely that the change in musical direction had more to do with the personnel update than the wild speculations I see about how there was “too much fanfic about Adam and Tommy” as if the existence of this fan activity somehow upset Adam or his management enough that Tommy had to go. I would like to think that people in pop music management know perfectly well that intense sexual fantasies about performers is in fact one of the main things that happens to all pop idols. In this case, an openly gay male idol. So it should not be a surprise that many fans fantasize about their gay idol with another man? (Heck, they don’t even have to be “openly gay”–look at the huge huge amounts of One Direction slash fic on Wattpad and other Internet sites.) That TJR was drop-dead gorgeous, reportedly straight, and the object of Adam’s nightly onstage kissing “statement” about male sexuality pretty much guaranteed there would be massive amounts of slash written about them.
Some fans react with rage or disillusionment when their ‘ship sinks instead of sails in a TV show or fiction franchise–and I think for some the same was true when Tommy Joe was no longer available as fodder for the Adam/Tommy relationship fantasy. I think most fans are reasonable enough to realize these are real people, not creations of pure fantasy, with real feelings and needs of their own, but then again the entertainment industry constantly tries to get fans to believe in the image of the pop star and not the reality. Or more accurately, it’s an industry that conflates image and reality–at least partly here in the USA because of that nagging “authenticity” issue. Americans want something “true.”
Except when we don’t. For some reason we are convinced with our male pop stars in particular that to respect them there must be some grain of authenticity or “truth” in what they do/who they are. (Rappers are supposed to have “street cred” for example. Bruno Mars, before he changed to a stage name, was constantly told by execs in the music industry he should leverage his last name–Hernandez–to play Spanish or Latin music even though he’s from Hawaii.) But the key word there is respect, because it doesn’t seem like female pop stars go through this–unfortunately because female pop stars get no respect at all. Respect isn’t part of the equation. Taylor Swift, Madonna, Britney Spears, Katy Perry…no one interrogates them about whether they write their own songs because no one expects a female pop singer to be an actual artist. Meanwhile when Beyonce finally made a statement that demanded respect for her actual authentic self, as she did in the video and Superbowl performance of “Formation,” people freaked out. The American public only wants its authenticity in certain packages and as I said before we only want quote-authenticity-unquote that meets our preconceived notions. People will automatically assume a rapper has street cred if he’s black the way they’ll assume a sushi chef is authentic if he looks Asian.
So here’s the thing. You have an authentic gay man who put a performative expression of gay male sexuality in his show. Like with Beyonce, people freaked out. Adam Lambert stated in interviews after the FYE furor that if Madonna and Britney Spears can kiss on a pop music awards show, and neither of them is “authentically” queer at all, why can’t he do the same? He’s exposing a double standard, yes. But I guess the question is…is fighting for the right to be an objectified sexualized entertainment object equivalent to Britney Spears a fight worth having? For Adam it seems to be. The rest of the world, which isn’t as hung up on homosexuality or authenticity as Americans, is going to see Adam Lambert in larger numbers and selling out more quickly (meaning the venues could have potentially been larger). Here, not so much. But is the queerness why? Or is it because there’s something perceived as inauthentic about it? (Or was the FYE performance just another example of people clinging to the American Idol image of a cute emo boy and refusing to accept a “grown-ass man”? Another point about The Original High, overall I feel Adam’s latest makeover is another step into a mature adult image and I quite like it, even if I find the album lukewarm.)
I do miss TJR in the show mostly because as a massive fan of rock musicians in general, one of the things I liked most about Glam Nation was that there was interaction between Adam and the rock band, in particular Monte and Tommy as the guitar/bass guys out front. (I know, I know, I’ve written hundreds of thousands of words of fiction in Daron’s Guitar Chronicles about the archetypal love-hate singer-guitarist rock band relationship so we know that’s a thing that really floats my boat.) Although current guitarist Adam Ross has two particular feature solos in The Original High Tour show, for the most part the band stays completely in the background now and only Terence and Holly interact with Adam. The choreography is fun. It’s not as involved as it was during Glam Nation, a little more naturalistic and integrated. Since the dancers are singers, too, they are on stage the whole time. The three of them can break into steps mid-song, and then stop and be casual again, without the dancing only being during specific “dance numbers.”
Integrated is a good word for the whole show. The visuals and lights, the transitions from song to song, the way some songs are interwoven with each other, some morphing halfway through into one another, the easy transitions from choreographed dancing to wandering the edge of the stage working the crowd…it was hard to believe this was only the second show on the tour! I can only guess that they must have rehearsed like mad.
Some of the changes that they made to songs you can only appreciate as canny decisions in showmanship and musicianship if you know the originals. Knowing that they skipped doing “For Your Entertainment” at all in the wake of the AMA controversy, it was striking that it was the second song right out of the gate. Another big hit from the FYE days of course was “Whataya Want From Me” (the Grammy nominated song, in fact), which during Glam Nation they’d changed up and done acoustic. With this tour Adam did a very crowd-pleasing rendition very close to the radio version, which turned into a huge singalong and was probably one of the best moments of the night, now that I think about it. “If I Had You” was the culmination song of Glam Nation and they did it again here as a culmination song, but they changed the arrangement to be even harder edged than the original. This was especially interesting in like of the fact they had been doing a reggae-tinged version of it during the warmup tour! They faked us out! So when this favorite came it was pure pleasure and a surprise.
All of this gives me a feeling that for some of the audience, they’re missing what’s going on in the show. Maybe it doesn’t matter: they just want to see a great singer and be entertained, the end. If so, cool. But I felt like by knowing all the backstory to Adam’s career, I got a lot out of the show that maybe not everyone did. I could see the ways that backstory informed his song choices and the choices made in constructing the show–even how the musical arrangements were done. I suppose in some ways I am more a fan of Adam and his career than I am of Adam’s songs. But there is a context here, if not a subtext. It may not matter to the average concert-goer, but again we return to the question of why there aren’t more concert-goers.
I’m still baffled by the fact Taylor Swift is filling huge arenas throughout the USA and Adam Lambert isn’t. This is not a knock on Taylor Swift: she’s kind of awesome, actually. But what’s she got that Adam don’t got? Radio support? Heterosexual privilege? Better fit for American taste? I don’t know. I’m sure Warner Bros. records would like to know. I saw a recent announcement that “Ghost Town” had passed 100 million plays on Spotify — one of the top three Spotify “viral” tracks of 2015 — and has been certified gold, Adam’s first gold single (https://headlineplanet.com/home/2016/01/21/adam-lamberts-ghost-town-earns-gold-certification-in-the-us/). By current methods of measure of record company success, that puts him in the top tier. But he’s not in the top tier in concert draw and he so obviously should be.
To bring it home, here’s the state of the Adam. As I said, this concert managed to meld all the eras of Adam into a cohesive whole. The emo-pop-rock, the funk, the dance-floor pop, the American Idol, and even the Queen frontman into a seamless entertainment juggernaut. The “identity” that is emerging is one that has Entertainer (rather than Bowie-esque Artist) as its pinnacle. The move into dancier territory, first with funk in Trespassing and now with everything from witch-beat to dance remixes in The Original High, feels almost inevitable as a move away from middle-America’s “authentic” core center (rock) to the queer center, which has always been associated with gay male urbanization, the move from the small-minded small town to the big gay city and learning to love disco/urban dance music. If you went into a gay men’s leather bar in the 1990s, the music you would have heard wouldn’t have been thematically appropriate like Nine Inch Nails or even David Bowie, it would have been dance music, from Whitney Houston’s cover of “I’m Every Woman” to C&C Music Factory to Madonna’s dance remixes to house. (I know, I spent a lot of time in gay men’s leather bars.)
So if you want to draw a conclusion about authenticity, mine is that the current incarnation of Adam Lambert is in fact merely the latest step in Adam trying on an “authentically” gay male musical style, and that this is what he’s been doing all along. Pre-Idol he was in musical theater, gay musical stereotype number one. Then we had emo kid, which codes as queer without being too overt for American Idol, check. In the FYE era we had the embrace of Bowie-esque outrageous sexuality and showmanship (remember the Glam Nation encore of “Twenty-First Century Boy,” an actual glam rock song featuring the lyrics “I wanna be your toy,” echoing the FYE theme even though the actual song of FYE was not performed in those concerts.) Then we had continuing in Bowie’s footstep–breaking his previous mold by working with Nile Rodgers on a funk album. Then Freddie Mercury’s footsteps with Q+AL! And now here we are in the dance pop world. Even Adam’s opening act on this tour, Alex Newell, fits this theme. Alex Newell is a singer in the vein of Chaka Khan except he’s a gay man who played an MTF trans student on Glee. His website describes his music as “disco-injected dance-pop” and he has worked with good old Nile Rodgers and Whitney Houston’s former songwriter.
So maybe this is the authentic Adam Lambert: reading it this way, his move into dance-pop feels to me like a queer identity move. Adam may be pursuing his subcultural musical heritage as a “gay American” though I don’t know whether he acknowledges that heritage is fraught with American problems associated with the white/black divide. (I certainly take the mixed racial makeup of his band as a generally positive sign, but caveats re: all white artists co-opting predominantly black American musical modes remain.)
Ultimately the place Adam may project the most authenticity is outside the United States, where I suspect he’s seen as very authentically “American.” I believe the Elvis and James Dean imagery and styling he’s adopted for the videos for “Ghost Town” and “Another Lonely Night” are part of crafting a new All-American image, one that steps away from American Idol and digs more into Adam’s roots as a product of Southern California and Hollywood itself. Adam is an incarnation of the Entertainer, perhaps, just as the Vegas-era Elvis was.
I note he’s playing Foxwoods Casino this Friday night. There are still ~300 unsold tickets for that show. I’m tempted to go…
But no. I’ve already got tickets for Clearwater. It’ll be interesting to see if I change any of my opinions after seeing that show.
Through the writing of this essay I feel I’ve cohered my understanding of the career challenges facing Adam Lambert and largely convinced myself his recent career moves are toward rather than away from issues of queer identity, but I still haven’t answered the question of why his tour isn’t drawing better, or playing larger places. I suppose if that was an easy question to answer, his management team would have already answered it and he’d already be playing larger places. I will count myself lucky to have seen him in a hallowed hall like the House of Blues, pressed close to the stage, which is my favorite way to see any show, so that when eventually he is filling arenas like Taylor Swift I can say “I remember when.” Because I’m an optimist and I believe that day will still come.
[Caveat: I really haven’t had a chance to thoroughly research all of Adam Lambert’s career, and I’m not completely versed in the current state of the music business. So I welcome updates, comments, links to further reading, and corrections. Yes, please give me an excuse to read more about Adam Lambert…]