Adam Lambert’s “Loss”

First published at on May 22, 2009

At the risk of stating the obvious, let me say that Adam Lambert is going to be just fine.

I’ll say it anyway because, barely minutes after Kris Allen was announced as the “upset” winner of American Idol, my Facebook feed was loaded with status updates declaring Adam’s loss a “hate crime,” with people vowing to take the streets to protest (on the eve of the anniversary of the White Night riots, no less).

I trust that their histrionics were limited to message boards, and that the streets are safe from drama. There will soon enough be events worth marching about.

None of which is to diminish the importance of Lambert’s nearly winning America’s blockbuster musical talent competition as a more-or-less openly gay performer. Sure, it’s not DOMA, or DADT, or ENDA. But if greater issues always displaced lesser ones, there would be no justification for watching American Idol in the first place—or for art of any sort.

As for those who think that a contestant’s sexuality is nobody’s business, I’ll buy that the moment we apply the same standard to straight performers. Kris Allen’s wife, explicitly identified, was a regular presence. Third-placer Danny Gokey, as we heard repeatedly, is a widower. Family backstory is standard Idol fare. But Lambert, as Entertainment Weekly’s Mark Harris aptly put it, “was apparently made by the hand of God and left in a basket backstage at Wicked.”

Should Lambert have beat Allen? Lambert is the clearly more talented singer and performer, though Allen is not without his charms.

Lambert is also queer—in the broad sense of that term. Put aside the internet pictures of him in drag making out with other guys. Many Idol voters were unaware of such pictures, despite their being aired, for example, by Bill O’Reilly on Fox News. (O’Reilly did so under the guise of “Will America have a problem with this?” but it’s hard to believe he wasn’t trying precisely to provoke such a problem.)

Many Idol voters surely also missed Lambert’s skillful non-answers to media questions about his sexuality. ”I know who I am,” he told Entertainment Weekly when asked the gay question. “I’m an honest guy, and I’m just going to keep singing.”

But no viewer could miss Lambert’s flamboyant costumes, his outrageous high notes, or his eyeliner. Whatever his romantic interests, Adam Lambert reads queer. And that’s new territory for Idol. While Clay Aiken, the last gay near-winner, projected “wholesome,” Lambert screams “edgy.” (It’s a pitch-perfect scream, held impossibly long, which pierces the audience.)

And that’s why, despite Lambert’s superior vocal skills, Allen’s victory was unsurprising. American Idol contestants win by getting the most votes, and the average American doesn’t typically vote for queer. That’s part of what makes it queer, after all.

Nonetheless, Lambert seems no less a victor, and I hope he’s basking in his glory right now, eyeliner and all.

He made it to the final round while unabashedly being himself (in his appearance and performance, if not in direct response to interview questions). He has solidified his reputation as a consummate entertainer. He will no doubt go on to have a great career, far more successful than Allen’s, and probably even more successful than the career he would have had were he constrained by the packaging that comes with the “Idol” title.

Meanwhile, he has taught America something, if not about gays, then at least about “queers.” He has “mad skills”, yes—but he was also unfailingly polite, consistently expressing gratitude for the behind-the-scenes folks who developed his arrangements. He graciously expressed admiration for his competitors, including Allen. He was edgy, but not off-putting—all of which made it easier for people to see the main thing: his tremendous talent.

Besides injecting new life into Idol, Lambert also appears to have changed its culture. Idol has always struck me as a homophobic show, not just because of the noticeable absence of openly gay performers, but also because of the juvenile gay innuendo that regularly takes place between judge Simon Cowell and host Ryan Seacrest. That innuendo seems to have dramatically decreased this season—no doubt partly due to Lambert.

It will be interesting to see, now that Lambert must shift his attention from votes to sales, whether he chooses to talk more explicitly about his sexuality. I look forward to what he has to say. But I look forward even more to what he’s going to sing.