Thursday, March 19, 2009

Adam Lambert and the Erotics of American Idol

Maybe it's because I finally got around to ordering up Milk on the pay-per-view the other day, or maybe it's just because I've got some gay friends, family, and colleagues, but one way or another I actually found myself caring about the fate of an American Idol contestant on last night's results show. Specifically, I became deeply invested in the fate of Adam Lambert. He's a pretty out gay guy, and (more importantly) I think it's fair to say he sang as a gay guy, and the question of whether America would be cool with that mattered to me.

For those of you who have lives, here's the lowdown: this week was country music week on American Idol, and contestants were coached by country star Randy Travis on how to sing songs from the country music canon. Most chose to give those songs fairly traditional, country-style performances, with mixed results. One excellent R&B singer did so to her detriment: it was like watching Glenn Gould limit himself to picking out the Goldberg Variations with a pair of chopsticks. But Adam Lambert took a bolder approach. He was quite bubbly and excited when meeting Randy Travis, saying that he'd found a wonderful, sitar-laden arrangement of the old Johnny Cash classic "Ring of Fire" (turns out it was the Jeff Buckley version). Randy, who otherwise seems like a decent guy, was visibly creeped out by Adam, saying to the cameras "where I come from we don't see many men with nail polish." Argh! I mean, why not say "I'm from some tight-assed village of homophobes, and I've failed to take advantage of the opportunities offered by a lifetime traveling the world and working in the music industry to broaden my horizons and become a reasonably tolerant person"? Maybe that was too wordy for the sound-bite format...

Anyway, Adam, who has — no lie — all the technical chops of Freddy Mercury, and a lot of stage presence to boot, went with the arrangement. The performance was overtly eros-infused, both in the vocals (and I regret I don't quite know how to describe the particulars of just how the vocals were eroticized) and in the stage performance (Jim Morrison-style writhing, plus thigh-stroking, butt-wiggling, and the making of eyes at the camera). It kind of freaked out the judges, and there was a lot of speculation among fans that Lambert might be kicked off the show. The speculation was further fueled by pictures from Adam's website (like the one above — that's Lambert on the left) which showed him kissing men, wearing makeup, and cavorting with a bunch of semi-naked guys at Burning Man. Was American Idol — and indeed, America — going to be okay with this?

It's not that American Idol has been unfriendly to mildly eroticized performances in the past. While the majority of the acts have been about as sexy as a slice of Wonder Bread served with a glass of skim milk, there have been exceptions. Idol seems pretty cool with a kind of low-grade female sexiness in performances. This can be overt, as it was with Brenna Gethers, who more-or-less flirted with Simon Cowell onstage during season 5 (Simon, it seems, likes 'em feisty). Or it can be in the slightly hypocritical mode that the great novelist Angela Carter described, in her study The Sadean Woman, as the "the good bad girl" act: the woman who's sexy, but acts like she doesn't know it (I'm thinking here of Kellie Pickler from season six, who spent an entire song crawling around the stage like a cat in heat, but got all doe-eyed and innocent when Simon called her "a little minx," responding "I'm a mink?"). The vast majority of the men who sing on American Idol do so from some kind of neutered, desexualized space (think Elliot Yamin, or the blind guy from the current season, whose music is so utterly bland I can't be bothered to look up his name), but there have been notable exceptions. Bo Bice, for example, would occasionally smolder with good ol' Allman Brothers-style southern heel-stompin' shitkicker heterosexuality.

But what about the gay guys on Idol? Well, Clay Aiken did very well and (I'm told) still sells out a lot of shows. Clay was in the closet, at least as a public figure, but then again so was the great Paul Lynde, officially. I mean, some closets have glass doors, people. But whether the audience knew Clay Aiken was gay or not, he didn't sing in an eroticized fashion: he had all the sexy, steamy drive of, say, Opie. Not so young Mr. Lambert. He comes across as an eroticized performer, and not in the way Bo Bice did. I mean, Bice was all about the straight male gaze: he performed a kind of burning desire for a female erotic object (women can do this too: Melissa Etheridge's "Come to My Window" is a clear case in point, though now that I think about it I don't recall ever seeing anything Etheridge-like on Idol). But Lambert performs differently. He performs as though he's aware of himself not as the desiring subject of eros, but (at least in part) as the desired object of the gaze.

I suppose I could get off my ass and walk over to the theory shelf, pull down some books, and look up some citations, but I probably don't have to in order to support the point that, generally speaking, most heterosexual guys are less aware of themselves as bodies seen by the desiring gaze of others than are most gay guys. I mean, all you have to do is take a random sampling of, say, a dozen heterosexual men in their forties and a dozen homosexual men of the same age, and you'll get a pretty clear sense of which group has been more body-conscious (I pick that age group because by then the results of how we feel about our bodies start to show. I mean, people in their twenties don't even have to be good looking to be good looking). There are exceptions to all of this (I mentioned Jim Morrison as a straight guy who moved like he was conscious of himself as the object of the erotic gaze), but we're speaking in broad terms here. And the point is this: Adam Lambert, unlike Clay Aiken, came across as both gay and eroticized. He wasn't (like Aiken) a singer who happened to be gay. He was a gay man singing as a gay man.

And the viewers voted to keep him on. We don't know how well he did, but we do know that out of eleven contestants, he wasn't in the bottom three. This is either a testament to the bad gaydar of the American public, or to an ever-increasing level of acceptance. I'm going with the latter, and thanking Harvey Milk.