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Adam Lambert and TV scandal: A match made in rock heaven

November 24, 2009 |  3:46 pm
Adam

Adam Lambert has taken the better part of a year to unfold his shiny wings on national television. He finally took flight Sunday on the American Music Awards -- but not in the direction that many, including some devoted fans, had hoped. The singer's decision to take some exhibitionist risks onstage, starting with the kind of simulated foreplay that Madonna's been including in her concerts for years and culminating in a libidinous lip-lock with his male keyboard player, apparently has alienated as many observers as it's impressed. But there's a third way to view Lambert's staged provocation: not as a new low for pop's moral standards, nor as a revolutionary act, but as one of the most traditional things he's done so far.

Lambert's sexy moves, which he's saying were at least partly spontaneous, were a gamble. "Good Morning America" booted him off its schedule after a reported 1,500 viewer complaints came in to ABC, the network that airs that show and the annual AMAs. Such a cancellation could have set Lambert's career rolling down fame's incline, which is where Kanye West has found himself since publicly challenging Taylor Swift's global domination at the MTV Video Music Awards in September. (For the record, I'd like Kanye to make his comeback soon).

But Adam's bouncing back, at least for now: CBS immediately stepped in with an offer for him to appear on "The Early Show," and Lambert's "American Idol" colleague Ryan Seacrest gave him room to make some witty and substantive rejoinders on his syndicated radio show.

Lambert's party line is that women performers have been incorporating eroticism into their acts for years. "Janet Jackson's performance had a hand-grab of the crotch at one point," he told Seacrest, invoking the elder who opened the AMAs. He went on to cite controversial elements in numbers by Rihanna, Lady Gaga and Eminem -- the latter, he noted, "mentioned that Slim Shady had 17 rapes under his belt. Always conciliatory, even when being unapologetic, Lambert said he was "OK with all that -- it's entertainment, it's edgy and pushing the envelope."

Lambert's own move was something more specific, which he also mentioned when he said, "The spirit of rock and roll is alive and well."

Rock music and television emerged and blossomed together, and their symbiotic relationship has been marked by productive scandal. To state the mind-numbingly obvious, Lambert's full-force eroticism can be seen as the revenge of Elvis Presley's wiggly hips, cut out of the camera's frame on "The Ed Sullivan Show" in 1956. Or let's call it vindication for Mick Jagger, forced to change the title of "Let's Spend the Night Together" to something more chaste on Sullivan's program in 1967. Jim Morrison's ghost could give Lambert advice -- he staged a similar impromptu freedom fight the same year, when he "forgot" to change the drug-suggestive lyrics to "Light My Fire" on Sullivan. The Doors were never invited back, but their countercultural cred was secured.

Need I go on, to mention the Sex Pistols swearing on Bill Grundy's "Today" show, Sinead O'Connor ripping up the pope's picture on "Saturday Night Live," or Nirvana refusing to lip-synch on "Top of the Pops" in 1991? (Lambert's favorite rock band, Muse, did something similar recently on an Italian talk show.)

What these moments share, whether the rock stars in question capitulated or rebelled against their television handlers, is an intense mood of discomfort. The cool medium of television (to use Marshall McLuhan's famous term), which normally diffuses emotions, can't accommodate the hot one of rock and roll, which intensifies them. Watching Elvis squirm, Jagger sneer or Kurt Cobain act like a clown, even a fan of those artists feels a little uncomfortable. They don't fit. They break the frame, shattering our assumptions about what a performance should be and forcing us to confront what turns us off -- or on.

In recent years, the symbiotic relationship between rock and television has grown less powerful, partly because enough taboos have been broken that it's harder for artists to really shock audiences, and partly because rock itself has grown far less sexy. While hip-hop, dance music and R&B continue to push the boundaries when it comes to eroticism, rock has become almost square in the 21st century, the province of Christians, dads, earnest political activists and other basically wholesome superstars.

There's nothing wrong with that. It's just how art forms evolve. Rock, once the primary cultural means for Americans (and Brits) to explore their sexual edge, has lost sight of its libido. Think of the other rock acts who performed at the AMAs: Daughtry might be some women's dream guy, but his music is all about being married. And Green Day, though eminently admirable, wasn't even sexy back when Billie Joe was singing about solo self-pleasuring.

Lambert's musical connection to hard rock is actually pretty tenuous -- though he's brought back the heavy-metal scream, his vocal performances really reflect stronger connections to New Wave, post-disco and even opera. Where he is a rocker is, frankly, in his groin. Showing off sexual desires that are still considered outlaw by some, he produces the kinds of responses that threaten some people and change others -- and signal bigger shifts in society in general.

Lambert is right to say that there's a double standard when it comes to female displays of sexuality in pop, as well as in men's verbal expressions of prowess and desire. Let's take it one step further, in fact -- we don't have any problem watching a black male artist, like Usher, or a white one who works in a mostly black musical style, like Justin Timberlake, miming a sexual connection with a woman. There's really only one kind of man who isn't sexy in rock today, and that's the rock dude. By insisting upon his right to claim that title, Lambert upsets the apple cart.

The distancing of white male rockers from their own bodies isn’t merely a matter of an art form aging out. It has to do with power and status. Rock is no longer an outsider’s game, and the stars it produces aren’t freaks simply for loving it. Instead, they’re often “regular guys,” proudly displaying the masculine conventions that once seemed off limits in the rock world (though, as any female consort or closeted gay musician will tell you, they were always there beneath the surface).

Few straight white men don’t strut the way Lambert does (sadly!). Most still embody the norm in our society, because racism, sexism and homophobia still haunt us. And the norm never shows itself off. It’s just taken for granted. For all of his media-savvy and strategic approach to stardom, Adam Lambert remains a rock outsider. Though I’m his fan, I don't think his AMAs' turn was perfect; it would have been much more effective it his usually excellent vocals had matched the audacity of his dance moves. But I don't agree with those who are saying his routine was just a tired attempt to shock. What he did won't be mundane until no one in America flinches when two men kiss on the street. Or until an out gay rock star is no longer an anomaly.

-- Ann Powers

Photo of Adam Lambert by Chris Pizzello / Associated Press

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