« Previous Post | Pop & Hiss Home | Next Post »

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


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


Album review: Adam Lambert's 'For Your Entertainment'

Adam Lambert: Cool, calm and eclectic

Kris Allen beats Adam Lambert. A shock? Nah.

'American Idol': Adam Lambert vs. Kris Allen

Ann Powers: More on Adam, disco and stereotyping

Going Gaga: RedOne riding a hot streak, working with Usher, Adam Lambert

Adam Lambert: The ultimate interview

The 2009 American Music Awards red carpet

2009 American Music Awards: Scorecard

American Music Awards: Three reasons to watch, three reasons to avoid

Taylor Swift, Michael Jackson dominate American Music Awards nominations 

Rihanna, Green Day added to American Music Awards lineup

Guess who's getting Grammy nominations?

Adam Lambert kicks off rehearsals for American Music Awards

Comments () | Archives (181)

Adam has just unleashed the new Glam revolution!!! His album is freaking FANTASTIC!! His performance did have some vocal que and sound issues - but watching Adam is always a thrill!! If you consider their were 1500 complaints to ABC with a viewership of 14.2 million, I think it is safe to say, Adam has at least stirred something in a lot of people. Yes the right wing will continue to stifle creative expression and yes some who claim to be fans were shaken (I doubt they were really fans or they would have known Adam will be Adam) - but all this is a good thing. Music needed some thing new and an artist like Adam with his phenomenal vocal chops, very genuinely honest and endearing personality and total sexual beingness appears to have a real charismatic "IT" factor.

"(For the record, I'd like Kanye to make his comeback soon)"

Similar to Lambert you lost, at least one, reader with the above statement.


Adam Lambert did the gay community no favors. He didn't do anyone any favors with his unnecessary oral sex simulations. Is nothing sacred to Adam?
He lost a fan.

I was a fan of Adam's until I saw his raunchy performance at the AMA's. Adam has tremendous vocals and stage presence and does not need to resort to such shock tactics. I am sad and disappointed in you, Adam.

So what I get from this article is that it is making excuses for Mr. Lambert and in full support of his obscene and inappropriate performance on a program broadcast on the public airwaves with a TV14 rating. In fairness to Lambert, he is right, almost the entire program was inappropriate for youth and the public airwaves at that time slot and it has been this way for years. Other media reports say that the AMA's ratings have been in the gutter for years and like Americans like gawk at car accidents looking to see blood or something grotesques, so the west coast tuned in after hearing about the performance from East coast viewers thus giving the AMA's a rating boosts. The recording industry has been accurately cited as being at the forefront of corrupting the public airwaves thus why today we have high teen pregnancies, high rates of sexually transmitted disease, child prostitution or a whole host of other ills related to our youth. And you wonder why they rather steal your music than pay for it? Because the message in the music and from mainstream media is that you can do what you want with no real consequences. It is time to take a stand against all this immorality being thrust upon our society by the producers of mass media. Sign the petition: http://www.change.org/actions/view/the_american_music_awards_adam_lambert_and_american_indecency

Here's the thing.... he says he's play acting the song or whatever. BUT the song was soooo bad and his vocals were even worst that no one EVEN knew what the lyrics were! He blew an awesome opportunity that not many people get.

i love adam lambert and no one should judge him on his love life its his and no one else's, if hes gay its his choise but he still has great music

So wait, you have to be older than 13 to post a reply to this article, an age which is arguably Lambert's target audience since "Idol," but you can watch his outrageous antics onstage on network TV and it's only offensive because society is homophobic?
I just don't get that.

I will be watching CBS and Dave L so I can see Adam. No one even mentioned Lady Gaga's act after watching The HOT ROCK GAWD ADAM. ABC can stistch where the sun dont shine. TSK TSK, ROCK ON, they (powers that be) were all drooling in secret. Whats next Adam, I can hardly wait. 1500 complaints is hardly worth a cancel, BUT thats why in America We get to Choose ...what we like and dont like. I was not allowed to watch Elvis in the Ed Sullivan era. That just made me try to see him every chance I had, not much has changed in my world. I'm an Adam Fan.

Excellent insight. And you make a good point. I didn't like the performance because I didn't think it was very strong. I didn't feel like I followed the song very well. But The "shock" value part of the performance did seem strange. However if I replace the male on male with male on female or even female on female it would have seemed utterly normal and even expected. I guess, well, good for Adam for making us think a bit more.


Ann Power, I love your article and reviews. Another great article, thanks!! As a huge Adam Fans, I was very worried after seeing the AMA performance. I almost had a mental breakdown myself. It is not that I was shocked by the kissing or touching, I was mainly shocked that his vocal is not there that night. I have watched every single video that you can find about him, and this one, vacally, is the worst yet. I have been reading a lot of fan feedbacks, and I know some fans are not buying his CD just because of this one performance. What a shame. They know Adam is great but just because of this performance and give up a good album?!! I also saw people give his album one star review at Amazon.com just because of this performance even though they have never heard of the CDs. People need to be more open minded. I was also shocked today to see ABC cancelled his GMA appearance tomorrow... Still, I was encouraged to see many fans are still behind him, and I'm one of them.


All I know is I love Adam's CD, didn't like the performance until I understood the reason and now it all makes sense-very brave kid- good hearted too, so I totally support him. My daughter showed my some videos of so many performers and their acts on videos that I missed -wow, sooooooo Adam isn't out of the box risque after all. Whatever, his album is wonderful fun, he's a sweetie, cutie, hottie, that kiss was clearly returned as can be seen on photo and I am straight gal that craves to be kissed by Adam like that. yeahyeahyeah.Outstanding singer and I just cannot take my eyes off him when he is on stage- the place can burn down around me, but when Adam is performing I am mesmerized.

Hello Ann,
You get it. Thanks for an excellent article. Adam is the most talented (and a bit brash YAY!) young man to come along ina long time. He is new to this and he has been thrust into a huge spotlight very quickly. our society is very quick to judge and slow to be gentle. I am 47 and our family simply loves him. Cocky young men have always been in style and will always be. Young girls (and boys) love the bad boy. we don't really want our rock stars to be vanilla. We want them to do things that we wouldn't (or couldn't)do He may have made a bit of a mistep but the fact that you wrote about him and I read (and took time to comment about) what you wrote tells me he will be around a long time. BTW Just bought my copy of his album and it is great.

Adam Lambert's challenge is not proving that eroticism fits, or works now for male music artists, it is the fact that now he must show us that he can still sing. There is nothing wrong with eroticism if it is artistic and thought out, Adam's was neither. Adam though, has another chance.

Adam is a major singing talent, but does he care?. We will know only and when he sings to us on TV again. Adam Lambert would not be the first wanna be star to self destruct. I am rooting for him one more time, and hope he sings without having to feel he is the mother, or father of sexual revolution. If not, he may vanish. We need great fresh singers, hear that Adam. What will it be.?

Adam, please get back to the basics of your art, your voice. We call it singing

Thank you again, Ann Powers for getting it!
Adam will be fine, his humanity and talent far outweighs the rantings of small minded and sexually repressed nervous nellies.

Well written and thought out article, Ann Powers ! I am a bit exhausted from trying to keep up with all of the hype over my lovely Glambert, so I will leave it at that.
I appreciate you taking the time to go beneath the surface on this issue.
I hope he gets to read some of the good points that you have made.

Good article, but I disagree this had anything in common with two men kissing on the street. The discomfort (for me anyway)was not over same sex kissing. I never had a problem with the boyfriend kissing photos or videos; but nothing in this performance was "sensual;" It was sexual in a mean and violent sort of way, which would have been uncomfortable even if it were a man furiously grabbing the head of a woman and practically bruising her lips. Adam became famous because of his amazing voice, not because of, and probably in spite of, his sexuality. I certainly feel he should be free to be whatever kind of artist he wants to be and he will have a following either way, but at this rate, he is compromising a huge part of his fan base.

Right on sister. To me, I wonder how many of those complaining about his (irreverent) show - calling it raunchy and unnacceptable, etc. - are actually the hypocrites who are closeted p.o rn users! Adam's subversiveness (NOT p.o rn to be sure) is his smarts. I think he has a genius voice, to me encapsulated well in his Change is Gonna Come live and his ONE cover and FEELING GOOD cover... his voice transcendent; his message to lighten up and GET REAL needed. peace.

Lambert has done nothing to even begin to be associated with any of the legendary artists named above. First and foremost, Lambert, at this stage of his "career" has only proven to be a mediocre performer with a screechy voice. What he has done is merely stake out a piece of territory in the vacuous and superficial land of Celebrity. What Lambert does on stage, as evidenced by that vulgar display at the AMA's, has nothing to do with rock and roll. That stuff is pure theatrical staging set to music, and bad music at that. Why Ann Powers continues to trumpet Lambert and his "talent" as the next coming, well, I can only suspect that Ann Powers is getting some kind of compensation for her support of Lambert.

Why has no journalist expressed what people are offended by. Face it,People have the right to choose what they allow into their homes on the public owned airways. Maybe they don't want their children or themselves (for that matter) to watch graphic sexual simulation. nobody cares about a kiss. The KISS was minor compared to what else was done on that stage. If a women simulated fellatio she would have been censored too! What about the viewers freedoms? There was no warning - if there was their would have been a choice to turn the channel. IT WAS SHOVED AT THEM WITHOUT THEIR CONSENT!!! THIS IS THE ISSUE - Yet you do not even mention it. I am a big fan- but he "artistic freedom" has infringed on the rights of others and for that he needs to APOLOGIZE. I will not be for long if he Becomes unlikable. unapologetic attitude up.

I was a Adam Lambert fan until the AMA last night.First big night out and new to the big league and I personly think he lost.I would have ran out and bought his new album but not now,I lost a lot of respect for Adam.Great voice,no brains!!

Comparing Adam to any of the great rock stars or any great star in general is premature. I was turned off to his arrogance a while ago but Sunday's AMA performance was both boring and totally vulgar at the same time. Leave that to cable TV which is very predictable, like Adam. His vocals were horrendous. I could care less if he kissed a man or simulated sex. The whole bit was contrived and wrong for ABC during prime time. One could say the same thing for a good deal of the show but Adam, more than anyone, showed no respect for his audience. He flipped us all the bird at the end and basically said it out loud. America is diverse and if you want to be successful a good way to start is where he did, on American Idol. He brought a lot of people with him as he entertained with his vocals. He had a lot of youngsters in his corner but he flipped everyone off and turned us off too. It's not the sexuality....it's the vulgarity and display of pure BS without showcasing the talent at all. He fell down...a sign he might have needed to slow it down and think about what he is doing.
The boy has yet to succeed outside of the reality show he didn't win. Try taking steps toward building the foundation before assuming the public will embrace you. He lost alot here and he lost the respect so many had for him. He's no rocker nor is he a star. He is a wannabe, still and it is sad.

Congrats,Ann to this exellent report!!!

1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 | »


Recommended on Facebook

In Case You Missed It...


Recent Posts

Tweets and retweets from L.A. Times staff writers.



Get Alerts on Your Mobile Phone

Sign me up for the following lists: