« 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)

This all may have gone down a bit differently if the song he "sang" was any good. Madonna rolled around in a wedding dress but she was also singing a memorable song. Adam is buying into his hype at a dangerously fast pace and the general public already seem to be sick of him. Frankly I just find him to be a laughable poseur. The comparisons to Freddie Mercury make me mad. Freddie was a genius. He had balls back in the 70s visually and musically. He set a standard. Same with Bowie. And frankly I find people much sexier who don't try to be sexy. Lambert's openness about his sexual preference is the only risky thing he's done.

Thanks for a very intelligent article, Ann, and for pointing out the similarities between Adam and the "heroes" of my generation. The Beatles were revolutionaries too. I remember my dad hating them (he was a college music professor) and I outwitted him when he finally broke down and said I could buy "one" Beatle record. I bought an album (well, he didn't say what kind of record ...). Years later, he was proclaiming "Yesterday" as one of the most beautiful songs of all time.

Although I agree his vocals were sub-par on the AMA's (I'm sure he was very nervous) Adam's CD is just breathtaking. I am so impressed with him -- I agree he's a sweetie and a hottie. He'll get through this because of his talent and kind spirit.

Tell the guy to work on his singing before he does anything else. He sounded like a screeching cat.


Are you kidding me? Television is not the moral police and newsflash: neither are you. The only things that bothered me about Adam's performance on Sunday was he was a bit pitchy (which he admitted) and the fall (which he turned into a ninja roll, so it was humorous at least). I am not bothered by sexuality or its display on primetime TV. In fact, I think America is too prudish when it comes to sexuality and not conservative enough when it comes to violence, but that's an entirely different rant.

Everyone is sexual. We all fall in love or lust, have sex or want to have it, and there is nothing sinful about it. There is nothing immoral about a performer miming a BJ on TV or two men kissing.

If you expect Adam Lambert to stay in straight society's box and play the role of the eunuch homosexual who won't frighten anyone's hetero "sensibilities," then you're just going to be disappointed his entire career.

The rest of your comment is a straw man.

I hated that performance. Nothing to do with sexuality, homo- or hetero-. It was angry and sadistic, and, to this formerly admiring fan, like getting punched in the face.

whatever-His Official Music Video "For Your Entertainment" is now on youtube and it is not controversial, but it is very sexy-even with some snakes= totally quality act and georgeous.

Ann, you are one of my favorite music writers. What you have to say about Adam Lambert is always insightful and original.

A random thought on rock as mainstream: One of the things I love about living in China is that rock 'n' roll is still counterculture here :p

Soooo, all the criticism is because he is a white male? Riiight. Somebody please alert Rush Limbaugh.

I am waiting to watch anything Adam does on television....CBS for the win~~

People complaining about this performance? Please spare me - soap operas and other tv shows have much more graphic material than that. Great article Ann - bravo on your open-mindedness.

He mentions that female artists have done this for years, well usually its female on male, or male on female. This might set off a firestorm, but in my opinion this is one of the problems with a part of the gay community. If you're gay, fine. But do you really have to act outrageous? Do you really have to bring attention to yourself and shout "I'm Gay!"? Do you really have to act different? I don't think they should nor do they need to.

Bravo Mr. Lambert! I was drop-jawed during your entire performance. You definitely got my attention, and I think it was fun to see you shake things up. What keeps me laughing is that the media is eating this up, which drives the bible thumpers nuts.

I am not one to think you are a microcosm of all gay people. That would be stereotyping and somewhat discriminatory/hateful. It's funny how people grab one aspect of you that makes them uncomfortable and use that to attack others.

Instead of being so politically correct as to demand that I would never listen to your album because of your performance, I bought 'For Your Entertainment' at Target.

I loved it! Great sounds, lyrics, and vibe. And 'Soaked' certainly sounds like a James Bond theme song from the 80's. 'Fever' is also another great tune. At least one of the tunes took me back to my adolescent years in the mid 80's. The sound and style are spot on. Cool stuff.

Keep it up, Mr. Lambert. Deep down inside, the world loves a freak, because you are doing what many of them secretly wish they could. (Back when Thriller came out, the bible thumpers whined the say way about how demonic Michael Jackson was in the video.) Yawn.

I think I will buy some ass-less chaps next year and try out a leather bar. Maybe not, but it's fun to think I could be as naughty and sexy as your stage persona.

being a well known "female family member" in Los Angeles I watched the AMA's and my view is this. I have never been a fan of Adam Lambert I don't really follow American Idol though now Ellen is on I may just do so, but even though I am not a fan I do believe that there is a big stigma when it comes to two gay men on television. Sexuality has been exploited various times with woman on woman skits at award shows and it shouldn't be any different when it comes to men. parents that are concerned with their children watching this, really? Then do you not allow them to watch Disney movies when the characters kiss, or in every other movie where kissing is involved that's pg13 or more. In a time like this when gay and lesbian rights are being stripped down left and right the last thing that we should be worrying about is if two men kissed. It's 2009 we still have segregation issues in the south, and the struggle for equal rights still haven't reached it's revolution. I applaud Adam for what he did. Night time t.v. has not changed it's values but parent's have changed kids bedtimes making them longer to where they are staying up watching things that could come on like this. It's apparent that technology has not caught up with new kid's bed times, if you don't want your kids to see something that may be obscene send them to bed at 9 like they used to be. Any ways what it all boils down to Superbowl incident had 500,000 complaints as to where this has had only 1500 complaints. People should really just stop talking about this. It's not getting any one anywhere. It happened now move on. ABC being owned by Disney cancelled his good morning America show after the AMA's yet Bianca a character from ALL MY CHILDREN is allowed to be a lesbian and marry her partner on DAY TIME t.v. again the stigma that it's ok for girls and not boys, now really what are we teaching our kids really. "I kissed a girl and I liked it, hope my boyfriend don't mind it" if some one like Adam sang that same song and replaced the lyrics with his girlfriend not minding it, it would have never played on air. WOW!! can't wait to have kids in this wonderful world

Yes, Ann, you get it. It was a pleasure to read your article. Even though I thought his overall performance mediocre, I have been amazed at the naivete of most bloggers.
I contend that his act was exactly what any 'awards show' viewer should expect.
For those who disagree, I challenge them to review videos of other performances: Count the number of times Janet Jackson pounds her fists into her groin (then mulitply that by the number of her backup dancers); review the close-up of Lady GaGa's crotch, spread as far as possible over the piano bench; review Rihana's video into and explain away the overt S&M depiction.

This is completely getting out of hand. Way to go Adam you are causing more controversy, this is giving you better ratings. I think you are very talented and the performance for the AMA was what the real Adam fans wanted. This is why I liked you more after your version of "Ring of Fire". You are in a league of your own, very artistic with a flair. You are completely different and ooze sex appeal to both sexes. You are very modern with a cutting edge that is dark, magical and timeless. I don't know how a true Lambert fan who watched him for AI could say this performance was anything but riviting and talented, down to the lighting and the dancers. What did the old fans think he was to sing, "Feeling Good?" with birds around his head. Come on people this is an adult show, its 2010. He is an artist. Madonna has done this tyoe of behavior for years,with S&M, she is an artist as well. For the 1500 complaints. I truly find it hard to believe this will jeopardize Lamberts career being he has over 50 million fans worlwide who supported him on Idol. He will be like a modern day Elvis, just as Elvis was banned from the networks from the waist down. ABC stick up for this young man. They should not fine any network, its completely ridiculous. One day this man will make ABC's ratings soar, just as he did the other night. Thank you Adam for always sticking up for yourself and not taking crap from any reporters and voicing your opinion, that's the Lambert we love.

Ever since the beginning of time, some old blowhards have been bloviating about how disgusting musicians act. They did that to Elvis and now he is the beloved of all kinds of right wing rednecks. Things change! Thank God!

Adam, I love you!

Thank you! Very well balanced and thoughtful article. Whatever happened on Sunday night happened and we need to move on. I am a huge fan, have seen his Zodiac performances, have seen him live in Wicket and 10 Commandments and I have to say that Adam is the ultimate performer. The most upsetting thing during his AMA performance was the music feed breakdown (was it intentional?) which totally killed his vocals. That's about it.
Again, your article is much appreciated and I am proud to be a LA Times reader and Sunday Times subscriber.
PS As a European living in LA, I sure miss artistic freedom and expression. Good ol's days of Queen (remember their videos), David Bowie (!!), Boy George, George Michael - where are they? The current US generation has no idea what they are missing.

Thank You !

I voted for Adam, but that performance was absolutely disgusting. And he then attempts to excuse it by hinting other artists like Madonna etc kissed before. It's not like there was just a kiss. The difference is the disgusting simulated oral sex part, and the other part were it appeared the other dancer was fingering his you know what. He forget to mention all that. Then he said, he was a performer and not a baby sitter. Well if he keeps that up much longer, he's not going to be a performer either. To the guy who said he stirred up a lot of people by upsetting 1500 viewers. Think again. Not all exposure is good. This was a shot for his debut of a new CD. And he disappointed most of his fans and the audience with that stupid performance. He may be more popular, but that's because he's more popular because he annoyed people.. Not a great way to start.

The problem is that Adam isn't Janet Jackson or Elvis yet. He hasn't earned the right to upstage a music awards show that is honoring the professional careers of zillions of other artists besides him. He should save it for his own headliner shows. Unprofessional and dare we say selfish?

I seriously doubt that most of the negative posters here are anything more than KA opportunists. I was on two sites today and I mean two huge sites where KA fans actually mentioned that they had a campaign going to take advantage of Adam's AMA performance. So they were trying to hit every site possible and tear Adam to shreads and all because Adam has been getting too much attention and their guy getting little. Also some of these idiots were admitting that they were mad because their idol's first week sales were so low. I believe that some people posting here and on those other sites are self- admitted imposters btw. That is so dumb to actually admit that while posting. I also don't believe that all those 1,500 people who contacted ABC were parents of children who were actually opposed to the performance. Why take the time to call ABC over one performance. I wouldn't even bother. Just don't let your children watch those shows if you are that opposed. Use the parental guide feature. BTW what did you sanctimonious people think about the vulgar rap performance, every other word bleeped? Why aren't you the parents and self-professed Christians outraged? Why? because you are homophobic that is the reason. You people are just evil through and through..
It's so sad how far our country has gone backward and it's going to get worse before it gets better.

i would like to meet this pervert lambert in a dark ally off hollywood bl. i'm sure he'd never pervert again.

THANK YOU THANK YOU THANK YOU for making clear what everone has been trying to articulate! I hope that this article is seen by EVERYONE because it is exactly how Adam's performance should be interpreted. Thank you! By the way, Adam's professional music video the song For Your Entertainment on his site, www.adamofficial.com (myspace music) is AWESOME.(Not the AMA version but the real music video that was produced). Really amazing, honestly! I see his AMA performance in a whole new light after seeing the music video that hopefully will be for purchase soon (I hope)Gotta see it.

Ann Powers get real. This is not about gender bias. We've seen homosexuality on the big screen and in television series' and we get it. His "act" went way beyond what is acceptable. Mr. Lambert chose to expose an unsolicited audience to a rauchy display of sexual assault. As much as I appreciated his performances on American Idol, I found this one repulsive and actually scary. Any artist, male or female, who performs explicit sex acts on prime time television deserves to be berated.

A very thought-provoking piece well-emmeshed in an actual historical understanding and insights into modern gender, sexuality, and music cultural issues. Thank you.

« | 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: