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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


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Comments () | Archives (181)

Thank you, Ann, for putting this in perspective. I can't wait to see what Adam does next.

I love the people who think they are the arbiter for what is disgusting. People have been performing oral sex since time began. When are we going to get past our puritan ideals? The US, for all of its shock at all things sexual, has always had the highest teen pregnancy rate in the developed world. (the more taboo you make it, the more appealing it is to our youngsters) I thought Adam's performance was daring, artistic, and blazingly hot. Not going to cause the end of the world, I promise. He is the most incredible performer I've seen in a long, long time. Funny how his one-time fans let this turn them off.

right on, ann.

It was raunchy and crude and exactly what Adam and his album producers wanted. They created a scandal to try and sell his album and perhaps try and distance himself from his American Idol image. For me this was un-necessary. Adam has the vocals and could have made a statement without sex scene. He could have sold me on his album without the shock factor, but instead ended up turning me off. It's not a straight, gay, or bisexual issue. While my wife asked how was it different from the Britney and Madonna kiss at the VMA's, I commented that I didn't have to explain to my kids about Madonna and Britney going down on each other. It was a way over the edge and way off the mark, and I am glad GMA canceled his live performance.

It's not even that his performance was that shocking to me... it's more that I think it's pathetic that someone who calls himself a musician has to resort to antics and parading sex around in order to be news worthy.

I don't want to see Lady Gaga, Rihanna, Madonna, or Adam Lambert simulating sex on stage. I don't want to see anyone making out on the street. That's the way I'm wired. I want sex to be a special and private thing, not with all the mystique and subtlety blasted away on national tv. There has to be some time to draw the line as to what is appropriate and acceptable in public. All of a sudden the sex and family scenarios in Robert Heinlein's later books don't seem much like science fiction at all.

"What he did won't be mundane until no one in America flinches when two men kiss on the street"

Again with the kiss! It wasn't the kiss! It was grabbing someone's face and grinding his crotch into it. There will never come a day when people walking down the street won't flinch at seeing that! Some commentators are seriously over-analyzing this. What he did during that performance, in that particular venue.. was just not cool.

I'm almost 60 years old. I lived through all of the things the author mentioned - the rise of Elvis, the Beatles, the Doors, the Sex Pistols. (Please tell me people aren't elevating Lambert to that level.) Yes, boundaries move, social mores change - we get it. But what doesn't change is the reaction when a performer comes into your living room and shoves somebody's face in their crotch when you aren't expecting it.

People have certain expectations when they watch television and they don't like it when they are surprised. The AMAs aren't the MTV awards. Parents know to beware of that one. I'm sure many pre-teens were watching the AMAs Sunday. Lambert rose to fame on family-friendly American Idol and I'm sure many of his fans were not prepared for that kind of crude and aggressively sexual performance. How disingenous of him to give that performance and then tell people to lighten up - it was all in fun. He needs to own it and not hide behind statements about freedom of expression and artistic integrity. What exactly was the artistic value of the extended middle-finger?

Lambert was not a pioneer for gay rights on Sunday night. Calling him that is an insult to true pioneers who have gone before him. Sunday night he was nothing more than a reality-show star behaving badly.

Welcome, new superstar,you just had your initiation! And, btw, your official music video for 'for Your Entertainment" is wonderful and your CD is fantastic fun-We listen to all the tracks and are happy to replay-that, kid, is good, because it's not our usual way. Congrats,have fun, keep moving forward, life is meant to be an adventure, fun, joyful-live itAnd we monitored our kids, it's not hte media's responsibility or anyone else's but the parents, bottom line. Too bad sexuality scares them and horror movies, kill rape steal torture computer games don't bother them. Interesting, they actually can not even talk about sex to their kids, or monitor their own tv, jsut whine weeep wail moan and groan -pathetic.Glamberts here.

I feel sorry for anyone who is not going to buy Adam's CD because his perfomance shocked them. It is a masterpiece. There is no other way to describe it. YouTube cannot do it justice. Every song is vocally supreme. Adam Lambert is one of the most gifted performers of this generation. I wish Elvis,and John Lennon were alive to witness this. They would have been the first to encourage Adam to stay strong and to keep pushing the envelope. Does anyone remember John in bed with Yoko?

Adam's the best thing that's happened to the gay Americna male since Henry James!

I love Adam and support him 100 per cent - he has brought a freshness and fearlessness to music, starting with his American Idol gig. But on Idol, he was always the gentleman, pushing the envelope but increasingly gaining credibility and fame because of his amazing voice. Face it: If Adam were a mediocre singer, he would never have gotten away with his Idol edginess, and would never have gained more popularity as runner-up than the eventual winner. What I was most disappointed in during the AMAs was he didn't sing his best - far from it. If his sparkling singing were there, believe me people wouldn't have made as big a deal about his stage antics as they did. Could he have been just too overwhelmed being on the big stage for the first time? That may separate him from the professional and always stellarness that the King of Pop, Michael Jackson, always displayed. MJ was the greatest - no matter what, his crotch-grabbing, etc., it was his amazing dancing and unbelieveable voice that outshone everything. I'd love to see Adam present his REAL voice - that voice that has really won over fans.

Ann, you wrote: "Few straight white men don’t strut the way Lambert does (sadly!)."
You need to take the word "don't" out of there for it to make sense.

This guy has nothing to do with Rock. American Idol has nohing to do with Rock.

I don't get it. People rant about Eminem (who only talks alot of stuff) but they will go on the offensive for Adam Lambert simply because he's gay? So let me get this straight... it's waaaay better rub your gentials into someone's face on national TV than to give a mental rundown of your supposed criminal past. I'm sorry but I'm rather hear a person talk about what they claim to have done than witness a sexual act that I did not plan on seeing.

If Adam Lambert can get away with this performance then people need to get off Eminem's back for all the stuff. *snort* Bunch of hypocrites.

My objection to Adam Lambert's performance had nothing to do with the content, but rather how amateurishly it was executed: off-key vocals, clumsy choreography, desperate attempts at being 'shocking' and 'edgy'. I agree that there is indeed a double standard and that people are hypocritical and provincial, but I also think that Adam doesn't (yet) have the chops to pull something like this off - as he proved on Sunday night.

Great piece. Thank you.

Your not attacking the argument correctly. People are mad about the performance. While the song might be a little racy, people were not upset with that aspect. They were upset with the idiotic performance. Attack the argument correctly, your a professional and you don't know how to argue appropriately.

Whoo HOOO!! Billboard.com's Bill Werde is saying on his twitter that Adam will sell over 200,000 copies this week!
You people that want to criticize Adam need to re-watch the AMAs and look at what went on before his performance. Janet grabbed a man's crotch and took him down, Eminem was telling us how Slim Shady has 18 rapes under his belt, Rhiana had riffles on stage and is virtually nude in the video, remember Lady Gaga was bleeding to death a few weeks back on another awards program. In addition before you cast stones at Adam think about what goes on with PrimeTime TV every single night - violence, murder, rape and you want to slam Adam?? BS!!@

Thanks for refreshing our memmory and making us realize how untolerant we have become! Let's suppor Adam's great talent and give him the time and opportunity to understand our unfair reaction. In the meantime, let's hope we can forgive and forget and continue enjoying Adam's gift for a long time.

He sucks.. not happy at all

Great article. Especially the last 2 sentences. (so tired of bigoted/homophobic comments about this that start "I'm not homophobic/bigoted, but....")

No one cares about Adam Lambert's sex life. And it is for this reason we do not want to see it on the stage.

Lady Gaga is also at fault for putting that oddity on stage too. Please, can we return to music and leave the sex acts, adult industry costumes and nudity for the Red Light District.

It was not the kiss, it was the raunchy, lewd sex simulation that upset people. I just saw it and was speechless. Literally.

And Madonna and Britney did not have their faces in each other's crotches Adam. Don't deflect from your pornographic choreography by claiming it was the kiss, it was so not.

Get back to your music and leave that behavior for Ron Jeremy wannabes.

I think any true Adam Lambert fan wouldn't judge him by one single performance (which I had no problem with by the way) Of course it wasn't his best, but it's the only performance at the AMAs anyone is talking about. He's great because he's different, he's great because he's not afraid to take these risks, which is why rock music has become so soft over the past decade. There's no one who wants to be sexy, no one who wants to have attitude, or push the envelope. If he can both do that and put his one of a kind voice on display, he's in good shape. Bravo, Adam.

Just because other people have had moments of obscenity and inappropriateness, doesn't mean it's okay for him to do it too. Isn't it time for somebody to stand up for morality and decency? I'm not a prude, but this was over the top...even for Adam.

Ann, thank you once again for a great article on Adam Lambert and the state of rock music. You get it and I appreciate that from you. Adam is going to change the landscape of music in a good way. It's his road and we are all just along for the ride.

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