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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)

I am just thinking, how will Saturday Night Live make fun of this incident. Maybe have Lambert pushing a big Dildo? I won't be surprised next time we see him, there will be all these sex toys hanging in the air, and Adam is sitting on a dildo balloon swing sing "somewhere over the rainbow - naked!"

Adam is all that and more...it won't take long for America to wake up and smell the new brand of coffee he is brewing. One HECK (for sensorship) of a performance...that is why he so often "closes" shows..cause everyone is there or watching-waiting to see him. To me, most of my Genre and surprisingly so to the over 50 ladies as well, his showmanship-outrageously incredible and appealing. His singing-outrageously the best we may have heard since, since,....maybe since ever. You critics, don't like the gyrations? Close your eyes and listen to his vocal tone and range..and the last breath note that goes on longer than Barbara Streisand's ever has. I predict.....a star has been born.

To JLM: YOU ROCK..and said it better than I did...

Incredible article, right on. Go Adam!

JULIA: Grow up! You clearly did not know who Adam Lambert was or is if you felt offended by his artful performance. No big loss. Adam needs to have fans who love him for the real him thru and thru and for his natural abililty to perform his persona thru his words, voice and the act in his dance. Hang in there for a bit Julia. I must say. Don't give up on this amazing performer quite yet, you may find that you may be the lost sheep to a flock of seagulls that never give up their flight.

Man Scotty you are one sick dude. So you get enjoyment from seeing women lock lips during a performance, and woman climbing all over in and under each other, but for a male to do the same you discriminate it as indecent? Or was it the time slot for you. It WAS the last performance, it WAS stated over and over by the announcer that it would be eye popping and a performance that every one would be talking about the next day. The AMA awards were over. The last award was given out. Time to go to beddy by kiddies it was a school night and after 11:00pm for goodness sakes.

Adam did not do anything worst than those preachers who go after innocent children. Artistic or not, no one forced you to watch the show. Move on homophobics, you'll soon find that you have a non-famous homosexual in your family too.

True Rachel, but the point is, this was a performance....an 'acting' job...not a bibliography of his life...he succeded quite well in doing something no other singer/performer of his quality didn't feel comfortable enough with himself to perform it. But what if it was a movie? A Broke Back Mountain situation. Should we all boo haa the actors (no matter if they win Ocsars or Awards), but ban them because it was an acting job that was immoral? Immoral for who-for what???? Why should we care that he isn't locked in a closet. He holds his head high and proud as he should because no one should ever feel ashamed for their beliefs in sexuality-for makeing statements that ultimately only make people realize that he is not afraid to be who he is and no one, should ever try to discourage him, change who he is, because he is loved by God and others just the way they are and how they have been given the blessing of life to live it to how your heart believes is in honesty to who you are.

MARTHA: I am right there with you..all the way! I don't think IEA lives in a largely populated town. I am in Seattle and many stores on his debut day was sold out. I got lucky today...online.

"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."

I think you meant "Few straight white men strut...." Darn double-negatives! It's called Journalism...you should take a class.

Jesus Christ .... how can you not condone this nonsense ... when a man is appreciated by a very large audience of respected people like mayors and what not he turns around and does this?... George Michael who's private life is as gay as the sun shines everyday does not bring his personal life onto concerts or performances - now that is true class Yes we have double standards but if America is to clean up act on tv then they must do the same thing to people like madonna. Shock tactics are just old we dont need that - just do the perfromance and leave, people will be more happy with that. Its too bad that the younger crowd on this posts don't understand that and keep saying that it was good. i am a young adult and i would hate to see my future children watch madonna or lambert type garbage during an awards night. There is no IT factor when you perform like an idiot on stage

It is sad that people still do not realize the hypocrisy in saying that it scared their poor pwecious wittle babies. Lady GaGa is just as sexual as Adam and ALL of her songs are about sex. Yet there's no dramatic news coverage of her performances. If she took off her top and humped a backup dancer's leg people would still be less offended than if Adam does something similar to Janet Jackson but in a homosexual context. I don't like Adam Lambert, his musical style is not to my taste. However, I hope he one day shocks the prudish American audiences even more with something even worse, because I love laughing at the pain you think your stupid sheltered kids are suffering.

Can someone tell me when this happens in Europe? I really hate how unenlightened we are here.

Sorry, Lambert. Your performance was a turn-off.

Great article.

I love the way so many people are posting "he's lost me as a fan" when the vast majority were never fans anyway. If you look back at those who use the same names, you will find they have always been at best detractors and at worst detesters so what's changed? Even funnier is when you notice the same expression, and spelling and grammatical errors on different posts pretending to be from different people.

Wake up call ...................... Adam is on course to sell more in America alone in the first week than had been originally predicted and his overseas sales are unprecedented for a debut album by an AI contestant.

This was an insightful article. I am and will remain an Adam fan, even though I thought the type of performance Adam gave the other night was not necessary to prove he is talented and deserved to be there performing. Most of the performances were sexually charged including Shakira,J. Lopez, Black Eyed Peas, and even Carrie Underwood (admittantly, Adams was the most over the top). This man is pushing the envelope, and shows no fear. I have purchased his CD and love it. As for children watching, I would not have allowed my grandchidren to watch most of the performances, thats what parents are supposed to do, control what their children watch and assure they don't see more than they can handle, its the parents responsibility and theirs alone, not performers or networks. I for one will continue to watch Adam's career with great interest. But for those who have been turned off, isn't it great that we live in a country where we can make those kinds of choices?

What an insightful article. I'm an avid Adam fan, but am disappointed that he is not currently basking in overwhelming appreciation for his vast talent, but rather mired in negative publicity and controversy. His act was appropriate for an adult cabaret but not his first national post-idol outing. Sad for the missed opportunity but looking forward to seeing how this all plays out.

The man-on-man kiss was nothing. The simulated fellatio, however, was ridiculously inappropriate and calculated. And, thank goodness, "few straight white men DON'T strut the Lambert does." Besides, Lambert was rather "pitchy." Wasn't the AMA's about singing?

I still love this man. He is one talented guy and CAN really, really sing. I have his CD and all I can say is WOW. I say give this man a chance. Lesson learned.

Why do you mention musicians in the same context as this Joker? I guess you don't like music and you want to denigrate all those musicians by putting them in the same context. As far as only 1,500 complaints to ABC, I am sure there would be more if more literate people watched the AMA and really thought that ABC could be saved from its own immorality. Let's face it tolerance of pornography begins with a lowering of our common moral standards. We're fighting wars against people who think that our culture is completely depraved and that we export only porn and toxic waste. Way to go ABC.

The most memorable part of his performance that I saw (being that most of it was covered by my hand over the TV screen) was his fall into spring. I do not know if that trip into fame is omenous of his future career, but he is definitely in the FALL phase of it all.

Bravo, Ann (and Adam). Great article. The following is a statement I tried to make 2 days ago on another site, I hope it takes here.

From the above complaints, it sounds like many people believe or wish they lived in PLEASANTVILLE (pre-reality check). They're still mentally living in the Brady Bunch era, perhaps too much viewing of Nick at Nite. This hasn't been reality since mid 1980's. Madonna came on the scene and shook things up. Swearing made it's way on the radio. Gangsta Rap became a huge hit. Killing/raping/drugs/etc., became standard song subjects. MTV fed kids a daily dose of this stuff. Video gaming became childrens babysitters. A daily dose of gratuitous violence. Your beloved soap operas are filled with adultry. Talk shows such a Jerry Springer(trailer-park trash/bargain basement mentality)became your must see afternoon staple. Your ridiculous so-called romance novels are nothing but soft porn, and tend to promote women to commit adultry(looking for the sexual excitement they read about). By the 90's, someone like Howard Stern becomes a radio icon. Shock radio became a huge it. PC's are becoming a household sensation. The internet is offering a plethora of rapidfire, mindnumbing, too much/too fast to process data. Pres. Clinton was screwing an intern, with a cigar! Newspapers and TV news started showing blood from accidents and non-accidents. Too much to list, but...TV(broadcast and cable), Radio, newspapers, ALL media formats, are and have been, responsible for desensitizing/sensationalism to the extreme. Music people/Sports people/Actors/Politicians/Busi ness People/Artists/Religious people...EVERYONE is imperfect and commits sin. We are ALL at fault for the extremes in our society. It's insane that the people who point fingers and accuse, tend to be the biggest sinners.They just do it in secret, hiding behind their(delusional)self-righteou sness. These are the kind of people who lie/cheat/steal or worse, and tell you what you're doing wrong! USA is the epitome of hypocrisy, and yes, I am a white-bred American. To be continued....

Adam Lambert is no Donny Osmond. Think about it..

You're darn tootin' there's a double standard for sexuality for men and women. Men are supposed to act one way and women act another. That's why there are men and women and not one big androgynous gender. I, for one, believe homosexuality is wrong. This is a behavior that should not be promoted in any way. I am glad I don't listen to his music. I watch very little TV to begin with. If things like this are going to continue, I may have to get rid of my TV altogether.

Don't worry if you hated the performance - it's very normal. Only rock fans know how to soak it up.

I knew the "gay card" would be played here. People did not like Adam's performance because it was not appropriate for its viewers (not just children). People were upset when Madonna and Britney kissed. And when Janet Jackson had a wardrobe "malfunction". I think most people with a little class don't enjoy watching a dancer put their mouth up to someone's crotch and simulate oral sex! Unless there are some polls in the room and they are holding dollar bills. So the upset viewers are not upset that Adam is gay we are upset with his judgement. We wanted to hear him sing - not star in soft porn.

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