Something happened last night on American Idol.
I officially became an Adam Lambert fan. My affection for this year's most viscerally polarizing contestant has been marked by a curious ebb and flow. I've admired his ability. I've cringed at his personal style. I've been impressed by his trouper's collaborative ethic. I've worried for him as he's been tossed to the wolves of the contemporary media. I've thrilled at several of his musical choices (his unfairly impugned take on "Ring of Fire" sold me as a believer in his true potential). Yet, beyond this ebb and flow, there was something bigger holding me back from really signing onto Team Glambert.
I needed Adam Lambert to really sing an actual metal song.
A loud metal song with a thrusting, wailing vocal. And not something by Queen. Preferably one with undeniable headbanger cred. Something from Rush. Or AC/DC. Or Guns 'n Roses. Or Zeppelin. And last night the Glambert did it. He nailed an old school Zeppelin cover. On American Idol. This sissyish, Jewish, Broadway baby who was interested in pretty much everything except sports nailed Zeppelin on Fox (while wearing nail polish, liquid eyeliner, and an emo spike). And, what's more, he sounded great while doing it.
In a weird way that feels really important to me, Adam Lambert also claimed a kind of ownership of the queer sonic pleasures of heavy metal. In a way, Adam Lambert "outed" the sonic queerness (what Wayne Koestenbaum has evocatively called the "queer throat") -- the vocal excesses, the register bending glissandos, the ripe emotional vulnerabilities -- of the male heavy metal singer. And he didn't wear any retro glam rock drag to do it. He wore the skinny jeans and torn t-shirts and too many accessories that seem like, well, Adam Lambert.
Since American Idol's second season -- when another big sissy with a big voice became a big contender -- "Broadway" has been the show's (and now the culture's) "code" for queer. And with his legitimate prior theatrical success on the musical stage (not to mention those boy-boy kissing videos), the Glambert has seemed especially vulnerable to the "Broadway" insinuations. Yet he's also been savvy and unapologetic about who he is and, along the way, he's also walked us through a vocal history of rock masculinity. From his vocally lurid goof on "Satisfaction" early on, to his reappropriation of the emotional sincerity of the pop falsetto with covers of Barry Gibb and Smokey Robinson, Lambert has charted, week by week, the fundamental ways that U.S. pop/rock masculinity has been defined by aural/sonic androgyny. This is a big deal. For generations, scholars and popular culture commentators talking about rock, performance and masculinity have invested most of their interest in the visual, reveling in the spectacularly visual gender play performed by male pop and rock stars. Elvis Presley's eyeshadow, pompadour and rhinestones. The visual theatricality of David Bowie, Elton John and KISS. The glamorshot peacockery of strutting frontmen like Steven Tyler, Freddie Mercury, Bret Michaels or Mick Jagger. Yet, all the while, the genderfuck happening in the male vocality of rock has remained mostly an accouterment of rock's primarily visual or musical (but not vocal) importance. It seems noteworthy then that Adam Lambert has "throughout this competition" placed such a stealthy, steady and queer pressure on the SOUND of vocalized masculinity in U.S. pop and rock. Adam Lambert's "queer throat" -- his distinctive vocal excess, his register-bending glissando, his ripe emotional vulnerability -- has proven especially well-suited to the demands of the repertory of American pop and rock music. And for me, who first fell in love with music while listening to Broadway cast albums AND everything by Rush, AC/DC, Queen and Zeppelin, this sissyish Latin Broadway baby who's always been interested in pretty much everything but sports is grateful to Adam Lambert for "outing" the queer vocal pleasures of heavy metal on national television.
Yet I wonder if that "outing" might be enough to send the Glambert home, possibly tonight, possibly next week. Does the sonic queerness of the metal voice need a strutting cock-rocker as its heterosexual alibi? Can a sissyish, Jewish, Broadway baby get away with this kind of vocal outside the haven of a cabaret/musical audience? I don't know. But whatever happens in the next week or so, two things are certain: (1) Adam Lambert is a star and (2) this sissyish, Latin, Broadway baby and closet headbanger is thrilled to see one of his own doing his thing on the most-watched television program in the nation.
So: Go, Glambert!