We caught up with the renowned singer as he prepares for a Vegas residency.
We caught up with the renowned singer as he prepares for a Vegas residency.
Text: MATHIAS ROSENZWEIG
In our new column, Digital Editor Mathias Rosenzweig writes portraits of individuals who've shifted popular culture as we know it today.
Adam Lambert nearly won American Idol nine years ago. Media clippings from back then are indicative of how we treated gay pop artists at the time.
“Gay Talk Surrounds Adam Lambert of ‘Idol’” wrote the New York Times. Rolling Stone, the magazine Lambert worked with to publicly come out of the closet, once called him “flam-bam-boyantly queeny.” Blogger Perez Hilton complained: “Adam Lambert is being lame. The guy still refuses to admit his homosexuality.” ABC News mused that he was getting far on Idol, despite the fact that “There’s eyeliner…there are Web photos of him making out with guys. None of it seems to matter.” Yes, they wrote “Web photos.” Welcome back to 2009.
While Lambert may not have been the first openly gay pop star—he was preceded by the likes of George Michael and Elton John, amongst others—he was the first to nearly win a televised show watched by 30 million Americans across the country—northern, southern, urban, rural, Republican, Democratic, whatever. With his sophomore album Trespassing, he was also the first openly gay artist to ever top the U.S. Billboard 200. But the buzz around Lambert’s sexuality is very much passé. I initially wondered if it was backward to even mention.
But considering that it’s been almost a decade since Lambert’s been introduced to the world, which was the same year that Iowa, Vermont, and New Hampshire legalized gay marriage, it seems like an appropriate moment to reflect. Times have changed—hell, it appears as if even The New York Times went back and retitled that article—but some battles are worth remembering.
“In order to make that wave and move the needle, we have to bold about it,” Lambert says over the phone. ABC once canceled a slew of his appearances after he kissed his male bassist and simulated oral sex during a now-infamous American Music Awards performance. I mention that being gay shouldn’t matter, that people should be indifferent to it, but he reminds me that we’re not quite at that point yet. “If we didn’t have radical protests early on, if we didn’t have people really fighting back against the system, we wouldn’t be where we are today. So I don’t think you can be completely like, ‘Oh, whatever, it shouldn’t matter. Let’s not talk about it. Let’s just ignore it.’ I think that’ll take the momentum out of the waves.”
I ask if he feels like he’s a politically-charged artist just because he’s gay. “That’s interesting, because I kind of felt that way from the beginning, that just being myself and being open with it, in a way, that’s such an act of defiance in itself.” Specifically at the start of this career, this brought about other questions like, could he be profitable? “Especially in the music industry…there were definitely some raised eyebrows and fear, because people thought, ‘Well, is this gonna work out or not?’ The industry is obviously an industry, and they were concerned about what’s marketable and what’s going to make money. They weren’t sure, or comfortable, with the idea of someone gay being able to do that.”
The speculation around Lambert’s sexuality, which he didn’t openly discuss for some time (with his words, anyway; he admitted that some of his performances should have been proof enough), ignited a media frenzy. He seems to be thankful for it. “From the media, I had a lot of support. It was so exciting for them because it was something they weren’t used to really being able to dive into,” he says. “It was an interesting time because I really did have a lot of support. It wasn’t like I was running completely uphill.”
Today, the sexual orientation of pop artists hardly dominates their careers or the conversations around them. Singer Troye Sivan, who rose to fame through YouTube, came out publicly before signing his record deal. “It allowed me from day one to write music that was completely honest,” he told Rolling Stone in 2016. Olly Alexander of Years & Years was advised to stay in the closet by his media trainer during the band’s inception. He ignored the suggestion. Sam Smith came out publicly as gay just before the release of his debut album and didn’t draw headlines that involved words like “scandal,” as Lambert did. None of these artists seems to have suffered tremendously from their decision to be openly gay in pop music. It’s not to say that they haven’t had their respective struggles, but it seems like they spend more time talking about being gay than the media does. It was the exact opposite with Lambert—perhaps they finally exhausted themselves with him.
Curiously, being gay doesn’t seem to have alienated straight female fans from falling madly in love with these artists. During a signing for his V Magazine cover, Sivan had to witness a female fan crying so hard that she walked outside to vomit before coming back in to cry more and get a picture. Perhaps the unattainability of rich and famous male pop stars is not much furthered by their sexual disinterest in an entire gender.
Coincidentally, yesterday saw the release of a new trailer for Bohemian Rhapsody, a film about Queen’s late lead singer Freddie Mercury. He’s played by Rami Malik. Bryan Fuller, the creator of Hannibal and Pushing Daisies, noted that the trailer emphasizes Mercury’s straight sexual tension with a female over his relationships with other men. Mercury identified as bisexual. He also died of AIDS, which the film reportedly does not directly address.
In real life, Queen members Brian May and Roger Taylor handpicked Lambert to join them on tour as their lead singer, thus forming Queen + Adam Lambert. Lambert developed a relationship with May and Taylor during his Idol days, and was surely picked to join them based on talent rather than how much his sexual orientation matched up to Mercury’s. That said, the lack of “hetwashing” (a trending term similar to whitewashing but for heterosexuals) feels satisfying. Like Mercury, Lambert’s artistry isn’t defined by his sexuality. But it would be ignorant to pretend their careers and lives weren’t affected by it, and thus perhaps a bit more similar.
While the Internet continues to use the trailer as fodder for countless debates over the intersections of artistry, celebrity, and sexuality—How much should sexual orientation matter? Should straight men be able to play queer men? Will America only buy tickets to a show if it highlights a character’s straightness over his gayness?—Lambert is preparing for his 10-show residency in Vegas with Queen. It kicks off on September 1st at Park MGM.
“I think Vegas is going through a major renaissance right now. It’s one of the entertainment capitals of the world,” he says. In recent years, Sin City has shifted from featuring older acts to some of today’s hottest. “I saw Britney’s show, I saw Celine years ago when she was doing the show with Cirque [du Soleil]. I saw Elton’s show,” Lambert lists off.
Amidst years of touring with Queen, Lambert’s also found time to start penning more of his own music. Will it sound like the classics he’s been performing on stage as of late? “I think that’s a bit of a stretch, but I do think that I’ve learned a lot about what makes a great song a great song…[Queen] songs still work because they speak to the human condition and sort of reach everybody. One of the things I’m aiming for on this project is a certain amount of timelessness.” He adds that this hasn’t always been the case with his music. “I’ve definitely experimented with trendier styles and flavors, but I think I’m trying to get down to the heart of what makes a great song on this album, and I’m excited. I think I’m getting it. I’m very satisfied.”
Today, headlines about Lambert have nothing to do with his sexuality. It’s not what makes him interesting or exceptional, and it should never have been. But it was what the world focused on at one point, and in a way, Lambert had to be crucified so that other gay artists wouldn’t have to be. It’s worth remembering that he had to persevere, which is actually the theme of his new music.
“In the times we’re living in, when there’s a lot of tension in the U.S. and around the world, it’s sort of about, ‘Okay, how do you push through? How do you not let all these outside forces drag you down or tell you that you’re not good enough or prevent you from moving forward? How do you do that?’ I think most of the songs I’ve been writing somehow get the idea that, well, let me acknowledge that, but I’m not going to let it stop me.”