So now we’re down to three finalists on American Idol. But as far as I’m concerned, there has only been one realistic contender this season: Adam Lambert. Mind you, I’m not a rabid American Idol fan. I find the product-placement pseudo-commercials that are de regueur at the top of each episode cheesier than an Amsterdam grocery. Then again, those diversions are part of the show’s relentlessly toothy, upbeat, shamelessly hyper-promotional tone, which reached an apogee last night with Paula Abdul’s “performance” of “I’m Just Here for the Music.” She’s just there for the publicity, what with keeping the stage darker than an Amsterdam porn palace and cameras never focused on Abdul’s face. As for whether Abdul lip-synched or not, I’ll let the more impassioned AI devotees debate that to death.
That’s because I’m just here for Adam Lambert. Very rarely does a talent come along with a voice as perfectly pitched or as nimble as his, capable of tones of musical theater (he’s done plenty of that) as well as pop, rock and soul. Then there’s Lambert’s distinctive persona, one of the most self-actualized in AI history. No, I don’t see a Susan Boyle-esque makeover for him. He’s the real deal and he knows it. We know it. The world knows it. All the matters now is whether enough American Idol callers and texters know it to ensure Lambert the votes to win.
It’s an open question because the fascination with Lambert’s talent is in danger of being eclipsed by the fascination with his sexual orientation. Certainly Lambert has played the enabler: Instead of scaling back his penchant for eyeliner or permanently setting his trademark asymmetrical haircut into the more conservative (some say flattering) up-do he has presented at various performances, he has styled himself as himself, the anti-Clay Aiken. When photographs of Lambert kissing a man or donning drag surfaced on the Internet, he was proud, if not explicitly out. He said, “I have nothing to hide. I am who I am.” All of America should be proud.
But such honesty, however coy, has caused many writers to consider the implications of Lambert either winning or losing AI. On April 10, for example, a New York Times headline called it American Idol’s Big Tease. That story ran two days after the Huffington Post’s Jason Linkins published a rant about a staggeringly snarky Bill O’Reilly segment on the singer. Such kleig lights on Lambert’s sexuality encouraged other outlets, such as ABCNews.com and the New York Daily News, to play the role of dutiful parrot and squawk exuberantly on the same subject. (One exception: Mark Blankenship’s ever-fine The Critical Condition, which this week stuck to the substance of the competition, not the, er, cream.)
Last week, Lambert landed in the bottom two, shocking many pundits and AI analysts to ask how such a thing could occur. Was Lambert’s popularity wide but not deep? Or could it be possible — might it just be imaginable — that when it comes to swaths of the country that, well, prefer more wholesome looks, or that cotton more graciously to the kind of sexual preference a Carrie Prejean might understand, the odds still favor the other competitors in the Idol game? After all, no one is speculatively scribbling about the people Danny Gokey kissed or the people Kris Allen has had sex with.
So what will it mean if Adam Lambert loses? Could a touch of homophobia-a subtle, slight remnant, anyway-at all influence the final vote?
In an ideal world, competitive talent shows like American Idol really would give serious primacy to talent. But everybody knows it’s really about the celebrity factor-does the person possess the “it” ingredient necessary to keep fingers flying across keyboards and text pads? And in any event, whether Lambert wins or loses he’s already a star, already ripe for debate, already a will-he-or-won’t-he-marry-his-boyfriend? staple of some future gossip blogpost. Look how the global orgasm over Susan Boyle has already devolved into chatter about leather jackets and makeovers. At least in Lambert’s case we know he can probably handle his own.