Wednesday, November 25, 2009
For your entertainment?
I have been thinking about Adam Lambert's now-notorious performance at the American Music Awards the other night. I happened to tune in at the end of the show, just in time to see his performance. (If you didn't catch it, you can watch it on Youtube, here.)
I'll confess, I was surprised -- not shocked, not morally outraged, but disappointed and somewhat appalled that THAT was how someone as talented as Lambert opted to present himself to the music industry as a whole and the music fans who watch the music awards. He was making a statement, no question about it -- and that's what struck me. The statement he chose to make seemed trite and tasteless, in an "in your face" sort of way. I expected something far better from him.
There's no question that Lambert was making a statement, trying to define himself as an artist to the widest possible audience. And that's no surprise, either -- having come to mainstream recognition in the family-oriented American Idol context, maybe Lambert felt that he'd been forced to tone down his personal musical style and aim for a softer, gentler middle ground to appeal to the Idol audience. Maybe it's the same compulsion that would make an actress choose to play a drug-addicted prostitute role after gaining recognition for playing a goodie-two-shoes nanny. The shock value of the contrast is a conscious choice, designed to counteract the nicey-nice image. I get it.
Still, his performance disappointed me on so many different levels. The performance was more about shock value than it was about musicality, to my mind, and that in and of itself was disappointing. I thought Lambert's singing and tone was off, so that his usually soaring high notes seemed screechy and out of control. I've read that he didn't perform some of the more graphic or potentially offensive moves during rehearsal, so the show producers were unpleasantly surprised themselves. That seems professionally stupid, frankly, for someone who has been touted as having so much musical performing experience. Is Lambert trying to get the reputation as a risky, unreliable performer? Maybe , in fact, he is. Now he's saying that he had no clue that his performance might be offensive to some. You've got to be kidding.
As for Lambert's response that female performers such as Madonna and Britney Spears and Janet Jackson have aggressively used sexually suggestive moves in their acts without controversy, it seems to me that Lambert is missing a few rather significant points. First, Madonna and Spears and Jackson DID get a lot of controversy for the moves they've made. They didn't pass without comment. It's hard to imagine that Lambert wasn't aiming for exactly the controversy he's now gotten. Second, women have traditionally been viewed as victims or recipients of sexual aggression. The portrayal of women as sexually domineering or flagrant about their sexuality is a very different statement than one that shows men as sexually aggressive. Part of what has made Madonna and Spears and even Janet Jackson so noteworthy is not just the shock value alone -- its that the sexual aspect of their performances has said something bold and new about women and sexuality. There's an aspect of empowerment, a declaration of sexual independence in a way, in what they've done.
So when Lambert says that the controversy he's getting now is due to his being a gay man, I don't buy it. The basest stereotype of homosexuality, probably, is of "weird" men acting out in a sexually promiscuous and "perverted" way. And Lambert's performance, dog collar and leash, crotch thrusts, mimicked oral sex, tongue gyrations, and all, just played into that crude stereotype. Was that his intent? An "if this is what you think gay men are, I'll shove it right back at you" sort of message? If Lambert's point is that it doesn't matter whether he's gay -- which, I suspect, truly doesn't matter to most people -- then why did his performance throw his sexuality out there in such a tacky way?
I don't have a problem with Lambert choosing his musical identity and going with it, full out. It's clear he has a strong sense of himself, which is admirable. As a music fan, and as someone who appreciates his amazing talent, I'm disappointed that the direction he's choosing is one I don't happen to like (I'm not a Gene Simmons and Britney Spears fan, either). But I'd respect him more if the was up front about what he was doing. If he's going to choose to make a strong sexual statement with his music, fine -- but admit it and don't act surprised at the result. Maybe, after appearing to be an experienced professional, what Lambert is showing most clearly is professional immaturity.
I guess a lot of people will be watching to see what he does next, which was probably part of his intention too. I'm not sure I'll be one of them, though.