On Art and Excess
If there’s one thing I can always count on Adam Lambert to do, it’s to provoke me! His performance last week on American Idol gave me that by-now-familiar roller coaster sensation of happy anticipation followed by my stomach dropping in – what? Disappointment? Dismay? Discomfort? All of the above. Combined with irrational love. He ties me all in a knot, and then I spend days untangling those coiled up emotions – and I just have to trust that at the end, I’ll be okay, as I have always been after each of these episodes.
Artists are meant to provoke. They push the boundaries of taste, right? But not all transgressions are created equal. Adam is a popular artist, an entertainer. His art survives by appealing to popular tastes, which means there are limits to how genuinely provocative he can be. What edge he has comes from being out and swishy, but his music is mainstream pop-rock and his ambition is to entertain. He shares with Lady Gaga an ability to bring elements of the avant-garde into the pop mainstream, but any edge is de-fanged by being so clearly intended to entertain, whereas in high art (for lack of a better term), the intention is to communicate what matters most deeply, often through forms of expression that force us into unfamiliar and sometimes uncomfortable positions. Whether the work entertains or not is secondary. Audiences for this type of art are orders of magnitude smaller than those for popular art because it takes effort to process the message, and you may not like what you discover.
That’s not what Adam’s art is about. Adam’s intention in designing his performance last week on Idol was not to provoke displeasure or discomfort. I believe he was inspired to do a 21st century take on the spirit of Elvis. Therein may lie my first problem: Elvis does nothing for me. He has a lovely voice, but it’s sentimental and uncomplicated. His life was a hot mess, but he does not come across as a layered, evolved personality. Not my type.
But I don’t think my “Adam problem” has to do with Elvis. I certainly wasn’t consciously thinking “Uh oh, he’s channeling Elvis” as I watched that swirling green tractor beam and heard Adam’s voice emerging from the TV… vibrato laid on thicker than his hair product and processed through reverb into an angsty aural brew to rival the most over-the-top operatic emoting to hit La Scala. My husband, sitting next to me, spit out “Ugh, he has no taste!” True, he sees Adam as a prime rival for my attention, but grudgingly, I conceded he had a point. Art is about taste, and by this I don’t mean knowing what color drapes go with the carpet. It’s about exercising judgment to make choices to drive home a point. Art can defy conventions of taste, but the artist knows which lines are being transgressed. Transgressing without self-consciousness is something else – babies or elephants applying paint to paper – a delightful curiosity, but not art.
I digress. Back to Adam and taste – the disciplined and conscious exercise of choices to create an artistic effect. Adam confuses me. Sometimes he seems to be supremely smart and disciplined. Take his performance of Ring of Fire. While Simon Cowell sputtered that it was ‘self-indulgent’ (I acknowledge that taste is highly subjective), I thought it was spot on. Adam took an iconic song from a genre that was alien to him, mutated it into a form that he could make his own, and executed it with the perfect balance of serpentine sexuality and coiled tension. A little sinuous swaying, a sidelong glance, a flick of the tongue, a flash of skin were all it took to have half the viewing audience puddle at his feet (true, it sent the other half running to the lav). He didn’t need to thrust his pelvis or ravage the mic stand.
Or to take a less controversial example, his now-mythic performance of Mad World (the first one, minus the fog machine), was a textbook example of how restraint renders a more powerful performance. A seated Adam, backlit in blue, his face in shadow, dressed simply, singing with minimal ornamentation, perfectly expressed the quiet desperation of a schoolboy.
But at other times, Adam loses that discipline – and it seems to me that this happens when he gets anxious and needs to prove a point. He has mentioned that his American Music Awards performance was fueled not just by the excitement of the event, but also by anger over OUT magazine’s editorial criticizing Adam for allegedly downplaying his gayness (see OUTrage). And just the day before his American Idol performance, the show’s executive producer Ken Warwick was quoted by Entertainment Weekly’s Michael Slezak saying: “I don’t know what possessed him to do what he did at the AMAs, but he’s still struggling to live it down…And hopefully…we can start putting him back firmly where he belongs, as a major star… it kind of breaks my heart to see someone with that much talent struggle a bit.”
It takes some will power to resist writing something snarky here along the lines of Mr. Warwick needing a reality check, but I will rise to the challenge. This is just a wild hypothesis, but maybe Warwick was hoping to goad Adam into pulling out the stops again. If that’s the case, it worked, because Adam went all out, piling effect upon effect – the lasers, the fog machine, the reverb, the metallic suit, the vocal acrobatics (much, much better this time than at the AMA). No risqué dance moves, but that was never my concern.
The Idol audience went wild, but I suspect I’m not the only fan who was ambivalent. At a pragmatic level, this was a wasted marketing opportunity. That was not the kind of performance that would have won over anyone who wasn’t already a diehard fan. But what really concerns me is the lapse in taste, which indicates an immature understanding or vision of how to take his art to a higher level. And I desperately want Adam to find his way there, because, in case you haven’t noticed, I adore this man.
I recall a video of Adam from his Zodiac Show days talking about having flames shoot out of his headgear. A friend counseled against the pyrotechnics, noting wisely that the focus should be on his insane vocals. More is more – until it’s not. I recently saw Adam’s favorite band Muse in concert, and drew some lessons from watching Matt Bellamy, the lead singer and guitarist. He is an amazing showman, strutting, playing and emoting atop a glittering, hydraulic lift encased in mesmerizing video display panels, while spokes of laser light careen around the arena and giant eyeballs drift down from the rafters. It is over-the-top spectacle, but Muse never teeters over the edge into kitsch. Why not? First, they are great musicians who play and sing with conviction. And they understand artistic tension. When the music gets orchestral and lush, there’s always something to pull against it – a snarl, an eerie electronic whine or an ominous drum echo. When Matt falls to his knees in the middle of an insane guitar riff, he gets away with it because he’s a skinny dude in red jeans, a T-shirt and sneakers. Picture him in a gold suit instead, and the contrast, the poignancy, evaporates and you are left with cheese.
Or to take a lesson from my newest musical revelation, the conductor Gustavo Dudamel, who I observed recently in an open rehearsal – an experience I’ll never forget. He advised the players to pay great heed to the silences between notes: “The silence is the sound – you need to find the tension in the silence.” Similarly, if Adam wants to play with swirling fog and flashing green lasers, he needs to create stillness within it, or there will be nothing against which to anchor the tension that drives an artistic experience. A supreme irony here may be that when Adam was a competitor last season on American Idol, the show’s very constraints may have imposed the discipline that made him truly stand out. Now that those constraints are gone, he needs to find new ones – and he has found some. His acoustic sets provide a wonderful example. With his upcoming tour, I find myself fretting that he will surrender to temptation and pour on the effects, the stagecraft, the sexy, and it will be hugely fun, and I will be there to dance and revel in the Dionysian excess of it all – but will it be the transcendant artistic experience that I feel he is capable of?