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On Art and Excess

April 20, 2010

By Juneau

Adam on Idol last week

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.

ElvisPresleyAlohafromHawaiiThat’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.

MadWorldAdamI 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.

MattBellamy 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.

DudamelOr 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?

CrouchingTIgerOkay, I have a feeling Xena is going to try to eviscerate me with her sword now!

Juneau writes about neuroscience, physics and whatever else attracts her peripatetic attention. She is co-author with Xena of On the Meaning of Adam Lambert, and co-hostess of this Salon.

44 Comments leave one →
  1. April 21, 2010 9:38 pm

    I must disagree with you Juneau. The thing that makes Adam so special is that he can sit on a stool for VH1 Unplugged and put a twist on DTRH and other songs with not much more than his voice and give us a stupendous performance, then go on Idol and go to the other end of the spectrum and blow us away with a feast for the senses. Some folks may like one style or the other but I for one love that he can do it all.

    We are so lucky to have an entertainer like Adam who NEVER gives the same performance twice. I must have a dozen versions of WWFM on my iPod, truth be told I was pretty tired of the song. I was hoping beyond hope that he would sing a different song on Idol because I was ready for something new. This amazing entertainer blew me away with this new arrangement of WWFM, I actually fell in love with the song all over again and find myself singing it again. I listen to that performance over and over. Yes the smoke machine got a little carried away but I loved the lasers and I very much appreciate Adam’s efforts to give us something new every time he walks on stage. He is spot on when he says a true entertainer gives you something to listen too, look at and feel. He is simply THE BEST!!!

  2. suebrody permalink
    April 26, 2010 3:43 pm

    Thank you for this article, Juneau. It sums up nearly everything I have felt about Adam. I think that he is so brilliant that he doesn’t *need* to glam up a performance. It’s one thing to have fun and another to cross the line, and for me that is often the case. I think he straddled it on his latest Idol performance, whereas he crossed it on SYTYCD US (but not on the Australian one). He doesn’t to be shticky ; with such a beautiful voice all he needs to do is sit on a stool and sing (vis a vis his unplugged/acoustic performances). I thought DTRH was still fun on the VH-1 sessions, and yet he did not put on glittery makeup and engage in a kind of sensuality I do not find appealing (b/c it’s too sexual for me, and NOT b/c he’s gay).

    That said, I know how many of his fans adore that, and I am not representative of the majority (or a good many) of them. Nonetheless, I do feel somewhat possessive of him, b/c of the feelings he stirs in me when he sings haunting songs like Mad World, Broken Open, and Soaked. I am not sure I have ever been touched viscerally in that way by a performer before. And yet he has been quite candid in the type of show he wants to put on: dancers, lights, and so on. I, too, enjoyed the Muse concert, b/c it was exciting visually, the way a U2 concert is, but Matt Bellamy sang the songs in a very straightforward manner. The difference, perhaps, is that Matt and Bono are rock artists, and Adam is not, and does not want to be pegged as such. And I *do* believe that you can compare his VOICE to Matt’s (after all, he is a big fan of Muse’s, would like to duet with him, and was given Soaked as one of FYE’s tracks because they both have exquisite voices that can handle that sort of operatic song).

    I am a HUGE Adam fan, and constantly post about him (as people on Twitter know). But I have come to understand that Adam’s performances will often frustrate me, and yet he gets to decide what kind of performer he is, not me. If I don’t care for Tour concerts (and I hope to go to one of them), I won’t watch them. I can simply be touched by the songs on his album (many of which I love, and not surprisingly the slower/more ballad ones, e.g., WWFM, TfM, Aftermath, Sleepwalker, and the others noted) and his articulate remarks in his interviews and be satisfied. I don’t really have a choice, do I?

  3. April 27, 2010 5:10 am

    First of all, i just discovered this blog today and i love it as well as the insightful comments from it’s readers. Juneau, LOL about your first paragraph, because it describes me exactly!! I thought maybe i was the only one who goes through these emotionally confusing journeys every time Adam performs. I have a personal journal and several entries are me trying to sort things out and recover from an Adam event – lol!

    I agree with you 100%. We know what Adam is capable of and sometimes i worry that all the bells and whistles will obscure that potential, but the incredible thing about Adam is his diversity, and it’s just that which enables him to have such a wide fan base of all ages, genders, cultures. When he wants to give us one of those transcendent artistic experiences, he’ll do that; when he wants to just let loose and be campy, cheesy and totally OTT, he’ll do it. Sometimes he just wants to throw us up against the wall with intense sexuality; other times he chooses to melt us into a puddle with a sensuality that takes us to the edge of the cliff, but we don’t quite fall off. Some of us love it all, others can pick and choose – but the continual beauty of Adam is there is always going to be something for everyone. And that’s why, even if i experience some bumps on the road, i’ll never get off this ride!

    • April 27, 2010 8:02 am

      Welcome to our Salon sister! I enjoyed reading your comment. You’re right that Adam does offer something for everyone. And he does that while always remaining true to the core of who he is. I’m excited to hear that he is starting to be heard in the Middle East. What country are you in? Xena and I love how global the sisterhood of Adam fans is. So glad you found our site. Enjoy exploring it and our book! We also appreciate it when our readers tweet and post on other blogs to help spread the word. We know there are a lot of kindred spirits out there who would appreciate the supportive and safe space we have created here.

      – Juneau

  4. April 30, 2010 10:13 am

    I’m American, but I’m currently living in Saudi Arabia. To be honest, i was surprised when his CD showed up here, because we only get the really big name Western artists – so that says something in itself. Lots of my kids’ friends bought it because they were so darn curious and ended up loving it! They also were spurred by the WWFM video which runs on MTV Arabia.

    It’s really quite funny because my daughters were gushing about him all last year and no one was paying attention. Now their friends are asking, “Do you know him?” It’s like, “WHERE WERE YOU?!” LOL!

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