In Search of the Original High
The evolution of Adam Lambert from theater kid to singer-songwriter-superstar
I have been a most ardent Adam Lambert fan these past five years, but as you faithful readers of my scribblings well know, my passion for him has never blinded me to his human failings and limitations. I was smitten by his godlike talents as a vocalist, by his stage personas and his charisma, but I think that what really fuels my obsession is my conviction that he could be so, so much more.
If only. If only he hadn’t lost American Idol. If only America wasn’t so antigay. If only he hadn’t kissed a guy on the AMA. If only 19E/RCA/Sony had marketed him properly. If only radio would play his music. Perhaps. But in my honest opinion, these are distractions from the real issue. To put it bluntly, Adam’s rise to fame was propelled by his voice and command of the stage. But his ambition is to succeed not simply as a singer, but as a music creator. And that is a goal for which he has had nowhere near the training nor the preparation needed.
Consider that Adam’s formative years were spent in musical theater. As a theater performer, you can hide behind a character, speaking and singing someone else’s words and melodies, embodying a fictional creation and concealing your actual self beneath layers of costumes and makeup. It’s playing make believe, and young Adam loved it. (As an armchair psychologist, one could speculate about why a young boy would be so drawn to a world of fantasy, but we won’t get into that here.)
But to create music… that is an altogether different challenge, and one that is in some ways very much harder, especially for a young man who depended on “smoke and mirrors” (in his own words) to create the stage illusion that we all fell in love with. To write great songs, you can’t hide behind masks. You need to strip away the illusions. You need to have a burning message, something that will consume you if you don’t get it out. And you need a sure hand with lyrics and music to propel that message like a flaming arrow into the darkest parts of the listener’s soul.
So my “if only” for Adam has been this: If only he could develop on the inside to connect his deepest, human self to the colossal gifts he already possesses.
I am cautiously optimistic that we are about to see this new, more mature Adam emerge. (I throw in caution only because we Glamberts have a bad habit of pumping up our expectations to insane levels. Poor Adam! We are like a collective of the stage mothers from hell!)
The true test will be the music, which is now set to release in a few weeks. In the meantime, we have some useful scraps of evidence before us which, as true scholars on the meaning of Adam Lambert, we owe it to ourselves to deconstruct and analyze.
First, let us trace the trajectory of Adam’s career arc and see where it lands. In “Era 1”, Adam was in the hands of the American Idol/19E machine. They knew they had a potential superstar on their hands, but his out-of-the-box ways stumped their limited imaginations, so they gave him a pastiche of songs from A-list writers to throw at the wall and see what would stick. Adam wanted to play up the Glam Rock persona, and the first single out, “For Your Entertainment,” was an attempt to establish him as a male Brittney Spears. We fans enjoyed the “naughty Adam” fun of it, but for me personally, the inauthenticity filled me with misgivings.
“Fever” would have been a far superior single. A better song, more contemporary, and the “there he goes” would have been groundbreaking and could have propelled Adam to the top, riding on a social wave that was already building. But no one in authority had the guts to make that call. “Whataya Want from Me” hit the target, a well crafted heartbreak song that fit Adam’s voice and vulnerability perfectly.
But the damage was done. A large swath of fans who had been fired up by Adam’s American Idol performances fell away, leaving only the most devoted, the ones who saw past the Glam persona to the aspirational and admirable person beneath the furs, sequins and flawless (time consuming!) makeup.
Coming off the success of the Glam Nation tour, Adam launched into Era 2 determined to seize creative control. He claimed an executive producer title and co-writing credit on the songs that became “Trespassing.” But I wondered what his motivation was. Financial, certainly. Producers and writers earn royalties every time a song is played, performed, recorded or broadcast, whereas singers generally do not.
Creatively, “Trespassing” was… interesting. It is a “this is me” album–gay, club kid, falling into bed, waking up hungover with sheets in a knot–and there are brilliant songs on it that should have been hits, “Shady”, “Kicking In” and “Chokehold” in particular. Maybe the world is ready for heartbroken gays like Sam Smith, but not kinky, defiant and happy ones? RCA/Sony forced Adam to include two hitmaker singles that didn’t fit the album, but seemed calculated to tap the Whataya Want from Me vein. Adam was shopping too, working with too many producers. The end result was an album that is a reflection of Adam, but it is Adam experimenting and getting his yah yahs out.
Trespassing was a brave experiment and manifesto, to be sure, but not a coherent, mature work of art. It still feels like Adam hiding behind a mask. It’s his own mask, the one he wears out to clubs, the one he presents through his portrait collaborations with Lee Cherry, but it’s a disguise nonetheless. He hints at this in “Underneath,” but overall the album is about attitude. It’s how he wants us to see him. Sweet lord. We can see right through it. Maybe that’s why his devoted fans love him so much, because that mask is itself an expression of his vulnerable side. But that’s not something the rest of the world sees or understands.
After “Trespassing,” Adam came to an impasse with RCA/Sony. They were no longer willing to underwrite his experiments. They needed a hit album that will win back the American Idol fans. The obvious solution was a cover album, tried-and-true hits married to the voice of the century. I would buy it. I’m sure it would have been a great commercial success.
But that’s not the future Adam wanted. He split, and although I have a strong feeling Ron Cavallo was standing ready to catch him with open arms, it was still a gutsy move. And a smart one. I always felt the ménage a trois of American Idol, 19E and RCA/Sony was rife with conflicts of interest, none of it in favor of the artists. Out with the old team. In with the new.
So now we come to the marvelous inter-album era (2.5?) of Queen + Adam. Without discounting the terror Adam admitted feeling in stepping into Freddie Mercury’s boots, the risk has paid off in huge dividends. He earned a mint, learned how to own massive arenas night after night, and sent droves of the newly converted to his Facebook and Twitter accounts. Most importantly, he put himself under the tutelage of Jedi knights, Brian May and Roger Taylor, and experienced the Force: what it is like to perform songs that are cherished by millions. Beneath the spectacle and camp, he learned a fundamental lesson, that “emotion and honesty are timeless,” as he says in the Attitude interview.
And he gained something more than confidence. He discovered the secret of Jedi power. “The doubt and fear have faded and been overtaken with a deep joy.”
Shedding his armor
We are at the dawn of Era 3, and where has Adam’s arrow landed? Sweden, in the experienced hands of Max Martin and Shelback. Martin produced “Whataya Want From Me,” so this bodes well. Very well. Judging from his impressive catalog, he seems to be a producer who doesn’t impose his style on a singer, but can bring out the essence of an artist and frame it musically to make a song a hit. (Interesting factoid: Max Martin has more number one hit singles than any other songwriter except Paul McCartney and John Lennon.)
Martin and Shellback “helped me keep a very cohesive sound and mood throughout,” says Adam in his Hunger TV interview. Excellent. (It’s as though he’s heeding my DH’s advice when he heard FYE. “I don’t know what he’s trying to say or what the album is about. He needs a proper producer.”)
What other evidence can we hang our hopes on? The title of the new album is “The Original High.” Promising indeed. There are so many more layers and resonances to this than to the previous album titles. Literally, the title refers to the first time one experiences a drug high–typically with heroin–a high so intense and transcendent that one is driven to seek it out again and again, but can never attain. It has very dark connotations but there’s also something very pure and elemental about it.
In his interview with Attitude, Adam explains, “a lot of us experience these…highs, these milestones of adrenaline, and we spend the rest of the time just trying to recreate that first high. While there’s something sweet about that… it’s also living in the past and not moving forwards. So I wrote that song…and I was so excited because it really hits the nail on the head in a very simple way. It’s bittersweet. Life is bittersweet. We have to mix the good and the bad and accept them both, and that’s part of growing up.”
Bittersweet is good! “Whataya want from me” hit the bittersweet spot. Through some strange alchemy of human psychology, it’s the songs about heartbreak and nostalgia that lay the strongest claim on our hearts. Instead of causing us to wallow in our own misery, such songs are comforting and cathartic. Perhaps they ennoble our ordinary pain and make us heroes of our own stories.
For those of us “of a certain age,” the Adam phenomenon is also about experiencing that original high of reconnecting with our younger selves, those selves we thought had long departed, buried in time capsules with our Beatles posters and flower child dresses. To our delight, those selves have been awakened by Adam’s princely lips. Seeing the joy in Brian and Roger’s faces was like holding up a mirror to our own experience.
For fans, the Original High also evokes memories of that first rush of discovering and falling in love with Adam, his voice, his beauty, his intangible (and tangible, let’s be honest). It’s striking how every fan can tell you where they were and what they were doing when they were first smitten by Adam’s magic.
The high was so strong that we hid it from our families and reached out over the Internet to others in the same predicament, forming sprawling networks of AA (Adamholics Anonymous) support groups across the globe. Over the five-plus years, have we not been on a quest for that Original High?
Like a Virgin
More personally, for Adam, the Original High “also captures what I love about performing in the first place…’What is it that I want? Why do I want it and why am I doing this?’ Because the high you get, from touching people… I mean connecting with people…that’s why I do this… So this album, in many ways, feels like a first album…it feels new. Virginal.” (Oh myyyy!)
The outward mechanics–the gobs of cash, the adulation, the star producers and fresh start with a new team–are all in place, but the engine driving the whole Adam Lambert enterprise forward is Adam himself and the artist he is becoming. How does he evolve yet remain true to himself, and true to the fans who have supported him all this way, while gaining millions of new ones?
What are the challenges that lie ahead? In addition to the most important, artistic ones, there are the challenges of marketing Adam Lambert. He wants to be a global star, and to get there, he needs credibility and authenticity. He still wants to do pop, but, thank our stars, not “bubblegum.” He says “Vulnerably soulful vocals and this house revival are turning my crank.” (There’s an image…ahem.) A great exemplar of this fusion is Avicii’s massive 2014 hit, “Wake Me Up.”
Adam has zeroed in on a style that suits his voice perfectly while appealing to a demographic that he has had trouble reaching in the past: his peers. It’s indie and retro married to electronic dance music, which is exactly what is promised by the teaser from the first single, “Ghost Town.” We have organic (whistling) backed by a steel drum sound that elides into a more electronic timbre as it ascends towards what we hope is a climax and drop:
Clearly, Adam has put a great deal of thought and work into his transformation. He realizes that campiness and make-up, while loved by Glamberts, are distancing. Where we see vulnerability and fun, others see a mask. But dancing is the great unifier. And so “We have avoided camp and theatrics and have favoured a darker, more grounded vibe, and at the same time, it will make you dance!”
And he understands that his voice holds the keys to the kingdom: “Vocally, I think it’s my most tasteful, sophisticated work to date.” Music to our ears!!
I find this following statement gives me great hope:
“I definitely feel both a personal and professional evolution over the past five years. I think I’ve become more well adjusted to the strangeness of fame and more grounded in my personal life. I don’t overwork my performances as much as I once did; as an entertainer, sometimes less IS more…I’m still my own worst critic, but I’m giving myself better reviews these days. This has all led to me feeling more comfortable in my skin and more willing to reveal a more authentic, honest self to the world.”
“…on The Original High, we have really cracked the book wide open for all to hear. It’s a little scary to be that vulnerable, but I’m ready to let people understand all that makes me tick, even the unattractive parts of me.”
Maybe it is time to throw caution to the wind!