Although it's a little long, this article from today's New York Times is worth reading.
Note that the pictures are from my collection, NOT from the New York Times web site.
April 12, 2009
American Idol's Big Tease
By GUY TREBAY
LET'S say you are an "American Idol" contestant with a criminal history. Let's say you claimed to have had an affair with Paula Abdul. Let's imagine that you are found to have posed for topless photos or been charged with identity theft.
These are not hypothetical scandals. Each has occurred during the eight-season run of the top-rated show. And each has duly been processed out of consciousness at a speed accorded most show business scandals — forgotten in the nanosecond it takes us to move on from the latest reality TV distraction and back to our ordinary lives.
Let's imagine, then, that among the assorted warblers and strummers and leather-lunged divas that have made up the renewable cast of hopefuls on the country's No. 1 television show, you appear not as some talented hopeful with a shady backstory but as a theatrical creation with a message to sell beyond the usual will to prevail. You are swivel hipped and pillow lipped. You have an outsize talent and a fondness for Cher. You have blond hair dyed black and styled in an asymmetrical shag. At some long-ago moment, you gave in to your inner Maybelline girl.
You are Adam Lambert, the contestant widely tipped as a favorite to be the next winner of "American Idol." And the only thing standing between you and riches and the chance to play arenas may be a question currently burning up the Internet: Can a gay contestant win?
Leave aside for a moment the answer to such a question, or even whether Mr. Lambert is gay. He may be. He may not. Fox, which owns "Idol," is not saying; neither is the contestant himself.
What is notable is the intensity of the insinuations caroming around the Internet and in certain corners of the mainstream press — that and the fact that even asking whether a gay contestant can win a broadly popular reality show, whose survivors are selected by public acclaim, seems increasingly anachronistic in light of decisions in Iowa and Vermont to extend marriage rights to gay men and lesbians.
Still, ask they do. Pointing to "embarrassing pictures of Mr. Lambert circulating on the Internet," photographs that show someone who looks uncannily like the contestant tongue-wrestling another man, the conservative commentator Bill O'Reilly inquired last week on his Fox News show, "These pictures that hint that he is gay, will they have an effect on this program, which is a cultural phenomenon in America?"
Cultural critics with a broader frame of reference than Mr. O'Reilly's can easily contextualize Mr. Lambert in a long line of performers who tantalize the public with their talent and equally with their gender ambiguities. Think of Liberace. Think of Prince or Bowie or Elton John or K. D. Lang or Pete Wentz. "We have always had that person" on the pop landscape, said Aaron Hicklin, the editor of Out magazine. "The difference now is that previously the conversation about sexuality has not been as public. When Liberace was around, there was no real way to talk about this stuff."
Now, of course, there is no way and no reason to stifle conversation about the signals Mr. Lambert appears to send in the form of song choices pilfered from the hope chests of anthemic divas (Cher's "I Believe"); his bio (he was a child who enjoyed dressing up a lot but sports "not so much," said his father in an on-air interview); and a theatrical style at times so arch that his country-night version of "Ring of Fire" evoked for Sarah Chinn, the executive director of the Center for Lesbian and Gay Studies at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York, "Joey Arias channeling Billie Holiday channeling Johnny Cash."
According to a Gawker post last week, the "applause-o-meter" had Mr. Lambert pulling way ahead. "Might we actually get a Kris/Adam finale?" read the item, referring to Kris Allen, a generic teen idol type with a waxed cowlick and a lopsided smile. "Might, also, we get a Kris/Adam somethin' else?' Hah, doubtful. No one sees Adam without his skinsuit on, except maybe that fetching, fey little blond character they keep cutting to and describing as Adam's `friend.' "
Predictable as the snarky innuendo is, it also struck a discordant Roy Cohn note, coming in the week when Vermont's Legislature voted to override a veto by the governor and recognize gay marriage, adding the Green Mountain State to Connecticut, Massachusetts and Iowa in a list of states actively advancing the cause of civil rights for gay people. "The entire system is changing so rapidly it is not to be believed," said David Ehrenstein, a Los Angeles based film critic and scholar who writes the hilarious Fablog.
America's heartland, he said, turns out to be politically contiguous to its notoriously liberal coasts. "Iowa is apparently infested with San Francisco values," he said.
Even the White House made a point of inviting lesbian and gay families to join in an annual Easter Egg Roll.
Thus it seems plausible that a person with more than a toe peeking out of the closet might actually win the most hotly contested singing show on the planet. True, it took six years of public insinuation before Clay Aiken, the popular also-ran from Season 2, made the choice in 2008 to come out. When he did so, however, the anticipated career-stall never happened. The news was greeted with a collective yawn.
"I see us as living in the post-Neil Patrick Harris era," said Mr. Ehrenstein, referring to the actor who in 2006 trumped online efforts to expose his sexuality by publicly declaring himself gay to People magazine. "He crossed the Rubicon. He did the `sudden death' play. Supposedly you come out and your career is over. He came out and his career is in better shape than it ever was."
It is worth remembering how radical a shift this is in the public consciousness and that a half century ago, in the 1950s when the film producer Marina Cicogna first found herself in Los Angeles, as she recently told W magazine, studios forced Rock Hudson into bogus relationships with women and obliged gay actors "to lie from morning to night."
In 1959 Liberace, the camp artifact best known, as one critic wrote, "for beating Romantic music to death on a piano decorated with a candelabra," sued an English newspaper for libel for implying in print that he was gay. Given his taste for lacquered pompadours, rhinestone jumpsuits, white mink coats and pneumatic male personal assistants, it is hard now to imagine Liberace believing his public was deceived. But then it is still hard to square shifting public opinion with that of an industry that forces its gay talents to hide in plain sight.
When asked on the witness stand whether he was homosexual, Liberace emphatically told a judge: "No, sir! I am against the practice because it offends convention and it offends society." He won the suit and damages and then, much later, was named in a $113 million palimony suit by his partner Scott Thorson.
"For a long time, gay men were very sensitive to being associated with effeminacy," said Mr. Hicklin of Out. "It was highly objectionable, an example of stereotyping and caricature."
Being photographed in drag or, as Mr. Lambert apparently was at the Burning Man Festival, wearing makeup and a thigh-high halter dress revealing enough to bring a blush to the cheeks of J. Lo, is far from a career-killer these days. "There was a common set of signifiers in theater and TV and popular culture that implied gay," Mr. Hicklin said. "Gay men came to embrace all that because it came to feel far less threatening to be labeled in that way."
Also, somewhat unexpectedly, heterosexuals took up the playfulness of gender ambiguity. "The gay thing got derailed by the way many straight guys started playing with image," Mr. Hicklin said. Metrosexuals followed homosexuals out of the closet. Pete Wentz posed for the cover of Out. "Pete Wentz wears makeup and clearly is confident enough not to be threatened by any assumptions his fans or nonfans might come to," Mr. Hicklin said.
Like Mr. Lambert — whose more steadily assertive gender games are likely to reach an apotheosis this week when the "American Idol" contestants are asked to perform their favorite movie song — performers are now free to treat real or putative gayness as another show business tool, a peekaboo game, a ploy. So-called low forms of sex relationship that entertainment industry codes once kept from being depicted on movie screens are now so routine a feature of pop culture that when "Saturday Night Live" recently parodied the proliferating pop references to sexual experimentation in a sketch titled "The Fast and the Bi-Curious," the Entertainment Weekly critic Ken Tucker slapped the show down for using jargon that "feels old and overused."
Unlike other reality shows, said Joe Jervis — a gay activist blogger whose recent mention of Adam Lambert on his site Joe My God generated 50,000 hits from people searching the term "Is Adam Lambert Gay?" — the contestants on "American Idol" aren't voted off their little show business island by one another. Love them or hate them, it is up to America to choose.
"The show is squarely in the hands of the viewers," Mr. Jervis said. It is just that vox populi aspect of "American Idol," he said, that demonstrates radical changes "in the popular view of openly gay people." That may be. But it is certainly also worth noting that a Revlon habit is no surefire tip-off to gayness, latent or otherwise. Ask Marilyn Manson. Ask Devendra Banhart or Brandon Flowers or any of the other members of groups sometimes called "eyeliner bands." For that matter, why not ask Kiss?