In the days leading up to this year’s MTV Video Music Awards (VMAs), Newsweek sat down with Lady Gaga to discuss her then upcoming performance. Never one to be shy about her work, Lady Gaga said that she planned something “rooted in New York-style performance art.” When asked if her performance would be a defining moment of the VMAs, Lady Gaga said it would and added that there’s no reason to do things “unless it’s going to change things, unless it’s going to inspire a movement.”
Unfortunately for Lady Gaga, her VMA performance not only didn’t inspire a movement, but it also didn’t generate much interest. That was largely due, of course, to Kanye West’s stage blitz during Taylor Swift’s acceptance speech but, even without that distraction, Lady Gaga’s performance was hardly the revolutionary “performance art” extravaganza she promised. To be fair, it was comparatively entertaining and included a lot of stage blood, but it also emphasized the fact that it may be impossible to equal or top past performances — which included Madonna kissing Britney Spears and Christina Aguilera, among other things — without getting completely censored. In other words, Lady Gaga perhaps didn’t deliver something as provocative as she promised because doing so would have required her to fill impossibly big shoes.
Of course, all of this would be old news except for the fact that last week Adam Lambert performed at the American Music Awards (AMAs) and managed to accomplish everything that Lady Gaga wanted to but couldn’t. More specifically, while performing his song “For Your Entertainment” Lambert kissed another man and pushed a male dancer’s face into his crotch, simulating oral sex. The moment instantly became headline news and, not surprisingly, groups like the conservative Parents’ Television Council were outraged.
As is usually the case, this controversy has only benefited Lambert. Though ABC canceled his gig on Good Morning America in response, Lambert immediately booked a performance on CBS’s The Early Show instead. More importantly, newspapers and magazines across the country have made Lambert the centerpiece of their entertainment coverage. Whether you love or loathe Lambert, his profile is higher than ever and he’ll undoubtedly sell more records.
However, Lambert’s other, somewhat more abstract reward for his AMA controversy is his new status as a fledgling gender-bending icon. It’s the kind of thing Lady Gaga wanted to be, but which her VMA performance didn’t quite deliver. In the wake of the AMAs people aren’t just talking about Lambert, they’re talking about what he represents, which is something edgier and more appealingly dangerous than most female pop stars can manage. If he isn’t exactly starting a movement, then he is definitely beginning to be remembered.
While sexually explicit imagery is the norm in contemporary pop music, Lambert’s performance pushed the envelope by highlighting something many people still aren’t comfortable with — gay men. As a result, Lambert’s persona (if certainly not his music) places him in illustrious company with people like Prince and Freddie Mercury. The apparently improvised and supposedly offensive elements of Lambert’s performance also recall controversial appearances by Elvis Presley and the Doors on The Ed Sullivan Show. In other words, Lambert found something that could push people’s buttons today the way that gyrating hips could in the ’50s and drug references could in the ’60s. He managed to find and walk the line of sexual ambiguity in a way that other artists only dream of.
This episode certainly illustrates an inherent hypocrisy in the music industry and especially in the way the music industry is covered by media outlets. As a gay male, Lambert can push envelopes that aren’t available to a performer like Lady Gaga. However, no one ever said the entertainment marketplace was politically correct and Lambert deserves credit for using that hypocrisy to both make money and, in a round about way, undermine it. In the end, Lady Gaga’s pre-VMA interview serves as a kind of manifesto — not for what she can accomplish, but rather for what Lambert might do if he’s as smart and innovative with his music as he is with his image.
Jim Dalrymple is a regular correspondent for Rhombus. You can follow him on Twitter @jimmycdii.
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