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'American Idol's' bigger message

Finalists Adam Lambert and Kris Allen help illustrate how people with cultural differences can make beautiful music together.

May 19, 2009|ANN POWERS | POP MUSIC CRITIC

The two-part finale of hit series "American Idol," which begins tonight, is the most talked-about thing in television right now, partly because this season's contenders, Adam Lambert and Kris Allen, are exciting performers. But it's also because they have done something unexpected: Their unlikely friendship has presented America with a new vision of itself, beyond the deepest divisions of the culture wars.

Lambert is a rocker from the liberal urban Southland with roots in musical theater and the Hollywood club scene. Allen is a collegiate evangelical Christian from Arkansas. Lambert has been compared to Queen's Freddie Mercury and Elvis Presley; Allen recalls John Mayer and the Jonas Brothers.

At a time when change is in the air but the old conflicts over religion, lifestyle and sexuality aren't going away, this eighth season of "American Idol" is vividly illustrating how people with cultural differences can make beautiful music together.

Lambert was this season's first major sensation, and remains its biggest star. "I've been an 'Idol' fan since Season 5, and as far as I can tell he's the strongest musical talent who's ever been in the competition," said Alex Ross, music critic for the New Yorker. "Beyond the flair and style he's a very technically secure, accurate singer who is especially good at getting the words across -- diction and such -- and finding different colors for different songs."

Lambert's dazzling tenor and propensity for high notes have made for many memorable "Idol" moments. But in this era of Internet leaks, what's become known about his life beyond the show has made an equally important impression.

When photographs of Lambert, 27, kissing a man overran the Internet in March, Lambert brushed off the incident with a smile and a new motto: "I know who I am." Several gay contestants have been on the program, but none has made it so far while being this nonchalant about his sexuality.

"In terms of the sexuality question, that's up to him to say, but he's obviously not conventionally masculine in how he dresses and how he talks, and there's no sense that he's ever tried to hide it," said Ross. "He's totally matter of fact -- and that is really startling to see on mainstream TV. It seems almost heroic to me."

Lambert's competition is Allen, a 23-year-old worship leader at New Life Church in Conway, Ark., who was doing missionary work in Asia and Africa during the years Lambert was building his pop resume. Allen was one of several actively Christian musicians to make this year's Top 10, who will tour as a group this summer.

Lambert and Allen have a musical connection: Both specialize in variations of the form of alternative rock known as emo, an emotionally forthright, catchy variation on American punk music. While Lambert's dyed-black hair and eyeliner recall bands like My Chemical Romance, Allen's warble and his love of acoustic guitar link him to artists like Dashboard Confessional's Chris Carrabba, who himself is open about his Christian faith.

"Adam Lambert belongs to the more theatrical strand, with the black nail polish and the black hair, the darker expression of emo," said Karen Tongson, an assistant professor of English and gender studies at USC. "Kris Allen comes from the folkier, more acoustic, clean-cut element of emo. The connection between Christian rock and emo has always been there in the folkier strains."

That the "Idol" finale has come down to these seeming polar opposites who share so much is particularly notable, given the seemingly constant presence of sexual politics in the news. The California Supreme Court might soon confirm or overturn the state's voter-mandated ban on gay marriage. Miss California USA Carrie Prejean made waves by stating her personal opposition to same-sex unions when she was questioned at a pageant.

In this complicated climate, one painted thumbnail means a lot. Allen began decorating one of his black -- one of Lambert's favorite colors -- late in the season, apparently to dispel rumors that the pair, who were roommates in the show-sponsored mansion where the finalists reside, were feuding. Lambert reportedly later removed the paint from one of his thumbs in his own gesture of support.

The friendship between the two finalists suggests that tolerance can trump ideology, a powerful sentiment that echoes President Obama's suggestion that bridging differences could be more effective than trying to eradicate them.

"This is part of the spirit and ethos of an America after Obama. His whole rhetoric fits into the desires of our political culture after such a divisive period. And that's also playing itself out on 'Idol,' " said Tongson.

Each singer has fans who should be rooting for the other one, according to the usual patterns linked to the culture wars. Some commentators have tried to make a stir over Lambert's sexuality -- Bill O'Reilly questioned Lambert's appropriateness as a singing role model on his Fox News program. But he seems to have many Christian admirers.

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