Kicking off another typical seven-day work week in the offices of his management company 19 Entertainment, Adam Lambert fixed his gaze on his own pretty face. Scattered across his publicist's desk were proof sheets from a photo session with the singer, who will release his debut album on RCA Records, "For Your Entertainment," Nov. 23. The shots captured Lambert in typical glam-god poses: peacock, street tough, space oddity, freaky adventurer in the boudoir of the damned.
Lambert, who in person is none of those things but rather a startlingly grounded 27-year-old radiating Southern Californian optimism, took up a red pencil and circled a frame. "This one needs a little fix here," he said, momentarily playing art director. It's all part of one big performance for Lambert as he works to resurrect rock in the new pop age.
But hold on. When such hyperbole is thrust at him -- by, say, an overly admiring pop critic who followed him closely during last year's "American Idol" contest, when he broke ground as the most successful Idol to be rock-oriented, androgynous and gay -- he lifts a ring-laden hand to brush it away.
"I want to put it out there that I don't take myself all that seriously," he said. That's one of his mantras. "The dress-up supports that; the fantasy element supports it. People want to talk about whether I have rock cred, whether I'm selling out, the theatricality, the gay stuff. . . . Chill out! And just enjoy yourself. It's not that deep."
Then he corrected himself, slightly. "Sometimes it is deep. Some of the songs on the album are," he admitted, pointing to the song "Soaked," a sweeping epic about the loneliness of one-night stands that's actually a cover of an unreleased track from Muse, and a very serious one at that. He also singled out "Broken Open," a ballad he co-wrote, which he said is about encouraging a lover to become vulnerable enough to cry.
"But sometimes it's just, 'This is hot, I feel good, this song makes me want to go get a drink and flirt with somebody and have a good time.' Good energy is just as credible as the cathartic, dark, heavy" stuff, he said. "It's just as important!"
This might be the most exciting message Lambert carries forward into one of the most intensely observed major label debuts in recent pop history. He's reminding America that rock music can be joyful, light-spirited and sublimely silly, just as pop can explore serious subjects beyond the call to hit the dance floor. And that a rock star might also like to dance.
The Lambert way
As Lambert plays the role, a rock star doesn't have to be an angry punk, a brooding post-grunge puritan or a hair-metal style macho dude in a dress. These approaches all have their purpose, but Lambert projects something different: outrageousness that's totally at peace with itself.
He does this by connecting countercultural ideas -- values he learned as a kid touring Germany in a production of "Hair," the musical that first brought rock's spirit to Broadway -- with a trouper's sense of artistic performance as work, which takes brains and a certain sharpness as well as talent.
"His No. 1 challenge, which I think he'll pass, is stay true to himself and to roll with the punches as they come," said Rob Cavallo, who has worked with artists from Green Day to the Dave Matthews Band and produced four tracks on "For Your Entertainment." "He's going to have successes. He might have people against him. Which is exactly what happened to Elvis, the Beatles, to Prince. . . . There will be controversy, and there will be opinions. If he stays true to himself he will be one of those great artists to watch over the years."
Lambert readily admits a huge debt to David Bowie, whom he describes as "my favorite," and other glam and classic rockers such as Mick Jagger and Marc Bolan of T. Rex. (More surprisingly, he repeatedly cites both Prince and Michael Jackson.) Lambert's efforts to succeed as a rocker will hinge on his ability to tap into the legacy Bowie and those others represent. His "emo" side, linking him to bands like Fall Out Boy, also helps. But it's hard to know if the rock world -- and rock radio, in particular -- will embrace him.
"When bands like Fall Out Boy and All American Rejects first came out, they got airplay on modern-rock stations," noted Leslie Fram, a rock radio veteran who's program director of New York's 101.9 RXP FM and co-host of its morning show with Matt Pinfield. "But when they crossed over to the Top 40, it was the nail in the coffin. They went over to the pop side, image-wise, and modern-rock radio wanted nothing to do with them."
Lambert's trying something even these bands didn't attempt -- to succeed in both the rock and pop camps at once. He loves his glam, but he admits that in terms of today's stars, he has more in common with Beyonce than with Chris Daughtry.