American Idol: Beta males triumph!
- May 20, 2009 3:27 PM |
- By Arts Online
Illustration by Jillian Tamaki
This is the end, beautiful friends. As we prepare for the curtain to fall on this season of American Idol, it seems appropriate to invoke that excssively-quoted line from a Doors song, since Adam Lambert, the singer favoured to win the Season Eight crown, comes closer than any other Idol competitor in the history of the show to capturing the brooding, snake-hipped rock 'n' roll energy of Lizard King Jim Morrison.
Admittedly, Lambert -- a San Diego-based, somewhat baby-faced alumnus of the touring cast of camp musical Wicked -- is still a far cry from the menacing, druggy dangerousness that seeped from every pore of Morrison's clammy skin. Yet even the small glimmers of glam flamboyance he's brought to the stage throughout this season added a dynamic new dimension to a show that's grown increasingly enervated in recent years.
Contrary to the rapturous critiques tendered by the bumbling Keystone Kops who serve as Idol's panel of "expert" judges, Lambert is not the most "current" or "now" contestant to grace the American Idol community. He's a hardcore musical theatre geek with a flair for the dramatic and an effortless (albeit shrill) tongue-wagging falsetto, whose comfort zone spans tight-panted 70s glam, leathery L.A. spangle-rock (think hair metal) and gooey, showy balladry. With his guyliner, black nail lacquer and unholy howls, Lambert suggests a vague kinship to a small handful of modern rock bands -- namely, the geysers of bombastic tween-friendly angst like Fall Out Boy and My Chemical Romance, who sell out shows on the emo circuit. Still, he's a bit too queeny, a bit too posturing to feel truly contemporary. (That said, I'll allow that Lambert could make a wicked warm-up act for Lady Gaga.)
Adam Lambert performs Tears for Fears' Mad World during last night's show:
Tellingly, the only contender whose performances demonstrate a real connection to today's chart-topping pop hits is the dark horse who caused a stir when he became Lambert's rival in this week's epic finale. A sweet, quiet Arkansan undergrad and worship leader with the face of a puggle puppy, Kris Allen's endearing pared-down delivery that comes across as the polar opposite of Lambert's glam-o-rama. He's a laid-back guitar strummer, a plaintive piano crooner who murmurs shy, reverent billets-doux -- in short, the sort of soft-spoken guy beloved by both moppets who have crushes on Nick Jonas and ladies who swoon over John Mayer.
But while his approach may tend toward on slightly ragged vocals accompanied by spare bongo rhythms, Allen hasn't limited his appeal by exclusively choosing selections from the shoeless singer-songwriter genre. Unlike lackadaisical hippie-dude Jason Castro, who crashed and burned out by relying on stoner-friendly jams last year's American Idol proceedings, Allen has cleverly selected a wide range of material, reinterpreting everything from disco classics like Donna Summer's She Works Hard For The Money to soulful Motown cuts like Bill Withers' Ain't No Sunshine (which he reprised during last night's final performance round) to hip hop hits like Kanye West's Heartless (a hugely popular tune that likely helped him land in the final two) through careful arrangements that make the songs sound not just original, but comfortably suited to him.
Kris Allen performs Bill Withers' Ain't No Sunshine during last night's show:
That's not to say Lambert hasn't taken similar risks. He made massive waves on country night by transforming Johnny Cash's Ring of Fire into a slightly lewd, stomach-churning Middle Eastern slow-burner that likely would've pleased Jim Morrison. I can't say that it was a particularly pleasant take on the tune -- and the arrangement itself was borrowed from a performer on Rockstar: Supernova -- but Lambert showed estimable bravery in altering such an iconic work to make it fit him like a (tight, studded leather) glove.
Of course, that sort of attitude -- standing his ground and quietly molding the institution to accommodate his needs -- is one way of describing Lambert's overall strategy (or lack thereof) within Idol. Much has been made of the singer's sexuality throughout his Idol run. He's unabashedly over-the-top in his appearance and demeanour, though the same sort of gender-bending and lascivious confidence can be found throughout the canon of great rock 'n' roll frontmen. Early on in this season, photographs of Lambert surfaced on the internet. Some depicted him in drag (no big surprise there -- after all, this is a guy who's performed at countless campy cabarets); others showed the putative American Idol passionately smooching -- gasp! -- another man.
To his credit, Lambert took it in stride, refusing to comment at length on the so-called "scandal." Instead, he simply grinned and said, "I know who I am." For a competition decided by the popular votes of Americans, many of whom make no secret of their opposition to homosexuality, Lambert's unruffled response was powerful. His sexual orientation is still officially ambiguous (or at least as ambiguous as it gets for a male member of the touring cast of Wicked), and there are those who'd argue Lambert should've taken this moment on the Idol stage to come out loud and proud. In a weird way, though, I wonder if his implicit message -- why would I care what you think? Why should you care who shares my bed? -- is a much stronger statement, especially when it comes to the less progressive members of his fan base.
Ultimately, there are much more notable factors at play in American Idol's Season 8 showdown than playing "Is he or isn't he?" with Adam Lambert. I'm fascinated by the tender, mutually supportive friendship that seems to have sprung up between the two finalists -- one a devout Christian, the other a... musical theatre aficionado. Superlative Los Angeles Times music critic Ann Powers has a terrific piece on precisely this subject, in which she claims that "their unlikely friendship has presented America with a new vision of itself, beyond the deepest divisions of the culture wars."
What's even more interesting, though, is how completely removed both American Idol finalists are from the typical idealized image of the macho male hero. That Lambert conveys a kind of diva-tastic effeteness is a given; Allen, however, is perhaps an even more feminized character. He's softer and cuddlier, and has no reservations about sporting the same housewifely red apron as his button-cute wife. He's thoughtful, gentle and humble; he weathered stale jokes about "shopping in the women's department" (a riff on judge Paula Abdul's commentary about his choice of a Donna Summer song during disco week) without participating in the homophobic banter. During last night's video clips, Allen's mother proudly presented the coupons her son had given her as a birthday gift: "Now I can give him a coupon and he has to sing for me," she proclaimed. "It was the best gift ever!" Talk about an out, proud mama's boy.
For Allen to be chosen as one of the two finalists over blundering, creepy, testosterone-jacked runner-up Danny Gokey suggests, to me, a clear triumph of what my illustrious colleague Katrina Onstad refers to as the Beta Male.
"In the animal kingdom, the alpha male is the dominant member of the community. He’s like a cartoon caveman, commanding deference. The betas are wingmen, collaborative and conciliatory. In human terms, betas make the best mates. They do more in the house, and probably in the bedroom, because they know how to hasten the greater good. The beta has poetry in him, and a touch of youthful idealism. He’s sure of who he is, and not constantly trying to prove his value in materialistic terms. (Alpha: Your expensive car doesn’t make you interesting.) The beta can earn a lot of money, or a little, but the money’s not the thing; he profits because he works well with others."
Where Gokey was self-aggrandizing and obsessed with his own victory above all else, Allen's simple comment to host Ryan Seacrest during last night's show -- "Me and Adam said we're not competing, we're just coming out to put on a good show tonight" -- speaks to the fact that both he and Lambert are firmly in the Beta camp. Each has enough confidence in their version of manhood that he doesn't feel compelled to shove it in other people's faces -- or prove it by dominating another dude. Onstad cites the proliferation of Judd Apatow's films featuring doughy sweethearts as heroes as a sign that the dawn of the Beta Male is upon us. I'd take it even further and suggest that the supplanting of George W. Bush by Barack Obama -- with his hope and his commitment to social justice and his equal partnership with his strong, powerful wife -- was a clear example of how the mighty Alphas have fallen, slain by Beta underdogs.
Or at least, that's what I hope. Regardless of which contestant wins the Idol crown tonight -- the judges' comments last night seemed to indicate that Lambert had it in the bag, though I wouldn't be so sure -- that confetti will rain down on the head of a skilled, soft-hearted Beta man. Can't complain about that.
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