With Adam Lambert, American Idol finally got a finalist who was completely, utterly contemporary, aware of what’s hip in music and culture, aware of how music is made and consumed in 2009, never seeming to try to follow fads or set trends, just embodying the time.
Mercifully, he came in second to Kris Allen, for if he came in first he may have had to tame his self-styled glamazon ways.
A second place finish allowed Lambert to come out of the closet and indulge in his penchant for theater on his debut, For Your Entertainment -- which isn’t quite the same thing as camp, for if Adam Lambert is anything he’s earnest about his dress-up, never winking at the audience because he doesn’t think there’s much funny about his glitter and mascara: that’s just what pop stars are supposed to do.
He’s learned that by listening to his stacks of Queen and Bowie records, from watching old MTV videos on YouTube, from living in a present that always competes with the ever-present past, so he takes it all at face value, mixing up arena rock guitars, new wave, disco, operatic overdubs with a constant electro pulse, glassy modern R&B, and the vague Euro strains of new millennium teen pop.
All this makes For Your Entertainment very, very modern in a way few mainstream pop albums are in 2009, whether they’re products of the American Idol/19 machine or not: Max Martin, Dr.
Luke, Rivers Cuomo, P!nk, Lady GaGa, Linda Perry, Ryan Tedder, Muse’s Matthew Bellamy, and Justin Hawkins of the Darkness all elbow each other for space here, creating cheerful genre-bending where Sweet gives way to the Scissor Sisters, and it’s never, ever necessary for a listener to recognize the allusions, either the intentional or accidental.
Tellingly, all the anonymous numbers here -- the anthemic AAA pop “Aftermath,” the amorphous electro-ballad “Broken Open,” the thumping, punning “Strut” -- all bear co-writing credits from Lambert, suggesting that all the heavy-hitters here had a better bead on what made him a sensation on Idol.
They all write to his image -- GaGa wisely goes so far as to keep the object of his affection male -- and they give him some truly terrific pop tunes: Hawkins’ glorious, goofy opener “Music Again,” a strange dead ringer for Aldo Nova; Dr.
Luke’s cool strutting title track; Bellamy’s shimmering smoothed-out Radiohead “Soaked”; P!nk’s pained “Whataya Want from Me”; Cuomo’s surging “Pick U Up,” which could have fit on Raditude; Tedder’s typically icy alienation “Sleepwalker”; and Lady GaGa’s terrific disco “Fever.” Lambert sounds larger than life on these, just like he wants to be, and if there’s no sense of danger here -- whenever he dons his leather and his girlfriends put on their stripper heels, it’s playacting drama club kids getting a kick out of their adopted roles -- at least there’s a lot of pure pop pleasure, more than any immediate post-Idol album has ever delivered.