- by Mark Savage
- BBC music correspondent
Once, just a few years into his career, Adam Lambert’s record label asked him to record an album of 1980s new-wave cover versions.
It wasn’t a terrible idea. Anyone who heard Lambert cover Tears for Fears Mad World on American Idol knew how well suited that era of melancholy synth-pop was.
But at that stage, two albums into his career, a cover album seemed like capitulation. Concerned that this would damage his credibility, the singer left the label.
“It’s the only type of release they’re willing to support,” he told fans in an open letter, but “my heart simply isn’t in making a cover album”.
A decade later, his position has changed. Lambert is arguably more famous as the new frontman of Queen than as a solo artist; And their new album, High Drama, is made up entirely of covers.
“Well, look, I mean, time is of the essence,” he protests. “At the time they wanted me to do it, I wasn’t interested and that was it.
“I’m at the point now where the idea came up, and I thought, ‘This sounds like a fun challenge’. The idea was to find some songs and flip them on their head so they sound like brand new pieces of music.” “
Those heads have been well and truly flipped.
On her new album, Bonnie Tyler’s Holding Out for a Hero becomes a hungry electro-pop anthem, Lana Del Rey’s West Coast gets a breezy blues makeover, and Culture Club’s Do You Really Want to Hurt Me turns into paranoia Injected in the spirit of.
“I learned with Queen that the way to make songs your own is to stop listening to the original for a while and figure out what it means to you,” he says.
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The most personal track on the album is Duran Duran’s Ordinary World, in which Lambert draws on the lyrical theme of “being an outsider and trying to make your way through everyday normal life”.
His atmospheric interpretation aches with the alienation he felt as a child growing up in California.
He says, “When I was a teenager talking about my sexuality, I didn’t think I’d have a shot in the music industry, because I was gay.”
“We had artists who came after they found success, Elton John, George Michael, but there was nobody I could compare myself to.”
‘full of doubt’
During his stint on American Idol in 2009, Lambert came out to his family and friends, but the show only veiled references to his sexuality. Even when he did, the tone was questionable: in one episode, Simon Cowell tactfully expressed concern about the singer’s “theatricality”.
When photos surfaced of her wearing her clothes kissing her ex-boyfriend at a US music festival, it made headlines in America. Fox News called the photos “embarrassing”, and commentators said the fallout cost him his American Idol crown.
He emerged from the TV show with a major label record deal, but even then, questions arose about his commercial viability.
“A lot of people in the industry, even though they were excited for me and wanted to see me, were full of skepticism,” he says.
“It was a very interesting time. If I looked at the headlines or the questions I was asked, you wouldn’t dare do that today.”
Lambert was proved right when her debut album, For Your Entertainment, went to number one – selling twice as much as Idol winner Chris Allen.
But discrimination does not disappear overnight. When Lambert kissed her male bassist impromptu during a 2009 awards performance, TV network ABC threatened to sue her.
“The network was like, ‘How dare you?’ They banned me for a while. They threatened me with a lawsuit. It was like, ‘Oh, well, here we are,'” she recalled in an acceptance speech at this year’s Sundance Film Festival.
Since then, he said, “more and more young people” told him that his “flamboyant” TV appearances gave him the courage to come out to his parents.
However, he is concerned about the anti-LGBTQ rhetoric of America’s evangelical right and the increasing number of violent attacks on gay bars and drag shows.
When he debuted Ordinary World on US television, he dedicated the track to the victims of the Colorado Springs tragedy, where a gunman opened fire on an LGBTQ club, killing five and injuring at least 17 others.
Filmed largely in black and white, the performance saw Lambert walk through a haunted, abstract room filled with faceless mannequins, framing the song as a reverent, melancholy reflection on mourning.
“We just wanted to keep his memory in our hearts and not forget what happened,” he says.
“It’s not always easy to process these things. I mean, I don’t know anybody who was a victim in that tragedy, but I’m still affected by it.
“I remember, right after it happened, I had a conversation with a friend and we were like, ‘What would you do in that situation?’ And it’s a scary thing to imagine because it’s terrifying, but now you have to be thinking, what would my plan of action be?
“It affects all of us in the queer community and outside the queer community.”
Despite Lambert’s initial misgivings, reviews of her cover album have been largely positive. Billboard magazine called it an “impressive journey through Lambert’s prowess”, while Riff magazine highlighted the star’s ability to tackle multiple styles and genres.
Critic Mike Dewald wrote, “It’s fascinating to see Lambert’s voice change from track to track.” “More than anything, it’s an effective demonstration of his dynamic range.”
Many reviews highlight one of the album’s more obscure covers, I Am a Man.
It was originally released by US glam rocker Jobrith, widely acknowledged as the first openly gay rock star. Launched to great fanfare in 1973, their career ended unexpectedly when, after an unprecedented $80,000 promotional campaign, their debut album was almost completely abandoned by the record-buying public.
On tour, he was repeatedly subjected to homophobic slurs. After a second album flopped, she was dropped by her record label, before succumbing to AIDS in 1983 – later re-emerging as a successful cabaret act.
In the intervening years, his collaborations with musicians including the Pet Shop Boys, Joe Elliott of Def Leppard and Jake Shears of the Scissor Sisters were admired.
Lambert says, “It’s an interesting story about someone who shot really far for stardom and success, didn’t get it, but later found a different version of success.”
Like Jobrith, Lambert got her first break in the musical Hair, and has seen many other parallels in their stories.
In the end, he realized that for all the obstacles he faced, he was lucky to be singing in a more liberal and accepting era.
“It’s now proven that you can be gay and be a mainstream hitmaker,” he says.
“It’s not seen as some kind of niche thing anymore. And I think that’s really encouraging for young people.”