Appearing on American Idol recently, Miley Cyrus, the reigning princess of Middle America, met Adam Lambert, the gothy favourite to win this year’s contest. “Adam said I looked gorgeous, which was nice,” Cyrus later told Ryan Seacrest on the Idol host’s radio show. Asked about the potential for romance, Cyrus was less enthusiastic. “He’s not my type,” she reportedly said. “He wears eyeliner.”
Perhaps Cyrus was trying to be polite. For sure, there are greater obstacles to any potential coupling. For one, Lambert, 27, is 10 years Cyrus’s senior. For another, Cyrus is a girl. And Lambert is quite possibly gay.
Aside from affecting his romantic options, Lambert’s sexuality wouldn’t seem to be much of a limitation, at least so far as his career is concerned. Numerous gay musicians have won popular and critical acclaim; pop music and gay culture have often intersected. But his presence on Idol has prompted an altogether remarkable question, one posed by no less than the New York Times recently: can a gay contestant win?
Asking the question reveals certain assumptions about Idol. That it is the exclusive domain of conservative Middle America. That the typical viewer is a 12-year-old girl or 52-year-old mother who goes to church and voted for Bush. That, to put it bluntly, only rednecks watch Idol and rednecks don’t like gay people, so a gay person can’t win. There may be some truth to this. Though it fails to explain why the teenage girls in Idol’s live audience each week scream at the sight of Lambert’s made-up eyes. For the record, he has not clarified his sexuality, and most of the evidence for the claim—the falsetto, the musical theatre background, the fondness for Cher—has been anecdotal at best. Except, perhaps, for the leaked photos that show him with his tongue in another man’s mouth.
When Fox News’ Bill O’Reilly did a segment on Lambert, the photos were cropped to spare his viewers the sight of two male tongues touching. Overt sexuality—gay, straight or otherwise—is not something Fox’s Idol typically encourages. Previous gay contestants have admitted their sexuality only after leaving the show. As Katherine Meizel, an American academic who has written extensively about the politics of Idol, says, “It’s probably the one identity marker that isn’t packaged explicitly on the screen.” Season seven contestant David Hernandez was voted off shortly after his history as a male stripper was revealed on the Internet, and he recently linked his dismissal to his gayness. “That’s Middle America for you,” he surmised.
Beware the simple explanation, though. The week of his dismissal, Hernandez’s performance was deemed “overdone” and “verging on desperate.” And, though generally a bit cheesy, Idol is not to be confused with the entertainment portion of a Republican convention. Last season’s finale included an appearance by George Michael. Two years ago, the Bush-bashing punk band Green Day played the finale. The first theme week this season was dedicated to the music of Michael Jackson. “The producers I think are really, really smart,” says Meizel. “And they’re really aware of the diversity of American values.”
The voting public has proved similarly apolitical. Season three’s winner, Fantasia Barrino, was a single black mother. In season five, a grey-haired 29-year-old soul singer (Taylor Hicks) beat a leggy, black-haired Barbie (Katherine McPhee). In seven seasons, four winners have been white, two black and one of mixed race—as Meizel points out, America elected a biracial Idol before it elected a biracial president. Only one winner—Carrie Underwood in season four—has vaguely resembled the typical pop tart. With a few debatable exceptions, the most compelling contestants have fared best. And Lambert is perhaps the most intriguing talent in the show’s run: a strutting, sexually ambiguous heartthrob with pouty lips and glam rock bombast. His Middle Eastern-influenced rendition of Johnny Cash’s Ring of Fire was weirdly epic and erotic. He performed Jackson’s worst hit, Black or White, without seeming completely ridiculous—all while vaguely resembling a vampire from Twilight.
In other words, he is a walking manifestation of pop music and, consequently, America. And should he win, should he prove at least as American as Miley Cyrus and Bill O’Reilly, the central question of his candidacy will be promptly turned around. If a gay contestant can win, have we vastly misunderstood Middle America?