Today the internet is ablaze with news of Adam Lambert’s self-outing in Rolling Stone magazine. I find the outpouring fascinating and confusing, while the news itself of course, is utterly unsurprising. “I don’t think it should be a surprise for anyone to hear that I’m gay,” Lambert admitted to Rolling Stone. Which is one reason why it’s fascinating: absent any kind of shock value, Lambert’s coming out is being treated like a triumphal celebration. Imagine telling that to Harvey Milk.
The idea that a singer’s sexuality is so darned newsworthy and important is an ironic comment on the gulf between American pop culture and American politics.
Two weeks ago, the California Supreme Court upheld the Prop 8 ban on gay marriage. Today, rock music’s most promising new star poses seductively on the cover of an iconic American magazine to declare he’s gay and he’s proud. But while the headline promises, “The Liberation of Adam Lambert,” the visual conveys a different message. Rolling Stone touts its subversive appetite with the pointed placement of a snake—the bible’s most sinister creature—heading straight for Lambert’s groin. It’s as if it’s saying, ‘Who cares that a snake is heading for your private part? You’re on the COVER of Rolling Stone!’ Unfortunately, gaydom’s new cover boy harbors no ambitions for advancing the cause: He tells Rolling Stone, “I’m trying to be a singer, not a civil rights leader.”
Lambert held out for the Rolling Stone platform because he thought it would be “cooler” to come out to a rock magazine than a melee of reporters. But why is it so significant? Is it because Lambert has finally been liberated from the tight-lipped environment of American Idol, and can dress in drag without consequence? Because his being gay challenges the archetype of the virile, guitar-smashing, womanizing rock star? Or is it exciting because this is this how Hollywood’s liberal populists thumb their noses at conservatives in power? That much would make sense, considering the year’s track record: Hollywood responded to the Prop 8 ban by awarding “Milk,” a film about the assassination of a gay activist and politician, with a screenwriting Oscar.
Option D: All of the above. Lambert can’t marry who he loves, but he can canoodle with them in West Hollywood, unafraid of paparazzi; he can be a sex-crazed rock star who is crazy about a different sex; and yes, even as gays are denied basic civil rights, Lambert can be praised for coming out and given pop culture’s brightest spotlight. And even if he doesn’t want to, or mean to, Lambert can send a message to people who don’t support gay rights that being gay is—as Lambert might say—cool.