Adam Lambert and the Burden of Being First

Neil Lambert read my post on The Voice on Friday, and as good brothers will do, emailed me to suggest I hadn’t been entirely fair in my characterization of Adam Lambert’s coming-out story. He writes:

Adam clearly didn’t want to negatively impact his chances by turning the end of the competition into an indictment of his sexuality, but I think also because he didn’t want the story — if it did turn out to be him losing — to be about the Idol audience’s anti-gay bias. He’s proudly gay and I’m proud of him for it, but I’m prouder still that he thinks we’d all be better off the quicker our culture gets past gender and sexuality. I think an important aspect of achieving that goal is not allowing homophobia to make you the victim when things don’t go your way and doubly so if you’re in the spotlight.

You might be interested to know that behind the scenes, the Idol producers didn’t try to persuade him one way or the other when it came to answering the press once all those pictures began surfacing online. They were surprisingly supportive and told him they’d back him either way. This came as a surprise to me and suggests two possibilities: either they’ve come a long way from the gay prejudices they exhibited with Mr. Aiken, or (more likely, in my opinion) past gay contestants were far warier about their sexuality than Adam is and asked Idol to shield them from scrutiny.

Neil and I agree that the larger problem is Idol’s accumulated history and reputation. I wouldn’t really want to choose between the person who wins American Idol and the person who helps the program evolve beyond its early fears of a gay contestant—especially if you think winning could give you longer-term power to act as a role model and sell albums. The Voice has a clean slate in that regard, one that’s being put to good use, and I’ll be curious to see if gains a long-term edge over Idol because of it. But I also thought Neil’s email was an interesting reminder of the frustration of being any sort of first. There’s always going to be some very talented person whose talent is eclipsed by the barrier they broke down with the force of that same talent. I imagine Barack Obama has a keen sense of how he could have used every minute of mental energy he had to devote to speculation about his birth certificate, and that there’s a lot of catharsis packed into “For Your Entertainment.”