Many responses have hit my e-mail inbox about my recent musings on Adam Lambert. Some readers appreciate my explorations of the musical scenes that inform his approach; others find them irrelevant, even disgusting. A few e-mail writers seem to think my mentioning Lambert’s ties to gay culture is an attempt to discredit or demean him — as if being gay equals being corrupt or “less than.” I find this disturbing. More justified, I think, is the question some others ask: Ann, what about his singing? Isn’ t that what makes Lambert so special, after all?
Yes, of course! Lambert’s voice is a rare instrument. Without it, his performances would merely be glitzy entertainment. To put it another way, he’d be Normund Gentle. Confrontational style attracts controversy, but it can’t raise deeper emotions. For that you need real talent, the kind that can move even those who never meant to pay attention.
Lambert sings in a certain way partly because he learned that method doing musicals and cabaret as well as glammy rock; he’s been working onstage since childhood and is well-trained. But a very particular gift allows him to go beyond the average show tune belter — or the average heavy-metal squawker. I think this gift puts him in a league with some of the best singers of the rock era. It has to do with the passaggio — his ability to transition from the lower register to that killer falsetto.
A friend who is a singer pointed this out to me (thank you, Erika Gunn!). She noted that many of the vocalists we find most unearthly and stirring can go from their earthy chest voice to the more piercing head voice without stumbling into the weak, constricted zone that often plagues singers as they make the leap. One blogger described it this way: The voice is like a stick-shift car, and the passaggio is the area of shifting, that risky spot where you’d better be both flexible and totally in command.
There’s a lot of interesting technical stuff written about the passaggio. I’m no expert on vocal technique, so let me leave my thoughts within the territory I know: the effect of a certain voice on listeners. Lambert’s natural range is fairly high — he’s a tenor emerging at a time when most rock-oriented singers are baritones, like those kings of the “Idol” jungle, Chris Daughtry and David Cook. (R&B singers are a different matter altogether; the lingering influence of Michael Jackson means that soft, high voices still do well in the field.)
What’s most striking about Lambert, though, is way he can linger in between registers without cracking, wavering or producing a “tight” sound. That’s why his rendition of “Mad World” struck many as his best performance of the season. It lived in that space. The way Lambert’s voice moves gives definition to grace, the way an Olympic skater does when executing a triple toe loop.
I was first convinced that Lambert’s talent goes beyond that of the average “Idol” striver when I saw the Youtube clip of him singing “Dust in the Wind” at the Upright Cabaret in Hollywood. Oh, my God, I thought. Idol is going to have its own Antony! Except he’s younger, more conventionally handsome and not wearing a dress.
Lambert had put me in mind of Antony Hegarty, the hugely gifted art star who uses his near-castrato vocal tone to convey his thoughts on the androgynous nature of love and life’s transitory flow. I wondered how such a delicate creature could survive the harsh grooming that “Idol” demands. (And I’m not the only “Idol” watcher to note the Antony connection.)
Since then, though, Lambert has shown more than that one side. He’s put his scariest Axl face forward for a metal-hard version of “Born to Be Wild” and regularly reached for notes that Janis Joplin might have dared. He’s earned comparison to Freddie Mercury and a standing ovation from Smokey Robinson. Lambert shares two things with all of those great singers: an urge to scale the wall of any melody and the knack for unsettling expectations that come with such a talent.
All of the greats I’ve mentioned pushed through the personae that might have otherwise held them in check. W. Axl Rose, in his prime, was not just the premier heavy-metal singer but the man who took metal into totally new territory. Joplin remains one of the only women to have fully commanded the male-run clubhouse of hard rock. As Queen’s frontman, Mercury made glam rock at once more androgynous and, paradoxically, more manly. And Robinson: His moonglow voice defied racial and gender stereotypes.
Lambert is hardly as formed as these greats. He has a long way to go and much to prove before he stands at the door of the pantheon. But his singing ability, at least, gives him the right to try. And that’s why we just can’t stop talking about him.
— Ann Powers