On the future of Adam Lambert.

June 4, 2009

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It’s been a long time since I followed the British music press, but when I did, I seem to recall a crazy level of hyperbole. Bands were routinely called “the best band in the UK” or “the best band since [some legendary musical act]” before anyone had ever heard their first album, based on a couple of hot shows or maybe an early single.

Many of those bands ended up amounting to absolutely nothing, but by that time the notoriously fickle press was already several best-bands-in-the-UK down the road.

I’ve never seen anything comparable here in the States, but the coverage of Adam Lambert, this year’s American Idol runner-up, is giving me flashbacks of the days when I used to peruse NME at the bookstore after my college classes were out. Before the contest was even over, Lambert had appeared on the cover of Entertainment Weekly solo. The judges, music journalists, the larger media, and bloggers routinely tossed around words like “superstar.”

Superstar? Adam Lambert hasn’t put out anything other than Idol iTunes tie-ins and a single of that Kara DioGuardi song that everyone hated.

Despite this, I am on board with the hype, although more cautiously than many. I used the word “superstar” myself, but hedgingly, asking, “Are we witnessing the birth of a superstar?” I wrote that Adam was a major talent, but, of course, major talents are not always successful.

As a follower of American Idol since the beginning, I’m inclined towards caution. I’ve seen a number of Idol winners or runners-up who seemed to have promising careers ahead of them falter either right out of the gate or when it was time for a follow-up album after the hype of the competition had died down and we, like the British music press, had moved on to a new set of contestants.

It would be a travesty if this happened to someone as talented as Adam Lambert who already commands world attention. To prevent it, Adam should take a long hard look at the rise and fall of Bo Bice.

Bo Bice had a ballsy Southern-rock sound that was popular enough to get him to number two during the show’s fourth season, exactly where Adam finished. Like Adam’s sound, Bo’s was new to the show. Although Bo wasn’t as consistent as Adam, his performances could also be electrifying (most notably here).

But when it came time to make an album, according to All Music Guide’s Stephen Thomas Earlewine:

They threw everything that worked for Bo on the show out the window — the Southern rock, the blues, the classicism — and shoehorned him into a bland alt-rock setting somewhere between Nickelback and Bon Jovi. Clearly, the idea behind this is that what appeals to the show’s audience won’t appeal to the record-buying public, particularly to teens, but instead of building on the audience Bo had on the show, The Real Thing alienates them.

This approach, or something similar, would kill Adam’s career just as surely as it killed Bo’s. Not that Lambert wouldn’t be able to make a comfortable living between modestly-selling albums and a stage career, but his opportunity to become a superstar–a Mick Jagger, a Steven Tyler, a Freddy Mercury–would be squandered, likely for good.

In order to not get his square peg shoved into one of the music industry’s small set of round holes, Adam needs to take control of his career. He needs to insist on picking his collaborators, and he needs to fight for quality material. He needs to refuse to sing songs that do not meet a high standard. He needs to not let the suits, with their preconceived and narrow notions of what will and will not be successful, push him around.

Can he do it? I think he can. Unlike many prior contestants, Adam has been working in the entertainment industry, if only its fringes, for years, so he likely knows the ropes better than most and hence is less likely to get steamrolled.

I also think the Record People are less likely to steamroll him. When Bo Bice got Bo Biced, the show was still in its early phases and The Powers That Be were focused on producing pop stars. The success of Carrie Underwood demonstrated the narrow-mindedness of this approach and since then we’ve had both country and rock Idol success stories. And I get the impression that the Record People think Adam Lambert’s sound will be plenty commercial as it is.

But I still don’t trust them, and neither should Adam. In order to realize his potential, he needs to take control. I pray that he does.

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