If you’ve already picked up a copy of HARDY Vol. 2 “We Are Family,” then by now you’ve sipped some tea with Adam Lambert, in Joey Gray’s candid chat about everything from coming out, to gay bars, drag, and chosen family.
PART TWO continues right here:
JG: What advice would you give to a queer creative person just coming of age?
AL: If you’re a young person reading this, challenge yourself to do research. It’s interesting, it’s cool—you’ll end up discovering old film icons, or diving into older music, and then you’ll hear something that makes you go, “Oh wait, so-and-so is totally doing that!” There is so much referencing that people don’t even know about or realize. Challenge yourself to explore music and film from the past! It will make your art so much stronger.
Right, know your references! At DragCon this year, Bob the Drag Queen–
–I love Bob!
OMG, I know! He was talking about how drag queens went from referencing Judy, Barbra, Cher, Madonna or Gaga to now being the ones who are referenced. I mean, just think about the influence Raven’s makeup has had.
I think it’s kind of the same thing, say, with Gaga: she’s referencing Madonna [who was referencing Marilyn Monroe, Marlene Dietrich, and Mae West] but the kids are referencing Gaga. So, it’s just about tracing the line back and connecting the dots to the original reference, and making sure that it’s being recognized and appreciated.
It’s tricky because you can get into hot water as an artist if you straight up say: “I’m referencing so-and-so.” Then all of a sudden you’re considered a copycat. Funny thing is, as long as you don’t fess up, there are a lot of people who won’t catch it. But is it better to just admit it? I don’t know. The art of drag in bars is all in the lip sync, or at least that’s what it’s been for so long. They’re performing somebody else’s song. It’s all imitation. But, the real fierce queens who have figured out how to be ironic with it, or how to cut up a fucking batshit medley, or these queens who sort of turn something on its ear—that’s the drag that I get really excited about.
Yeah, when they take it a step beyond a straightforward reference or parody.
And add some intelligence or some humor to it, something that makes it weird and special. I love that. Or, you know, like a wig within a wig! A tear-away wig moment!
C’mon, Roxxxy Andrews!
Yes! Okay, who else do the children need to know about, especially on a vocal level? Some of the best singers, in my opinion, are:
Donna Summer is such an icon of the Disco era. Sylvester was way ahead of his time. Patti Labelle and Chaka Kahn—yes please! Aretha Franklin and Whitney Houston. Go back further and listen to some Ella Fitzgerald or Sarah Vaughn or Etta James. That’s one hell of a master class. Listen to some rock stars too: Freddie Mercury and Robert Plant. If Janis Joplin doesn’t make you feel some shit, I don’t know what will. Listening to James Brown is always yummy.
I love that there are a lot of films and TV shows being made right now that are exploring the queer culture in the 70s and 80s and being real about it. It was something that was so underground at that time and was taboo in pop culture. But now, in our mainstream entertainment, we get to see it. There are real stories being told about real people with depth and respect. It’s major progress.
And maybe it’s not totally political, or at least that’s not the only reason for this cultural shift, but I’m wondering if some of that progress feels more urgent now because of the socio-political climate that we’re currently in?
Yeah, I feel like there’s a sense that life’s too short. For me, I know that in the past I put a lot of pressure on myself, and I was a little bit afraid to fully go for things. I tempered a lot of my creative decisions or my sonic decisions because I didn’t want to offend anybody, or because I wanted to be more palatable. It was a people-pleasing thing.
The industry I work in is tough. But, it’s really changing right now, too. It’s giving more power back to the audience and to the artist, as far as the content goes. Music is a viral medium. And it’s really refreshing, because right now it’s kind of back to, “Well, if the song connects with people… it will connect with people.” There’s less that is standing in the way of that connection between the artist and the fans. I think for a while the model of the music industry gave the big business part of it more power than it has now. If you’re listening to a radio station and a song plays ten times in two hours, it’s going to stick in your head; now we’ve moved into the streaming era where people make their own playlists and things are curated for a specific listener.
Do you think there’s been extra pressure for you, being a queer artist?
Being a queer artist made it really challenging, because there’s no real model. At a few points over the last eight years I’ve gotten stuck in comparing myself to others in the game and having a hard time figuring out where I fit into the industry. You know, I probably knew this somewhere deep down then, but for whatever reason over the past year I’ve kind of all of a sudden remembered that that’s not what this is about. This is about me being myself. This is about me being exactly who and what I am, and putting that into the music, and allowing those ideas connect with people who want to listen.
As you’re saying that, I’m thinking of the way that socializing and popularity works. The key is always in just being your true self, because someone will get it, even if it’s just one person, and then other people start to catch on. I think we just have to remember who we are and why we’re doing what we’re doing.
Well, yeah, it’s that whole authenticity thing, and what we were talking about earlier [in Part One] with identity—it really comes down to that. And I think there are a lot of people in the public eye that are trying to project a certain identity, to be liked. It’s like, “If I dress like this, and talk like this, and do this style of music, and hang out with these people, and it gets covered by this magazine, then everyone will like me because this is what’s good.” And some of that might be real, I hope, but I think some of it is bullshit, and it’s like, don’t we all know better? How are we supporting that? Why are we supporting false shit? Why aren’t more people speaking up about it? I guess the proof is in the fact that there are a lot of artists out there that deserve to be where they are, because they’re great, they’re being real, and they aren’t full of shit.
In entertainment, yes, you do want to ask yourself, “What are people going to like, what are they going to connect with, what are they going to enjoy?” It’s something that you should be aware of, but it can’t be the only angle when considering your art. Something has to come from the inside, from the heart. What do I want to do, what do I want to say, what I want to listen to, what do I want to get up on stage and perform every night?
So Adam, tell me, what do you want to do, say, listen to, and perform every night?
I’m working on it! That’s been the great challenge of the music that I’m working on right now, because I’ve been able to finally tune out all of that outside shit. I finally realized that it was throwing me off my game. I’m not worrying about making something that sounds like this is the trend now and it has to sound like this. I’m challenging myself to define my own sound.
So over the past six months or so, I’ve been listening to less Top 40 and I’ve started going back to the music that I loved before I started in all of this. The music I loved as a kid, and the big artists from the past that informed my love for music and that were the reason why I wanted to get into it in the first place. I’ve been listening to more of that; like George Michael’s Faith album, or Prince, or Bowie—it’s still so bizarre that we’ve lost them all, these amazing artists that carved their own path—I’ve just been going back to the music I was listening to that made me feel amazing, before all the pressures of the business. And, obviously, all of my work with Queen has definitely pushed me into a great space musically.
When you put it in perspective, how we lost, in the span of a year, Bowie, Prince and George Michael, it’s like wow—where are we going from here, who are we looking to now?
It’s interesting, too, how when we lose big icons like that all of a sudden people start referencing them again. Some of the people that we lost were so fucking brilliant that, if that influence makes its way into popular music again, I’m thrilled.
Also, all queer icons.
And that’s the thing, the way in which they performed and some of their subject matter and even their fashion was so ballsy. We don’t have a lot of that going on right now. There aren’t many male artists who want to push those kinds of boundaries.
As I’m literally looking at the person currently touring as the front man of Queen.
Ha! Well, I mean, I’ll carry the torch! There are plenty of female artists that take big style risks. It made me start thinking about why is it that we can’t celebrate that with male artists? There’s certainly a double standard. And what’s so funny is, what you said, that those are queer artists—or flirting with queer, because Prince wasn’t necessarily queer but man he was very androgynous, and he was doing his fucking thing, in full face and a heel. But, why didn’t it scare people back then the same way it scares people now? That’s what I want to know. What’s the difference? Is it because it was so taboo for so long to actually discuss alternative sexuality, that flirting with the idea of it seemed mysterious and fun? Sexual politics and gender expression is a real conversation that’s happening now. We’re really digging into it. It’s not longer nuanced and vague; you have to back it up with fact.
Right, as amazing as what those artists were doing, it was kind of in lieu of addressing queer identity directly. But as you’re saying, queerness isn’t just a sideshow or a commodity anymore.
Yeah, so how did that openness now cause people to embrace it less? One of the things that’s given me hope and joy over the past few years is the wave of gender non-conformity and sexual fluidity. It’s a real movement right now. And it’s amazing, because that’s what was going on in the early seventies; that’s where Bowie came from, and Queen was in that, the Glam Rock era, and then the Disco era. It’s cool to see that mentality cycle back.
It is, for sure. But, I’m not convinced that people are less accepting now than they were then. I think more angry people have platforms now than they did then. I think it’s also because of the Internet and Twitter and the scope of the world. People’s opinions can travel so far, so fast now. With so many more voices being amplified around the world, maybe it just seems like there’s more outrage about it than there ever was in the past.
That’s where that extra tension might be coming from, because it’s harder to escape certain things.
It’s like what you were saying about not listening to Top 40 lately, I think we all have to make an effort to tune some things out. Focus on the good and the love and the inspiration, create from there, and inspire somebody else to create, instead of just focusing on the noise.
But, then again, because we have a lot of platforms and there’s more ways to broadcast your identity, it has a bigger impact on somebody who might be confused on where they’re at and then they can go, “I didn’t know this was an option. There’s someone else like me out there, I don’t have to subscribe to this other stuff.” It’s giving some people some answers, or opportunities, or options that they didn’t otherwise have access to.
Totally. I think that’s the yin and yang of it. It’s a positive thing that there’s such a big platform for people to connect on, as much as there’s so much negative stuff that also comes along with having such a big platform.
And it’s almost hard to have an underground now because of it, too. The underground was always out of the mainstream’s sight, but now, if something feels cool, someone is going to post it. We have mainstream pop artists making vague statements about their sexuality, and they haven’t really claimed anything specifically, and then all of a sudden the binary leaning media will label them. Then gay media want to adopt them as one of their own—I’m always baffled by this—like, they never mentioned gay or bi, they simply said “I don’t define it” or “I’m queer.” Back in the 70s, I think it could remain more mysterious but now it seems like everyone wants to jump to a black-and-white conclusion.
There’s also much less time afforded in our culture now to sit with a sense of curiosity. I feel like we live with such a need for instant gratification. We all want the payoff right away; we want to know and see it all up front before we make our choice. I would guess it’s the same thing with releasing an album or a film. You know, I think of The Rocky Horror Picture Show playing for years at midnight showings before it became a worldwide cult hit. The fact that people just had patience and curiosity to go and find cool hidden underground shit, now everything is like, it’s a hit or it’s not and it’s gone and on we’re to the next thing. That feels like such a creativity killer.
Yeah, it is a little rough on artistry. You’re right. An artist could put out an album and then wait three or four years to put out another one. You do that now, and unless you’re Beyoncé, you might not have the momentum anymore. You have to have a lot of momentum to keep it all going. The other thing about that that’s all so confusing is that the artists that are doing the reinventing thing. They’ll do an album and it’s this vibe and then another album and it’s that vibe. I know, as an artist, it’s really exciting to reinvent a little bit and for each project to have its own thing going on, but that becomes harder, too, when it’s expected to happen so quickly. I don’t think people buy it, they’re like, “Oh, really, all of a sudden you’re like this now?” It doesn’t feel like a real progression, because most people take a little bit longer to change that much. I’m not talking just about a haircut—I’m talking about a whole vibe.
What’s the vibe right now, would you say? And where do you see it going?
I keep hearing singers that do weird baby talk. Like, since, when did we decide it was cool to sound like you have a mouth full of marbles? An interesting voice is an interesting voice, but I think a lot of artists are putting it on. Their speaking voices are entirely different from they’re singing voices. That’s odd to me. It feels inauthentic.
Also there’s a trend right now of really small, intimate singing. I think it can be sexy and it makes you feel like you’re having a personal conversation with an artist. So it’s effective. But I really miss hearing more full on SANGING. I miss that. There’s hardly any of that going on. I don’t even care about the genre; it existed in so many different genres. People just really dug into it and let you have it. Whitney used to sing her fucking face off! That’s not the trend right now, and I hope that comes back in style. As a singer, it’s really exciting to let it rip. It feels great, there’s such a release of energy, and in live situations you can feel the audience light up when you give them those moments. It’s the same thing for a really intense powerful vocal moment on a track, but all of this small singing, all one-note, it sounds like there’s one dynamic. Maybe it’s just my personal preference, but when an artist can have the dynamics, when they can go from quiet to ape shit, that gets me going. That’s exciting.
To that point, and not a moment too soon, Adam just released his latest single “TWO FUX,” which will be followed up by more new music later this year. Stay tuned at adamofficial.com
And if you want to experience the “ape shit” live moment for yourself, be sure to check out Queen + Adam Lambert on their North American tour this summer, Europe and the U.K. in the fall, and worldwide in 2018. Info at queenonline.com