Adam Lambert Isn’t Here to Replace Freddie Mercury. He’s a Queen Frontman for the 21st Century.
On the 40th anniversary of the earth-shattering News of the World, Lambert contributes to the rock band’s legacy while moving forward with his own.
When I mention that Adam Lambert—who’s touring with Queen as its frontman, and has been since 2012—can step up to the microphone he inherited from Freddie Mercury without breaking a sweat, he laughs. Lambert, like Mercury before him, has a flair for the dramatic under the heat of the spotlight, and that extends to his wardrobe: A bold leather jacket is his showman’s staple, be it studded, printed, covered in zippers, or, lately, star-spangled. For this jaunt, he favors a silver one striped with shocks of red that match the current shade of his hair; he will likely break it out for a number of the 21 shows he’ll play in the next 30 days, and will sweat his ass off for every single one of them.
“Well, I sweat. I sweat a whole lot.”
It’s a deflection, this joke at his own expense, and another parallel between the 35-year-old American Idol alum and the mustachioed tenor, who died in 1991 at the age of 45. As Mercury did in Queen’s “Bohemian Rhapsody”-belting heyday, Lambert roars through some of the 20th century’s most adored and vocally taxing verses with infuriating ease, and he gives everything he can until all that’s left is a ringing in the ears of a stunned crowd and enough perspiration soaking his collar to cause concern.
“I’m drenched and a hot mess by the end of the first 20,” he says. “But hey. It’s worth it.”
FILLING MERCURY’S VOID, SINGING MERCURY’S SONGS, AND DOING RIGHT BY MERCURY’S LEGACY IS A RESPONSIBILITY AND A CHALLENGE AND A DESTINY ALL AT ONCE.
Lambert is also a good sport, as this topic—of filling Mercury’s void, singing Mercury’s songs, and doing right by Mercury’s legacy—is inescapable, a responsibility and a challenge and a destiny all at once. The singer’s name hit household status in 2009 thanks to his second-place finish in the eighth season of Idol, and did so, fatefully enough, with Queen’s support. The season finale featured Lambert and his rival, Kris Allen, belting out “We Are the Champions” alongside May and Taylor; though Allen would be dubbed that season’s victor, Lambert’s thunderous vibratto was a perfect fit for both the cinematic song selection and Queen’s discography at large.
Suited for the throes of classic rock, show tunes, and Top 40-friendly pop, his voice was the millennial heir apparent of Mercury’s, and he floored May and Taylor to the point where they would go on to appoint Lambert a semi-permanent fixture in this late chapter of Queen’s epic. He not only had to live up to May and Taylor’s expectations, but those of multiple generations of fans—and the Olympian standards set by the late, great Mercury, a rock and LGBTQ icon Lambert sought to learn from and pay tribute to in every measure.
“The way that I navigated that initial intimidation, I said, ‘What was his intention with the song?'” says Lambert of his internal dialogue with Mercury’s legacy. “‘What did he want the audience to feel, and what story was he trying to tell?’ As long as I focus on that, it usually lands. I have to avoid listening to the records too much. I don’t want to imitate, copy, or mimic; I think that would be sort of tacky, and it’d be sort of disrespectful to the fans. I’m not here to do an impersonation. I’m here to make sure these songs are still heard, to keep the songs in a live space.”
“I DON’T WANT TO IMITATE, COPY, OR MIMIC,” LAMBERT SAYS. “I’M NOT HERE TO DO AN IMPERSONATION. I’M HERE TO MAKE SURE THESE SONGS ARE STILL HEARD, TO KEEP THE SONGS IN A LIVE SPACE.”
Beyond that, the memory of Mercury’s indomitable stage presence shapes both Lambert’s performance of the material and his psychic connection to it. Of the concert footage he’s pored over, Lambert singles out Mercury’s “spirit” as an influence that’s swayed more than his vocal affectations.
“There’s a concert in Montreal where he’s wearing little, itty-bitty white shorts, no shoes, and he’s marching around on that stage having the best time, doing exactly whatever he pleases in every moment,” he says. “There’s something so inspiring about that. He was truly a rock star that way, in that he did whatever the fuck he wanted. He didn’t really care if people liked it or not. He was unapologetic. He was so ballsy! I always aspire to be in that mindset. There were moments in my life that tried to prevent me from being there, but when I get onstage with Queen, I feel like I get full permission to let it all out.”
For Lambert, the timeliness of this tour—which celebrates the upcoming 40th anniversary of News of the World, Queen’s sixth (and best-selling) album—breathes an urgency into the rousing anthems of the record that strike a necessary, current chord in 2017. News of the World boasts “We Will Rock You” and “We Are the Champions” as its singles, and these defiant, triumphant “calls to arms,” as Lambert refers to them, offer motivational benefits to those who look to live music for an escape from the crushing emotional blows of our world gone mad. As happy as he, May, and Taylor are to be revamping their set list to anchor it on News of the World, Queen’s output, on the whole, is a stimulant for those downtrodden by—or addicted to—scrolling through the list of atrocities and scandals were greeted with as soon as we glance at a screen.
“People, universally, are craving empowerment,” he says. “That’s what I love the most about Queen’s catalog: They have these incredible songs that are all very strong and infectious that way. I’ve always liked Queen’s music because it’s timeless—the melodies, the ideas in their songs. They almost always exclusively write about the human experience. They don’t write about rich people, poor people; they don’t write about any particular color, sexuality, or gender. It’s the most universal songwriting I’ve encountered. I think that’s why they’ve become so legendary. There’s something really beautiful about how their music can bring people together.”
If touring with Queen has offered Lambert a masterclass in musical enlightenment and dosing the audience with as much aural hope as they can handle, his new single, “Two Fux,” attempts to put that hard-earned knowledge to use. Lambert is an active, vocal member of the LGBTQ community, and recently spoke at the Resist March that took place over Pride weekend in Los Angeles. He tends to “shy away from politics because they’re so divisive,” but Lambert’s speech was passionate and pointed in its criticisms of the Trump administration those within it who champion hateful, homophobic, xenophobic, racist, and sexist rhetoric.
“Two Fux” is airy, effervescent, and a showcase for the nosebleed-inducing heights his falsetto can scale; it also serves as the conflation of Queen’s influence and Lambert’s own experiences and perspective. In a break from their touring routine, “Two Fux” is getting worked into Queen’s live show, and May and Taylor happily lend their talents and their stage to its debut.
“The song really ties into all of what we’re talking about—Pride, the world we live in, being inspired by a spirit like Freddie Mercury,” he says. “It’s very empowering. It’s an exciting song. I’m thrilled that Brian and Roger enjoyed the song as much as they did when I played it for them, and that they’re interested in performing it with me. I’m very honored that they agreed to do that.”
Five years into this, Lambert’s challenges have changed, and he finds himself in a more “organic” place: Now that he’s long since proven he’s worthy of the seemingly impossible task at hand, he’s able to relax a bit in this surreal, singular place he’s carved out for himself—a pop star in his own right who’s been invited to help write the legend of another. It’s enough to leave him crumbling under pressure, but it’s no sweat, really. He can handle it, as it’s all in a day’s work—with or without the leather jacket.