In early October, Out sat down with Adam Lambert for an hour-long talk about his upcoming album, life inside the American Idol machine, and how carving out a career in the music industry is still easier for him than being in love. (Lambert and then-boyfriend Drake LaBry broke up following that interview, after Out went to press.)
In this second half of our extended interview transcript (to read the first half, head here.), Lambert talks about the responsibility that comes with being a role model -- it doesn't involve being a 'goody two-shoes' -- plus the community of counterculture artists who keep him grounded. He also opens up about fighting codependency in his past relationships and struggling to be a good boyfriend.
Out: Let's talk about Freddie Mercury. There was a moment in the finale when you and Kris were singing Queen, and Brian May looked at you like he was going to start crying.
Adam Lambert: He's really cool. There was some wild energy going on during that performance. And even with Kris up there. Kris was really connecting with me, too.
'We Are the Champions' was a great song choice for the two of you.
It was very cool, and Brian was a sweetheart. Yeah, that felt really good. It felt really like the progression of that -- it's so sad, because Freddie was definitely an idol of mine. His voice, first of all, and his showmanship. Then when you really look at it, he couldn't be who he was publicly. That was one of the things [we considered] when we decided I should just talk about it in Rolling Stone and just get it out of the way. I just don't want to live my life trying to hide anything, or putting up a front. I don't -- I will not do that. Too many people have had to do that in the past. It's just so sad.
I don't think it's very good for your art, to put up a front.
My mentality is, if I lose some fans, fuck it. I need to be happy, too.
Do you feel like you learned how to make a music video from doing camera work with Idol?
Yep. And that's the thing that was so funny. I walked on the set [for the 'Time for Miracles' video] and the production crew were the same people that did those Ford music videos. So it felt really comfortable. We were on the show and we would always be like, 'Ugh, why the hell are we doing another one of these Ford commercials? They're so stupid.' And now I look at it and I think, you know what? That really was good training. Because I felt so comfortable and I probably wouldn't have otherwise. When you do anything in slow motion, they speed up the music and you have to sing with it faster. And we did that for the commercials on Idol. And I think had we not done that, now I would've been like, 'What the fuck?'
In videos for the album, would having a pretty boy love interest be too much?
I don't know yet. I'm gonna kind of play it by ear. But eventually it would be cool to be able to do something like that.
Do people come to you with ideas that are more out there than you would have come up with? Or are you one who's pushing them?
There are definitely creative ideas that come up, but sometimes they're just not right. Sometimes they're out there, but they're corny. Camp and corny are two different things. Camp has to be done just right, or else it isn't right. It has to be like, sophisticated. I love high fashion and theatrics and things that are really conceptual. But if you push that too far then it gets kind of self-indulgent.
That's always the question with Lady Gaga -- how far is too far?
I think she's smart. I predict that she will experiment and change it up a little bit. She's got to show a little crack in the veneer for the audience to really get a three-dimensional view of who she is. I love that she's brave enough to be that eccentric. I think it takes balls to be that out there.
Do you worry about not being brave enough?
No, I don't worry about it. It's more calculated than that: when do you go all the way out and when do you pull it back? It's like how it was on Idol for me. Musically and visually, you have to do both, highs and lows. You have to do [something] crazy and over-the-top and then you have to strip it down and do something sensitive.
I have to say, I didn't really expect to see someone on Idol tour jerking off a mic stand.
You know what was really funny about that -- a woman came up to me in the autograph line and was like, 'This is a family show. You need to make this more appropriate.' And I looked at her and said, 'I don't need a lecture from you.' I kinda smiled and she was like, 'But there's little girls in the audience.' I said to her, 'They probably don't know what I'm doing. You do. They don't know what I'm doing. They just think I'm playing with my mic! They don't know that I'm jerking off. They don't get that yet. Come on! And, if they do, then'sorry.'
They didn't learn it from you.
Hopefully it will facilitate a conversation. And it's not different from what Elvis and Michael Jackson did in their day. Relatively speaking.
Tell me about working with Linda Perry.
She's great. I remember she said to me at one point, 'Its funny, I've never worked with a gay guy before.' She keeps it real, and she also has a ton of artistic integrity. It's not commercial with her. She doesn't want it to be what everybody else is doing. She loves thing that are different and out of the box.
Do you feel like there is more room for you in a rock genre?
Yes and no. Because, yes, I can sing a rock song. I love rock music. I love drums. I love the sound of a guitar. I love thinking this track is going to be played at a bar where people are drinking and having a good time and wanting to feel sexy. That's what this song is for, to make you feel hot. It's not deep, necessarily. But sometimes you should just have fun.
It's nice to meet a gay man who enjoys drugs that aren't meth or coke.
I stay very far away from those things. It's funny too because I remember after that [Rolling Stone] article, my mom was like, 'I don't know if you should have said all that stuff about drugs, Adam. You know there's a lot of kids'' And I said, 'But that's life, that's real.' I just wanted to be careful that it didn't turn into a fucking pageant. It doesn't have to be goody two-shoes. I'm not. I can fake it sometimes. Maybe. There is an element of responsibility. I'm not a jackass. There are kids exposed to things. I don't want to fuck up some kid's life or something, or make a parent's job really difficult. But at the same time, it's like --
What are you doing that would do that?
I don't know. To some people, me being sexual is really offensive because I'm gay. They're like, he's being really gay. And I'm like, actually, no, because there's no other guys up here. I'm just being sexual. And male sexuality is frightening to America. Female sexuality -- it might not be the best example of it, but it's all over the place. Overt female sexuality might be degrading. It might not be the most feminist type of sexuality, unless you look at it like the woman's in control, so she's got the power. Sexuality is just -- people are so freaked out by it. The double standard is that a woman can get away with it but a man hasn't been able to yet.
How famous is too famous?
I don't know. I really think it's relative. The hardest thing to do in this situation -- but the best thing to do -- is to not take it too seriously. By doing that you don't let it run your life and freak you out. It's all kind of ridiculous, if you put yourself outside of it and try to look at it as objectively as possible. It's all ridiculous. The whole thing. It's crazy. It's hilarious. It's funny. It's great. It's really positive. And when you start letting the pressure get to you -- our job as entertainers is to not let the pressure get to us. Our job as entertainers is to be like, OK, I'm just going to keep doing what I do. And obviously I'm being an idealist right now -- but I kind of have to be, or how else am I going to last?
Can you go back to Burning Man?
I hope so. I'll just wear disguises. Fame doesn't freak me out, and I can handle it. But sometimes out in public there are people that just are so rude. Like, people are really cool about it and they'll come up to you and they're just like, 'Oh, hey man, I really liked you.' It's brief, it's sweet, it's genuine. But some people freak out. And I'm like, "Why are you freaking out?" I don't get that mentality. I've never felt like that about a celebrity before -- except maybe Madonna. When I met Madonna my heart was racing. That's my one experience being star-struck. And I told her, 'I'm freaking out.' And she said, 'Why?' And I said, 'Because you're fucking Madonna.'
But there are kids who feel like that about you already.
But even though I was star-struck [about Madonna] and freaking out, I internalized it. And I made sure that I didn't make her feel uncomfortable. And some people, it's like they just don't get that.
Or they don't respect themselves in that situation.
It's a boundaries issue. They feel like because they know you and they like you that you owe them something. And it's a difficult situation because I do owe them something, with Idol. They voted. If it weren't for people out there voting for me, I wouldn't have made it on the show. So I do owe them a lot of gratitude, I do. But I think that that's what I owe them -- gratitude. I don't owe them to come join me for dinner when you're coming up to me in this restaurant and I'm trying to eat. 'No, you can't sit down. No, you know what, I'm actually trying to eat dinner, can we take a picture another time?' It's just about boundaries, and respect. It's the one thing about being famous that's difficult to adjust to.
What are you doing to stay sane?
I haven't been going out that much. And I miss it a little bit, but I've been busy. I was definitely a night owl before all this. And when I go out and do errands, I'm literally like, I'm going to put on a baseball cap and sunglasses so that I can just do my thing. It's not that I don't like people coming up to me or appreciate the genuine sentiment. I'd just like to be left alone a little bit. No one can prepare you for that.
Is that the thing that's changed the most?
Yeah. Because at the heart of me I'm the same guy doing the same thing on a larger scale. I've always been an entertainer. But it's just, the lack of anonymity. It's going to sell the album, but it takes away from your personal life. I wouldn't have it any other way. I think it's a fair trade. If that's what I have to sacrifice for getting what I want, then fine.
How do you balance that mainstream success with having come from a community of performers who are much more underground?
There are tracks on the album that are artier and weird and experimental. And there will be things on it that are more mainstream and commercial. I like both kinds of music. I understand why you have to have both kinds. It's kind of like what Lady Gaga is doing. She has huge commercial success but what she's doing is wild and out there. I think there's so many different elements that go into a persona and entertainment. If one of my songs sounds commercial, hopefully I'll be able to create a visual that's different, to give it a whole new twist.
Do you feel a responsibility to do that?
Yeah. Because I don't want to be generic. I want to give people something to look at and talk about it. When I did 'Ring of Fire,' which was a classic country song that I turned into this psychedelic Middle Eastern thing, I loved the way it turned out. And I loved what I was wearing. That was probably the most me, just as far as my taste goes and the kind of stuff I like. It was very Burning Man. And it was very polarizing. Some people loved it, and just as many people were like, "Ugh." I think there's going to be some stuff on the album that does the same thing. And I hope that it does have a strong point of view. I don't want to be bland. That is the last thing I want.
Are you worried about that?
No. But the big business of the music industry, if it's not navigated properly, can end up making you bland. It's all about mass appeal.
Who are your biggest allies?
The producers. Linda and I have had a lot of great conversations. Same with Greg Wells. They're both very pro creative/artistic vision. Other allies are my friends that get it, that know. People that I did The Zodiac Show with. People that I've been performing with for years, that I did theater with. They get it. They get the line between integrity and commercialism. Big theater is like that. I was in Wicked! That's a perfect example of a great piece of musical theater, but it's also very, very finely constructed to have mass appeal to women, mostly. They knew their demographic. It's totally calculated, but it is good. That's kind of the way I look at what I'm trying to do. Something that does have mass appeal, and does have commercial appeal, and will be successful, but at the same time, it has quality. I definitely straddle the line -- I'm a business person, but I'm an artist.
How do you balance that yourself? How do you go home and chill out?
It's been hard because I don't compartmentalize as well as I'd like to. So I tend to be thinking a lot about the music. But the relationship has been very helpful, as an escape in a way.
And you get to see each other enough?
Yeah? I mean, we didn't for a while because I was on tour. But now we're in the same city. We're both busy, but it's definitely better.
You've talked in other interviews about how much falling in love for the first time changes you.
It really does change you, though, you know? But this is only the second relationship I've had in my entire life, and I'm 27 years old.
What did you learn about yourself from the end of that first love?
What you realize is that when you fall in love, especially for the first time -- the first major relationship that you have where you're with somebody for a long time -- is how much of an impact somebody can have over you. And how much they can shift who you are, both in your own discovery of yourself and how they rub off on you a little bit. That was weird for me. I always thought of myself as extremely independent, and I do have a lot of independence about me. But when it comes to love, I have to fight codependence a little bit. I get a little clingy, I think, and it's very out of character for me. So it becomes very confusing, because I'm like, wait, I'm usually fine. But all of a sudden, I'm like [waves hands] "Ahhhhh."
Like it's easier to walk in and talk business.
Oh yeah. That's something I actually said to him yesterday. I said, "You know, it's funny. I've figured out a lot about life, and I have a lot of life experience, but I don't know shit about love."
What was the wall you hit with him?
Sometimes it's hard to, like, be a boyfriend for somebody, because you don't know what that means. What does that mean? Especially if you haven't been in many relationships. And being in the gay community, we don't grow up with any role models for that. We don't know what we're supposed to be. And I think that's funny because there's so much -- again, it's something that's being evolved out of, but in the gay community there's so much promiscuity. It's socially accepted in the gay community to be promiscuous. It's like, oh, we're both men, we're supposed to want to fuck all the time and cheat on each other. And it's OK, open relationships are fine because we're all men. And I'm not judging that, but I don't think that's for me. I don't think it's emotionally healthy.
Then you have to balance that with being away so much, being on tour.
So who knows, you know? The other thing that's really hard is that you have to decide whether or not you have the focus and the energy to give to the other person. That's a difficult thing, too. And who knows what the future could hold with that. I might have to say, 'You know, this is how much I love you, that I have to let you go. I can't give you what you deserve right now, so this isn't going to work.' Hopefully it works. I want it to. But we'll cross that bridge when we come to it. Out of the love I have for him, I don't want to neglect it. [Sighs.] God, I can't believe I'm saying all this. I think we put all these expectations on relationships and create this idea of, oh, this is how it's supposed to be, because this is what all these other relationships that I see, that's how they are. I think it's really hard but really necessary to be like, but what are my needs? And what are your needs? And that's our relationship. And that's the hardest thing, because no one tells you how to do that.
And you don't have all these other models. Not that they necessarily fit so well for straight people.
No, but there's more of them. Even in the arts, a lot of art is about love and relationships, and there's a lot of hetero art about it. But when it comes to the gay community, there's just not a lot. And some of it's so -- I have such a love-hate relationship with the concept. Like, I can only watch Logo for a couple minutes. It's a little too --
Well, if it's not good, it's not good.
Yes, if it's not good, it's not good. That's the best way to put it. I think when you're more impressionable it's more important. Like, seeing gay movies was important when I was young. But they were horrible. It'd be nice to see a movie about gay people that was well acted.
What else do you want to talk about?
I don't know. [Long pause.] My job is to make this look easy and fun. That's the illusion, the vibe I'm trying to create for people to feel. That's what I want to do as an entertainer, create a mood that rubs off on people. This is scary, and it is a lot of work. And I'm OK, I'll be fine. But, wow, this is a lot. And I hope that people are compassionate about that. I took a chance, stepped my life up a little, have some opportunities, have a little money, and I'm doing the best I can. I'm doing the best I fucking can, you know?
To read Editor in Chief Aaron Hicklin's open letter to Adam Lambert, head here.
For more details on what happened when journalist Shana Naomi Krochmal met with Lambert and his team, and in part inspired this letter, head here.
To see the full 2009 Out 100 portfolio, head here.