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"Idol" wild child Adam Lambert readies first album
By Ann Donahue
LOS ANGELES (Billboard) - Adam Lambert -- the man with the outsize personality who delivered an audacious octave-and-a-half sitar-tinged purr of Johnny Cash's "Ring of Fire" on the most-watched TV show in the country, dodged sex toys thrown at him onstage during the "American Idol" tour and did it all without smearing his eyeliner -- is curled in the fetal position.
Balled up in a patio chair on the 10th-story balcony at the offices of 19 Entertainment in Los Angeles, Lambert is the portrait of the goth as a young man -- black clothes and combat boots; dyed black hair and black nail polish; Egyptian-themed jewelry matching the Eye of Horus tattoo on his wrist.
He grabs his knees and constricts himself even tighter as he reveals why he's so emo right now: He's attending the premiere of the film "2012" in a few hours. And his song, "Time for Miracles," plays over the closing credits.
"I'm going to be like this, in my seat, hiding in my popcorn bucket," he says. "It's going to be really weird."
Lambert laughs, unfurls his legs and straightens up in the chair. His worry is, of course, all a joke, an act, a performance. Because, true to the title of his upcoming album, Lambert is here for our entertainment.
When "American Idol" launched in 2002, creator Simon Fuller must have dreamed of a contestant like the 27-year-old Lambert -- one who mixes style and substance, one who can sing anything and cares about cultivating his public image. In a year, Lambert's gone from being one of a herd of auditioners at the San Francisco tryouts to landing the covers of Entertainment Weekly and Rolling Stone before his album, "For Your Entertainment," was even released.
For Fuller's music company, 19 Entertainment, the eighth season of "American Idol" was something of an embarrassment of riches. The eventual winner, Kris Allen has sold 1.1 million digital downloads of his "Idol" songs, according to Nielsen SoundScan, and contestant Allison Iraheta, with her preternaturally gravelly vocals and artful red and blue hair, is prepared to court the Hayley Williams/Avril Lavigne demographic.
But in a year when the clubby stylings of Lady Gaga and the Black Eyed Peas are setting sales records, it's Lambert's slinky set of dance songs that are poised to steal the spotlight. "For Your Entertainment" will be released Monday (November 23); the title-track lead single sold 18,000 in its first week of release, according to SoundScan, while "Time for Miracles" has sold 68,000 in three weeks. This comes on top of the 997,000 digital tracks sold of Lambert's songs from "Idol."
"He's an artist with a true sense of who he is," RCA Music Group general manager/executive VP Tom Corson says. "It's our job to work with him and present him with options to help steer the ship -- but ultimately it's his call. He has a vision."
The cover of "For Your Entertainment" shows Lambert as a three-dimensional version of Patrick Nagel's artwork for Duran Duran's "Rio": all glam makeup and sharp angles. It's not subtle in any way -- Lambert is gleeful as he points out that he wore all that makeup -- but it's true to his image as a showman who combines singing talent with a theatrical bent.
It's an image he flaunted throughout "Idol" -- and was never more exemplified than in Lambert's retort to judge Simon Cowell's critique that one of his performances was too "Rocky Horror." ("I like 'Rocky Horror,'" Lambert patiently explained.)
But it's rare that a persona crafted on "Idol" doesn't go through some sort of intensification as the performer transitions from contestant to professional: Texas cutie Kelly Clarkson took on a pop sheen; Carrie Underwood's country chops were honed on the show.
For Lambert, he was "Glambert" from the start.
"I think there's a misconception -- people think that 'Idol' is like a Svengali puppeteer," Lambert says. "I think that may be the perception because certain people that have gone through the system didn't have a strong idea of what they wanted to do visually. I think the minute you do, they respond to that. And I've been very verbal and opinionated about what I want to create, and they've been nothing but supportive of that."
When Lambert moved to Los Angeles from San Diego eight years ago and began working in theater and as a session singer, he quickly learned that business acumen was just as important as musical talent. At 27, he's in the upper age range of "Idol" contestants -- the cutoff for the show is 28 -- and the simple fact of his added life experience could serve him well as he transitions away from the spotlight that is built into the show.
"I do consider myself part artist, part businessperson," Lambert says. "I find marketing interesting, I find publicity interesting. I find the whole process interesting. I think there's some artists that are really focused on the music and the artistry, but I also think being a showman and being an entertainer is more than just being a musician. It's everything -- it's something to look at and to listen to."
The songs on "For Your Entertainment" rely heavily on dance beats, but there are a number of ballads for contrast. "When I was picking my singles, I thought maybe I should do more of a rock thing because that's what people expect. But if I did what people expected of me, I don't think I would have gotten through 'Idol' the way I did," Lambert says. "It's part of my shtick as an artist to keep surprising people."
One defining characteristic is the A-list writing and production credits throughout the album: "Soaked," which Lambert says is about a one-night stand, was written by Muse's Matthew Bellamy and produced by Rob Cavallo, who worked on four tracks on the album; "Strut" was written by Lambert, "Idol" judge Kara DioGuardi and Greg Wells, who also produced; Ryan Tedder wrote and produced "Sleepwalker" alongside co-writers Aimee Mayo and Chris Lindsey.
"If an artist has the skills and ambition to write songs, then we will actively encourage and pursue this, often by pairing our artists with the world's very best songwriters, allowing them to learn and develop their writing skills," 19 Entertainment founder/CEO Simon Fuller says.
The announcement of the pairing of Lambert and Lady Gaga on the track "Fever" was fodder for gossip blogs, but Gaga doesn't actually perform on the track, Lambert says, explaining, "She was on the other side of the glass just egging me on."
Of the title track, which was produced by Dr. Luke, who co-wrote it with Claude Kelly, Lambert says, "I wanted to release something that would be played in a club, that would make you dance on New Year's."
He means that literally -- "Dick Clark's Rockin' New Year's Eve With Ryan Seacrest" is one of the TV appearances lined up for Lambert in the coming month. The promotional campaign starts Sunday (November 22) with his show-closing performance at the American Music Awards.
'IDOL' GIVES BACK
All of this is the result of a heady year. At this time in 2008, Lambert was waiting for the Hollywood elimination rounds of "Idol" to start. In TV time, it takes six months for "Idol" to crown a winner, but the production process runs year-round.
Despite the artifice of the show, it does drop-kick contestants into the media spotlight -- a valuable lesson for any pop star. "They put you through it to see if you can hang," Lambert says.
The 2009 season of "Idol" attracted an average of 25.1 million viewers, according to Nielsen, the lowest average in several years; but it's still the most-watched show on TV, as it has been since 2004. The finale in which Allen was proclaimed the winner over Lambert drew 28.8 million viewers -- 10 million more than the 2009 Grammy Awards.
"The finale of 'Idol' was pretty epic," Lambert says. "I got up there and was singing with Queen and Kiss -- I got to put on a costume. I really feel the finale summed up what I'm trying to do, and what I'm going to do. I think that being onstage with legendary people like that reminds you of what showmanship is."
Weeks after the "Idol" season wrapped, the top 10 contestants embarked on the Idols Live tour -- a valedictory sprint of 52 cities in three months that grossed $30 million this year, according to Billboard Boxscore.
While group numbers are a standard part of the touring show, each high-placing "Idol" contestant gets his or her chance to shine in a solo. Lambert did a medley of David Bowie's "Life on Mars?," "Fame" and "Let's Dance." He saw it as a chance to stage-test the sound he had in mind for his debut. "I always wanted to do Bowie songs, and I never did them on 'Idol' because it wasn't ever the right fit," he says. "We did a different, slightly modern production, which is basically what I'm doing on my album."
And much like the TV show, the "Idol" tour puts its participants through the wringer. "I've done theater for years and I've sung for a long time, but I've never done a solo set in concert night after night while traveling," Lambert says. "It was a good way to learn about how to take care of yourself and how to pace yourself while on the road."
With the fame come challenges; Lambert has become a favorite subject of the tabloids and paparazzi. "Yeah, it's weird," he says. "You know, it's like, 'Hi, I'm just walking to my car -- why do you care?'"
It's very likely that they care because of the wink-wink, nudge-nudge game that was played in the media about Lambert's sexuality during his "Idol" tenure. Lambert didn't answer the questions about whether he was gay until the Rolling Stone cover article in June; since then he's become Adam Lambert, Icon for Gay Youth -- not a mantle he shoulders easily.
"I don't want to be a spokesperson for anybody, no matter who they are," he says. "I'm not following this career path to be a role model or to be a poster child for anything except for music. If there's an indirect impact that my presence has on certain issue, then I think that's a good thing."
It's an issue that will get raised again and again -- as he walked the red carpet for "2012," for example, he was asked if he brought a date. His laughing response? "My date is my jacket, actually."
A few days after the premiere, Lambert is sitting in Fuller's office, swiveling back and forth in a white office chair as he prepares for another long day of media interviews. The movie, as it turned out, was a blast, and "Time for Miracles" was warmly received. "People stayed and listened," he says, honestly happy.
Of course they did. That's entertainment.
(Editing by SheriLinden at Reuters)