Adam Lambert’s ‘Mad World’: The Story Behind The Cover

Contestant chooses Gary Jules' 'Donnie Darko' version of the Tears for Fears song.

Adam Lambert is making this look too easy. After revealing on Tuesday night that he has loved playing dress-up since childhood, he called upon his musical-theater experience to slip into yet another persona on a night when the “American Idol” top eight performed songs from the year of their birth.

This time, Lambert channeled a David Bowie-esque sensitive android, sitting center stage on a chair bathed in an eerie blue spotlight, the focus entirely on his piercing falsetto. But what was that song he sang?

The moving ballad was written and originally recorded by English synth-pop duo [artist id="17468"]Tears for Fears[/artist] in 1982 and was later released on their debut album, The Hurting. While the original is a midtempo synth-pop dance tune with morose lyrics, Lambert — much like last year’s winner David Cook — knows the importance of putting a spin on a song people might already know, so he chose to perform the alternate version of the song that appeared in the 2001 cult film [movie id="190150"]“Donnie Darko.”[/movie]

(Read the story behind Kris Allen’s take on “All She Wants to Do Is Dance” here.)

That more haunting, slowed-down and melodic version was performed by little-known California singer/songwriter Gary Jules, who recorded the song with his childhood friend and producer Michael Andrews for the “Darko” soundtrack. The tune also appeared on Jules’ 2001 indie album Trading Snakeoil for Wolftickets. Two years later, the “Mad World” cover started getting played on the radio in England — some say it was Robbie Williams who spun it first during a guest DJ slot; others claim Radiohead’s Thom Yorke brought it to light. In December 2003, the song made Jules and Andrews only the sixth American act ever to win the coveted Christmas #1 position on the British charts.

Tears for Fears’ Curt Smith has said the song is a depressed teenage voyeur’s view of a confusing, cruel world, as evidenced by the powerful lines, “I find it funny, I find it kind of sad/ The dreams in which I’m dying are the best I’ve ever had/ … Went to school and I was very nervous, no one knew me, no one knew me.”

According to IMDb.com, “Darko” director Richard Kelly had originally used U2′s “MLK” over the closing scene in the film but couldn’t afford the rights, so he had to find different music to help wrap up the tale of a troubled teenager (Jake Gyllenhaal) who is haunted by a huge pink bunny named Frank and escapes death when a jet engine crashes into his bedroom.

A 2004 Boston Globe article about the cover describes how Andrews set up a microphone in the hallway of his Los Angeles apartment and had Jules sing the lyrics to “Mad World” over a melancholy piano and Moog synthesizer arrangement. Andrews thought Kelly would ask for a more polished recording, but the director ended up using it as is in the movie.

The Jules version has continued to be popular, showing up in a 2006 commercial for the video game “Gears of War,” which is credited with briefly sending the song to #1 on the iTunes chart that year, and it has been used as mood music on more than a dozen TV dramas, including “Cold Case,” “ER,” “Line of Fire,” “Nip/Tuck” and “Third Watch.”

Get your “Idol” fix on MTV News’ “American Idol” page, where you’ll find all the latest news, interviews and opinions.

Often guilty, never convicted. Serving 15 years to life at MTV News.