With a kind of mash-up of the top awards-show shock moments from Britney, Madonna and Christina Aguilera over the past 15 years, complete with faux-oral sex (which was edited out of the West Coast feed), S&M play, bondage, crotch-grabbing, same-sex make-outs, serial hip-thrusting and even an accidental stumble, Lambert made it clear that he's not the kind of safe pop star typically churned out by the "Idol" machine.
He also pre-emptively declared that anyone who criticized his display of sexual liberty was endorsing a double standard that says straight women can explore their (bi)sexuality onstage, but gay men can't. However, not everyone agreed.
The Los Angeles Times' awards-show blog, "The Envelope," called the performance "ultra-lewd," noting that "ABC censors had to quick-cut to an odd aerial shot of the audience when Lambert had a male backup dancer simulate oral sex on him mid-song." (That bit actually aired on the East Coast feed, but was altered for the West Coast broadcast.)
While the blog went on to praise Lambert for making music dangerous again, the newspaper's official grade of the performance was tied for the worst of the night at a D, with a critic noting, "Borrowing some of Rihanna's shoulder spikes and torture devices, Lambert dragged women around onstage and got frisky with dudes, all in what seemed like an overly calculated way to show himself off as some sort of glam-gone-dangerous artist — and to instantly distance Lambert from the family-friendly 'Idol' fare ... Lambert has the voice, and a charisma that stands out in today's pop music landscape, but this was provocation by the numbers."
The review from The New York Times was a bit more kind, saying that the "caterwauling 'American Idol' runner-up [will] never have to worry about being confused with Kris Allen after a performance that featured him walking a man and a woman around the stage on leashes, and thrusting his crotch at his various backup dancers." E! Online was also relatively tame, calling the bit "extremely raunchy."
The knives really came out at the usually "Idol"-friendly Entertainment Weekly, which took some issue with the bump-and-maul factor, but also took issue with the sometimes weak notes the typically powerful Lambert displayed during the bit. "Talk about 'No Boundaries,' " wrote "Idol" expert Michael Slezak. "Adam Lambert made his first big post-'Idol' splash tonight, closing the American Music Awards with a performance of his debut single 'For Your Entertainment' that — to my surprise and disappointment — emphasized shock-and-awe imagery over his standard-operating vocal excellence."
Slezak referred to Lambert dragging a female backup dancer across the stage by her leg, "as if she were a lace-covered sack of potatoes," grasping the head of a "submissive-styled" male dancer and pulling him into "an uncomfortable round of simulated oral sex" and "taking a break from his singing duties for an impromptu game of tongue twister with a keyboardist of indeterminate gender." Slezak said he was hoping the primo slot on the show would be Lambert's big coming-out party, and said that despite the musical theater veteran's years of stage experience, he may have suffered from a bit of nerves.
"But the bottom line is that Adam's AMA performance felt less like a genuine expression of his high-octane sexuality (so playfully erotic when he fondled the mic stand during 'Whole Lotta Love' this summer), and more like a carefully planned stab at dominating the post-AMA blogosphere/water-cooler discussion. ... Adam could've had tongues wagging just from his vocals alone. Instead, that golden voice took a backseat tonight at the AMAs, and I'm not sure exactly who was occupying the driver's seat."
Slezak's co-worker, EW TV critic Ken Tucker, appreciated his colleague's take on the quality of the performance, but, as a TV viewer, he totally disagreed. "I thought Lambert's performance was a gas, a delight, a blast of brash vulgarity in the midst of merely ordinary vulgarity," he wrote Monday morning. "Lambert was an event unto himself. The song he was singing was beside the point — and the point was, 'Here I am, Adam Lambert, freed from the shackles of 'American Idol,' I'll push this dancer's face into my crotch if I feel like it, isn't it funny to lead human beings around on leashes, and can you believe how high I got my hair to stand up under these lights?' "
The point, Tucker said, was that the day after the awards show, which featured equally high-tech, eye-catching, if more nuanced, performances from Lady Gaga and Rihanna, Lambert is what everyone is talking about. "Using TV instead of music as a way for a singer to maintain prominence: how pure pop," he said.
For his part, Lambert made no Monday-morning apologies for the spectacle, telling "Access Hollywood," "You know, honestly, if I offended some people ... it's apples and oranges. I'm not an artist that does things for every single person. ... I believe in artistic freedom and expression, I believe in honoring the lyrics of a song, and those lyrics aren't really for everybody either."
Besides, he said, shock is fun. "Shock rock is like something that existed, for example, like in the '70's, Alice Cooper ... David Bowie, you had artists that liked to push the envelope and that's what made them so fresh. I think that surprise is part of entertainment. I think that it keeps people watching. It's fun, it makes you laugh and it should be that way. And if it made you uncomfortable, maybe I'm not for you."
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