Over here, we have One Direction and Olly Murs; in the US, it’s Adam Lambert who proves that the best thing you can do on a TV pop talent show is fail to win it.
The 33-year-old from San Diego has risen remarkably since he stepped out of LA’s musical theatre scene and into the audition room of American Idol in 2009, singing the first bars of Bohemian Rhapsody. A characteristically sceptical Simon Cowell thought he was too “theatrical”. Fast forward to New Year’s Eve 2014 and he was performing a live concert on BBC One as Freddie Mercury’s replacement in the current incarnation of Queen, and doing a great job of it too.
“To get on stage and do these iconic songs for diehard fans, I didn’t know if the feedback would be positive, but it was,” he tells me. He first sang with Brian May and Roger Taylor at the MTV Music Awards in 2011, replacing Free’s Paul Rodgers. It was a very occasional temp job that developed into an enthusiastically received world tour last year. “Obviously the comparisons are there but I can’t compare to Freddie. He’s like a fuckin’ demigod. The guys were like, ‘Hey, you can do it, we have confidence in you.’ I was like, ‘Er, are you sure?’ But I did have things in common with Freddie as a performer and as a person. There was a little bit of kinship there.”
He’s certainly an extrovert and 24-hour showman in the Mercury vein, greeting me warmly in an electric blue suit, flashy shoes and no socks, with skyscraping hair and eyebrows that could launch their own solo career. He’s got a voice that can turn cartwheels too, from a wild rock howl to a shimmering falsetto. He’s looking especially peacockish as we’re in a TV studio dressing room, where he’s about to make merry on Alan Carr’s chat show, but I get the impression he just isn’t a sweatpants kind of guy.
He’s now stepping out without Queen, with a third solo album out next week that ought to give him the UK hit he’s been missing. The first single, Ghost Town, is a song like nothing else around in mainstream pop right now, opening like a downbeat rock ballad before making a screeching handbrake turn into raw synthpop and spaghetti western whistling. “It definitely gets people’s attention. That’s why I picked it as the single. The element of surprise in it is just too good.”
It should bring deserved attention back to the music in a career that has been characterised by microscopic interest in his private life. Just after finishing Idol in second place to Kris Allen (who? Exactly), following the emergence of a photo of him kissing a man, he found himself having to “come out” in interviews in magazines and on TV – despite having been out since he was 18.
“It was very strange, because I’d been out. When I was a teenager I had my struggle with all of that, but I came out, moved to LA and lived my life for eight years before I did Idol,” he says. “So I didn’t think about qualifying my sexuality. I never had to do that in the theatre world in LA – I just was. Then all of a sudden I was having to explain things.”
In 2012, with his second album, Trespassing, Lambert became the first openly gay musician to send an album straight to number one on the Billboard chart – a statistic that he finds as surprising as I do. How did it take that long? Pop is hardly professional football. “That was crazy. I didn’t believe that. The media got very excited about having a gay public figure who was pretty unapologetic about it. It was a time when there was a lot of stuff happening around the gay rights movement, and it just lined up with what was going on. I was grateful, even though I didn’t get into this for that reason. I felt like I could do some good, being comfortable as a spokesperson.”
It looked like welcome progress towards acceptance. Just three years earlier, he had kissed his male bassist during a performance at the mainstream American Music Awards, and been binned from a slot on the popular breakfast TV show Good Morning America the next day. Discussing the event on the channel CBS instead, the show broadcast a picture of Madonna kissing Britney Spears at the MTV VMAs six years earlier, then a picture of Lambert and his bassist – but only blacked out the mouths of the men with “censored” boxes. “I went, ‘Ummm, do you see what you just did? You just proved my point that there’s a double standard. What message are you sending with that?’ Some of that sensationalism turns it into a bigger deal than it is, and that turns people off who wouldn’t usually give a shit either way.”
Now the conversation has moved on, to Caitlyn Jenner for example (“It’s pretty amazing, isn’t it. People are afraid of what they don’t know, so the ripple effect could really help to take some of the mystery and fear away from the trans community.”) and Lambert is free to focus on some fantastic new songs. It was a struggle to get The Original High made. His record company wanted him to do an album of new wave cover versions, so he left them and went to Sweden to meet hotshot hitmakers Max Martin and Shellback (writers of Shake It Off, Dark Horse, you name it). They agreed to oversee a whole new album of original songs, and a new major label deal with Warner Bros followed soon afterwards.
“It was exactly what I needed to have happen,” he says. “I was terrified. I thought, am I screwing myself over by leaving? Could I be kissing a good opportunity goodbye? But I needed to do the right thing for me.”
He’s come back with an album of bold, edgy pop, full of surprising sounds but never stinting on the big melodies. There’s no classic rock, which might have been expected of him after the Queen stint, although Brian May does appear on the deliciously strange Lucy. “I love rock music, but most of the rock music I like is from the past. That’s not what I respond to with the current music I’m listening to.” He raves about the British dance acts Disclosure and Gorgon City, and especially Years & Years. “I’m obsessed with them. I love that band, love their sound. What a great singer.”
So he’s looking forwards now, no longer paying homage to a superstar of the past and more than ready to become one in his own right. As he heads off to face the TV cameras yet again, Adam Lambert is definitely ready for his close-up.