It’s certainly impossible to argue with Adam Lambert’s popularity. He’s the only "American Idol" contestant this year to win over a critical mass of wildly devoted fans who already think he’s one of the most important musicians of his generation, even if their experiences with him are limited to a handful of cover songs.
It’s also impossible to argue with the fact that he’s an extremely talented guy. He reaches for notes he can’t hit from time to time, but for the most part, he’s a very solid singer, and he can certainly do things with his yowling, screeching voice that most people can’t.
He just deploys his talent in a way that isn’t particularly interesting.
For all the discussion of Adam’s originality and freshness and relevance, his aesthetic is an inky-haired, nail-polished cliché — perhaps appealing and perhaps not, but certainly nothing you couldn’t see in New York, Seattle, or, for that matter, Akron. The sulky glower, the whimper-face, the moaning, the Sad Elvis sneer … there’s nothing wrong with it, per se, but to praise it as particularly creative screams, “I do not watch MTV.”
And note that his otherwise contemplative performance of “Mad World,” rightly praised as technically skilled, eventually turned into the same irritating wail he employs every week. Everything crescendos to that nasal “nyaaaah” sound, every week.
If you are to be a singer, then at some point, you have to just come on stage and sing a song. Not as a character, not as a caricature, not doing shtick, not doing a bit. You have to be able to reliably convey something genuine and organic other than “I am a good singer.” Otherwise, what you are doing is the equivalent of an extremely well-executed painting of dogs playing poker. No matter how talented you are, your talent isn’t much good to anyone if it’s spilled in pursuit of the self-conscious irony of his “Play That Funky Music” performance.
It burns, burns, burns!
In many ways, the Lambert die was cast with his performance of “Ring Of Fire” during country week. If you liked the way he tried to play the “doesn’t this sound vaguely Eastern, and therefore more daring?” game with the arrangement, if you dug the fingerless gloves, if you liked the way he flicked his eyes at the camera as if checking out its derriere and then reached out to it with his spindly fingers attempting to draw it into his evil lair, if you didn’t mind that he transformed a contemplative song about trying to avoid unwise intimate behavior into a song apparently sung in the throes of unwise intimate behavior, then you are probably still a fan.
But if you still laugh out loud at the fact that the word “self-indulgent” has ever been applied to many “Idol” performances but was not unanimously screamed in the direction of that one, and if you sort of thought the way he said “it burns, burns, burns” made it sound like love is less a burning thing and more a scaly rash? Then you probably have not yet come to appreciate him.
Lambert will probably win, will probably get a ton of attention, and then will probably not become a huge star. There is a reason why melodramatic cast albums do not generally top the charts. Not everything can be the climactic number in a show about your suffering. It is easy to forget, at moments like this, just how much people loved Clay Aiken, Justin Guarini, and — yes — even Taylor Hicks. The problem for all of those people as marketable artists came when they had to expand their appeal beyond the people who carried them on “Idol.”
It was always easy to imagine a demographic interested in Kelly Clarkson, or Carrie Underwood, or Chris Daughtry — people who don’t even watch “Idol,” let alone invest in it. But what, exactly, is the Adam Lambert constituency of the future? He would be popular with fans of … what? The judges seem to think that the answer is “Twilight,” but what kind of sense does that really make?
Adam Lambert has many things to recommend him as the horse to bet on, including the fact that nobody else on "Idol" this season is really any better, particularly from a creative standpoint. But before anyone goes anointing him some kind of highly marketable future star, take another look at that performance of “Ring Of Fire,” and ask yourself whether you’d hear that on the radio.
Linda Holmes is a frequent contributor to msnbc.com