Can Adam Lambert win American Idol?

Even his talent is working against him: Last Tuesday after Adam Lambert, the edgy rock singer from San Diego turned in yet another shattering performance on “American Idol,” Simon Cowell issued a caveat to the show’s 25 million viewers.

“It’s very easy to assume that you’re going to sail through to the final next week,” Cowell warned. “And I want everyone not to assume you’re going to be there, but to vote for you based on talent.”

Cowell’s comment, which sounded eerily like a premonition, followed Lambert’s rendition of Aerosmith’s “Cryin’”. Clad in his trademark cool, with a black leather jacket and a glittering ACDC shirt, Lambert unleashed his rock-opera trill upon a mystified crowd. By the judges’ accounts, the performance was almost too good: “You’re one of the best that we’ve ever had on this stage,” Randy Jackson gushed; “How do you hit those notes and still talk the next day?” asked Kara DioGuardi; a virtually speechless Paula Adbul added, “As I said from the beginning, we’ll be seeing you next week [at the finals] and many years after that.” Prompted by the other judges’ drippy fawning, Cowell felt the need to put the brakes on.

But Cowell’s warning had a complicated subtext he dare not speak. Could the snarky judge of the nation’s most watched TV show take on the political underpinnings of an American popularity contest? (For those who don’t know, “American Idol” tallies more individual votes than a U.S. Presidential election.) And anyone who follows American politics knows that there exists in this country a large and powerful conservative culture that doesn’t have a lot in common with Adam Lambert, the avant-garde Hollywood groupie who wears eyeliner and kisses men. When photos of Lambert dressed in drag and lip-locked with the same-sex surfaced on the Internet a few months ago, Lambert was unapologetic: “I have nothing to hide. I am who I am,” he said.

Though some have speculated that Lambert could become the first gay or bisexual “American Idol” (let alone the first Jewish ‘Idol’) the final contest which begins tomorrow night, comes during a week in which anti-abortion protesters attempted to disrupt President Obama’s abortion-themed commencement address at the Roman Catholic college, Notre Dame. In the current climate, it’s plausible that Lambert is at a disadvantage when facing Kris Allen, an anodyne 23-year-old from Conway, Arkansas. What’s uncomfortable about Lambert’s edge is that he can be interesting and provocative while entirely self-assured. And unlike most Hollywood types, he’s comfortable in his unusual skin. He’s comfortable—as DioGuardi put it—being “shocking.”

“My mouth drops open every time you perform,” DioGuardi told Lambert after he performed “Feelin’ Good” on Rat Pack night. “It’s like, ‘Is he really doing that?’ Shocking! You’re shocking! In a good way…confusing and shocking and sleazy and superb and way over-the-top.”

To everyone else’s shock, after that performance, when Oscar-winner/recording star Jamie Foxx told Lambert he could “sing with the best of ‘em,” Lambert was voted into the bottom three, up for possible elimination.

Even when it’s obvious that Lambert’s raw talent completely outclasses the other contestants, his winning is uncertain. And his future in Hollywood, while almost assured, has little to do with whether he wins “Idol” or not. As Richard Rushfield pointed out in the L.A. Times, “American Idol” represents a rags-to-riches dream opportunity for its contestants and its audience. And at a time when the country is in the midst of the worst economic recession since the 1930s, and in desperate need of upward-mobility promise, the question is who they’ll vote into that dream projection—the one with all the talent or the one with their same values?

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