An 'Idol' Denied

An 'Idol' Denied

By Ruben Navarrette - May 24, 2009

SAN DIEGO -- You can say this much about Kris Allen, the 23-year-old crooner from Conway, Ark., who was crowned the new "American Idol" on the nation's No. 1 television show: He's honest.

After declaring that Allen had won the competition by winning the majority of nearly 100 million votes (if you're keeping score, that's about 30 million more votes than Barack Obama earned in a different contest last November), host Ryan Seacrest asked the young man how it felt. Allen let loose with a spontaneous utterance that surely resonated with many of the 30 million or so viewers watching at home.

"It feels good, man," replied Allen, who appeared stunned. "But Adam deserves this."

Judge Simon Cowell was just as stunned. He declined to stand and applaud Allen's victory -- the disgusted look on his face obviously aimed at the voting public.

You see, the defeated contestant is Adam Lambert, a 27-year-old San Diego native whom Seacrest has dubbed the "guyliner." On the Internet, he has been called the "gay goth guy." Neither Lambert nor the Fox network -- which owns the show -- is confirming or denying his sexual orientation. When asked, Lambert has only responded by saying: "I know who I am."

The lack of an established fact hasn't stopped the media from jumping to its own conclusions in building a narrative about what America will or will not tolerate. A recent article in The New York Times looked at the show and explored a question that it said was "burning up the Internet: Can a gay contestant win?" The article acknowledged that Lambert hasn't publicly identified himself as gay, but it insisted that he has set off many a "gaydar." There are even photos on the Internet that show someone who resembles Lambert kissing another man. This led Fox News Channel's Bill O'Reilly to inquire: "These pictures that hint that he is gay, will they have an effect on this program?"

No matter how he defines himself, anyone watching the show can see that Lambert is a class act. He was gracious in defeat, congratulating Allen for winning a title that Lambert should have had in the bag. Cowell, who despite his boorish manner is a fairly good judge of talent, clearly thought that Lambert should have won. After all, as Cowell is forever pointing out, the show was never meant to be a popularity contest but a singing competition. And boy, can Lambert sing.

Last but most importantly, we know that Lambert is -- by any objective measure -- one of the most gifted contestants to ever appear on this show. Allen is a solid singer, but not a unique or memorable one. Lambert, on the other hand, is blessed with an extraordinary voice and a stage presence that allowed the young rocker to hold his own during a performance with the legendary rock group, KISS.

This should be beyond debate. Anyone who watched these two singers side by side would have to agree that Lambert is in a different league. So maybe Cowell is wrong. Maybe this talent show/cultural phenomenon isn't a singing competition after all. Maybe it is a popularity contest. And maybe there was something about Lambert that made him unpopular. Maybe what the media are calling a major upset had nothing to do with rumors about sexual orientation. Maybe tens of millions of viewers decided that Lambert was too theatrical. Maybe they were turned off by his boldness, which they saw as cockiness. Or maybe America just wasn't ready for the likes of Adam Lambert.

He'll still be fine. He showcased his gifts, and he's on his way to superstardom. Bet on it.

Of course, some will shrug this off as merely entertainment. But I worry. Did we just take a giant step backward, one that is especially troublesome because the show's core audience is a generation of teenagers who are supposedly, on issues such as gay marriage and multiculturalism, more tolerant of personal differences than their elder fuddy-duddies? Simply put, did our prejudices prevent us from facing facts and giving credit where it is due?

Something happened here. And we ought to think long and hard about what it was. And what it says about us and our values.

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Ruben Navarrette

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