100 & Single: Buy An Adam Lambert Album, Strike A Tiny Blow For Gay Rights
About a year ago, the movie Bridesmaids opened in the U.S. and was the subject of a rather unusual awareness campaign.
Female movie fans, largely independently of the film's producers, compelled women to go see the film in its opening weekend and defy common Hollywood wisdom that non-rom-com movies aimed at ladies were box-office laggards. To many cultural critics, it was a dubious effort: a Judd Apatow-produced flick that was still, after all, about a weddingand with one notorious scene riddled with bodily humiliationsthis was a feminist cause célèbre?
The thing is, it kinda worked. Bridesmaids opened very well for a "chick flick," with $26 million in ticket sales, and went on to gross just shy of $170 million domestically, soundly beating such summer tentpoles as Green Lantern and X-Men: First Class. The fact that the star-free, Kristin Wiig-led movie was actually good suggests it would've found its audience under any circumstances. We'll never know, but given Hollywood's ever-increasing promotional emphasis on opening weekends, it's totally defensible that the impassioned grass-roots launch was critical to the movie's ultimate success. It also sent a consumer-driven message ("This half of the population shouldn't be ignored or pandered to") that should've been screamingly obvious in 2011 but somehow wasn't.
One year later, I'd like to invite you to get behind another consumerist message that, in 2012, should be equally uncontroversial: Being openly gay shouldn't prevent you from having a No. 1 album in the United States.
The album we can support to send this message is Adam Lambert's second major-label disc Trespassing, which arrives in stores on May 15virtually one year to the day after the successful Bridesmaids opening.
Why am I proposing we shell out hard cash for this frothy and reportedly fun pop disc, which is as light and apolitical as Bridesmaids was? Because in the nearly 60-year history of the weekly Billboard album chart, no single-artist title credited to an out gay performer has ever been our No. 1 album. (Nope, not him. Or him, either. Or her.)
The key word in the above sentence is, of course, out. Numerous artists who have emerged from the closet in the last few decades, as the gay-rights movement has come out of the shadows, have topped the album chart. But crucially, not a one of them did so while fully public about his or her sexual orientation.
This column is largely about hard data, and being out is about as unspecific a designation as you can discuss. It's hard to come up with pinpointed dates for when even the most public personages declared their homosexuality, especially among those artists who emerged by degrees. (We'll get to Elton John and Freddie Mercury in a minute.) I am also completely uninterested in outing anyone; I don't believe in it, and as a straight person I have even less right to ask it of public figures, for the sake of awareness, than a gay person would. But gay rights is a cause I firmly believe in, and it's rare that one has the opportunity to mix one's nerdy passion and sociopolitical beliefs.
Besides, we can examine this purely by considering the most uncontroversial of publicly out musicians. It's a list of acts who either topped the chart closeted or couldn't reach the penthouse either out or in.
A couple of out gay performers (fewer than you might imagine) have topped the Hot 100 singles chart. But I would argue that the Billboard 200 album chart is a specifically important yardstick. Albums are how the recording industry makes the bulk of its profits, and it's particularly meaningful to see Americans willing to shell out more than a buck for a performer's workespecially in a recording's opening week, which in the Soundscan era has become as important to the music business as opening weekend is for Hollywood.
The album chart is ecumenical and all-encompassing, its penthouse regularly occupied by pop, rock, R&B, hip-hop and country albums, all competing on roughly equal footing. And to Americans who consider themselves at the cultural middle of the road, a successful album is, still, the way an artist is perceived as culturally relevantor, to borrow a term heavy with gay-rights baggage, real.
How probable is this feat for Lambert, an American Idol finalist who neither won the show nor topped the Billboard 200 in 2009, the year he had the Idol promotional machine backing him up? Before we game it outshort answer: a bit of a long shot, but not at all impossiblelet's run down the list of now famously out performers who went the distance while still in the vinyl closet. I'll start with a few near-miss acts who for all their popularity never topped the list.