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 wedding—and with one notorious scene riddled with bodily humiliations—this 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 15—virtually 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 work—especially 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 relevant—or, 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 out—short answer: a bit of a long shot, but not at all impossible—let’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.
Elton John, “I’m Still Standing”
Among lesbian artists, you might have guessed that the music business’s two most celebrated, Melissa Etheridge and k.d. lang, would have broken that barrier. Etheridge is a rare example of an artist who, by her own telling, had a more profitable career out of the closet than in. The data unequivocally backs her up—her just-came-out 1993 album Yes I Am is six times platinum and by far her best-seller—but it sold well over a long, multi-single radio campaign and never got past No. 15 on the album chart. Her followup to that triumph, 1995’s Your Little Secret, debuted and peaked at No. 6, a modest showing for a performer of her stature at that career stage. As for lang, her best-selling album remains 1992’s double-platinum Ingénue, which peaked at No. 18.
On the male side, Boy George’s self-declared status as America’s favorite drag queen (about as far as a pop star could go publicly in 1984), didn’t hurt Culture Club at all on the Hot 100, where they scored six Top 10 hits including a No. 1 (“Karma Chameleon”). But despite selling four million U.S. copies, 1983’s Colour by Numbers spent a frustrating six weeks at No. 2, a reflection mainly of its misfortune at being released within the same year as Michael Jackson’s Thriller.
That leaves a handful of acts who did top the chart closeted, and in many cases their status was the subject of much speculation and even regarded as a demerit to their stardom. Here they are in alphabetical order.
Clay Aiken: Like Adam Lambert, Aiken was a top-two American Idol finalist who went on to outsell the singer who beat him (Ruben Studdard in Aiken’s case, Kris Allen in Lambert’s). Aiken’s fanbase—largely female and often teased online for their limited gaydar, but to be fair Aiken himself denied years of rumors—was particularly impassioned. To this day, the chart-topping debut of his 2003 album Measure of a Man with 613,000 copies remains the highest one-week sales total ever by any Idol competitor. Aiken never returned to No. 1 on the album chart, either before or after his coming-out to People magazine in 2008.
Lance Bass (of ‘N Sync): One of five vocalists in the smash boy band, Bass sang on two chart-topping albums: 2000’s No Strings Attached—which rolled 2.4 million CDs in seven days, still the biggest one-week sales total of all time—and 2001’s Celebrity. The group’s hiatus since 2002 has had everything to do with Justin Timberlake’s solo career and the waning of millennial precision-dance pop (only now being revived by One Direction and the Wanted), and nothing to do with Bass’s then-rumored sexuality, which was affirmed by the singer himself in 2006.
Elton John: All conversations regarding music superstardom and sexual orientation must revolve around the erstwhile Reginald Dwight. Elton John’s string of chart-topping albums in the ’70s—seven in a row, from 1972’s Honky Chateau through 1975’s Rock of the Westies—remains one of the greatest runs of pop dominance in history. Then in 1976, John admitted to bisexuality in a Rolling Stone cover story, and it was as if some homophobic deity turned off the stardom spigot—his next album Blue Moves peaked at No. 3, and he spent the late ’70s in the pop wilderness, out of the Top 10 altogether. (One can imagine many a label-headquarters conversation in which John’s mid-’70s experience was the cautionary tale for gay pop stars considering revealing themselves.)
Even after staging a solid radio comeback in the ’80s; marrying and then divorcing a woman; coming out fully as a gay man in 1988 and entering a public long-term relationship with David Furnish; and finally scoring his first Top 10 album in nearly two decades (1992’s The One), John has never again occupied the Billboard 200 penthouse. That is, with one semi-exception: the 1994 soundtrack album to the Lion King, for which Elton penned just over half the songs but was the credited performer on only three. Considering this album featured an image of a cartoon lion on the cover and sports John’s name in tiny letters, that it was largely performed by others, and that it was a triumph mostly for the Disney marketing machine, it’s a bit hard to regard it as full album-chart acknowledgment for a gay performer. Since the ’90s John has had far greater success on the Hot 100 singles chart, where in his fully out persona he has scored two No. 1 hits—coincidentally, both of them rerecordings of songs from his early-’70s golden period. There was the 1991-92 chart-topper “Don’t Let the Sun Go Down on Me,” a duet with George Michael (more on him in a bit) and later, the blockbuster “Candle in the Wind ’97,” recorded in memory of Princess Diana and now the best-selling single of all time.
Queen, “I Want To Break Free”
Janis Ian: The only thing less likely than a lyrical 17-year-old Janis Ian getting a date was the real-life 24-year-old scoring a chart-topping album singing about it. But that’s precisely what happened to Between the Lines, Ian’s 1975 album, featuring the wistful Top Five mopefest “At Seventeen.” Ian’s album-chart victory came nearly two decades before she came out publicly.
Jonathan Knight (of New Kids on the Block): One of two Knights in the hugely successful late-’80s boy band (along with brother Jordan), Jonathan sang on the 1989 chart-topping album Hangin’ Tough and the 1990 followup smash Step by Step. New Kids’ inability to return to the penthouse after 1990 was entirely related to the aging of their fanbase, rather than issues over with any member’s sexuality. Fun fact: Knight’s 2011 revelation came after an accidental and reportedly friendly 2011 outing by fellow late-’80s teenpop star Tiffany, one of the few girls he dated. Interestingly, unlike fellow boy-band alumnus Lance Bass, the decades-long delay in Knight’s coming-out meant he emerged as a working boy-band member—New Kids have been reunited and recording for several years.
Ricky Martin: Few music stars must be as relieved to be off the public’s gaydar as this guy. Martin’s 1999 transition from established Latin radio fixture to cross-cultural megastar was dogged by the most intense sexual-identity speculation of any act in millennial pop. His self-titled English-language debut, sporting the über-hit “Livin’ la Vida Loca,” debuted in the penthouse with 661,000 copies, still the best sales week for a Latin pop star in history—but he spent his peak fame years dodging questions about his sexuality, lobbed by everyone from Rolling Stone to Barbara Walters. In 2010, long past his explosive Anglo-pop moment, Martin finally ended the speculation. After all that agita, the revelation didn’t seem to hurt his career much; his 2011 album Música + Alma + Sexo debuted at a healthy No. 3.
Freddie Mercury (of Queen): Somewhat belying the premise of this column is the fact that everyone’s favorite mustachioed rock god told a U.K. interviewer, way back in 1974, that he was “as gay as a daffodil, my dear.” But Mercury’s openness during his storied two-decade career is a matter of some dispute. The thing is, when that interview quip occurred—the March 12, 1974, issue of New Musical Express, to be precise—Queen was a curio of a rock band with exactly one medium-size British hit, “Seven Seas of Rhye,” under its belt. And even less U.S. chart presence: their debut album had peaked at No. 83 here in 1973 and didn’t go gold for another four years. On both sides of the Atlantic, the band was months away from their first big hit, “Killer Queen.” After that NME interview, Mercury never directly addressed his sexuality again and, in later years, asked the few journalists he trusted not to mention his boyfriends.
By the time Queen scored their transatlantic No. 1 album The Game in 1980, the band was an American rock-radio fixture, releasing nude-women-bedecked record covers and music videos and generally not addressing Mercury’s hiding-in-plain-sight orientation. Moreover, it’s difficult to regard the Queen frontman as a paragon of openness given his sad end: denying his HIV-positive status to the relentless U.K. tabloid press until days before he died of AIDS in 1991 at age 45. That galvanizing death, followed immediately and coincidentally by the release of the Queen-celebrating movie Wayne’s World in 1992, led to a resurgence of Queen sales. But other than a brief U.S. chart-topping appearance by the film’s soundtrack, which did include “Bohemian Rhapsody,” no Queen album has occupied the penthouse since Mercury’s passing. Ironically given the theme of this column, Adam Lambert has served as a replacement singer for Mercury in recent performances by Queen’s Brian May and Roger Taylor, and they are about to go back onstage for a handful of shows later this year fronted by Lambert.
George Michael & Queen, “Somebody To Love” (live in 1992)
George Michael: The only person on the list of gay chart-toppers to crown the Billboard 200 both with a group (Wham!’s Make It Big, 1985) and as a solo star (Faith, 1988), Michael was the male pop star of the late ’80s save perhaps Michael Jackson. Like so many on this list, George Michael’s identity seems obvious only in retrospect; at the height of his fame in 1988, he was a major straight-identified sex symbol, appearing in his “I Want Your Sex” video with women in varying states of undress. A ’90s war with his label Sony, which led to a lawsuit in which Michael accused them of underpromoting his recordings, meant the falloff in his career is attributable to many factors besides his sexuality. By the time he was thrust out of the closet in 1998, his days as a chart-topping star, at least in America, were over; he remained a chart-topper in England.
Michael Stipe (of R.E.M.): One of very few out gay frontmen of a major rock band, Stipe has always been as elliptical as his band’s old lyrics. Which makes it hard to say when, exactly, he came out—whether, for example, the 1994 interview in which he dubbed himself “an equal-opportunity lech” makes that year’s R.E.M. chart-topper Monster the work of a closeted man per se. Since it took until 2001 for Stipe to fully vocalize his sexuality after years of speculation, we can’t really attribute that 1994 album or 1991’s No. 1 smash Out of Time as out works per se. However progressive his politics, Stipe waited to make his full revelation for a moment when the band’s fortunes were secure and its hitmaking days behind it.
There are not many common threads among the backstories of the above artists. With the exception of Elton John, few indisputably suffered a direct career impact from their gay status—either at moments of speculation or revelation. But we’ll never really know, and these are artists whose careers were solid enough that they could eventually come out; of course most of them look unstoppable with 20/20 hindsight. Other than intermittently successful Janis Ian, this is not a list of small-time acts; even the two boy-band dudes, neither one the star of his respective group, were members of acts considered demigods in their day.
Even among these established stars, one also senses that the pressure, spoken or unspoken, to remain closeted must have been intense. Finally, the simple fact that these eight artists couldn’t top the album chart while out speaks for itself.
(Anyone taking to the comments section to offer other examples of stars who are “in denial” or fall into that “Oh, come on, everybody knows about him/her” category are only backing up my point. I know I’m avoiding listing a handful of other widely rumored stars, alive and deceased. Again, we don’t need rumors to present the case here.)
By comparison, what Adam Lambert is attempting in his career is remarkable and perhaps unprecedented: full-on mainstream pop stardom combined with early gay identity. While on Idol, Lambert was coy about his sexuality, saving the full revelation until immediately after the competition was over—further evidence that the mainstream spotlight is intense for even the most secure performer.
Adam Lambert, “Never Close Our Eyes”
What’s perhaps even more notable about Lambert is how unremarkable his orientation is in 2012. It doesn’t seem to be hurting him much now that he’s off the show. His first album For Your Entertainment debuted in the fall of 2009 at No. 3 and spawned the 2010 Top 10 hit “Whataya Want from Me.” The debut’s opening-week sales total of 198,000 copies was the highest debut-week total for an Idol competitor in the last four years. That total not only beat Lambert’s opponent Kris Allen, it also edged out the subsequent No. 1 debut by 2011 Idol Scotty McCreery, as I noted in a recent column.
As I also explained in that column, the difference between a No. 1 debut and a No. 3 debut is often all about release date: McCreery’s 197,000 was enough to top the chart because it was dropped during an October week with light competition, while Lambert’s 198,000 in the busy holiday season meant he fell short.
For Lambert’s second album, his label’s chosen date of May 15 offers Lambert a fair fight. Trespassing‘s biggest competition includes another in the long, seemingly bimonthly string of Glee cast albums, which stopped topping the charts a year ago; a live album by Godsmack, who are a regular presence in the album-chart No. 1 spot, but we have seen very few concert-album chart-toppers in recent years by any act; and a new disc, Heroes, by Willie Nelson, who has never scored a pop No. 1 album (and also, frankly, deserves one).
Of course, to make it to No. 1, Lambert will probably need at least a low six-figure sum just to contend with penthouse fixture Adele, whose 21 is No. 2 this week and regularly sells around 100,000 copies a week, even now. In the absence of a big current hit at radio, Lambert will need more than his hardcore fans turning up; a sales-goosing TV appearance would help.
For all I know, Trespassing will not only fall short of the penthouse, it’ll debut outside of the Top 10. Speculating about whether Lambert could pull this off is mostly the sort of sporting interest I regularly take in the pop charts—and it’s hard to predict what will capture the public’s fancy. If you’d told me at the start of 2012 that the only artist besides Adele to top the Billboard 200 for more than one week this year would be Lionel Richie, I’d have looked at you funny.
I offer all of this data mostly as an observation. A No. 1 album by Adam Lambert would make him not only the first openly gay artist to top the Billboard 200 but also the first openly gay American to top either of Billboard‘s two flagship charts. (Past Hot 100 chart-toppers by out gay or bisexual artists include British stars Elton John and David Bowie, and Right Said Fred’s Richard Fairbrass.)
Even at this tipping-point moment for acceptance of gay civil rights, there’s still another tiny cultural barrier left to cross. If anyone wants to start a Bridesmaids-style grassroots movement in the next couple of weeks, it might be fun to see if a gang of progressive-minded pop fans and chart geeks could help lift Lambert into the penthouse.
Probably won’t happen. But wouldn’t it be fun if it did?