This week, the lucky 13 contestants in the latest top tier of "American Idol" begin the serious phase of competition with a dip into Michael Jackson's songbook. Jackson, who just has returned from isolation to announce a series of comeback shows, is the single biggest influence on the young R&B stars that many "Idol" strivers emulate, but he's also the ideal subject for what's turning out to be a rather strange season.
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At the heart of his troubled legacy are the anxieties "Idol" also confronts, however mildly -- America's troubling history of racial divides and assimilation, and the sexual repression and need for release that is a basic subject of pop music itself.
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There's been some joking on various websites that this year's most flamboyant front-runner, Adam Lambert, will perform Jackson's early '90s hit "In the Closet" as a response to recently leaked photographs of him kissing a man and dressed in glamour-queen drag. Jackson released the song just when his astounding musical charisma began to strain under the weight of his eccentricities.
It is one of many attempts Jackson has made to give voice to the demons that eventually dragged him down.
A tight, New Jack Swing track co-produced by Teddy Riley, the song expresses bald lust in the face of a lover's wish to retreat. The music, full of bullet-like synthesizer pings and Jackson's trademark percussive panting, was complemented by a video that showed the lithe, light-skinned dancer and voluptuous, dark-skinned model Naomi Campbell facing off with dance moves in the desert: a signature Jackson expression of repressed yet uncontainable sexual hunger as a form of violence.
"In the Closet" could be the theme of this year's whole season, really. Lambert is not the only resident in this year's "Idol" house to have an uncommon identity or a bothersome back story. Reality -- and not the usual well-managed kind the show embraces -- is breaking through as "Idol's" producers strive to further the contest's popularity among a diverse array of viewers without giving up the fiction of a unified mainstream.
The closet metaphor most often applies to hidden homosexual identities, and that's certainly a hot button issue for "Idol." The show has drawn its own curtain around apparently gay contestants over the years. So far, Lambert has been as matter-of-fact about his orientation as possible without actually uttering the word "gay" on camera. He's poised, doing his little dance around a major aspect of his private life; he's not the first to have to do so.
During Season 1, the Fox network demanded that Top 10 finalist Jim Verraros remove "gay-friendly" comments from his page on an "Idol"-sponsored website. Season 2 near-winner Clay Aiken waited a whopping five years to come out. Last year, David Hernandez was quickly eliminated after his past as a stripper in a gay club came to light. (There's apparently never been a lesbian contestant, though several have fought off rumors, starting with Season 1 winner Kelly Clarkson.)
Hidden sexualities on "Idol" always must be viewed in light of the general discomfort about sex that dominates the show. It's fairly ridiculous that a program designed to create the next major pop star barely lets its participants show leg or sing racy lyrics, especially when the charts are dominated by songs like Flo Rida's "Right Round" and Lil Wayne's "Lollipop" -- both fairly blatant celebrations of promiscuity and oral sex.
Within a painfully immodest pop universe, "Idol" stands as a champion of family values -- and of the endangered naughty giggle. The banter between the show's male regulars, especially host Ryan Seacrest and judge Simon Cowell, is steeped in an outdated frat-boy homophobia that is never funny and often deeply uncomfortable. You'd think that the formal protest lodged in 2006 by the gay-rights organization GLAAD would have put a stop to such antics, but they've just kept coming.
"Idol's" closet contains much more than sexuality, though. It includes language differences, religious affiliation and its contestants' complex family lives. The daring Lambert might break down the wall of homophobia this season, but it's just as likely one of the show's several Christian worship leaders, including Lambert's main male rival Danny Gokey, will push the producers to let fundamentalist Christianity out of the box in which it's not very well contained.
Or perhaps this year's outlier will be Jorge Nunez, making a mark for the Latino community by insisting on singing songs in Spanish. Then there's Scott MacIntyre, who is legally blind, and who might keep forcing the producers to adjust to a front-runner with an obvious disability.
Issues of race pose new challenges this year. Nunez's dark skin and curly hair mark him as different from the Enrique Iglesias-style Latin crossover acts more common in Hollywood. (There's more than one reason salsa master Marc Anthony, a black-haired, full-blooded Puerto Rican who has faced crossover issues himself, wept when Nunez got through.)
Anoop Desai succeeds Season 6's most beloved self-made joke, Sanjaya Malakar, as a serious contender of South Asian descent -- and judging from his moves while performing Bobby Brown's "My Prerogative" last week, he means to become a heartthrob. The sexy Asian male is still an infrequent presence in American pop culture, and Desai is already facing a tendency among commentators to turn him into a joke. Will he fight it off?
All of these new twists on the idea of the perfect pop star stand in contrast to one gaping hole in the Top 13. Not one African American man, and only two women, made the cut. The presence instead of the self-styled "blue-eyed soul patrol" -- white pretenders to the R&B throne -- highlights the continued existences of one of American pop's most disturbing closets: the legacy of white performers borrowing, respectfully or not, from black musical styles, and often superseding the originators of the music they reinterpreted.
Though Elvis Presley is an icon of racial crossover moves -- and though Jackson became stigmatized, in part, by trying to move the opposite way, from black to white -- the racial closet actually has existed as long as American pop itself. It was particularly prevalent in the pre-rock era that "Idol" so effectively invokes.
The very idea of any artists interpreting any song, rather than staying within a style that connects to his roots or reflects her private self and home community, hearkens back to the days when Jewish immigrants wrote Christmas songs in Tin Pan Alley, and stars like Roy Scherer Jr. and Doris Mary Anne Von Kappelhoff changed their names to Rock Hudson and Doris Day.
The more current mainstream pop stars that "Idol" relentlessly celebrates also have complicated but smoothed-over identities. Mariah Carey took years to come to terms with being biracial; Quebecois Celine Dion continues to wrestle with her bilingual reality. Whitney Houston became increasingly problematic for music industry handlers after marrying Bobby Brown and becoming more "black" in both her affect and her sound. Barry Manilow's sexuality has been fodder for rumor throughout his career.
Jackson fits in perfectly with this pantheon of spiritual mentors. His secrets might push at the door of his closet, but he's never let them out. We'll see if "Idol" finds another kind of opening.