There’s a scene in the film Say Anything where Lloyd (John Cusack) comes over to Diane’s house (Ione Skye) for what will emerge as a fairly high-stakes dinner with her father (John Mahoney) and his very business-like adult friends. (This meal is where Lloyd, asked what he’s going to do with his life, famously declares his personal philosophy: he doesn’t want to buy anything, sell anything, or process anything. The party ends with the IRS showing up to investigate Diane’s dad for tax fraud.)
Diane’s not ready yet when Lloyd arrives just before all that; he awkwardly pokes around her bedroom as she holds out various dresses around the closet door and asks his opinion on what to wear.
He pauses at a thick reference book, stroking its spine. “This is a mother dictionary,” he says, just loudly enough for her to hear.
“I’ve had it forever,” she says. “I used to have this thing with marking the words that I would look up.”
He flips through the pages, slow at first and then faster, running his finger down columns where nearly every word has a ballpoint-pen X beside it in the margin. Sometimes she’s marked whole runs of words with a giant bracket.
Diane was the valedictorian of a class where Lloyd may have been considered, by at least a few, the coolest dude around. He possesses a shy confidence that is painfully, obviously undercut with a heavy streak of slacker self-doubt.
Lloyd slams the dictionary shut. Maybe he’s overwhelmed, maybe impressed, or maybe both. She emerges with yet another dowdy, matronly dress option and he smiles as if it’s the sexiest thing he’s ever seen. They go down to dinner.
Of all the many times in Say Anything that we are shown and told that Diane Court might be the smartest 18-year-old girl in Seattle, and that unbelievably this is why cool guy Lloyd is in love with her, or at least the idea of her, this has always been the one that stuck with me. She’s undeniably a nerd—“trapped in the body of a game-show hostess,” as one of Lloyd’s female friends observes—and he undoubtedly likes her more for it.
I never had a dictionary quite that fancy growing up—I don’t have a strong memory of any given edition—but from early as I can remember, I would ask my mother what a word I’d come across in a book or newspaper article meant and she would answer, “Why don’t you look it up?” In high school, I had an otherwise unbearably old-fashioned English teacher one year whose most common-sense lecture on a similar topic somehow stuck, habit-forming in its simplicity: Don’t ever read past a word you don’t understand. Stop and look it up. I longed for the luxury of having a dictionary so comprehensive and yet so commonplace that I could mark X’s in pen like Diane’s. I wished for some way to document retroactively how many words I had researched, that I knew.
After my father’s parents died, I came home from college to Reno for a long weekend to help him clean out their two-bedroom apartment. I left with two main inheritances: first, my grandmother’s costume jewelry collection, the kind of heavy rhinestones and elaborately set pieces that no one makes any more. (We each wore one of the necklaces for our wedding.) The other was boxes of books and LIFE magazines—nothing particularly rare or valuable, mostly cheap paperback editions of American classics, some annual calendars or notebooks or other printed giveaways that must have come with the membership dues my progressive grandparents paid to left-wing organizations through the years.
And, most greedily claimed though my only real competition, my brother, was not even there—one giant unabridged Webster dictionary from 1941, the year my father was born. It weighs at least 10 pounds and for more than a decade I hauled it, at no small expense, as I moved from apartment to apartment, coast to coast, where generally it sat on the bottom shelf of any bookcase I deemed sturdy enough to hold its bulk.
When I first moved into my current office, in a sleek shiny building in Burbank, I had a very retro-style bar along the glass window. A year later, nixed by HR, I had a mirrored bar cart I couldn’t entirely bear to bring home in defeat, so I hauled the dictionary to work and cracked it open along the top tray.
I am an editor in chief, I thought, and no matter how many types of media, how many platforms that job now encompasses, I am at heart a woman of words. Here are so many words. Let’s not forget how important each and every word we choose still can be.
Last month, for no real reason except a sudden surge of restlessness, I went over to my dictionary and took a slew of close-up photographs of the cover, the spine, a series of pages at not-quite-random inside. I also found a full sheath of newspaper clippings and typed notes and reference materials tucked inside, a haul rich enough for its own post.
Then I looked up the word that many adults I know will say was their first furtive attempt to confirm via a dictionary, particularly one in a library they might leaf through otherwise anonymously, that they might exist in some older, more recognized form: homosexual.
But the 1941 unabridged Webster’s does not include the word homosexual, or any of its variations.
It skips from Homo sapiens (“Man, regarded as an organic species”) to homoseismal (“Coseismal,” which according to m-w.com means “simultaneously affected by the same phase of any particular seismic shock”) to homo signorum (“An image, much used in old almanacs, of a man surrounded by representations of the signs of the zodiac, lines from which point to the parts of the body subject to their influence”).
I have no idea why homosexual is not included in this dictionary. Their website now includes the definition—“1. of, relating to, or characterized by a tendency to direct sexual desire toward another of the same sex; 2. of, relating to, or involving sexual activity between persons of the same sex”—and notes the first known use of the word was in 1891. There’s no detail on the site given on when or why it was added to Webster’s lexicon. (Just looked up lexicon to be sure I was using it correctly; according to Google it is “the vocabulary of a person, language, or branch of knowledge; a dictionary.”)
That’s not to say no one could tell me why it’s not included. Here’s one lengthy and fascinating longread about the history of Merriam, Webster and all their editions and additions, which leads me to believe that I could likely get a human on the phone who is perhaps willing to take me down that particular queer rabbit hole.
A quick google (the verb, using the proper noun site, and also the clear antagonist in this dictionary ecology) reveals that in fact earlier Webster’s did include the H-word, perhaps before my edition: In 1909, according to OutHistory.org, homosexuality made its debut in Merriam-Webster’s New International Dictionary “as a ‘Med.’ (medical) term meaning ‘morbid sexual passion for one of the same sex.’ Homosexuality was considered a ‘morbid’ (diseased) passion because it was not a passion for procreating, but for sexual pleasure.”
The site also saysheterosexuality didn’t make the page until 14 years later, in 1923, when it was similarly defined as a “morbid sexual passion for one of the opposite sex.”
Here I believe this site may be quoting verbatim from historian Jonathan Ned Katz’s The Invention of Heterosexuality:
In 1934 “heterosexuality” appears in Webster’s hefty Second Edition Unabridged, defined in what in 2015 is still the dominant modern mode. In 1934 “heterosexuality” is a “manifestation of sexual passion for one of the opposite sex; normal sexuality.” Heterosexuality has finally attained the status of norm.
In the same 1934 Webster’s, “homosexuality” has changed as well. It’s simply “eroticism for one of the same sex.” Both terms medical origins are no longer cited. Heterosexuality and homosexuality have settled into standard English.
If I could find my copy of Katz’s book, which I know at one point I definitely owned, or had ready access to his archives in the New York Public Library, I might find what appear to be further detailed footnotes about Katz’s own correspondence with a M-W rep named Brett P. Palmer on the subject:
Mr. Palmer assures Katz that “homosexuality” and “homosexual” appears on page 1030 of the 1909 edition of Websters’s International Dictionary. He also says that “heterosexuality” first appears on page xcii of the 1923 supplement of Webster’s New International Dictionary, and that the contemporary definition of “heterosexual” first appears in the 1934 Second Edition of Webster’s. Katz is grateful to Palmer for this information and for photocopies of these pages, now in the Katz Collection, NYPL.
But what of my 1941 copy?
The answer may partially be that it’s technically a Webster’s second edition, which according to the Slate longread is mostly now remembered for being something of a layover between the early origin myth-type tomes and the modernized, more curated Third:
The Second was what one Merriam editor calls the Internet of its time: 3,350 pages long, with more than 600,000 main entries, including proper nouns, and hundreds of pages of biographical, geographical, and literary appendices and other encyclopedic matter. The Second was designed to be a single-source reference for the educated classes and an aspirational text for the masses. It contained long lists of popes and dukes, and hundreds of illustrative quotations from the Bible, Shakespeare, and Dickens. But there was no mention of Mae West, Eugene O’Neill, or Babe Ruth. Popular culture, a term dating to the 19th century, was considered too unrefined for such a serious work. The Second was also priggishly didactic, prescribing what its ivory tower editors and consultants considered “proper” language, and brusquely dismissing usage that was, as its labels declared, incorrect, improper, or illiterate.
I am not sure if I should take the homosexual’s exclusion from such an encyclopedic volume as priggish (self-righteous) or perhaps prudish or simply proscriptive: if you don’t define someone, they can’t disrupt your world order, or so you might hope.
Really it was already too late for that. In 1941, homosexuals were fairly well-defined, medically speaking (if not well-described or well cared for as humans in those medical worlds). We were living in varying degrees of secrecy or boldness, particularly as the second edition of a U.S.-involved World War provided ever more freedom for independent women or sea-faring men to find each other in circumstances where perhaps many people cared more about simple survival than who kept each other warm.
I like looking this sort of thing up. It’s how I almost ended up going to graduate school to study queer history, though instead I just jumped feet-first into what they call the first draft of history, aka journalism. (My baby brother went full historian, which is almost as satisfying.)
I particularly like that we live in a world now where in order to learn a word you don’t have to skulk into the corner of a library, under a bank lamp or the watchful nosy eye of a small-minded, small-town busybody. (I never knew a librarian who wanted anything but to encourage reading more, but it can hard to differentiate gatekeepers from nurturers when you’re simply scared of defining who you are.) I like that there’s no one authoritarian answer to what a word means, though I worry like any good left-winger about the undue or unchecked influence of a google or the likelihood of instead some kid stumbling onto a site that perverts curiosity to inspire shame. I love so much that the young people who work for me delight in disappearing down a spiral of Wiki, YouTube and any other primary source they can get their hands on to learn about some incredibly specific phenomenon or sub-culture or person, going from unknown to expert in a matter of hours.
And for all that I love words, I love how they keep changing, and how these institutions, no matter how much more modern, still struggle to keep up. In 2016, Merriam-Webster added cisgender, genderqueer and the gender-neutral title Mx., according to this tweet and then this contentious, cautionary article in the MetroWeekly. None of those words are in the most wispy aspirations of my ancient history edition.
But so, so many other words are. I’m still not sure what to make of them, what to do with them. Should I pick a new word—at random? at my fancy? at yours?—and write or say something about it each week? Should I post pretty pictures to Instagram of the most unlikely or forgotten? Should I stop obsessing over individual words as a means of procrastination from writing a whole book of them strung deliberately together?
Clearly I’m willing to take suggestions or requests. What is the one word you would, or have, look up first?
In early October , Out sat down with Adam Lambert for an hour-long talk about his upcoming album, life inside the American Idol machine, and how carving out a career in the music industry is still easier for him than being in love.
[This transcript has been very lightly condensed and edited for clarity.]
Out: Let’s start off by talking about Lady Gaga. Adam Lambert: I saw those pictures in Out, the Halloween pictures. They were incredible! I’m so refreshed by her. I think she’s finally taking risks. Like where are those people? You know what I mean? I’m inspired by it. I’m like, ‘Yeah, fuck yeah. Let’s take risks.’
We all wanted those rumors that you would take Kanye’s place on that tour to be true. [Laughs.] Not true. It would be really fun.
Would it be the gayest tour ever? It would probably be. The audience would be amazing, probably, at that tour. It’s really funny to me because a lot of my core fans — people that went to the Idol concerts, and I glance at the messages boards once in a while — there is a surprising amount of them that don’t like her.
Really? And I’m like, but — her way of approaching music is not that far off from what I’m trying to do. She’s doing what the club kids are doing and making it like, Top 40.
What has that inspired you to do? Definitely just to take risks. Sonically, the actual style of her music is, like, club music. It’s not necessarily as avant garde as she’s presenting visually, but that’s what makes it so genius. It’s a song that everybody loves and she’s getting to play dress up and doing whatever the hell she wants. Which, I think, is what it should be. It’s how you interpret it.
Is what you learned on Idol applicable to the real world of the music industry? I think so, yeah.
Do you feel like you’re having a different level of conversation with music execs? When I stop and realize who it is that I’m talking to and what they’ve done, I’m like, holy shit. These people are powerful and they have a resume like—whew. I try to not to think about it. It’s the same way I dealt with the show. Just don’t think about the fact that there are 30 million people watching right now, just do your thing. Just stand on stage, sing for the people in the television audience, and don’t think about the cameras.
How did you manage that? I think that what I did on Idol was me thinking to myself, OK, I want to stay on the show as long as possible, so what do I have to do to keep people interested? For me, that was kind of going into slightly chameleon-like situations where this week, I’m going to do more like this, and sound like this. I was always me, but now I’m going to go here, now I’m going to go there. Because we had different themes, and that’s what you kind of have to do. Trying to give it a through-line with me at the center of it, but playing different types of music. This week I’m not going to have any rocker style. I’m going to do Motown. I’m not going to wear any makeup, and I’m going to do my cleaned-up classic retro look. And people were like, ‘Wow!’ And I’m like, ‘To me it’s not really that different. I’m just wearing a suit, I just brushed my hair.’
Watching your performance on Idol, it was almost like you were using an old-fashioned code to say, ‘We’re all in on this.’ Tell me which parts of that were deliberate. There was never any deliberate, like, ‘I’m going to hint now’’ because I was never in the closet. The funny thing about dealing with all that was’ [Long pause.] When those pictures came out online, I got freaked out. I was like, ‘Great, that’s gonna fuck things up.’ ’Cause I just figured, you know, this is a national television program and people are conservative in our country, aside from L.A. and New York and a couple of other places.
I think for a lot of people, no matter how out you’ve been, you have these moments where you’re like, ‘How are people going to react?’ To be honest with you, it was a really weird moment, because I’ve been living in L.A. for eight years like, yeah, I’m gay. I go out to gay clubs and bars and I go out to straight clubs and bars too. I don’t think twice about it. And it was the first time since I’d come out of the closet at 18 that I had to think about it.
During the audition process, it didn’t come up? Like, ‘Okay, I’m going to maybe pull this back a little’’ I was just going to make it a non-issue, because to me, it really isn’t about that. It’s about the entertainment factor. And I don’t understand why it has to be about my sexuality. I’m just not going to talk about it one way or another. It doesn’t matter. And then when those pictures came out, I was like, you know what? I thought maybe I’ll just own it and say, ‘Yeah, I’m gay.’ But I didn’t want to label myself. What I did was, I said, ‘I’m not ashamed of the pictures.’ I didn’t do the thing that some people do and say, ‘I made mistakes in the past.’ I didn’t want to acknowledge it as a mistake or something I was ashamed of, because I’m not.
It wasn’t like it was some hardcore sex tape that anyone, gay or straight, would’ve been kicked off of Idol for. I was making out with my ex-boyfriend.
But that fear, that there’s a queer double standard — it’s not always wrong. It’s a hard thing that everybody’s gonna have their opinion about. You know? Some people in the gay community might look at it like, ‘You really should’ve owned that. You didn’t hide it, but you didn’t admit it and that’s weak.’ My whole point is, I’m not trying to lead the fucking way for the civil rights movement that we’re in right now. I just happen to be a gay man — and I’m not ashamed of that at all. Regardless of how I handled it, it became a huge issue. And I knew it would. So I figured, you know what, I’m just not going to label myself, I’m going to own the pictures, I’m going to get past it and just keep being myself on the show. And then I waited until after because I was finally given the opportunity. I mean, on the show, we’re not really [allowed to talk to press].
You’ve said it was your choice how to handle that. Even the most savvy gay people I know are dubious about you having that much control. How did it happen? Did you get called into a meeting? Literally, the minute the pictures came out, the publicist for the show called me up and was like, ‘So? Did you hear about these pictures?’ And I was like, ‘Yeah.’ And she goes, ‘What do you want to do about it?’ She was really cool.
This is the publicist from Fox? The publicist from Fox, [Jill Hudson]. She was like, ‘You know, stuff like this has happened before, and this is usually what happens’’ And I was like, ‘Jill, I don’t want to deny it, and I’m not ashamed of it. And I don’t want to seem like I’m ashamed of it. Because that’s not me. That’s just not how I am. But, at the same time I really want this opportunity and I want to stay on the show as long as possible. So, I kinda have to come up with a compromise.’ And she was like, ‘Well, is it a big deal to you?’ And I’m like, ‘No.’ And she’s like, ‘Well, then let’s not make a big deal out of it.’ And that’s what we did. She was like, ‘You know, own it. Tell them who you are, and just move forward.’ And that’s what we did. And I’m glad that I handled it that way, because I think that had I immediately said the words and labeled myself — you know, said ‘I am gay’ — I think that it would’ve been more about that, initially, than anything else. And the fact that we didn’t come out and make a big announcement or anything like that — that doesn’t make any sense to me anyway. It’s not an announcement. It’s just, it’s part of who I am. But because our nation is the way it is, it’s an announcement. And also, there are very few gay celebrities. [Long pause.] It’s really cool, now, looking back, because I think that without saying it, and making that part of my identity, I think I allowed viewers to be more open to me. I think, had I put it out there that I was gay right off the bat, I think that people would’ve closed their minds right away.
But wouldn’t you say that it was a minority of people who were actually surprised that you were gay? Yeah, I would hope. If somehow this can open people’s minds or whatever, then great. I’m not sitting here thinking about ways to open people’s minds. That’s the thing people have to understand.
Don’t you want to open people’s minds with your art? You’ve struck me as being an artist who has a point of view. I do have a point of view. I may have something to say now and again. I just want people to enjoy the song and have a good time. That’s what music is about for me. It’s not so political for me. I may be the subject of something that’s so political, being that we’re in a weird time right now. And if I can indirectly open people’s minds up and get them to kind of change their views a little bit, then I’m really thrilled with that. But that’s not my mission. That’s not why I’m doing this.
You’ve talked about Idol as less of a competition and more of a platform. I’ve always seen Idol as a machine, like a political machine that can make or break — It is!
Watching you was exciting because it felt like you were beating them at their own game. We were all on the same page. I could feel early on that they were all on my side. They weren’t against me. They never said, ‘Tone it down.’ They knew it was good for ratings, they knew people were into it. They encouraged it. I was like, ‘This is great! This could not have gone better.’ They were totally supportive of what I wanted to do. They didn’t ask questions. They were like, ‘What are you singing? Is it well known? Are people gonna like it? Well, cool! Then go for it, man! You’re wearing what? All right!’ They didn’t care.
It’s about money at the end of the day, right? It’s about making a good TV show.
Could expectations for your album be any bigger? I know. It’s a lot of pressure right now, and it’s gotten to me a couple times. But, I think that what you were saying — about the show being a platform and being a machine and all that — I think what happens is, I’m one of the lucky people that have been in the industry a little bit. I haven’t necessarily been in the recording industry. Over the past couple of years I started working on some demos and things like that and wanting to get into it. But I’ve been in the theater industry for a long time. And I’ve lived in L.A. for eight years. And when you’re in the city of entertainment, and you open your eyes and you meet people and you hear stories and you have friends that have been through this and that, going onto a show like Idol, you get it, going into it. I think what happens is that a lot of people that they get are from a small town in the Midwest, or they were a student and now they just kind of sing on the side. The whole amateur aspect of the show is really interesting, because it creates accessible personalities for the audience to attach themselves to. That’s why it looks like a machine. Because the machine has to lead them around, these amateurs that don’t know what else to do. And I think that there are some people that come onto the show that are savvy, and they get how to play the show. And I guess that was me.
Have you gotten any really good pieces of savvy business advice? Well, I’ve been told by a handful of the producers to just be true to yourself. Just make sure that you feel like you’re at the center of this, artistically. That’s what I’m trying to do. And it’s being facilitated really elegantly. It’s a weird misconception with the show, that it’s a machine and they puppet people around. I think some people kind of end up getting puppeted because they don’t really know how to drive.
I meant more like, they get to test you and see if you can rise to the occasion. As opposed to how you came in and were like, ‘This is what we’re going to do. Work around me.’ Yeah, they love that, though. It’s less work for them. I think they get excited when they see someone with drive and ideas and confidence. They love that. That’s the thing about the show that people don’t get. They’re not threatened by that. That’s what they would love. They would love to get as many people like that on the show as possible. It would make for a good show.
It’ll be interesting to see this year’s show. I hope they take some more risks. They really should.
So how are you doing with the expectation factor? I’m just trying not to think about it. It’s like, ‘Just make your album, just make your music.’
When’s the last time you had a full day off? Yesterday. Hung out with my boyfriend. Went to the beach. Just relaxed.
Let’s talk about boys. OK.
Tell me more about your boyfriend. You know, I try not to talk about him too much to the press because it’s like, trying to keep something kind of private. It’s surprisingly — well, I guess its not that surprising, but it’s very difficult to maintain a relationship amidst all this.
And it’s all relatively new. It’s a lot to ask of someone, to be able to be OK [with it].
Has he been OK? Yeah.
Were there guys hitting on you on tour? No. The majority of fans that I came into contact with were women. A lot of women.
But you have plenty of gay fans. I’ve met like, three. That’s the thing that’s so funny to me — I don’t have a good idea of who’s into me, because the only people I’ve seen are like, women.
Maybe the gay men would never have gone to an Idol concert. That’s true, it may be the Idol thing. I didn’t think about that. You’re probably right about that.
I was surprised how affirming it felt to see you perform in a big arena, with 20,000 people screaming for you. That’s the thing too, is that in an indirect way, acceptance is being promoted right now. That’s really, really powerful, and that’s a hard thing to have happen. Especially for a male in the music industry, quite frankly. It’s tough.
There’s a way in which both you and Neil Patrick Harris are being talked about as exceptions to the rule, to the idea that there could never be an out, gay leading man or male musical star. You both seem very confident and comfortable with who you are. But that’s not always true of your handlers. We’ve gotten plenty of push back from your management — and many other people’s — who say, ‘Well, let’s not be too gay’’ Well, you know, I think that there’s something to that, though. I think the whole magic of this moment is that I’m not alienating anybody. I’m not trying to anyway. I want as many people to feel like they can like the music. I don’t want to edit myself to the point where I feel like I don’t have integrity. But at the same time, I feel like I don’t want to alienate people, so it’s really hard. It’s almost like being a political figure. It’s like a balancing act. I feel really good about how open I’ve been, ’cause I really don’t feel like I’ve hidden anything. It’s like the picking and choosing. When is it appropriate and when is it not? One of the things that I don’t like about the gay community is that people define themselves by their sexuality — and that’s bullshit. It shouldn’t be about that. It should be that it just so happens that you’re this or that, and that’s your sexuality. It doesn’t mean that that should dictate what your social group is or where you go out or who you talk to or what your interests are. That’s bullshit. That’s outdated.
It’s very narrow. The segregation [from straight people] that exists in the gay community is outdated. At a time, it was necessary because we weren’t accepted. And now that acceptance is moving way forward, over the past 10 years. I think that we need to move forward too, and I think we need to kind of like, stop being so segregated and just be.
How do you describe your sexuality? I think one of the things about the gay community that’s really interesting is that while people own their homosexuality, there is a strange aversion to letting the masculine and the feminine exist within you in a balanced way. And for me, personally, I feel I have a very strong masculine side, and I also have a very strong feminine side. And a lot of people are scared to live in that gray area. There’s boys out in Boystown that are either really fem or really butch. It’s at the extremes. I love when I meet people that are just kind of comfortable being both. And they don’t have to identify being really butch or really fem. Why? Why would you have to?
And also, if you’re one of these, then you must be attracted to the other. Are you attracted to guys like you? I don’t even know anymore. I think when I was younger, I could box in what my sexuality was about, what’s my type and all that. But as I’ve gotten older, and just learned more about myself and the world, it’s not really about type anymore. I mean, if someone’s hot, they’re hot. If someone’s interesting, they’re interesting. If you have an energy and a chemistry with someone, then you have chemistry. Done. You can’t really define that or explain it. It just is. You just meet people and you click, or you don’t. You know? [Pauses.] Although — I like pretty boys.
[Laughs.] What kind of pretty? Pretty. Pretty is pretty. And I’m generally drawn to [guys who are] younger than me. Generally—but there are exceptions.
You told Rolling Stone that you had a crush on Kris Allen, and everyone went crazy about it. Believe me, right after I said it, I was like’ It turned into this thing, and I was like, “Oh God, I shouldn’t said that and now it’s blown way out of proportion.”
Are you usually attracted to straight boys? No, actually.
Kris seems like a real straight guy. He is a real straight guy. He’s very straight. He’s just’cute.
He’s pretty. He’s pretty. He’s a pretty boy. You know? And he’s nice. He’s a really nice guy. One of the things that I think is so refreshing and cool about him is that he’s from Arkansas — and this is me being small-minded — I just kinda figured that the acceptance of people like me in Arkansas is probably a lot lower than here. And he’s very open-minded to people’s lifestyles and he doesn’t judge. He’s a good guy.
To have someone who is very religious and who feels like that — That’s the funny thing, is that he’s not very religious, I don’t know where he got that label. Danny [Gokey] is very religious.
Did they put all the boys on the same bus? Uh-huh. Eleven of us.
Let’s talk about Michael Sarver, who seemed at first to be a religious guy who wasn’t very comfortable with you being gay. But when the tour encountered ‘God Hates Fags’ protesters, he was all over Twitter condemning them and defending you. He’s got a really good heart, that guy. He does. And I think that he represents a large portion of our country, good people who are just scared of what they don’t know. We didn’t even have that many conversations about it directly, but it’s just another example of acceptance. We just got along with each other. He just wants everybody to like him, and he wants to like everybody. It’s very simple, what his needs are. And I have very similar needs. We cut up all the time, backstage and on the bus. We get along great. I think what he realized was that it doesn’t fucking matter. And he got past that.
Was Danny very religious in a way that made you uncomfortable? No, never uncomfortable. Danny’s a little bit more fundamental in his views than I think Michael is. And I don’t think his views are going to change. But it didn’t get in the way. We had a number of conversations on religion and morality. And it wasn’t for either one of us to try to convince the other, it was just to kind of learn. He was very cool with that, just having a conversation. We had some really deep conversations about God.
What did you learn? I just got a better sense of what a very strong, traditional Christian outlook is. I don’t really have a lot of friends that are that way, so it was educational for me to learn about what that is and what the beliefs are behind it. I was raised Jewish, first of all, and I’m not even that religious. I would consider myself spiritual, kind of leaning towards more New Age ideas. I’m not like, fully hippie — but those kind of belief systems make the most sense to me.
Have you already gotten your scandalous past out of the way? I do feel like a lot of its behind me, and that feels good.
So you’re not waiting for another shoe to drop’ What’s funny is that in the ’70s a lot of the glam artists — like Bowie, T. Rex, Iggy Pop, Alice Cooper, KISS — they were gender bending with their image, but most of them were pretty hetero. Even though they looked really flamboyant. Bowie was the one guy that kind of made you wonder. But he was straight, right?
Yeah, I guess. Yeah, I know, I didn’t like that either. But that’s the ’80s for you. At the heart of it, the question was, ‘Are they gay?’ And I think it would be kind of fun to toy with the imagery of, ‘Is he gay?’ but the other way around.
Are you toying with perception when you talk about how you could be bi-curious? Or are you generally attracted to women? I will make out with a girl at a bar. I mean, after a couple of drinks.
[Laughing] That doesn’t make you any less gay. Get three mai tais in a gay boy and he’ll make out with a girl. Sex is something different. That’s why I say I’m curious. There are gay guys that gag and go ‘eww’ at the thought of having sex with a girl. I’m curious about it, because I’ve never done it.
Have you ever had any sex with a girl? Oral.
You went down on her? Uh-huh.
Was it gross, or it was just not what you wanted? It was a little gross because I don’t think she was as clean as she could’ve been. It wasn’t the act of it that really turned me off. I don’t really remember. I was 18 and I was drunk. Or maybe I was 17… The point of the matter is that I would not rule it out. The idea is intriguing.
And it’s threatening. Well, it’s threatening personally because you start identifying as a certain thing for so long, the idea of kind of going outside of that is scary because you’re like, ‘But that’s who I am!’ Being curious and embracing that curiosity is all a part of what I’m about. You don’t have to be any one thing. You can kinda just be. Just live your life — and play.
If you were going to pick one thing to be remembered for, so far, what would it be? That I can sing my face off. I mean, that’s what I do. All this other stuff is part of a personality, persona thing surrounding that. I hope that people are like, ‘Oh, I like his voice. I like his music.’
Let’s talk about Freddie Mercury. There was a moment in the finale when you and Kris were singing Queen, and Brian May looked at you like he was going to start crying. He’s really cool. There was some wild energy going on during that performance. And even with Kris up there. Kris was really connecting with me, too.
‘We Are the Champions’ was a great song choice for the two of you. It was very cool, and Brian was a sweetheart. Yeah, that felt really good. It felt really like the progression of that — it’s so sad, because Freddie was definitely an idol of mine. His voice, first of all, and his showmanship. Then when you really look at it, he couldn’t be who he was publicly. That was one of the things [we considered] when we decided I should just talk about it in Rolling Stone and just get it out of the way. I just don’t want to live my life trying to hide anything, or putting up a front. I don’t — I will not do that. Too many people have had to do that in the past. It’s just so sad.
I don’t think it’s very good for your art, to put up a front. My mentality is, if I lose some fans, fuck it. I need to be happy, too.
Do you feel like you learned how to make a music video from doing camera work with Idol? Yep. And that’s the thing that was so funny. I walked on the set [for the ‘Time for Miracles’ video] and the production crew were the same people that did those Ford music videos. So it felt really comfortable. We were on the show and we would always be like, ‘Ugh, why the hell are we doing another one of these Ford commercials? They’re so stupid.’ And now I look at it and I think, you know what? That really was good training. Because I felt so comfortable and I probably wouldn’t have otherwise. When you do anything in slow motion, they speed up the music and you have to sing with it faster. And we did that for the commercials on Idol. And I think had we not done that, now I would’ve been like, ‘What the fuck?’
In videos for the album, would having a pretty boy love interest be too much? I don’t know yet. I’m gonna kind of play it by ear. But eventually it would be cool to be able to do something like that.
Do people come to you with ideas that are more out there than you would have come up with? Or are you one who’s pushing them? There are definitely creative ideas that come up, but sometimes they’re just not right. Sometimes they’re out there, but they’re corny. Camp and corny are two different things. Camp has to be done just right, or else it isn’t right. It has to be like, sophisticated. I love high fashion and theatrics and things that are really conceptual. But if you push that too far then it gets kind of self-indulgent.
That’s always the question with Lady Gaga — how far is too far? I think she’s smart. I predict that she will experiment and change it up a little bit. She’s got to show a little crack in the veneer for the audience to really get a three-dimensional view of who she is. I love that she’s brave enough to be that eccentric. I think it takes balls to be that out there.
Do you worry about not being brave enough? No, I don’t worry about it. It’s more calculated than that: when do you go all the way out and when do you pull it back? It’s like how it was on Idol for me. Musically and visually, you have to do both, highs and lows. You have to do [something] crazy and over-the-top and then you have to strip it down and do something sensitive.
I have to say, I didn’t really expect to see someone on Idol tour jerking off a mic stand. You know what was really funny about that — a woman came up to me in the autograph line and was like, ‘This is a family show. You need to make this more appropriate.’ And I looked at her and said, ‘I don’t need a lecture from you.’ I kinda smiled and she was like, ‘But there’s little girls in the audience.’ I said to her, ‘They probably don’t know what I’m doing. You do. They don’t know what I’m doing. They just think I’m playing with my mic! They don’t know that I’m jerking off. They don’t get that yet. Come on! And, if they do, then’sorry.’
They didn’t learn it from you. Hopefully it will facilitate a conversation. And it’s not different from what Elvis and Michael Jackson did in their day. Relatively speaking.
Tell me about working with Linda Perry. She’s great. I remember she said to me at one point, ‘Its funny, I’ve never worked with a gay guy before.’ She keeps it real, and she also has a ton of artistic integrity. It’s not commercial with her. She doesn’t want it to be what everybody else is doing. She loves thing that are different and out of the box.
Do you feel like there is more room for you in a rock genre? Yes and no. Because, yes, I can sing a rock song. I love rock music. I love drums. I love the sound of a guitar. I love thinking this track is going to be played at a bar where people are drinking and having a good time and wanting to feel sexy. That’s what this song is for, to make you feel hot. It’s not deep, necessarily. But sometimes you should just have fun.
It’s nice to meet a gay man who enjoys drugs that aren’t meth or coke. I stay very far away from those things. It’s funny too because I remember after that [Rolling Stone] article, my mom was like, ‘I don’t know if you should have said all that stuff about drugs, Adam. You know there’s a lot of kids’’ And I said, ‘But that’s life, that’s real.’ I just wanted to be careful that it didn’t turn into a fucking pageant. It doesn’t have to be goody two-shoes. I’m not. I can fake it sometimes. Maybe. There is an element of responsibility. I’m not a jackass. There are kids exposed to things. I don’t want to fuck up some kid’s life or something, or make a parent’s job really difficult. But at the same time, it’s like —
What are you doing that would do that? I don’t know. To some people, me being sexual is really offensive because I’m gay. They’re like, he’s being really gay. And I’m like, actually, no, because there’s no other guys up here. I’m just being sexual. And male sexuality is frightening to America. Female sexuality — it might not be the best example of it, but it’s all over the place. Overt female sexuality might be degrading. It might not be the most feminist type of sexuality, unless you look at it like the woman’s in control, so she’s got the power. Sexuality is just — people are so freaked out by it. The double standard is that a woman can get away with it but a man hasn’t been able to yet.
How famous is too famous? I don’t know. I really think it’s relative. The hardest thing to do in this situation — but the best thing to do — is to not take it too seriously. By doing that you don’t let it run your life and freak you out. It’s all kind of ridiculous, if you put yourself outside of it and try to look at it as objectively as possible. It’s all ridiculous. The whole thing. It’s crazy. It’s hilarious. It’s funny. It’s great. It’s really positive. And when you start letting the pressure get to you — our job as entertainers is to not let the pressure get to us. Our job as entertainers is to be like, OK, I’m just going to keep doing what I do. And obviously I’m being an idealist right now — but I kind of have to be, or how else am I going to last?
Can you go back to Burning Man? I hope so. I’ll just wear disguises. Fame doesn’t freak me out, and I can handle it. But sometimes out in public there are people that just are so rude. Like, people are really cool about it and they’ll come up to you and they’re just like, ‘Oh, hey man, I really liked you.’ It’s brief, it’s sweet, it’s genuine. But some people freak out. And I’m like, “Why are you freaking out?” I don’t get that mentality. I’ve never felt like that about a celebrity before — except maybe Madonna. When I met Madonna my heart was racing. That’s my one experience being star-struck. And I told her, ‘I’m freaking out.’ And she said, ‘Why?’ And I said, ‘Because you’re fucking Madonna.’
But there are kids who feel like that about you already. But even though I was star-struck [about Madonna] and freaking out, I internalized it. And I made sure that I didn’t make her feel uncomfortable. And some people, it’s like they just don’t get that.
Or they don’t respect themselves in that situation. It’s a boundaries issue. They feel like because they know you and they like you that you owe them something. And it’s a difficult situation because I do owe them something, with Idol. They voted. If it weren’t for people out there voting for me, I wouldn’t have made it on the show. So I do owe them a lot of gratitude, I do. But I think that that’s what I owe them — gratitude. I don’t owe them to come join me for dinner when you’re coming up to me in this restaurant and I’m trying to eat. ‘No, you can’t sit down. No, you know what, I’m actually trying to eat dinner, can we take a picture another time?’ It’s just about boundaries, and respect. It’s the one thing about being famous that’s difficult to adjust to.
What are you doing to stay sane? I haven’t been going out that much. And I miss it a little bit, but I’ve been busy. I was definitely a night owl before all this. And when I go out and do errands, I’m literally like, I’m going to put on a baseball cap and sunglasses so that I can just do my thing. It’s not that I don’t like people coming up to me or appreciate the genuine sentiment. I’d just like to be left alone a little bit. No one can prepare you for that.
Is that the thing that’s changed the most? Yeah. Because at the heart of me I’m the same guy doing the same thing on a larger scale. I’ve always been an entertainer. But it’s just, the lack of anonymity. It’s going to sell the album, but it takes away from your personal life. I wouldn’t have it any other way. I think it’s a fair trade. If that’s what I have to sacrifice for getting what I want, then fine.
How do you balance that mainstream success with having come from a community of performers who are much more underground? There are tracks on the album that are artier and weird and experimental. And there will be things on it that are more mainstream and commercial. I like both kinds of music. I understand why you have to have both kinds. It’s kind of like what Lady Gaga is doing. She has huge commercial success but what she’s doing is wild and out there. I think there’s so many different elements that go into a persona and entertainment. If one of my songs sounds commercial, hopefully I’ll be able to create a visual that’s different, to give it a whole new twist.
Do you feel a responsibility to do that? Yeah. Because I don’t want to be generic. I want to give people something to look at and talk about it. When I did ‘Ring of Fire,’ which was a classic country song that I turned into this psychedelic Middle Eastern thing, I loved the way it turned out. And I loved what I was wearing. That was probably the most me, just as far as my taste goes and the kind of stuff I like. It was very Burning Man. And it was very polarizing. Some people loved it, and just as many people were like, “Ugh.” I think there’s going to be some stuff on the album that does the same thing. And I hope that it does have a strong point of view. I don’t want to be bland. That is the last thing I want.
Are you worried about that? No. But the big business of the music industry, if it’s not navigated properly, can end up making you bland. It’s all about mass appeal.
Who are your biggest allies? The producers. Linda and I have had a lot of great conversations. Same with Greg Wells. They’re both very pro creative/artistic vision. Other allies are my friends that get it, that know. People that I did The Zodiac Show with. People that I’ve been performing with for years, that I did theater with. They get it. They get the line between integrity and commercialism. Big theater is like that. I was in Wicked! That’s a perfect example of a great piece of musical theater, but it’s also very, very finely constructed to have mass appeal to women, mostly. They knew their demographic. It’s totally calculated, but it is good. That’s kind of the way I look at what I’m trying to do. Something that does have mass appeal, and does have commercial appeal, and will be successful, but at the same time, it has quality. I definitely straddle the line — I’m a business person, but I’m an artist.
How do you balance that yourself? How do you go home and chill out? It’s been hard because I don’t compartmentalize as well as I’d like to. So I tend to be thinking a lot about the music. But the relationship has been very helpful, as an escape in a way.
And you get to see each other enough? Yeah? I mean, we didn’t for a while because I was on tour. But now we’re in the same city. We’re both busy, but it’s definitely better.
You’ve talked in other interviews about how much falling in love for the first time changes you. It really does change you, though, you know? But this is only the second relationship I’ve had in my entire life, and I’m 27 years old.
What did you learn about yourself from the end of that first love? What you realize is that when you fall in love, especially for the first time — the first major relationship that you have where you’re with somebody for a long time — is how much of an impact somebody can have over you. And how much they can shift who you are, both in your own discovery of yourself and how they rub off on you a little bit. That was weird for me. I always thought of myself as extremely independent, and I do have a lot of independence about me. But when it comes to love, I have to fight codependence a little bit. I get a little clingy, I think, and it’s very out of character for me. So it becomes very confusing, because I’m like, wait, I’m usually fine. But all of a sudden, I’m like [waves hands] “Ahhhhh.”
Like it’s easier to walk in and talk business. Oh yeah. That’s something I actually said to him yesterday. I said, “You know, it’s funny. I’ve figured out a lot about life, and I have a lot of life experience, but I don’t know shit about love.”
What was the wall you hit with him? Sometimes it’s hard to, like, be a boyfriend for somebody, because you don’t know what that means. What does that mean? Especially if you haven’t been in many relationships. And being in the gay community, we don’t grow up with any role models for that. We don’t know what we’re supposed to be. And I think that’s funny because there’s so much — again, it’s something that’s being evolved out of, but in the gay community there’s so much promiscuity. It’s socially accepted in the gay community to be promiscuous. It’s like, oh, we’re both men, we’re supposed to want to fuck all the time and cheat on each other. And it’s OK, open relationships are fine because we’re all men. And I’m not judging that, but I don’t think that’s for me. I don’t think it’s emotionally healthy.
Then you have to balance that with being away so much, being on tour. So who knows, you know? The other thing that’s really hard is that you have to decide whether or not you have the focus and the energy to give to the other person. That’s a difficult thing, too. And who knows what the future could hold with that. I might have to say, ‘You know, this is how much I love you, that I have to let you go. I can’t give you what you deserve right now, so this isn’t going to work.’ Hopefully it works. I want it to. But we’ll cross that bridge when we come to it. Out of the love I have for him, I don’t want to neglect it. [Sighs.] God, I can’t believe I’m saying all this. I think we put all these expectations on relationships and create this idea of, oh, this is how it’s supposed to be, because this is what all these other relationships that I see, that’s how they are. I think it’s really hard but really necessary to be like, but what are my needs? And what are your needs? And that’s our relationship. And that’s the hardest thing, because no one tells you how to do that.
And you don’t have all these other models. Not that they necessarily fit so well for straight people. No, but there’s more of them. Even in the arts, a lot of art is about love and relationships, and there’s a lot of hetero art about it. But when it comes to the gay community, there’s just not a lot. And some of it’s so — I have such a love-hate relationship with the concept. Like, I can only watch Logo for a couple minutes. It’s a little too —
Well, if it’s not good, it’s not good. Yes, if it’s not good, it’s not good. That’s the best way to put it. I think when you’re more impressionable it’s more important. Like, seeing gay movies was important when I was young. But they were horrible. It’d be nice to see a movie about gay people that was well acted.
What else do you want to talk about? I don’t know. [Long pause.] My job is to make this look easy and fun. That’s the illusion, the vibe I’m trying to create for people to feel. That’s what I want to do as an entertainer, create a mood that rubs off on people. This is scary, and it is a lot of work. And I’m OK, I’ll be fine. But, wow, this is a lot. And I hope that people are compassionate about that. I took a chance, stepped my life up a little, have some opportunities, have a little money, and I’m doing the best I can. I’m doing the best I fucking can, you know?
Originally published at Out.com on November 12, 2009.