A Change is Gonna Come?
"Separate but equal." It's a term that is unavoidably associated with one of the most shameful episodes in American history--when racism and bigotry were legally codified, when a whole section of the population were denied the most basic of human rights. Today, "separate but equal" is taken seriously by nobody who actually believes in real equality. And yet, it's a logic that is shockingly alive in modern America.
The inequality that continues to divide this country was on full display this past week on, of all places, the season finale of "American Idol," where Adam Lambert, the glam-rocker from San Diego with the golden pipes was beaten out by Kris Allen, an Arkansas native so white-bred he makes John Mayer look dynamic. Lambert had been considered a shoe in for the next Idol all season. His stage stage presence, charisma, his unique song arrangements and sheer vocal range put him miles ahead of any other performer on the show. How the hell did he get beaten by Allen?
I have no illusions of "American Idol" being a platform for real progressive social change. Despite its populist bent, it is, at its core, a show run by and for the benefit of the music industry. With this in mind, it would be easy for any of us to write the whole thing off. In this case, however, attention must be paid.
Rumors of Lambert's sexuality have surrounded him this entire season. Many have been demeaning--as if eye makeup and tight pants make necessarily make a man gay. When pictures surfaced of the singer dressed in drag and kissing another man, Bill O'Reilly found reason to throw his screed into the ring, speculating whether the pics would "have an effect on ['Idol']."
Lambert himself has been reticent to comment on whether he is gay, straight, or bi, though he did acknowledge that it is indeed him in the pictures. His studio version of Tears For Fears' "Mad World" includes a verse, cut from the live performance, where he switches the words "hers" for "their" and "girl" for "person." Regardless of how public he has been about his preferences, the media have been quite willing to present him as someone with a "different" sexuality.
So producer Simon Fuller knew exactly what he was doing when he selected Sam Cooke's "A Change is Gonna Come" for Lambert to sing on the "Idol" finale last Tuesday. The song, possibly one of the most moving in the history of popular music, was written by Cooke in early 1964, four months after the Black artist had been arrested while checking into a whites-only hotel in Shreveport, Louisiana. As the American South was swept by the Civil Rights movement, "A Change is Gonna Come" tapped into the rising hopes of millions:
"I go to the movie
And I go downtown
Somebody keep tellin' me
Don't hang around
It's been a long, long time comin'
But I know a change is gonna come
Oh, yes it will
Then I go to my brother
And I say 'brother, help me please'
But he winds up, knockin' me
Back down on my knees"
It's no exaggeration to say that Lambert's searing, gut-bucket Blues version of the song spoke to many on the same level Cooke's did. The passage of Proposition 8 in California on election day has ignited a new movement for gay civil rights in our time. Demonstrations for same sex marriage have drawn hundreds of thousands onto city streets across the country. And in a turn of events that show how much public opinion has shifted in recent years, four states have now passed legislation that allows people of the same sex to be married.
How all of this played into Kris Allen's victory over Adam Lambert last Wednesday is impossible to tell, but it seems to provide a twisted proxy for the battle of ideas taking shape. Lambert, a gender-bending glam-boy surrounded by rumors about being gay electrifies one of America's most-watched television shows with consistently strong performances, only to lose to a dime-a-dozen guitar plucker, who also happens to be an Evangelical Christian.
Despite this, most polls show support for gay rights at the highest it has ever been in this country, while Allen's own beliefs appear to be in steep decline. Not that you would be able to tell from the past several weeks. The newly empowered Democrats, lead by Barack Obama, the supposed arbiter of "change," have been largely indifferent to the new movement. Their silence on Proposition 8, their tacit support for the Defense of Marriage Act (signed into law, let's not forget, by Democratic President Bill Clinton), has enabled a Christian Right that was utterly defeated in November to somehow define the terms of the debate.
Their desperation, however, is just as palpable--to the point where they are willing to let a publicly shamed beauty queen become their figurehead. Carrie Prejean may be little more than a puppet in all of this (that's a beauty queen's job, after all), but many in the knuckle-dragging anti-gay community are surely thankful she came to prominence when she did.
And so, what millions watched on "American Idol" last week was a lot more than a music show. When the world finds itself in its current situation, sometimes the shallowest forms of culture can become fascinating allegories for real-life struggles. Millions waited with baited breath as the results were announced for "Idol" last Wednesday. Just as many will be doing the same as California's supreme court announces its decision on Prop 8 this Tuesday. If it is overturned, it will be further proof that movements work. If it's upheld, it may leave many in the LGBT community wondering when their own "change is gonna come."
Alexander Billet is a music journalist and activist living in Chicago. He is a regular columnist for SleptOn.com and the Society of Cinema and Arts, and a frequent contributor to Socialist Worker and ZNet.
His blog, Rebel Frequencies, can be viewed at http://rebelfrequencies.blogspot.com, and he can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org