Why Is Adam Lambert Still So Underrated?

Whataya want from him?!

In his new single, “Feel Something,” Adam Lambert sings about waiting “so long to feel like I’m worthy,” but the truth is that he’s already proved himself to be exactly that, time and time again.

As the first openly gay male artist to top the Billboard charts, Lambert has been a pioneer for queer visibility. Ten years since he auditioned for the eighth season of American Idol, the runner-up has since “overwhelmed” Cher, and Queen’s Brian May admitted that Adam possesses a wider vocal range than even Freddie Mercury himself when performing Queen songs live.

It’s no exaggeration to suggest that Lambert is currently one of the best vocalists working in pop—or any other genre for that matter either—so why isn’t he also one of the most successful? Despite receiving an early Grammy nomination for the song “Whataya Want from Me,” Lambert’s album sales have since experienced a downward trend, and he’s not exactly a household name either, even after performing with Queen at the Oscars this week—and has been on the road with them for nearly five years now.

Of course, there’s often a stigma attached to performers who make their start competing on reality TV, but if artists such as Kelly Clarkson and Carrie Underwood can break away and make a name for themselves, why not Lambert? Although he didn’t win his season of Idol (Neither did sixth-runner up, Oscar-winner Jennifer Hudson), outlets like the Las Vegas Review-Journal described the then up-and-coming artist as a “lightning rod” among “a pack of wet matches,” and he’s stood out from the crowd ever since.

Once he secured a record deal, Lambert quickly decided to make music for his entertainment as well as ours, channeling the glam rock vibes of gender-bending artists like Prince and David Bowie before him. Seeing him resist the cookie cutter mold that labels usually impose on reality show contestants was a cause for celebration early on, but not everyone appreciated the overt queerness of his image.

During a performance of “For Your Entertainment” at the 2009 AMA’s, Adam shared an open-mouthed kiss with another man on stage, causing many more mouths to drop open in surprise.

At the time, Adam was right to point out that the complaints he received were nothing more than a double standard: “Female performers have been doing this for years—pushing the envelope about sexuality—and the minute a man does it, everybody freaks out.” Unfortunately, that didn’t stop ABC from canceling his scheduled performance on Good Morning America.

While Lambert still received radio play following this controversy, he recently admitted to Billboard that this was a “big road block” after Idol. Subsequent albums received a strong critical response overall, but it’s easy to see how prejudice continued to negatively impact his career, particularly in the way that his management tried to handle things.

When Lambert’s debut record was released, some retailers objected to his androgynous look on the cover, so he was forced to produce a second, more conservative piece of artwork. Just a year after the release of his second album, Lambert left RCA Records because they pushed him towards recording an 80s covers album rather than focusing on new material.

Such a move was rather indicative of how many still view Lambert primarily as a covers artist, perhaps due in part to his association with Queen and his first introduction to the world via Idol. Despite possessing a strong back catalog of his own, Lambert tends to be known better for covers like “Mad World” and “Believe” rather than powerhouse singles such as “Ghost Town” or “Never Close Our Eyes”. Hopefully, that won’t be the case in the next stage of the 37-year-old singer’s career.

Alongside the release of “Feel Something,” Lambert wrote a letter to his fans that addresses the negative toll comprising with executives has taken on his mental health. Lambert also revealed he’s switched up his management again, and with the help of a new label called EMPIRE, he’s ready to take back control with music that’s more of a natural fit.

There’s no guarantee that Lambert’s fourth album will bring the long overdue respect that he deserves. Systemic homophobia still prevents even the most popular queer singers from enjoying the same success as their straight counterparts. Adam told Billboard recently that the climate is “one hundred percent different today” than when he first started out, but we still have a long way to go before mainstream acceptance is absolute.

Despite it all, a killer single that truly capitalizes on Lambert’s remarkable voice could be the catalyst for real change. Now that he’s no longer second-guessing his artistry or compromising for others, it’s time for Lambert to finally feel worthy of himself and reach his true potential.

David is a British journalist who loves horror, superheroes and queer cinema, which is why he regularly pesters Xavier Dolan to direct an adaptation of Marvel Zombies.