The 39-year-old singer knows what it means to be a young star making waves through talked-about performances. In November 2009, six months after finishing second on Season 8 of American Idol, Lambert gave a performance of his song "For Your Entertainment" at the American Music Awards that shocked some viewers. Much like Lil Nas X at the BET Awards, Lambert's performance culminated in a same-sex kiss (in Lambert's case, with his keyboard player) while the cameras were rolling.
The reactions to the two performances differ significantly. For Lil Nas X, while his stoked some controversy (though not nearly as much as his music video for the song did back in April), the vast majority of the public response has been positive — stars like Sean "Diddy" Combs, Kevin Abstract, Tegan and Sara and more have all shouted out the singer and called out critics for their "homophobic" and "hypocritical" responses.
For Lambert, the reaction was much different, and much more immediate. "I was pulled off of ABC for a little while," he says. "They were freaked out, they had Christian parent groups writing in, the censors were freaked out. The thing I found so funny was like, 'Censors? It's a kiss! When was that indecent?'"
The singer recalls flying to New York the day after his performance back in 2009 to perform on Good Morning America only to have his appearance canceled thanks to the controversial nature of his AMAs showcase. When he managed to get booked on another morning show, Lambert says he was surprised by some of double standards implied by the questions he faced.
"They showed a clip, trying to draw a comparison to Madonna kissing Britney and Christina at the VMAs a couple years before that. So they showed a clip of that moment, and then right afterward, they cut to clip of my performance the night before of me kissing a guy onstage, and they had censored our mouths," he says. "I just remember thinking that was the biggest slap in the face — it's like, that proved my point! It's so crazy to me that this double standard was so blatant and obvious, where two women kissing was not indecent, but two men kissing was."
Looking back on his experience after the AMAs, Lambert says he was in a position where he had to capitulate — while he never apologized for the performance, he says he had to "toe the line a bit, because of the times we were in and the situation I was in with my career."
So when Lambert saw Lil Nas X's performance, and specifically the way that the rapper handled the criticism he received, the frequent Queen collaborator said he was overjoyed. "He's so grounded and firm in who he is and what he's about, he won't apologize to anybody," he says. "What I love right now with Lil Nas is we need him to be outspoken about it. He is in a position where that works for him, and he's using it."
He nods to the rapper's excellent sense of timing, pointing out that he saved some of his most controversial work until after he'd acquired a platform. "In the music industry, it's like, 'How many streams do you have, how many sales, what position is it on radio?' Once you hit a certain point, you get more leeway, you get more credibility; the industry gives you a longer leash, so to speak," he says. "And I feel like one of the great things about Lil Nas is when you look at 'Old Town Road,' you see that this massive worldwide hit helped give him some freedom to make some statements and to make some real art. Timing is everything."
Lambert also credits a shift in our cultural thinking. With the advent of social media, the spreading of acceptance for LGBTQ people around the world, and the work of artists normalizing queerness in the music industry, audiences aren't as prone to phony outrage over two men kissing as they were in 2009. "Two men kissing is sort of old news," he says. "Of course, there's still a lot of problems, and there's still a lot of work to be done, but I think for a lot of people, we've moved past the shock and the alien nature of seeing gay representation in action."
However, Lambert notes that the same hypocritical judgement he was subjected to back in 2009 is still alive and well in 2021. "If it's par for the course for a female pop star to put on a performance like that, then why can't a gay male pop star do the same?" he says. "I hope that double standard is very clear to people."
Lambert admits that if Lil Nas X's performance had taken place just a couple of years after his AMAs controversy, "I probably would've been jealous." But looking at the star Lil Nas X is becoming, Lambert says he's feeling nothing but pride right now. "We are in a very divided, polarized time, but I feel we are on the positive side of that polarity," he says. "There is so much good will for someone like him, and I'm just happy to be able to have the perspective to appreciate it."