January 31, 2011


Making It Clear

It's easy to forgive Adam Lambert for asking "Whataya Want From Me." A dedicated rocker emerging (via American Idol) at a moment when the pop-idol landscape isn't too keen on rock from unfamiliar names, Lambert's got an uneasy relationship with his audience. He's a runner-up who sings like a champion, a performer who doesn't write his own hits in an idiom that usually demands it, a star who was subject to a mountain of outside expectations before he'd recorded a note, a big name who resorts to SEO-friendly title misspellings. The song lets him show off his raw, imploring rasp, but it also betrays its pop origins: co-written by P!nk and the behind-the-scenes pop maestros Max Martin and Shellback, it sounds very much like it could be one of P!nk's own records. And its lyrical persona is someone who used to be a lot more malleable, but now needs whoever's paying attention to him to clarify his or her intentions instead of just having unspoken expectations. The title is a young man's question, in other words.

As it happens, half a century earlier, another handsome young Adam breaking into pop music asked pretty much exactly the same question of his audience.

Teenage singer Adam Faith, like Lambert, established himself through TV appearances, but didn't actually break through to the charts until he recorded "What Do You Want," a #1 British hit for him in 1959. It's a sliver of a song—supposedly the shortest U.K. chart-topper ever—about how someone needs to clarify her intentions; in his televised performance, though, it's mostly an excuse for him to show off his chiseled good looks and shoot significant glances at the camera.

Also like Lambert, Faith was a rocker—well, kind of a rocker—in a climate that wasn't terribly interested in rock 'n' roll. The influence of Buddy Holly was all over his singing (check out those glottal stops), but you can see for yourself in that video clip the distance between his image and his sound: there's a beat group on stage behind him (guitars! drums! saxophones!), but almost all you can actually hear is the pizzicato violins.

Faith briefly shared the #1 spot on the charts with, and then gave it up to, a similarly titled song: Emile Ford and the Checkmates' "What Do You Want to Make Those Eyes at Me For," which had been around for a while itself. Ford's version was a drastically stripped-down version of a standard: an early hit recording of the song, a duet by Ada Jones and Billy Murray, had been released in 1917, meaning it was almost as old for Ford's purposes as Ford's recording would've been to Adam Lambert. It's not easy to imagine Lambert or his peers singing "What Do You Want to Make Those Eyes at Me For," unless there's a "songs from the year your great-grandparents were born" theme week on American Idol one of these days, but the concept of the lyrics is pretty much the same: you're paying attention to me, so now what?

There's been one other major British hit with a variation on that title: Monaco's "What Do You Want From Me?" in 1997.

Their version comes from a different place—not the confusion of a new relationship but the confusion of an old one that's gone sour. Monaco had something to prove too: the group was formed by Peter Hook and David Potts upon the dissolution of their previous band Revenge, and Hook's career wasn't where it used to be, either. He'd played in the enormously influential bands Joy Division and New Order, but Revenge had struggled for even the slightest shade of those bands' power and popularity.

So their "What Do You Want From Me?" answered its own question: what the audience wanted from Hook was what he'd been doing a decade earlier, whose style the song imitated so successfully that it's still sometimes mistaken for a New Order track. Both Ford and Faith went on to sing their "what do you want" songs for the rest of their career; Peter Hook recently toured America with a band playing soundalike versions of Joy Division's 30-year-old album Unknown Pleasures. Lambert's young yet—but in a pop career, the first question you ask is the question you'll have to ask forever.