[9 May 2012]
PopMatters Music Reviews Editor
Who doesn’t like Adele?
Such is a phrase that has unquestionably been repeated countless times in countless music circles over the past 12 months. The British singer’s 21 has been universally praised since it hit shelves early last year and you would have to work awfully hard to find a year-end list that didn’t have the album somewhere within its top 10 for 2011. Her success has transcended the typical current-day popular music formula by breaking almost every rule the culture had set beforehand, including, though not limited to ...
1. She hasn’t given much thought to the anorexic-like diet many stars adhere to currently, thus making her the poster child for 2012 beauty, her pretty face and sincere attitude making the strongest arguments for that.
2. It’s clear she has no interest in political correctness—her affinity for cuss words and improper English is so obviously part of her multi-pronged appeal, it’s a wonder why more 14-year-old American girls who look up to her haven’t begun using derogatory British slang to put down their classmates more frequently.
And 3. No, she doesn’t rely on anyone else to feed her pop songs to sing—“I think it’s because I write my songs”, she told Vogue a few months ago when asked why she feels an emotional connection with her audience. “It’s my life. And it’s quite hard not to dwell on the tragedy of it. ... When I sing ‘Someone Like You,’ I know that every single person in the room will be able to relate to it. That’s where that emotional connection comes from. I have sympathy for myself, I have sympathy for them, they have sympathy for me, and I know that we are all there knowing exactly how each other feels. It’s like a big pact. You can just feel it. You can slice it”. (“‘Adele: One and Only”, by Jonathan Van Meter, 13 February 2012)
At first glance, it might seem a little harder than it actually is to understand the curious case of Adele Laurie Blue Adkins and her world domination, but in reality, it shouldn’t come as all that much of a surprise. She was the lucky winner of a lottery that advertised its need for an in-your-face true artist pop star. Her incredible ascension into the upper echelon of popularity over the past year can be attributed just as much to a perfect storm of authenticity, a public’s desire for something new and a great album as it can her actual talent.
She knows, this, too. Or at least so she suggested in that aforementioned Vogue piece: “I’m in it for the long run”, she proclaimed. “I don’t want to be disposable. You’re only as good as your next record. I’m not scared of losing this. I won’t come out with new music until it’s better than 21. I’m not expecting to sell as many records, but I don’t want to release shit. Also, I have nothing to write about! I’d be lying. And that would go against everything I’ve ended up building for myself”.
Interestingly enough, she then followed that up recently by going on NRJ, a French radio station, to note that she plans on releasing a new song sometime later this year. She stopped short of a possible full album, though, insisting that it would take at least two years to get such a thing written, which is actually a couple years shy of the timeframe she has suggested in other recent interviews. “I have to write it”, she said. “It takes a while”. (“‘Adele’s ‘21’ Surpasses Michael Jackson’s ‘Thriller’ On UK’s All-Time Best Selling Albums List”, by Crystal Bell, The Huffington Post, 3 May 2012)
The 2008 record, 19, first allowed Adele into the mainstream’s conscious from the popularity of the somewhat moderately successful “Chasing Pavements”. The release landed her the dreaded “You Oughta Know” tag from VH1 (seriously—can you name five artists who actually ever made it out of that label alive? What’s that you say, Thriving Ivory?), and it allowed her a sense of credibility within the eyes of mainstream-leaning hipsters.
By the time 21 was unleashed last year, her legend was already beginning to grow because of how below-the-radar 19 always flew. A few club tours (including one memorable North American outing that she eventually had to abruptly cancel, thus making her an even more attractive bubbling artist), some great interviews, a couple public radio spots and a slew of television performances later, and what we had was a bona-fide superstar on our hands.
What has happened since has been astonishing. 21 has moved 3.1 million units in America this year alone, bringing its US total to 8.9 million, almost a surefire bet to cross the nine million mark. When it does, it will be only the 29th time an album has ever achieved such a thing, stateside. Last week, the record passed Michael Jackson’s Thriller on the UK’s all-time best-selling list, now landing at No. 5 with 4.274 million units moved in Britain. According to NME, those numbers prove that at least one out of every six of the country’s households now owns a copy of her most recent smash. (“‘Adele: ‘I’ll release a new song this year’”, 2 April 2012)
Transcending, indeed. But what was that about her next album, again?
Ahhh, yes. You see, every time I hear “Rolling In The Deep” or “Someone Like You” come on while listening to pop radio, I can’t help but think the following: Boy, she doesn’t have a shot the next time she comes around, does she? It’s sad, really. For someone who has managed to carve out such a monstrous path into superstardom all the while seemingly staying true to herself, there isn’t a single good reason to assume Adele’s next record, whenever it might come, is going to be a work that is such a departure from 21 or 19 that any and all judgments need be quick, fierce and harsh—a race to be the first to proclaim that “after 21, her sound just changed and nothing was any good”.
This notion illustrates the reality that we live in a musical era during which the practice of hatred has never been more celebrated. Fans of all walks of life are now more quick to express their contempt for a piece of art—music, movie, literature, etc.—than they are to laud it. It’s as though the fun of becoming a fan of someone has been replaced by the amount of satisfaction one takes in proclaiming that the said artist isn’t any good, anymore.
Take, for instance, Norah Jones. Her 2002 debut, Come Away With Me, was the type of gigantic success story that comes around once every decade or so for artists that fit the credible-yet-mainstream mold, much like Adele does now. She won five Grammys that year and eventually saw the release achieve diamond status. To this day, Blue Note should still be sending her bouquets of flowers on a weekly basis for the amount of notoriety and money she brought the independent record label.
And then, boom. Before you could say “Sunrise”, taste-makers and fans alike began to move on to The Next Big Thing. Feels Like Home broke the platinum mark a mere four times in the US and Not Too Late, her follow-up to the follow-up, topped out around two million units sold. Yes, these aren’t bad numbers by any stretch of the imagination, but when compared with the mega-hit that Come Away With Me proved to be, those numbers are noticeably lower and not nearly as impressive.
That’s not to say she hasn’t continued to churn out great work, of course. The Fall (2009) just might be her best release to date and Little Broken Hearts, her most recent outing, is as strong as anything she’s ever put out. But even so, it’s hard to think that even Norah Jones wouldn’t concede the fact that Norah Jones will probably never have another Come Away With Me moment ever again.
Therein lies the difference between the two artists, actually. All told, 2002 was a really good time to be making music. Records were selling like hot cakes and the Internet hadn’t yet completely demonetized the music industry. These days, you are lucky to sell more than a million copes of one record. To think someone—anyone—was able to do that nine times over in America is amazing in its own right. To do it again, though, would be downright impossible.
“Turn on any radio station in the world and you will probably hear Adele. Go to Mars right now and I’m pretty sure if there is life on that planet, they’re playing Adele. And for good reason”, pop star Pink wrote a few weeks ago when enshrining Adele as one of Time magazine’s 100 most influential people in the world. “I’m always so happy when the world catches on to something great. Especially when it’s authentic talent, great songwriting and a unique package. I am so relieved that Adele possesses the kind of beauty that she does, that she’s crass and funny and that she sings live — and incredibly. Her success renews hope in me that the world I live in has good taste — that we still occasionally come back to what’s simple, and simply amazing. I can’t wait to hear what she does next”. (“‘The 100 Most Influential People In The World”, 3 April 2012)
Adkins just turned 24. Hopefully, she celebrated in a manner fit for the queen she has become. Two records and nearly a quarter of a century behind her now, she has a whole bunch of time to figure out whatever it is she wants to do next. Much like Pink, there’s unquestionably a large number of people that will more than likely still be interested in seeing what exactly that might be whenever she gets around to it. Unfortunately, though, stories of popular music past and the immaculate height at which she already set her own personal bar suggest that there is also a good chance that such a number of people listening will be notably less than the amount of people who currently claim her as a favorite singer.
It’s a shame, too, because both 19 and 21 prove that there’s a unique artist underneath all the acclaim and success she has been lucky enough to achieve. Both albums make a great case for the notion that even when large amounts of people stop buying all her records, she’ll still be pumping out pop songs with that chillingly authentic voice and a sense of soul that simply isn’t common among modern day female vocalists. Even when the day comes during which a portion of the millions that bought her most recent record claim to “be over it”, or those flannel-wearing hipster critics say “she’s changed”, Adele Laurie Blue Adkins has made it pretty apparent that she has no plans to stop singing songs for a living at all within the near future, if ever.
Exactly how many people will still be listening as she does so … well, only time will truly be able to tell, of course. But even so, once 26 or 29 or whatever she decides to call her next album is finally released, we should all do our best to remind ourselves not to be predisposed to automatically dismiss whatever it is, based solely on the notion that its title isn’t 19 or 21.
And maybe even more importantly, we should all probably remind ourselves of a time when the question of “Who doesn’t like Adele?” was maybe a little easier to answer.