Listening to Adele's New Album
How soul music became "soul music."
The singer Adele Adkins—better known, simply, as Adele—belongs to a cadre of young white British girls who, over the past seven years, have made names for themselves as "soul singers," a term meant to imply authenticity and legitimacy as well as retro chic. Her contemporaries are Joss Stone, Duffy, and Amy Winehouse, the first two of which were crafted by the same assembly line while Winehouse, all tattooed and strung out, seems more a product of a factory meltdown. Adele, because her persona is not strikingly manufactured—or obviously self-destructive—falls somewhere in the middle.
Taken together, these girls form a single idea, which merits attention. Their vocal sound, good or bad or contrived, is meant to conjure an older, black-American aesthetic that is far more Motown than soul. It's tempting to suggest the appeal is rooted in paradox or, rather, the unexpected—white played against black. But this is a simple idea, and a severely dated one at that. Sure, I'll admit, there's something exhilarating when, say, a young Taiwanese man who barely speaks English does a perfect rendition of Whitney Houston's "I Will Always Love You" on live television, but the catharsis one feels, in this case, when the man opens his mouth is generated by paradox in the extreme, as the distance—culturally, geographically, linguistically, generationally, racially—between this man and Ms. Houston—not to mention this man and Dolly Parton, who wrote and originally performed the song—is practically insurmountable. At least at first glance.
The same could be said, on a lesser level, for Adele and company, their success explained away by the unlikelihood of the voice, which implies the following question: How could four white British girls, two of whom were in their teens at the time of their rise to stardom—the other two in their early 20s—channel such an "authentic" sound, often characterized as "wise beyond its years," often characterized as "soul"? But to ask such a question would be to commit a failure of imagination, as there is a distinction to be made between "soul" and "style," the former of which, when it comes to pop music, is too religious for me, too limiting, too dishonest and simple.
Over the years, "soul" has become cartoonish, almost invariably tied up with a singular, manufactured idea of "black experience"—think of the movie Precious—which is as reflective of Oprah's tastes as it is a fantasy of liberal-arts students. Hilton Als once said of Aretha Franklin: "Her big black sound appealed to whites because it was easy to grasp; she sounded just the way white people imagined a black woman would sound—plaintive but feisty, indomitable but sad." This is not so much a critique of Aretha as it is the narrative suggested by (or projected on) her music; it's an argument against caricature. When discussing so-called black music we need to account for a wide-ranging, complex experience that now allows for multiple, individual voices instead of one, "true," collective voice. As Zadie Smith notes in her essay, "Speaking in Tongues":
Black reality has diversified. It's black people who talk like me, and black people who talk like L'il Wayne. It's black conservatives and black liberals, black sportsmen and black lawyers, black computer technicians and black ballet dancers and black truck drivers and black presidents. We're all black, and we all love to be black, and we all sing from our own hymn sheet. We're all surely black people, but we may be finally approaching a point of human history where you can't talk up or down to us anymore, but only to us.
The context has changed, and not just for blacks, but for everyone. "Soul" no longer has a place in discussions of music; it doesn't apply to contemporary singing.
Style, however, does. It denotes nothing specific, does not deny artifice, and emphasizes the purely aesthetic over the cultural or historical or political. Style deems context irrelevant and places the onus on vocal sensibility, which is a theatrical, or postmodern, gesture, though no less sincere for this admission. Because if we're truly living in an age that defies stereotypes and explodes clichés, where distances of all kinds have been virtually obliterated, then everything—timbre, blue notes, pronunciation, timing, diction—is available as stylistic options.
Mike Spies is on the editorial staff of The New Yorker.