Adele's new album, 21: soul vs. style in popular music.

Pop, jazz, and classical.
March 2 2011 1:35 PM

Listening to Adele's New Album

How soul music became "soul music."

Adele 21.

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.

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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.

It's fitting that Drake—the bar mitzvahed son of a white-Canadian, Jewish mother and an African-American father—has become a darling of hip-hop. Raised in an affluent Toronto neighborhood, his artistic legitimacy has nothing to do with a typical hardscrabble back story, which suggests we're beginning to view the performer in a manner similar to the way we view the novelist, whose books are accepted as works of the imagination, not autobiography. So perhaps we're evolving. Perhaps we're looking to meet the singer in a more neutral space, where one's voice can float freely, unhinged from received narratives. After all, musicians are no longer born out of a particular milieu; they're born on the Internet, out of nowhere.

For Americans, this is a new way of perceiving American music, which, for decades, has often collided with, and subsequently been bound to, the hopes and dreams and frustrations of a certain race or class or culture or cohort. For example, the cultural critic Gerald Early writes in One Nation Under a Groove: Motown and American Culture: "In 1964, when Motown released Martha and the Vandellas' 'Dancing in the Street,' urban riots were becoming the sine qua non of black frustration," and "Few blacks accepted the song on its face, insisting that it was a metaphorical theme song for black unity and black revolution. To Motown and Martha Reeves, of course, it was just another dance song."

When Berry Gordy began to cultivate the Motown sound, his intention was to create brown music—hyper-calculated and intended to appeal to the entire color spectrum. He was motivated by success and knew that he had to appeal to everyone's sensibilities while allaying their racial anxieties. His mission, though inextricably linked to history, was to stand outside of history. His concern, ahead of its time, was style, and, as Early explains in his book, he appealed "to American youth through music that neither bleached nor blackened."

Which brings me back to Adele. England has always had a unique relationship to black-American music. Before the blues were accepted by whites living on Main Street, USA, it had to go to Great Britain first, where, as the story goes, bands like the Rolling Stones appropriated the form and sent it back over the airwaves to a new, willing audience that was suddenly given the courage both to listen and to play the music.

This was possible because England had the benefit of sharing a common language with the States while standing at a comfortable remove from its complex social circumstances and neuroses. English people were free to have a genuinely aesthetic experience with American music and so were able to view it as a set of stylistic options or gestures from which they could pick and choose. That English singers seemed to have no hang-ups about borrowing these American voices is not surprising, as the English, I think, have always had a better idea of the multi-voiced nature of performance than Americans. They were able to view the blues as theater, which it was, and still is. For them, it was never a matter of genetic code, which is, perhaps, Shakespeare's enduring legacy.

But, anyway, here's the news:  
 
Adele has released her second album, 21, the follow-up to her Grammy-winning 19. Whether or not it's good is beside the point. I can, however, tell you this: Like the first record, it has nothing to do with "soul."

Mike Spies is on the editorial staff of The New Yorker.

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