The Music Club, 2011

How Adele Makes the “Ordinary” Profound
New albums dissected over email.
Dec. 23 2011 3:47 PM

The Music Club, 2011

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How Adele makes the “ordinary” profound.

Adele.
Are critics of Adele criticizing just her music?

Christopher Polk/Getty Images.

Jonah, you’re not making this easy for me! I could spend weeks unpacking the relationship between “strategic misogyny” and replicating sexism (the rising wave of Web-based feminist writers do just that day in and day out, and this year some awesome female musicians gave them a great soundtrack) and still be at square one. And the related issue you raise, of whites exoticizing racial “others” and those same signifying insurgents fighting to define themselves—is central to the history of American popular music, from Jump Jim Crow to Odd Future Wolf Gang Kill Them All.  

But it’s late, I need to pack for the holidays, and we haven’t talked about Lady Gaga yet. So I’ll just offer a quick observation. Transgressive music is always “small-p” political, though its makers may not consciously embrace a “capital-P” agenda. It can shock us into new ways of thinking or violently reinforce old prejudices. In 2011, despite Miley’s video, the aforementioned Kendrick Lamar and a few other conscious rappers, and Jay Z having Obama on the text, pop music often seems strangely bipolar in its relationship to the ongoing political conversation. Girls run the world of the Hot 100, but still play out fantasies instead of speaking to the hard realities of women’s lives. Indie wizards make beautiful soundscapes, but rarely populate them with bold lyrical statements. Is it a matter of artists not risking clarity? Or of critics like ourselves perhaps choosing to focus more on subcultures or sounds than on more urgent social issues? Or am I just being the Clash-nostalgic old fogey of our bunch?

I instantly feel better, however, when I think of Lady Gaga. I’m already regretting not ranking her Born This Waythe political rock album of the year, even more so because it was disco and all about sex—in an honored spot on my year-end list. I momentarily tired of its bombast. This exchange is confirming my belief in the importance of Gaga’s statement-making: not only its practical effect—she championed a cause, respect for gays in the military, that actually reached its goal—but the exemplary power of her mix of mainstream sound and radical intent.

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Born This Way is a throwback, not only to Madonna’s prime (why deny this? It’s a fantastic legacy and deserves to be extended!) but to the “statement rock” of blockbuster artists like Springsteen and U2. The conviction that animates it—that music can change an artist’s audience, if not the world—is one well worth reviving. The title track connects the communal ecstasy of the dance floor to the crowd-surfing uplift of arena rock, allowing outsiders (queers, bullied teens) to imagine themselves in a cockiness-rocking power position. Other tracks dealt with the burden of religious shame (“Bloody Mary”), encouraged pride in single womanhood (“Marry the Night”) and cursed the contradictions of so-called post-feminism (“Scheisse”). Then there was “Yoü and I,” a piano-banging power ballad that flipped one of rock’s most enduring gender scripts, that of the male adventurer and his little lady back home. This time, Gaga’s in control, and the hapless on-and-offer Luc Carl is the tiny dancer in her hand.

Though Born This Way did sell, by the end of 2011 it seemed that Gaga's leather-glove grip on our consciousness had slipped a bit. The other day, my husband Eric wondered on Facebook whether Gaga’s overt support of gay rights had cost her radio play in certain conservative markets. We couldn’t quantify that, but it seems possible. I also think her choice to inhabit a rock stance might have hurt her. I’d love to hear you all weigh in on how rock—plain, old, earnest, horny, idealistic rock—became so uncool. (Resisting the sudden urge to delve into the mythos of “Moves Like Jagger.”)

It occurs to me that the word “uncool” could also easily apply to Adele. Like every woman over size 6, she’s always being badgered about (and defined as “different”) in terms of her weight; really her average body is just one aspect of a persona that’s warmly bawdy and unflappably comfortable. I have to disagree, Jonah, that all she does on 21 is inhabit the past: That’s the job of her beehive hairdo, which has served its marketing purpose and, I hope, might soon be shelved.

Unlike Amy Winehouse, whom we have yet to eulogize, Adele doesn’t distort her own voice in an act of racial parody—she sounds English, she sounds young, and if her producers sometimes saddle her with the obligatory (if effective) diva choir, she never gesticulates as if she’s wearing a robe. I view her much more in the tradition of English belters that includes a few 1960s staples—Dusty Springfield, of course, and Petula Clark, but which really blossomed in the 1980s, through the careers of Annie Lennox, Alison Moyet, Lisa Stansfield, Caron Wheeler, and even Sade.

What these women share is a remarkable naturalness, even when crossing lines of genre and race—they’re conversational even when they’re hitting notes past the rafters. That quality creates a certain image, or really provides a route to communicating in a certain way: Singers like Adele make “ordinary” profound. Little details matter in their songs. Consider the first four lines of “Someone Like You.” Adele’s slightly behind-the-beat delivery of each line traces how the hope of reviving a love affair slips away in increments: I heard (I’m still listening for you) … that you’ve settled down (maybe you’re in a better place now) … that you ... found a girl (I can smile through the pain)… and you’re ... married now (that’s it, no hope). Adele breaks the last word into pieces, as if to make the bitter pill possible to swallow. It’s brilliantly executed and so familiar to anyone who’s been tossed out of love.

The great British cultural critic Simon Frith once wrote an essay in the Village Voice comparing Celine Dion somewhat unfavorably to Barbra Streisand. He expressed a certain disappointment in Dion’s deployment of her considerable vocal gifts, but he did write one line that got at her essence: “Her greatest skill,” he wrote, “is to capture the fleeting moment, its promise and regret, its urgency and its waste.” That seems like a very feminine (and even feminist) art to me, honoring the aspects of experience that master narratives would exclude. And that’s what Adele does on 21: even on the big songs, she’s amiably homey, creating a sound that most people experience as emblematic of the way their lives go by. Critics may not like it, partly, because it doesn’t stop them in her tracks. But many listeners love it because it helps them go on.

Speaking of going on—it’s time for bed. I look forward to the next missives. Anybody gonna take on Bon Iver anytime soon?

Ann

Ann Powers is a critic at NPR Music. She is the former Los Angeles Times' chief pop critic and the author of Weird Like Us: My Bohemian America.

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