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Adele’s 21 Brought Sincerity to Pop Music When It Needed It Most

The heartfelt London singer revived a genre largely turned maximalist, materialist, and vapid

Adele
Adele, photo courtesy of artist
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    Editor’s Note: Consequence has been around long enough that so many of the new albums that originally turned us on to music are now celebrating their first milestone anniversaries. As we begin to reflect on these records, you can catch our updated assessments here.

    It’s September 2011, and London’s breathtaking Royal Albert Hall is filled with over 5,000 music fans. (Oh, how I miss live music.) On stage, a 23-year-old Adele has the undivided attention of every eye, every ear, every soul, as she tells the story of “Someone Like You,” the overwhelmingly successful second single from her sophomore album, 21. “I didn’t have that one song that I believed myself on…that one song that moved me,” she explains to the crowd. “And it’s important that I do feel like that … so I have the confidence to let people that I don’t know listen to my music because it’s so personal.”

    Normally, magicians don’t reveal their secrets. However, Adele — never one to employ smoke and mirrors — freely imparts one of the simplest, yet most important lessons any songwriter can learn: if you want your audience to feel your music, you must feel it yourself.

    Adele first learned this lesson when writing “Hometown Glory”, the emotional closer to her debut album, 19. From the song’s opening 45 seconds of piano improvisation — a sequence that sounds like the scribbling down of pure heartbreak into a journal — you get the sense that Adele is lost, searching for something hopeful through the cracks of the pavement. “I ain’t lost, just wandering,” she answers, as she discovers the “wonders of the world” she’s looking for in the people around her, in hometown memories, and in the protests people stage in their fight for unity. As I listen back today, I still believe every word Adele sings and resonate with every emotion because I know Adele believes and resonates with them herself.

    While “Hometown Glory” and hit single “Chasing Pavements” were standouts from 19, much of the 2008 record was but a shadow of her potential. On 21, however, Adele bared her entire soul for the world to see, hear, and feel at a time when we needed it most — when mainstream pop music had fallen so far away from the simple lesson that music can (and should) move us in profound ways.

    I was 16 in 2011, and I’ve blocked much of the ubiquitous dance pop music of that era from my memory. But for the sake of setting the scene, let’s remember back. At this point in history, maximalism ran rampant as Billboard’s top artists and producers tried to pack as much exhilaration into four minutes as possible. Party rock duo LMFAO turned Led Zeppelin into a dick joke as they shuffled over generically chaotic club synths; the Black Eyed Peas were on their last leg, switching it up with 8-bit pseudo-techno; Pitbull was doing his Pitbull thing over beats so busy and loud, you needed an aspirin after a single listen. Room to breathe in 2011 was discouraged. Everything promoted more volume, more materialism, more energy all the time, and ultimately, less humanity. Pop music’s elite had stumbled on a perfect recipe for vapid meaninglessness.

    To say that 21 breathed fresh air into the pop music scene may be one of the decade’s great understatements. The first time the acoustic guitar of “Rolling in the Deep” chugged out its trainlike rhythm over the radio waves (still a place of influence a decade ago), the fire Adele “started in her heart” spread, thawing what had become unfeeling in pop music. “Rolling in the Deep” is a feverous breakup song, and every line is a gut punch, from “Go ahead and sell me out, and I’ll lay your shit bare” to “Think of me in the depths of your despair/ Make a home down there, as mine sure won’t be shared.” You know these lines have found their way into the diaries of thousands of scorned teenagers over the last decade. Adults, too. Don’t even lie to yourself.

    Even with these live rounds of ammunition, Adele still carries sadness. There’s a longing for wholeness in her cry, “We could have had it all.” Because, contrary to what lesser art would have you believe, we don’t simply feel rage or sorrow or happiness or disappointment. We feel all of these all the time, often simultaneously. To close yourself off to one emotion is to close yourself off to the rest. And so, with Adele, we’re invited to feel deeply and indiscriminately. And this invitation is made all the warmer through the album’s timeless musical and vocal performances, which bolster and set Adele’s open-hearted lyricism in a rich historical music tradition.

    21 is a soul record steeped in the historic sounds of Muscle Shoals, Memphis, and Detroit, as well as more contemporary British singers like Amy Winehouse and Leona Lewis (both of whom studied at the BRIT School alongside Adele). You can hear echoes of soul legend Etta James’ “All I Could Do Was Cry” as Adele exhales, “I heard…” on “Someone Like You”. You can hear the tight chorus of The Supremes on “Rolling in the Deep” and “Rumor Has It”. You can feel the soul in the funk-inflected bass groove of “He Won’t Go”, in every kick drum-led stomp, every rolling piano line.

    Mostly, you can feel it in the power of Adele’s voice, which she wields with prowess far beyond her years. I will never not get chills in the chorus of “Set Fire to the Rain” when Adele snarls, “Watched it pour” and then effortlessly flips a run into falsetto on “your name.” Or when her voice breaks on “Don’t forget me, I beg” in the chorus of “Someone Like You”. Or when she glides across the acoustic groove of her inspired cover of The Cure’s “Lovesong”. Each of Adele’s performances is rich, graceful. They breathe, allowing us to sink into the emotional story of each song and forget time. While much of pop music in 2011 was focusing on “living for the moment,” Adele transcended the moment with her passionate voice. It’s no wonder the late Queen of Soul, Aretha Franklin herself, covered “Rolling in the Deep” for her 2014 Great Diva Classics album.

    It’s also no wonder that the new voices of pop, R&B, and soul — voices like Ariana Grande and Lizzo — took inspiration from Adele in the early 2010s, covering her songs before releasing their own generation-defining works that tapped into the same emotional complexities 21 expressed a decade ago. A part of me wonders: if Adele had ridden the multi-platinum success of 21 and written more music in the 2010s (beyond 2015’s 25), whether the state of pop would be more directly formed in her sound and image.

    On the other hand, the strength of Adele, and especially of 21, is just what she expressed to that packed crowd in Royal Albert Hall in September 2011 — that her songs must move her before they can move other listeners. That type of connection with music is simply not something that can be manufactured. It’s a gift that’s bestowed every so often and should never be taken for granted or rushed.

    As I sit here in the midst of winter and pandemic, hoping selfishly that 31 or 32 is around the corner, I can’t stop thinking about something else Adele said in that performance. “Everyone knows what it’s like to lose someone in some shape or form, whether it’s by choice or not.” Over the last year, we’ve all shared intimately in the pain of losing someone, whether in broken relationships or through sickness and death. In times like these, I’m thankful for Adele’s embrace of messy, unfiltered emotions, where grief is equally met with determination, reminiscence with hope, and suffering with love.

    Pick up a copy of 21 here...

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