5. Adele

Adele inherits much of retro-soul’s logic while belting her way to the top of the pop charts. Most of her songs, however, are compositions that meld different genres and historical aesthetics, varying in their literalist interpretations of soul music.  Compared to Hawthorne, Adele performs a profoundly non-ironic pop sincerity through her lyrical content, vocal ability and style, image, and musical and technological choices.  Ultimately, her aesthetic and her role in the pop marketplace are firmly based on a brand of oppositional, nostalgic, but particularly pop-oriented “retro soul” that capitalizes on impressions of love and timelessness. To begin, I will analyze the first track on her newest album, 21, “Rolling in the Deep.”

The hit single “Rolling in the Deep,” is full of juxtapositions of the deep past, (more) recent past, and present. The song opens with acoustic guitar and bluesy, minor pentatonic, vocal melodies. The four-on-the-floor pattern of kick drum enters next, similarly engaging in the sounds of early black music.  And instead of the triggered digital sounds that accompany popular four-on-the-floor dance beats today, Adele’s drums sound “real.” Through the steady pounding one can seemingly hear the pad of the kick-drum pedal touching the skin of the drum. Thus, the first 40 seconds of the song, strongly imply early American black music along with its constant stream of re-appropriations through country, rock, electric, blues, and anti-folk.

At the 20-second mark, the pre-chorus begins, with sustained piano chords, tambourine, and a steady, pulsing, eighth-note bass line. The “rolling” drum pattern contains an offbeat pattern on the high hat that is reminiscent of a gospel stomp and clap rhythm. Overall, the pre-chorus, along with the chord progression of IV-V-iii-IV, and the hi-fi recording of the instruments and vocals clearly connote early black music. Due to the ways in which rural blues music has been continuously utilized throughout Western popular music history, none of it strikes the listener as particularly unfamiliar.   Yet, it is important to note that in the first minute of the song Adele appropriates an aesthetically old black sound that, in certain ways, pre-dates the consciously made-palatable (white) sounds of Motown, which she also later appropriates. In fact, at around the one-minute mark, with the entrance of the chorus, the sounds of mid-1960s Motown female, back-up singers enter into the sound space.

Prefaced by the sounds of the tambourine, the chorus marks the entrance of the back-up singers, a transparent “retro soul” choice. Over Adele’s call, “We could have had it all!,” the singers (which could well be three Adeles) respond, “You’re gonna wish you, never had met me, tears are gonna fall, rolling in the deep.” In Motown-like musical and production style the background vocal parts slightly add (empowerment) to the narrative of the song, while breaking through the mix with characteristic horn-like brevity, restraint, and lack of ornament.   Furthermore, the background vocals become a particularly important feature of the song, as they help build the second pre-chorus, and become a prominent aspect of the 3rd verse– a stomp-chorus-like “breakdown.” In this breakdown the pounding of the bass drum, the claps on the backbeats (approximately equal to the amount of back-up vocalists), and the minor-gospel/bluesy backup vocals solidify the black American roots sound that surround the song throughout.  Furthermore, unlike the popular cyborgian sounds of the current dance-pop market, the production illustrates an image of a small community of musicians and singers responding and communicating with each other.

Adele’s mixing and matching of black American recorded music forms from its pre-history to the post-race-records period of soul and r&b in the 1960s and 1970s seems to contribute to a very different form of nostalgia than Hawthorne’s.  In many ways, by appropriating the pre-pop or non-pop sounds of black “roots,” “folk,” or “classical” music as they have been appropriated countless times before, she avoids a periodizing or trendy label. Moreover, in her geographic and cultural distance from American history and its race relations, Adele, as many have done before her, benefits from perhaps an easier route to black American musical archives.  Ultimately, her task and situation of negotiation, musically and culturally, is markedly different than American, and particularly black, retro-soul artists.

Writing on the differences between Amy Whinehouse and Sharon Jones, Oliver Wang suggests,

Given that Dap-Kings members backed both Winehouse and Jones on albums released within half a year of one another…a narrative practically wrote itself: ‘Amy Whinehouse steals Sharon Jones’ sound and band…’ Back to Black [Winehouse’s album] went double platinum while 100 Days, 100 Nights did not. Winehouse is white, young, and thin while Jones is not. For some pundits, that second set of differences explained the first (Wang 203).

Adele is not Amy Winehouse; her style, music, and image are remarkably different from both Winehouse’s and Jones’s.  Yet, Wang’s observations are still applicable. There is clearly a way in which Adele’s whiteness and her britishness provide her with certain musical and business opportunities. And, although “retro” is sometimes used to describe her brand, her overwhelming success situates her as a contemporary pop star first and foremost.  Yet, again, her particular ability, image, culture, nostalgia, and diverse musical choices surely contribute and perhaps enable such success.

Musically, her “pop-ness” is most dependent on her pop song structure, which features five choruses.  In Joshua Clover’s book 1989: Bob Dylan Did Not Have This to Write About,” he writes, “pop music does not itself aspire to history or historicity. Contrarily, it hangs quite a bit on the hook of timelessness–on making time disappear for three or four minutes, a brief shelter from the wind of change.  Evanescence is near the heart of the pleasure for a million songs”(7). Adele’s music thrives on this idea of “timelessness.” And, in addition to her repetitive song structures and hi-fi nostalgic fragments, she and her many collaborators craft her timelessness through her oppositional authenticity, vocal prowess, and romantic narratives.

Her representations of the past are, as Clover writes, de-historicized, and aesthetically fragmented, while glowing with the phantasmagoria of “timelessness.” Through her use of nostalgia, moreover, her “timelessness” exists in relation to her fellow pop stars on the Top 40. And, while the instant-nostalgia of the refrain of any pop song is always at play, Adele benefits from an instant-nostalgia that is itself is aesthetically nostalgic. Writing on the nature of the “extreme” retro-soul movement in 1990s, Oliver Wang notes, “the retro-soul aesthetic was as much oppositional–defined by what it was not– as it was aspirational…”(38). Although Adele’s pop version of retro-soul may not be quite that dogmatic, it clearly engages in and enters the market place through a similar logic.  In a Rolling Stone article in 2010, she is quoted as saying, “I wanted the songs not to have anything glittery or glamorous about them, like an organic tapestry rather than like a Gaga album…I mean, I love Gaga, but I didn’t want to get wrapped up in all that European dance music”(Eliscu 1). Nostalgia, here, is exemplified by her allusion to the materiality of old media, which her production and retro style reflects and creates in fragments.

Moreover, her “organic tapestry” metaphor also reveals the “oppositional” construction of her “organic,” “authentic” music. As she points out, she exists as an anti-pop pop star, who “rejects” the digital, cyborgian fashions of the day (e.g.,Gaga), to produce timeless music (nostalgia). Unsurprisingly, she is well regarded as this “timeless” artist. Leah Greenblatt, from Entertainment Weekly, reviewed the album, concluding, “At its best, 21 is that rarest pop commodity: timeless”(1).  Clearly, Adele-the-commodity is thoroughly fetishized; contemporary methods of reproducibility, commodification, and careful marketing actively sell the product as timeless.

Yet, her aesthetic of timeless authenticity is multi-dimensional; her retro sound is only one part of the narrative that sustains her product. In fact, her virtuosic voice, her image, and her lyrics largely contribute to a non-ironic nostalgic romantic narrative. At the emotive height of “Rolling in the Deep,” she belts, “We could have had it all!” Here, her performance sincerely mourns the loss of almost-obtaining the (heteronormative) myth: (the artifice of) romance. The word “all” constitutes a totality, a completeness that is at the heart of the construction of contrived romantic narratives and all of its proxies and meanings. Once again, the desire for a total timeless love, mirrors, supports, and perhaps even constitutes the desire for timelessness that her musical product also sells. In this way, as she expresses her inability to grasp a timeless relationship, she ultimately reflects on the inability to achieve timelessness through music.  Her expression of mourning is profoundly integrated in the total experience of her product.

Her voice is critical in creating this type of sincerity and myth, as it is pre-determined or at least primed to connote authenticity. Her powerhouse voice, which are moving even without lyrics, aestheticize her lyrics as being genuine and substantiate her mediated feelings as being authentic. Although her vocal performances connote many different things, it is nonetheless fair to conclude that her general virtuosity fetishizes, spectacularizes, and authenticates her lyrical and musical, romantic narratives.  Ultimately, her vocal performance– perhaps her greatest phantasmagorical tool–glorifies her pain, her weakness, her strength, her journey, and her myth.

Her voice and her romantic narrative, moreover, are supported by an asexualized white, diva-hood that further authenticates her sincerity, situating her in a modern “timeless” context.  Because her body image fails to hyper-sexualize her like a Katy Perry, Lady Gaga, Kesha, Beyoncé, and Rhianna, certain popular cultural gendered narratives are not open to her. She cannot be seen as the “ho,” “slut,” or fill-in-the-blank deviant, sexualized, feminine image. Rather, she performs the other side of the problematic coin so to speak–the asexualized, authentic romantic. Her nostalgia and her retro-ness is thus partly in response to that which she cannot represent and that which she cannot express–the “short-term” finite pleasures of sexual satisfaction, constant reinvention, and fashion-as-spectacle. Adele, rather, is usually dressed in black, constantly called upon to mourn the loss of her love and less-overtly, of time passed.

Her recent album, in its black and white liner notes and photographs, exhibits a beautiful, but untouchable woman existing “beyond” sexual desire, high up on a pedestal, separated by the illusion of time already past. She is packaged as already-timeless, immediately archived under the false pretense of old media and fake dust.  Such illusions are present in her live performances as well.  Adele’s performance at the 2012 Grammy Awards provides such an example.

With diva-like attitude, Adele, dressed in all black, begins “Rolling in the Deep,” a capella, with the band building and pedaling as she repeats the lyrics “you played it, you played it, you played it…” as if the song is going to explode, and thus begin. Instead, she motions, with her hand fluttering at her neck, for the band to cut. Clearly, this was well rehearsed.  Her hand motions, which the band could not even see, were undoubtedly non-functional. This was all a performance of a diva classically appropriating the historical control and power of masculinity, dressed in black, poised, and belting.

Clover mentions how the “masculine-coded renunciation of pleasure” historically defines the “mature rejection of pop (which is for women and children)” (97). Adele, once again, exists in a pop context, but also capitalizes on the fictions of a “masculine-coded” rejection of pop’s excess, immaturity, deviancy, and impermanence.  Here, she functions as an anti-pop, pop artist that champions the illusion of opposition. Moreover, at the conclusion of her performance, she is well, if not overly, rewarded. The audience applauds for an excessively longtime, as if they are encouraged to do so as if it is appropriate.  There is a way in which her embodiment of retro-ness, often decoded as timelessness, necessitates acknowledgement for what it is being offered, once again, in opposition to her fellow chart toppers.  And, in acknowledging her performance, the audience, the masses, and the music industry as a whole appears and likely feels good in their support of the “authentic.”

Both Adele and Mayer Hawthorne use nostalgia and love narratives to seduce their audience, but while Hawthorne’s songs and music videos teem with irony, Adele’s songs and music videos wallow in constructed sincerity. As Adele sings, “We could have had it all/You had my heart inside of your hand/ and you played it to the beat,” she expresses the loss of the potential for Real Love, while similarly objectifying and materializing the notion of love. Fredric Jameson writes that classical, modern nostalgia is “[an] abstraction from the concrete object”(189). In this way, Adele’s expression of love is an expression of this particular type of nostalgia where a concrete “it”–love, timelessness– was almost fully had, but never actually had at all.  Again, Adele’s mournfulness and pain runs deep. While she expresses her anger and her hurt in “Rolling in the Deep, the song itself fights against the tides of popular music and hip-hop today. Thematically, metaphorically, and symbolically, the “he” in her narrative, could well be Mayer Hawthorne, who actively engages with the logic of postmodernism and hip-hop to ironically play with the beats, fragments, sounds, and aesthetics of the past, while Adele tries to hold on to a genuinely modern, “classical” nostalgia.


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