Last night I saw Adele in concert at the O2 Arena in London. The world’s best-selling artist of the 21st century, she was every bit as sublime as one could have expected. Her voice reverberated with colossal power; her songs reached a fresh level of emotional intimacy; her persona, simple and unstarry, struck a genuine chord with its audience. It was a performance which affirmed her legendary status in the world of music, and revealed yet another layer of her artistic genius.
In the space of eight years, Adele has grown from a teenager of humble roots in South London to a unique global phenomenon. Her singing is enjoyed by people of all ages, recognisable by anyone anywhere: she’s reaped almost every award, broken almost every record – longest-reigning No. 1 album by a woman in history, to name but a few – and been one of the few artists to crack the beast of America. In an industry where success is so often dictated by formula, Adele’s music has tread its own path to victory; her competitors pale by comparison.
Born in Tottenham and raised between Brighton, Brixton and West Norwood, she showed (unsurprisingly) an early flair for music. Her influences were broad, from contemporary pop to soul, and she worked hard at developing her own voice: ‘I taught myself how to sing by listening to Ella Fitzgerald for acrobatics and scales, Etta James for passion and Roberta Flack for control,’ she says. Developing a passion for writing and performing her own songs, she graduated from the BRIT School for Performing Arts & Technology, after which a close friend posted one of her demos on MySpace. It caught the attention of XL Recordings, who signed her up to their label in 2006.
One of the defining features of Adele’s music, and no doubt one of the main drivers of her success, is its honesty. Amidst the din of generic and vapid lyrics that have come to define our era of music, Adele’s songs ring with an emotional truth. Between the heartbreak and nostalgia of her first love in Someone Like You, to the creative lease of scorn in Rolling In The Deep, she is, as one critic put it, a ‘pop diarist’. Her music is a very personal expression of her life experiences – each of her albums is symbolically named after the age at which she wrote them – as she lays her soul bare for all to hear.
This openness with which Adele writes and performs her music is what sets her apart from her main contemporaries. Even since her rise to global stardom, there is a believability about her as an artist, and a credibility about her lyrics; we can relate to the matters she sings about. She’s also managed to retain a persona accessible to the masses, one minute belting out her Academy Award-winning hit Skyfall, the next joking about the effect of nerves on her bowel movements – an artist of the people, not for the people.
Indeed, Adele is the rare example of an international star who somehow seems unsullied by commercialism, who has strong values about music and sticks to her principles. Compared to the likes of Beyonce, Lady Gaga and Rihanna, there are no publicity stunts, no scandals, no attempts at courting the limelight: she is a sincere artist rather than a marketing product. ‘I make music to be a musician, not to be on the cover of Playboy,’ she says.
And, rightly, it is the music alone which has put Adele where she is. In this sense, her career has followed the trajectory of the earlier decades of pop, before the Internet and social media began to drive celebrity status. Music journalist Tim Ingham has labelled her an ‘anomaly’, ‘the kind of artist you cannot manufacture’. But I think that the secret behind Adele’s appeal, extraordinary talent aside, is that she has demonstrated the kind of creative integrity too little seen in the modern day music industry. The power of her ascent, paralleled with the quality of her output, has reminded us of the importance of such values – we take her music seriously because she does.
‘Breaking album sale records in 2016 is in and of itself a miracle,’ Ingham adds. If that’s testament to the sheer brilliance of Adele’s music, then it also offers a beacon of hope for a mainstream music industry threatened by the diminishing of quality. Combining talent and taste, which was more than ever apparent at Wednesday’s concert, Adele’s success of assures us that artistic genius will triumph over commercial mediocrity – and long may this triumph recur.