The Eternal Power of Emotional Pop: The Decades Long Legacy of the Adele Success Story
    • TUESDAY, OCTOBER 27, 2015

    • Posted by: Don Saas

    I can remember the first three CDs my family owned when I was in elementary school once we began our transition away from cassettes: Fleetwood Mac's greatest hits, Savage Garden's 1997 self-titled debut, and the soundtrack to Grease. On the surface, those three records couldn't have less in common: classic 1970s soft rock, 90s Euro-tinged Australian dance pop, and showtunes. But if you grew up on any of those albums, you know they have something in common. They use theatricality to mask the most vulnerable and intimate emotions.

    It's not hip to be an unashamedly emotional artist these days. Vampire Weekend confused the fan base they'd spent years building up by dropping the confessional and unfiltered Modern Vampires of the City only a couple years after the playful irony of Contra. The National have become our most psychologically raw rock band, but Matt Berninger is as likely today to hide his pain beneath oblique references and an almost comically deadpan swirl of post-punk noise as he is to drop all artistic pretense on something as devastating as "Mistaken For Strangers" which is nearly ten years old at this point. Even The Mountain Goats released a concept album this year about professional wrestling which is a far cry from the brutal self-excoriation of "This Year."



    That's not to diminish the recent output of The National or the Mountain Goats. Trouble Will Find Me is possibly the band's strongest record yet. If you let yourself travel down the winding corridors of Matt Berninger's narratives, he reveals a level of introspection and self-analysis and self-loathing that is among the most honest and insightful in popular music since the prime days of Leonard Cohen and Tom Waits. But devoting that sort of time to not only discovering that the National exist -- cause you're never going to hear them on Top 40 radio no matter how much the thought of "Conversation 16" being a #1 Billboard hit would warm my heart -- but wandering those halls of their music is a matter of privilege. Let's be honest for one damn second about our entire fandom of music. The average music consumer doesn't have the time to dive into blogs and figure out the intricacies of why the minimalist piano chord structure on "Terrible Love" has so much meaning or why Matt Berninger's subtle drawl does as much as powerful emoting. And that's fine.

    The art world exists for the art set, although the odds are that if you're a culture writer, you do it because you love diving into those intricacies. You get off on figuring out what makes it special when The War on Drugs play with the psychedelia of Pink Floyd in the Americana framework of Tom Petty with the vocal stylings of Dire Straits. But most folks just don't give a s***. And that's fine. You aren't better than them for knowing this stuff, and they aren't somehow deficient consumers of the art they do enjoy because they don't have the absurd wealth of knowledge that you've intentionally acquired over the years. And culture writers and aesthetes of all stripe have an obligation to put our own snobbery and pretensions aside when an artist does something genuinely interesting in the mainstream. And, more often than not, that requires an admission that subtlety and nuance aren't necessary qualifiers for greatness.



    And that leads back to those first three CDs. I'm not going to make any grand claims that Savage Garden or Grease are great. But they do something people relate to. They deal in universal emotions in the sort of larger-than-life tones that you can't ignore. You either scoff at it or you lose yourself in the campy dramatics of "To the Moon & Back" or "Summer Nights." Look at "To the Moon & Back." If you were a teenager, you loved somebody at some point. It might not have been "love" in the sense that you think of it now as a "rational" adult, but those feelings were there and they were intense and all-consuming. It's one of the problems about growing up and "getting smarter." We lose our ability to acknowledge the intensity of younger, less self-aware emotions. We invalidate them as being "lesser." And the only thing that condescension accomplishes is further engendering the hostility and lack of understanding between the generations -- which is a tragedy in its own right since empathy is supposedly the one emotional tool you should master as an adult.

    And pop music that connects with listeners -- pop music that sticks with listeners for years and years and doesn't burn out once the major label corporate push behind it fizzles out -- deals in those emotions we'd all like to think we're too cool to discuss so shamelessly. I haven't made a mixtape for a girlfriend since high school that didn't include Savage Garden's "Truly, Madly, Deeply." I still feel that twinge of desperate, romantic yearning anytime I hear John Travolta burst into "Sandy." I feel those first pangs of heart-ache when I hear Olivia Newton-John belt out "Hopelessly Devoted To You." And all intellectual pretensions of "art" and "criticism" aside, there's no definition of what music can and should do that doesn't include "stir you at your most deep emotional levels."



    And of course, Fleetwood Mac...the response there is that Fleetwood Mac are titans of the medium and don't need this apologia. Mostly, I'd agree with you. Anybody who knows the first thing about songwriting and musicianship recognizes that Lindsey Buckingham, Stevie Nicks, Mick Fleetwood, John McVie, and Christine McVie were writing some of the best songs period for a good twenty year period. But they're also soft rock. And in the eyes of so many folks in the rock world, that might as well be bubblegum pop. If you aren't creating avant-garde/post-(insert genre)/dissonant/noise (insert genre here), it's impossible to get wide swaths of the music enthusiast community to take you seriously, and those folks need to grow up and get over themselves.

    I was walking home from work a month or so back. It was a crisp Fall day. It was one of the first Fall days to really feel like Fall. I've got a good mile and a half walk back to my house from the office, and I walk to both stay in shape and to just enjoy music that I'm not professionally obligated to write about at the moment. And "Go Your Own Way" came on. As far as Rumours tracks go, I'd rate it just outside of my top 5. But from the first word Lindsey Buckingham sang, that particular listen was different.

    Loving you
    Isn't the right thing to do
    How can I ever change things that I feel?

    If I could
    Baby I'd give you my world
    How can I
    When you won't take it from me?





    We've all been there. We've been in a relationship that our brain knows is wrong but our heart won't let us abandon. And we've wanted to give partners love that they can never reciprocate. From the first line of the song, Lindsey Buckingham crafted a track with as much emotional insight and nuance as "God Only Knows" by the Beach Boys or "Something" by The Beatles. And the kicker...the reason that Rumours remains one of the highest selling albums of all time...is that the band paired these elegant observations with unforgettable pop melodies.

    From start to finish, Rumours is a tragedy masking itself in pop excess. One of the most popular bands of the 1970s wrote a chronicle of their own tumultuous affairs and longing and sense of romantic alienation and wrapped it in the sounds of folk, rock, country, and, yes, pop. I saw Fleetwood Mac live a couple years back, and although it's my third favorite track on the album behind "Dreams" and "The Chain," I was immensely grateful that Lindsey Buckingham and Stevie Nicks didn't even attempt to do "I Don't Want To Know:" a duet sung from the point of view of two lovers who have no idea how they've managed to stay together this long. And considering the band can still sell out arenas around the world 40 odd years later, they must have been doing something right.



    The issue with pop music has never been that it's popular. If that's your issue with any art, you're an elitist a***hole. The conversation begins and ends there. It isn't even necessarily that it's shallow. Of course a top 40 pop song isn't going to be some Proustian treatise on the way we live now. It's that somewhere along the line, the vast majority of radio pop music stopped even pretending that there were human emotions guiding its creation. I love a massive hook as much as the next guy, but if there's nothing...bigger behind that hook, nothing that my heart can latch onto as intensely as the portion of your brain that keeps you humming a melody or mentally reciting a chorus for weeks on end, then that track disappears as soon as the next hook arrives. Emotion and honest-to-god connection are the keys to connecting with a pop song, and considering her wealth of Grammys and the 30 million copies of 21 that she moved, there are almost no mainstream pop stars forging those connections at such a contemporarily unprecedented level as Adele.

    It's impossible to discuss the rise of Adele as the modern Queen of Pop (the only other person remotely deserving of the title is Beyonce who is more likely to be characterized as R&B or soul though you could say the same thing about Adele) without looking at one key fact. Albums don't sell anymore. So far in 2015, only one album has crossed the million sales mark. That was Drake's 'mixtape,' If You're Reading This, It's Too Late. 21 was the highest-selling album for two straight years. People bought that album like it was an event because in contemporary pop it was.



    Adele is an enigma in the modern pop scene. As other musicians try to capitalize on the continual encroachment of dance and EDM into pop -- which isn't a bad thing; we think performers like Robert DeLong have the chance of being the "Next Big Thing" -- she writes old fashioned, sweeping ballads using orchestral arrangements. Adele is an old-fashioned songwriter and performer, letting her powerhouse voice and arrangements speak more than any pop star antics ever would. In an era where Katy Perry brings out dancing sharks and a mecha-lion to to the Super Bowl (I say this as a closeted Katy Perry fan) and Taylor Swift blasts her "squad goals" without ever really defining what she stands for as an artist, Adele brings music back to basics with the backing of titanic vocals and emotional vulnerability.

    I'm not necessarily taking a swing at "manufactured" pop stars. More often than not, there's an honest-to-god performer hiding beneath the gloss and glitz. I'm not generally a Rihanna guy, but I connect to "We Found Love" and "Take a Bow" because, for a couple minutes, we get a chance to peel away the mythos that Rihanna has created for herself. "Teenage Dream" is Katy Perry's best tune because it captures that sense of uncertainty and hope mixed together in a crazy ball of hormones that defined us all as teenagers. Lady Gaga speaks to anyone's inner drama queen, but beneath the crazy costumes and the techno/house EDM elements of her music, she speaks to our need to be larger than ourselves in the same way Madonna has for 30 years. The unfortunate truth though is that for most of these performers, they don't have an entire album's worth of singles in them, but the great tracks they do have represent such an investment to record studios/the performers that they have to dilute their output with as much if not more mediocre content than the singles we love them for. And, as is often the case here, these diluted singles are consumer goods that nobody was asking for, devoid of the humanity that we connected with in these stars in the first place.



    And, so far, Adele has avoided that slump. Although 19 was an enjoyable and welcome surprise in its own right, nobody could have predicted the rise of 21 -- a top 40 smash record without a bad song on it. Not every track on the album is the barnburner that "Someone Like You" or "Rolling in the Deep" turned out to be, but 21 is the sort of record where that aggravating moment to change sides or discs on your turntable isn't an excuse to do something else. You want to listen to it all the way through. It's an autobiographical record of heart-ache (ala Rumours) dressing Adele's wounds in the sort of tracks that Diana Ross or Tina Turner or any of the last gasps of the female vocal powerhouse would have killed for in the 1970s.

    And that brings us to "Hello." Last Friday, Adele returned with her first track since 2012's Skyfall and her first piece of non-James Bond music since 2011. One of my bosses wasn't crazy about it. And that's fair. The notion that Adele has found herself in a rut of releasing the same "weepy" love song isn't entirely inaccurate, but I'll argue, in all due respect to my colleague, that's sort of the point.



    Writers -- particularly the good ones -- return to familiar themes. Ingmar Bergman spent his entire career battling with his relationship with God, family, love, and death. Woody Allen has fixated for nearly 50 years on the ways that men and women try and fail to interact with one another. Thomas Pynchon runs on paranoia and post-War anxiety. And Adele has found her metier -- the "dramatic, cry your eyes out" love song -- while still providing the variations on a theme that keep her interesting and dynamic as an artist.

    What makes "Hello" special and more than a return to hurt she received at the hands of a lover in 21 is that "Hello" runs on self-loathing and not self-pity. It's a track about desperately trying to right things with a lover that you've jilted and you know how wrong you are. Once again, this isn't Noah Baumbach or Francois Truffaut levels of emotional insight, but it isn't supposed to be. This is the type of song that you play for anybody you know and they're like, "Oh...f***. I've definitely been that person." We have to stop hierarchizing art between what's good for the "masses" and what works for the "enlightened." You can't compare what they're trying to do so stop trying, and I don't care how "culturally enlightened" you are; if you can't recognize gut-wrenching elegance ala "Go Your Own Way" or "Rumor Has It," that's on you. It isn't on the mainstream performer. And, even in this piece on the need to break down the "gatekeeping" in music fandom, we're aware that we feel this pressure to establish our "indie" and "art" bona fides. Curing this sickness isn't going to be an overnight process.



    When the new Adele track hit on Friday, a buddy was bemoaning the fact that Adele was the only star to hit from the British soul-pop scene to achieve this sort of astronomical success. Where's the same editorial love and/or sales for Lianne La Havas or any of her peers? The music business isn't a meritocracy. The "best" songs (whatever the Hell that could possibly ever mean) don't rise to the top. Adele had the right sound at the right time with the right push and investment from the media to stand at the top of musical pyramid and capture the national musical zeitgeist unlike any artist of the last ten years. But when you create emotional bonds with your listener as effortlessly and with as few gimmicks as Adele does, it seems difficult to begrudge her that success.
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