Right now, there are two types of people in America.
- People who think Adele is terrific.
I know, that sounds a bit harsh. But deep down, y’all know it’s true.
By all means, you don’t need to love Adele Adkins’ music in order to be accepted into polite society. You don’t need to listen to it at all, nor should you feel compelled to openly celebrate the mere existence of America’s British sweetheart the way the rest of the country so deliriously has.
All the same, we are experiencing a moment in which this one singer has sucked all the oxygen from the rest of the music industry, and it’s hard to fathom that any of us hasn’t taken a minute to decide what we think about it, and about her. In our increasingly decentralized culture, Adele’s level of saturation on TV and radio over the past two months is the sort of phenomenon that doesn’t happen terribly often; who could resist weighing in?
If you’re on the fence, I’ll make it easy for you: She’s great. Everything about her—the voice, the look, the personality, the marketing strategy, everything. She’s better than the hype and, frankly, more interesting, too. Indeed, she is the sort of person who is just about impossible to dislike on the merits, which means that anyone who does dislike her probably has something else going on.
Admittedly, this may be a bit of a straw man situation. To date, I have yet to locate any specific person who isn’t smitten by Adele to one degree or another (not that I’ve made any effort to look). As Saturday Night Live so amusingly demonstrated last month, her music has a way of bridging divides between people who otherwise have nothing in common. In extolling her virtues, I may be preaching to the world’s largest choir.
But that brings us to our main point, which is that Adele is essentially a purple unicorn: Too good to be true, but true nonetheless.
In general, this sort of thing never happens, because Americans never come together on anything—not music, not politics, not sports, not nothing. We are a tribal people. Whatever the issue, we retreat into our corners and duel to the death. We live to argue with one another, and in the rare instance when a large group of us does coalesce around a common idea, it usually springs out of hatred rather than love: Hatred of racism, hatred of Donald Trump (or do I repeat myself?), hatred of hurricanes and blizzards, hatred of that jerk who shot Cecil the lion, and so forth.
So we’re good at mutual contempt. But when was the last time we united in mutual joy? Who was the last public figure to command universal, sustained approval and respect from virtually the entire American public? Harder still, who was the last person who deserved it? J.K. Rowling, for sure; otherwise, my mind is a blank.
I bring this up because I know there are certain folks (including me, sometimes) who get rather annoyed, if not alarmed, when some pop culture figure or other is hoisted onto a pedestal and crowned He (or She) Who Must Be Worshipped By All. In a free society, it’s a wee bit sinister for our American (or English) idols to be chosen before the voting even starts.
“I’m tired of being told who to admire in this country,” said George Carlin in his 2008 HBO special It’s Bad For Ya, adding, “I’ll choose my own heroes, thank you very much.”
Of course he’s right. The media has no business deciding which people are worthy of praise and which are not—particularly in the realm of popular music, where no two people share the exact same tastes. Even professional critics, for all their wisdom and expertise, are limited by their own personal biases; some are decent enough to admit it.
In fact, the real problem lately has been the gulf between fame and actual talent. Through such would-be icons as the Kardashian family, Justin Bieber and the aforementioned Trump, we are still a culture in which people tend to become famous for all the wrong reasons (or for no reason at all), which inevitably inhibits genuinely worthy individuals from ever breaking through.
As such, we jaded consumers—conditioned to expect this quantity-quality divide—grow suspicious and cynical whenever some new pop wunderkind rises to the top. Based on past experience, why shouldn’t we?
Adele is the exception that proves the rule. She is famous for the exact reasons she ought to be. That she has been so successful is a credit both to her and us.
Here, after all, is a woman who does not bother with social media. Who has a wicked sense of humor and cusses like a sailor. Who enjoys her privacy but relishes every moment in public. Who looks positively regal in concert formal wear, reminding the world that “plus-sized” is not a dirty word after all. Who indulges in booze and cigarettes but shows no signs of being controlled by either. Whose voice can alternately break your heart and send a shiver down your spine, and whose poise is unrivaled by any mainstream performer of her generation.
She is the complete package. Practically perfect in every way.
Some people (I imagine) find this boring. Some are simply not interested in buying what she’s selling—namely, old-fashioned, weepy ballads. (It’s a shame her new album has no “Rolling in the Deep”-style anthems.) And others—as I implied earlier—make a point of hating what everybody else loves for the sake of contrarianism. Personally, I find that boring, but I suppose the Adele backlash is coming. Is has to, right? No one can sweep up this much positive attention without being tarred as “overrated” by somebody.
Or can they?
Time will tell, as it always does. But at this moment—after 750 million views of “Hello” on YouTube, 15 million purchases of the new album, a ratings-crushing concert special, and a forthcoming world tour that sold out in mere minutes—Adele is sitting pretty in the eyes of the public in a way that few, if any, pop stars ever have. It’s one thing to have millions of admirers, but it’s quite another to have no detractors. Haters gonna hate, but in this case, apparently not.
Is this an unqualified good thing for our society, having one person to whom we all pledge undying adoration because of the joy she brings to our ears? Or is it somehow unhealthy—an example of group mentality run amok, in which the greatness of a performer is established as an objective fact, and anyone who is skeptical is pressured to keep his or her mouth shut?
Nah. It’s the first one.