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Rolling In The Deep

Why Can't Anyone Explain Adele's Chart Domination?

When it’s over, 2011 is probably going to be remembered, on the Internet at least, as the year of Odd Future. To many, 2011 will be a 12-month period when a group of “hate speech” shouting miscreants from L.A. inspired an impressive volume of hypertext. 


But in the larger landscape of the music world, 2011 isn’t the year of Odd Future. It isn’t even the year of Ke$ha, or Beyonce, or Bon Iver, or even Jay-Z and Kanye. Not even Lady Gaga, who sold a million copies of her Born This Way in one week, can lay claim to 2011. No, 2011 belongs to a 20-something British woman named Adele.


And the thing is, it’s not even debatable. Adele’s sophomore album, 21, has been near the top of Billboard for 23 weeks (soon to be 24), never dipping below the top five. She’s had multiple nonconsecutive weeks at number one during that timeframe, outlasting challengers like Lady Gaga (who has dropped out of the top 10), Beyonce (who still lingers near the top five), and every other Billboard-eligible album since February. She also has the number one digital album of all time, beating out Eminem’s Recovery. What’s even more remarkable is that every week, Adele is still able to muster around 70,000 new people into buying her album (in the U.S. at least), never experiencing the double digit percent drop-off that marks Billboard number ones these days (Born This Way, for comparison, had an 84 percent drop off between its first two weeks). And later this year, she damn well might win the Mercury Prize.


But the thing that’s most interesting to me, amidst Adele straight dominating 2011 (and maybe even helping save the record industry), is that there hasn’t been a mad rush of people attempting to explain what’s happening here. When Odd Future started getting a modicum of hype thanks to Tyler’s video for “Yonkers,” even your grandma’s favorite website wrote an article about what it “means” that people on the internet like music that some people find offensive. Meanwhile, Adele rips off the most impressive sales run in 10 years, and the Internet is largely silent. Why is that?


To me, it comes down to people accepting a handful of easily acceptable narratives of Adele’s popularity, and moving on to analyzing whatever is hot this week. But here’s the problem: I haven’t read a single convincing argument for why Adele is so popular. Every single argument for her popularity seems inadequate, which is especially unexplainable, because every other star is deconstructed almost immediately under the Internet’s gaze. So here’s an attempt to understand Adele’s stranglehold on popular music, through the five most commonly made arguments about her:



Adele is popular because she is very talented, and her music is the best

This is an argument usually made by moms and American Idol judges, but it’s the most empty. If talent was all it took for someone to be on the top of the Billboard charts, why isn’t every major label signed singer topping Billboard?


That last bit comes down to subjectivity, obviously. To me, 21 only has two great songs (“Rolling in the Deep” and “Rumor Has It,” a song that kicks more ass than any other pop song this year), and is loaded with mid-tempo ballads that are pretty indistinguishable. That said, to a lot of people, 21 is a hard stand against the encroaching hegemony of pop radio. Which brings us to:  


Adele is popular because she is the anti-Lady Gaga

Of all the arguments I’m laying out here, this one, at first, seems to be the most rational, since Adele has been remarkably free of artifice. There hasn’t been a meat suit bomb of self-promotion, controversies about 21’s release methods, “taken out of context” comments in an article in GQ, or any of the insidious promotional methods we usually see surrounding an album on top of the Billboard 200. Instead, just a few late night TV performances and a brief U.S. tour, and that’s it.


But here’s the thing: Adele is just as anti-Lady Gaga as an entire wave of British singers-- from Natasha Bedingfield and Amy Winehouse (R.I.P.) to Lily Allen, Kate Nash and Duffy-- and none of them have enjoyed the time at the top of the charts that Adele has (to say nothing of the American singers too). The lack of controversy makes her palatable to people over 50, sure, but Adele isn’t topping Billboard week after week because she’s only appealing to old people. There’s got to be an overlap between people who bought Lady Gaga and Adele’s albums, right?


Adele is popular because old people like her music

Now this is the most Internet-friendly theory to Adele’s success, mostly because it allows HypeMachine obsessed nerds the pedestal needed to look down on mainstream acts. “Of course Adele is famous: My grandma likes her music,” is an easier way to dismiss 21 than actually dealing with it head on.


But again, this doesn’t come close to explaining 21’s popularity: After all, Adele has the number one selling digital album of all time. It’s not like more than a million AARP members are registered for iTunes and buying 21. If that were true, then the digital sales for more traditional blue hair fair like Susan Boyle would be huge. But they’re not. Adele has somehow become the only age demographic crossover in recent memory, being able to appeal to someone who is 50 just as easily as someone who is 15.   


Adele is popular because “Rolling in the Deep” is the most popular song in the country


This usually works as an argument for an album’s popularity, but “Rolling in the Deep” didn’t top the charts until well after 21 did, which is the way that popularity used to happen. A group would put out an album, it would be well received, and then a single would be a hit. This is how the Black Keys suddenly became celebrities (thanks to “Tighten Up”). So in actuality, “Rolling in the Deep” is the most popular song in the country (or at least it was until LMFAO took over) due to 21 being the most popular album in the country, which brings us back to the beginning.


Adele is popular because she stepped into a Billboard power vacuum

This is a theory that makes sense…only if you ignore Adele’s success since May. If you’ll remember, this year began with a string of Billboard chart toppers with sales totals lower than the last. Adele’s 21 was the year’s first “Blockbuster” album, leaving her a clean sweep to the top of the Billboard 200.


And that narrative works, if you want to cheer Adele for killing off any Billboard chances that fucking Cake had (I do), but you have to remember that she has outlasted Beyonce (who is inarguably a bigger “star” than Adele) and Lady Gaga (who tries really hard to be). Adele’s initial success was probably inflated because she faced no serious competition, but her continued success continues to be unexplainable.


So why are 21 and Adele popular? I wish I could give one satisfying answer, but there probably isn’t one. And that’s why 2011 will go down as Adele’s year. Adele is a rare phenomenon, a confluence of a variety of trends (Brit-soul revival, singer songwriters over pop star artifice) and industry fracturing, with an increasingly elusive ability to appeal to more than just one demographic. In years past, you could explain away the biggest pop hits-- like Lady Gaga or Taylor Swift-- as being the product of big media machines falling in step behind an album, and of hype leading to a tidal wave. But with 21 you can’t really do that. After all, Adele is signed to XL, the home to Vampire Weekned and, for one album at least, Tyler, the Creator. Maybe transcendent pop success is unexplainable.


But with Adele, we have a new wrinkle in pop stardom. We’re facing the possibility that this decade’s most smashing pop success will not be canonized, will not be on the cover of every single magazine, will not be covered on gossip blogs, and will not be appreciated by the blognoscenti, even ironically (like they do with Lady Gaga). In 10 years, the music blogs might not remember Adele, but your moms, sisters, grandmas, coworkers and dads will. And if that’s not true pop success, then what is?

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All of this assumes those sales are real. Especially when you consider her success is mostly digital. Labels have been busted downloading thousands of their own songs from iTunes to get them in the Top 10, which perpetuates sales. It's a small advertising fee for the label--and they get 2/3 of that money back. Do you really think Eminem had the most popular album last year? It's the new form of payola.

I'd be willing to bet that Adele isn't really selling that much music to new fans. Like you show, it just doesn't jive with reality.

damian joseph

I kind of agree with Damian, if only because this type of this just isn't really happening these days. Call me cynical, I guess.

/site_media/uploads/images/users/Andrew_Martin/me.jpg Andrew_Martin

I guess I could buy that theory, except for the fact that everyone I know that isn't "on the internet" is like way into Adele. Her impact on multiple generations (for instance, my parents, 22-year-old sister, and 10-year-old cousing all lover her) is too hard to ignore. It's not like Lady Gaga hits all those quadrants.

/site_media/uploads/images/users/thestorfer/1202393jpeg.jpeg andross

I have to humbly disagree with your first point. Assessing someone's talent is extremely subjective as you stated, but one reason I am sure 21 is so popular is that it is FULL of GREAT songs. I can't recall the last time I bought a stellar ALBUM...(well actually dark twisted fantasy was complete as well IMO). Its a value for money issue on the most basic level, word of mouth on the second. One person buys the album for a number of reasons...they liked here previous efforts, or they heard the single, and then they listen to 21, and the album markets itself.


Thanks Andrew! I'm curious... What do you think of this: superdopplerwars.bandcamp.com ?

damian joseph

I agree with the sentiment that 21 has a couple great songs (though "Rolling in the Deep" is horribly over-saturated now) and a bunch of mediocre adult contemporary stuff that's easily forgettable. And I agree that Adele is extremely talented.

But I think there is a lot to be said for more diverse fans milking sales. The Susan Boyle reference used isn't a particularly great example of other older-skewing albums that would seem to do well because, well, she was as much a gimmick as she wasn't. People liked her story and recognized her talent but didn't really love her music. And she wasn't a youthful act at all, so her sales numbers wouldn't have been inflated by the blogosphere types.


Perhaps one of the reason she suceeds is because she cannot as easily be targeted to the youngsters (cause she doesn't looks like a model) or any other single target group and also looks like she really "means" what she sings. (yes, I know the idea of authenticity in pop is ridiculous). So when it hits, it hits b-i-g. (and yes, there are similar artists where it doesn't) I also believe that Amy somehow paved the way for adele. But she was too downright and dirty to have that universal approach,,, and yes i like "Rolling in the deep" but nothing beats "Back to Black" in that area of soul-pop for the young and old...


I don't think the sales are due to her label buying her music, if that's what's being suggested. I think it's because what she's offering is good soul-country music which one would rarely hear in the past years. There's not one artist big or active right now that makes similar music as hers. There is appeal across demographics and this appeal grows as we hear more of her. I first listened to this album in late December and it was simply because there just wasn't other worthy alternative. I got fed up of the usual pop and R&B everywhere. I discovered one song after the other. I got hooked to Set Fire To The Rain then. Now I'm hooked to One and Only. It's like a slow virus. You don't realize you're infected. It's insidious and does not let go. I got hooked to Imran Khan and Tarkan before and I was surprised to find that their plays in my Last.FM account reached 1,000+ in a year. I got hooked to Adele and she's got 4,000+ plays and the year is not yet over.


Other points in Adele's favor... She doesn't dress like a slut, which means my kids can watch her videos. She is real and unpretentious, which you can tell in interviews and concert banter. Plus, the contrast between what she talks about and how she sings is very interesting. She doesn't have a sordid or tabloid-filled life. Finally, she can sing anything and make it sound good. It's her voice alone that REALLY carries her. I can't think of any other current female singers who are in that category. IN fact, she has created her own category.


Why do you have to tear something good apart Adele is so loveable I'm sorry Beyonce or Lady Gaga are not . Adele is downright fantastic Someone like you.... amazing I think you have totally ignored the fact that everyone has felt what she sings they relate.Turning Tables is a song that hundreds of thousands of women have lived, and don't ignore.. Take it all ...words that if any of you have ever loved and lost could receive and heal with . sometimes we all need to relate and many of you don't


I believe Adele reigns the charts because it is easy for most people (particularly women) to relate to both her as a person and to the lyrical content of "21" in particular - which is basically heartbreak and "f*** you for hurting me". Gaga, Susan Boyle, Beyonce, and others can't claim that. I think in the age of social media and Twitter, because we now have more "insight" into who our celebrities are on an unfiltered personal level, people have begun championing entertainers with whom they feel they can connect. I saw this happen at Lolla this weekend with Ellie Goulding. Her fans are diverse (guys, girls, and all age ranges were packed in for her set), and they are extremely passionate - they know all the words, and they engage themselves with her performance rather than standing there looking at her like she's a god. I've heard lots of comments to the effect of "she's so cute, I just want to put her in my pocket" coupled with "she's so awesome". They look at her as someone with whom they could be friends, who "gets" them, and who just happens to be singing their anthems. Adele engenders the same response. It would not surprise me if we see a repeat of "21" with Ellie Goulding's next album.


ADELE is popular because she appeals to a broader fan-base than the average singer. She's mainstream enough to appeal to most pop audiences, but she also has the critical acclaim to appeal to the musical elitists who think that pop music is inferior, and she also imbues her music with references to 60s and 70s soul and blues, which appeals to the taste of certain demographic.
One of my friends who hate pop music, and only listen to bands like The Beatles and Led Zepplin came up to me one day and said "I don't listen to most female artists because I think that they oversing and dress like strippers, but I heard this song playing on the radio and just had to youtube it. That chick ADELE is amazing. Her voice is just so damn good".


So this was basically an excuse for this lazy writer to throw in odd future references? They haven't been poppin' all summer. Let the british chick have her day in the sun. You need to stop giving writing space to lazy kids in their dorm or mom's basement who can go off on any half-assed idea and call it a feature. Or do you just like to get all your page clicks from b*ullsh*t and jacking news from other blogs. Originality...try it some time.

jim jones

Well MY asnwer is listen to her singing live. true talent, exceptionally good singer, great songs and makes a connection on an emotional level. To me this is what good music does, and its woefully lacking these days imo. Adele is a the real deal.

Mike W

I love Adele and I thought this was an interesting blog because I was thinking the same thing. Normally, artists I embrace are not usually well known. Even when I was listening to "19", people kept asking me who she was because they liked what they heard. When I found out she was going to be on SNL for the first time, I made sure to stay up to watch her. After that aired, the buzz started and eventually she went on to win a Grammy for best new artist. Now "21" is in a category all by itself. This album is just amazing. Some people won't agree but that's how I feel. Even when I heard she was coming out with a new album, I wondered if she could duplicate the wonderfulness of "19" but once I heard it, I realized the phenomenon was continuing. Yes, as a woman, we can certainly understand all of the feelings that she sings about but at the same time no one can express them like Adele. Her voice is absolutely captivating. I don't agree with those who feel that the numbers are hyped or not true. I still have friends who didn't know who she was up until June 2011 and when they heard me playing it, they went out and got the album. Since February, I've had to buy this album for different people as gifts. They love it. I am going to purchase a few more for some family members upcoming birthdays. I agree with those who have said that she appeals to all ages. I have a huge family which includes 15 nieces and nephews and they love her. My 7 year old niece first heard me playing "21" in my car and she asked me who that was because she liked her voice. While at my house, she asked me to find something on YouTube about Adele so that she can see what she looks like and since then she has watched everything there is about Adele. My oldest brother, who's 43, also first heard her while sitting in my car and he wanted me to "burn" him a copy. I work in the music industry and am not into "burning" so I just bought him a copy. Let's not forget that when her tour was announced, all of her tickets sold out and they had to look for bigger venues to have her shows. Sometimes you really can't pinpoint a specific reason for something's success. As far as "21" is concerned though, I believe there are a number of reasons for its success. Firstly, there's the voice, she sings like no one else I've heard and I to listen to the new music that comes out every Tuesday. Secondly, she is a storyteller whose emotions are captured in every word sung. Thirdly, she is a woman scorned and how many people has this happened to. There is also the very obvious fact that she is not manufactured to be pleasing to the eye. People see themselves when they see her and, no, you don't have to be overweight to relate to her as a person. She is just plain real! Adele could sing anything and I would listen. Give props to where props are due. She's talented, beautiful and real and I hope she is with us for a long time to come!


Why so popular yet so underhyped? Because she's the unfashionable antithesis of everything the music industry has been doing for the past decade. She's a old-school soul singer instead of a technopop diva, a traditional performer instead of a provocateur, someone who has steadily built and developed a career on word of mouth instead of being forced into everyone's face or being anointed by the tastemakers.

She's good, if not yet great (we'll see, although it's promising). More's the case that the powers that be at the labels have been so busy losing the plot that someone like her seems like a very pleasant anachronism, someone whose work can be claimed and held close by a multitude, from middle-class moms to middle-school kids to middle-aged music heads who feel a bit abandoned.

There should be more like her. For now, it's a start.

Fast Panda

According to Hits Daily Double, Adele will now score a 12th week at number one in the US. Add that to her 18 weeks at #1 in the UK, 13 weeks at #1 in Australia, 15 weeks at #1 in Canada, 23 weeks at #1 in Ireland, 18 weeks at #1 in New Zealand, 16 weeks at #1 in Belgium, and 19 weeks at #1 on the World Album Charts, and I think we have the one of the most globally successful album of the year. The music world has found its saving grace, it seems.


If anyone thinks Adele is not really talented, I dare you to listen to the song "One and Only" on her album "21". This isn't a song, it's art.


She is popular because I don't like her. No, I don't think I'm a tastemaker or anything like that, but I'm the kind of guy who buys 40-50 albums a year. In other words, a pretty voracious consumer. I'm not a casual fan. When U2 played on the last go-round of their 360 tour, they played to record-breaking audiences, 90,000 at this venue, 100,000 at that. Do they have album sales like that, anymore? Nope, but once the momentum gets started, anything can attract casual fans. Adele seems really good at catching casual fans. I'm betting that for most of her sales, it's purchases by casual fans- by folks who buy only a few things every year because music isn't really that big of a deal for them. Odd Future has appeal for music nerds, like me (though I'm not a fan of them, myself- I'm using them because they were put in the article as a contrast). Lady Gaga killed in that kind of market for her first few, then, when she went mainstream, has tried unsuccessfully to market to casual fans, but she's just too off putting- she requires too much, even now that she's copping springsteen and Madonna hooks. Adele requires almost nothing of the listener, so it's prefect for the vast majority of consumers who only want a few things to serve as background music to their lives.


I thought the article interesting but didn't really hit it. I've been fascinated by Adele's Huge appeal but it doesn't surprise me. I don't really care who buys her stuff. What I do care about is why I buy something. When Adele first arrived with Chasing Pavements I thought it good enough to DL onto the pod, but I didn't get the CD. This year with her appearance at the Brits, I was moved by her singing Someone like You. It was the first single in the UK and was on the radio non-stop. But for me it was seeing her on Jools Holland which convinced me she had already morphed into an exceptional artist. I like Rollin', but prefer Set Fire to the Rain..! the title alone is genius! I was struck by her vocal skills and effortless authority. People aren't drawn to her because she represents anti- Gaga, it's the songs and the staggering VOICE..! I buy more than 50 CDs a year, and the genres are from pop to hip-hop to soul to blues to jazz to classical...and to me Adele is exceptional. she ain't no raving beauty with a body to die for, but listen to the voice and you hear something worth the success she's having. BTW I'm one of the 'old ones'...


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