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?