Adele warned the world, and nobody listened. “Go ahead and sell me out,” she said, then her voice launched millions of shipments: She turned 21‘s sorrow into treasured gold certification and beyond. Now people around the world, not just in Britain, think of her in the depths of their despair. She’s practically a global weepie laureate.
This would have been ludicrous circa 19, when “Chasing Pavements” appealed for being diluted, denatured Amy Winehouse—who herself drew from an older soul vintage. Critics routinely ranked Adele among the best of the next Winehouses, but one nevertheless sensed the only difference between her, fellow belter Duffy, and the rest of the retro trade was which demos were fished from the pile and which were binned.
Fast-forward two years: Duffy exemplified the sophomore slump, Winehouse unjustly passed, the soul legends they emulated remained legendary and ensconced, and the other acts tacked onto the trend pieces faded away. Adele, meanwhile, turned 21 and outgrew them all. She gave Patti Smith and Linkin Park a common interest. She cracked the dance, hip-hop, and Latin charts. And she both lodged “Rolling in the Deep” at #1 on the Pazz & Jop poll and got a second track, the ballad “Someone Like You,” into the Top 10. Only three artists have managed this since the Voice added its singles ballot in 1979, and they’re all veterans: OutKast (in 2000), Prince (twice, in 1984 and 1987), and Michael Jackson (in 1983). Sure, Kanye might have gotten three tracks from his opus onto last year’s list, but the album’s wealth of consensus never coalesced around one comparable song.
“Rolling in the Deep,” in short, worked, well enough for everyone to demand the formula. Problem is, “Rolling” makes poor evidence for every argument leveled in its favor. Neither Adele nor her song hit big for being “authentic” or “real,” as XL Recordings exec Richard Russell, pundits the press over, and too many other musicians suggested. She has indie-label cred, but the BRIT School gave her star schooling as proven as that given to Mouseketeers. She mostly shuns the fan-tweeting, tabloid-baiting game, but her blog has comparable candor and cheek, and she reserves more than enough sass for interviewers. Those interviews tend to see her praise the very artists she gets pitted against; her defenders are probably more interested in “credibility” than she is.
And yes, Adele prefers singing alone on a spotlit, still stage, like those of her arguable breakout performance at the Brit Awards last February or its reprise at September’s VMAs, to the glowsticks-and-iPad frippery of will.i.am or the scrambled-egg staging of Lady Gaga. But that real, unsullied voice likely produced realer vocal sullying, and “Rolling” soars as much as any of 2011’s poppier songs. No wonder so many artists embraced the song—it’s an infinitely adaptable template. But neither did “Rolling” hit big for being, well, big: There’s little diva bombast, no string swell (or strings at all), no key change, and no repeated blowing out of the barely blown-out chorus. “Rolling” is hardly decorated, and it’s propelled solely by kick-drum and guitar strum. (Who said guitar rock was dead?)
Nor did “Rolling in the Deep” get big simply for being confessional. Saturday Night Live skits aside, you can’t really cry to Adele—the music is too controlled. “Rolling” might warn of fires and fevers, but it’s really about the revenge Adele just might allow herself, maybe tomorrow. She’ll lay her ex’s shit bare, but only if really, really provoked, and the matter-of-fact chorus certainly isn’t that provocation. He’ll feel no nails down someone else’s back; his souped-up four-wheel drive will remain unkeyed. “Someone Like You,” meanwhile, is about the moment after those feelings have been dismissed—its chorus even begins “Never mind.” Adele’s place among listeners (girls, especially) as a surrogate-next-door à la Taylor Swift or Kelly Clarkson can’t be dismissed, but for all her heartbreak, she never seems anything but composed.
That’s fitting. The composition of “Rolling” is impeccable, more than anything else on the radio this year. First there’s only Adele and her guitar, each trying to seethe more than the other. Then enters a kick drum, determined as a march; then a piano follows, just as deliberately. Everything swells to make you feel the chorus, but only just; Adele’s voice never explodes like you know it can, and her backup singers always stall at 50 percent volume. “Rolling” only becomes truly cathartic if the listener makes it so.
In other words, it respects its audience. And in a year when artists sang that “it gets better” while storyboarding nerd jokes or bragged about scribbling their lyrics in 10 minutes or taunted listeners with eyedropper-tiny tidbits of finished work, it’s no wonder that Adele’s kindness was paid back in full—and then some.