Back on 16 November last year, someone going by the helpful name of xxxxWGDxxxx played a small part in shaking up the music world. That was the date they logged on to YouTube and uploaded a clip of Adele singing her new track Someone Like You. The video was soon being passed around feverishly by music fans, normally with some accompanying text saying something along the lines of “wow”.There was something about the way the 22-year-old stood there and sang, displaying diva-like confidence yet wearing her heartache on her sleeve, that proved she had matured as an artist since the modest success of her debut album, 19. Suddenly, people became very interested in hearing more.
On Sunday, Adele’s second album, 21, smashed Madonna’s record for the longest consecutive weeks spent at the top of the UK album charts by a female solo artist.
It also looks likely to beat the all-time record held by the Bob Marley and the Wailers compilation Legend.
And her Brits performance of Someone Like You was deemed to be the highlight of the night by most critics who watched the ceremony. Adele’s success isn’t settling for owning the UK either — 17 European countries have had their album top spot hogged by 21, as has the US.
So why has Adele’s star risen so swiftly and why is it connecting now? Yes, she has got a great voice and decent songs — but clearly there’s something special going on here that sets her apart from the crowd of white female soul singers she was originally lumped in with (Duffy, Joss Stone, Pixie Lott et al).
What is it?
The answer involves a myriad different factors but perhaps the best place to start is with her record label, XL Recordings. They spotted in Adele not just a singer with a great voice but an artist who could be developed as her career progressed.
That’s why she was given the freedom to pick who she worked with, choose which tracks to release as singles and have a say on how her records were marketed.
XL even trusted her to make the potentially damaging decision not to play music festivals (most record labels would have had a fit at this). If Adele initially struggled to stand out from the crowd, it was her decision to sign with XL that eventually helped her stake out ground as a credible artist.
Suffice to say, you probably would not see her cycling around a TV studio singing about Diet Coke.
Despite these creative freedoms, it would be unwise to make out that 21 was pushing any musical boundaries. The focus is on big, piano-led ballads, each one transformed by a devastatingly huge soul voice. People can crow at the lack of innovative sonic ideas on display, but they are not what find you an audience, from NME-reading teens to aunties humming along to Radio 2.
It’s also worth bearing in mind that people like clinging to “safe” sounds during times of turbulence, making 21 something of a comfort blanket in the midst of a recession.
Of course, having such wide appeal is bound to inspire criticism, and plenty of people find Adele’s sound too middle of the road to be truly inspiring – some critics like to use the term “A-dull”. But that jibe misses a key point — that Adele packs a personality as big as her voice.
This is something NME editor Krissi Murison credits her success to. “When you look at the British female songwriters who have been really successful in recent years — Amy, Florence and Lily — the one thing they have in common is their huge characters. Adele is similar in that she’s incredibly hypnotising when you meet her in person.
She’s also pretty normal. She doesn’t have a crack habit and she doesn’t look like she grew up with wolves in an enchanted forest. It’s that essential human-ness that so many people love.”
She may have attended the Brit School, but she is as far from the dead-eyed, all-singing, all-dancing stage-school desperado as imaginable. Her cockney accent does nothing to soften the fact that she’s not one for airs and graces. During a recent interview, for instance, she broke the ice with the journalist by discussing her struggles with irritable bowel syndrome. When asked how she felt minutes before wowing the Brits crowd, she answered simply: “Shat myself.”
In a world where record labels are constantly trying to find the new Lady Gaga, it’s perhaps obvious why people would warm to a size-14 girl from Tottenham in north London who prefers her language, rather than her photoshoots, to be racy. Adele’s way of presenting herself is at odds with many of her flesh-baring peers and nowhere is this demonstrated better than through her TV performances — where the music, rather than the outfits, unleash her sexuality. Her music has also made its way on to all sorts of emotional TV montages, a particularly memorable one being a tear-jerker on this year’s British charity show, Comic Relief.
The internet era may have made music accessible to all, but only on TV can songs be given the kind of emotional backdrop to unite such a broad audience at once.
This is the Adele story — an ordinary girl genuinely shocked to be living the kind of “dream” that shows such as The X Factor promise but can never truly deliver. It is perhaps this unexpected nature to her success that makes it sweetest of all.