One of the most successful musicians of the 21st century, what is it that has made Adele take the music industry by storm?
Adele is an artist without the need for an introduction. With just three albums in her discography – the fourth coming out next month – she is one of the best selling and most-streamed artists of all time, boasting coveted records like the highest first-week sales for an album and single in multiple territories. But that commercial success has come as a bit of a mystery to the music industry: her emergence was in counterpoint to the contemporary pop landscape. She wasn’t a spectacle like Pop so often demands, nor was she selling sex, and her bluesy piano ballads stood shockingly firm against the EDM/dance music craze of the early 2010s. But the analysis on her success and marketing techniques thus far has been chiefly surface level, praising her for accepting opportunities only afforded to those at the top of the entertainment industry and praising her for being “real.” Yes, her landmark ’30’ projections were “”cool,”” but not “smart” per se. If every artist had the budgets, we can all be sure they’d have been slapping projections onto buildings a long time ago.
Adele’s appeal lies in her uniform simplicity, which has (at least) three distinct identifying features: stripped instrumentation, bare, guttural vocal performances, and universally relatable lyrics. These three work in tandem to establish Adele’s broad, seemingly universal appeal. They also culminate in some interesting phenomena. Unlike Adele’s biggest inspiration, Beyoncé, she doesn’t have a significant “stan” community presence. While Adele certainly has a massive “fanbase” that helps her shatter commercial records every hour of the day, but for intents and purposes here, that’s different than a “stanbase:” a fervent, sentient, chronically online (and perhaps a tad delusional) group of fans. This isn’t a dig – it simply bolsters the assumption that her appeal is significantly broader than the online stan community, which teens and twenty-somethings dominate. It also strikes against the belief that one needs a consistently well-fed and rabid fanbase to sell records.
Her instrumentation and arranging go back to an era of musical uniformity: roots, soul, and jazz music.At the beginning of her career, she even was considered a Jazz artist. Her songs, more often than not, include bright and bluesy piano accompaniment, standard percussion, and occasional orchestral flourishes. While there is some rumbling of potential electronic elements on 30, one should expect that her core sound will remain devoid of dissonance or distortion, qualities that typically alienate the public.
The second key component of Adele’s success is her voice and how she chooses to use it. To say that she sings expressively would be an understatement – there is not a single note that she doesn’t incorporate into a phrase and not a single musical line where she doesn’t squeeze every drop of emotion out of it. She coos and growls, riffs, and runs around her melodies in a way that barely hovers above a conversation and rarely reaches a scowl. While she’s not a perfect vocalist, she’s at very least an above-average one, a goldilocks level of prowess that fools her audience into thinking that they could do what she does. She doesn’t need notes off of the staff to impress her listeners, and that adds another layer to her reliability.
Though surely unintentional, Adele’s lyricism also plays to a wide array of human experiences by choosing widely relatable messages: feeling faultless because you were “just a child” when you committed a transgression or feeling that if you can’t have one lover, you can find another just like them. As Dani Blum wrote for Pitchfork this week:Review: Adele, 21
Adele’s writing is allusive. She sings in generalities — hearts melting, last goodbyes, pleas to forgive unnamed sins. 21 asks for your participation. You’re meant to summon your mottled heartbreak to fill in some of the blanks, and tap into the sorrow and rage and remorse that quakes through these songs.Dani Blum, Pitchfork
All of this is to say that Adele’s marketability is centered on her simplicity. While most artists are told to find their niche to build a fanbase, Adele’s simplicity generates wide cross-demographic appeal. Her emergence beautifully coincided with a counter-cultural movement that wanted a return to previous musical standards in the age of Lady Gaga and over-the-top pop. For other artists, recreating Adele’s marketing playbook would be a difficult if not impossible feat.