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Adele as an Alternative Pop Idol

And we need to be in the right mood,

because she is likely to take us where we dread to go.

And when her albums first come out, we need

to listen to her new songs while being

on our own, because her stuff is lethal.

We may start crying out loud,

bellowing like “crumbling fools”.

Adele as an Alternative Pop Idol

- by Fanitsa Petrou

Adele is inarguably, the finest vocalist of her generation. In all the many talent shows - the Voices, the X-factors, the American Idols – for example, her songs are often reserved for the final shows that determine the winners. It is perhaps a testimony to her vocal - as well as song writing - abilities: female singers are measured up against her, like they used to be measured up against Whitney Houston or Aretha Franklin. Her songs making or braking careers, depending on how the contestants do by comparison. (Very often, very poorly …) And this is reflected in her sales: “25” her latest album which was released on the 20th of November 2015, became the year’s top selling album in the U.S. in just one week, while by the 1st of December, it sold 8.2 million copies, which stands for the 42% of all album sales in the United States. For the entire year! She is the holder of 10 Grammys, six Brit awards, a Golden Globe and even an Oscar! But she is a special kind of artist for another reason as well.

There is this a video on YouTube, with Adele singing her new song “When We Were Young” which featured on the Australian “60 Minutes” show, a song about meeting again with a guy from her past, and as soon as she is done, you can see her struggling to fight back tears, and for those few seconds it lasts, you can also see her humanity right there in front of you, and you just want to hug her. (If you don’t also find yourself fighting tears by then, I suggest you call your doctor, because there may be something seriously wrong with your heart). And then a moment later, in a typical Adel-ian twist, she makes a silly joke and she is out of it. Similarly, when she did an emotional rendition of “Hello” (the first single from the album) on SNL this weekend, she stuck her tongue out as soon as she finished, like a kid in a school play. Or like a girl who after selling millions of records is still not used to all this attention.

This vulnerability, this humility, this openness, as well as this self-effacing, child-like “silliness” are so endearing, and so extremely rare in the world of pop music! Before Adele, there was no place in the pop industry for her brand of authenticity. Not at the top at least. I’m sure there are countless girls singing in cafes and pubs and train stations, who still have their heart unaffected by adulation, but NOT in the charts. Not while being international stars, selling millions of albums, breaking all kinds of records while doing it. And that is why she is special. That is why her songs with the honest simplicity of their words have such an affect of people. Because even when we don’t realise it, we are drawn to that truth of hers, to that unaffected by fame quality.

All the pop stars currently in the charts, with the elaborate dance moves and the sophisticated fashion sense, and the gurus, the stylists, the implants, and their perpetually exposed, hard rock abdomens, and their identical, manufactured sexiness, and well-coached replies, and famous body parts, and - one assumes - their macrobiotic diets, have never taken us to that place where we are overwhelmed with emotions. All the princesses of Pop of the last 20 years, from Madonna, Kylie Minogue, Britney Spears, Mariah Carey, Christina Aguilera, Gwen Stefani, Beyoncé and Lady Gaga, all the way to Rihanna, Katy Perry, Jessy J, Taylor Swift, Ariana Grande, or Miley Cirus, may be great technical singers (at least many of them are), able to do all kinds of vocal gymnastics and set the fashion trends, and have great dancing-in-stilettos abilities, but their over rehearsed shenanigans are a product, a brand they were taught how to sell. And they do know how to sell, sell, sell. They are pigeon-holed into a role that is cold and heartless, because it is exactly that: a role. You feel it in your guts when you watch them in interviews that many of them have lost their way, infatuated by legions of adoring fans and the words of greedy managers, shifty publicists and sycophantic employees who never say “no” to them. They have been seduced, and possibly corrupted by flattery and lies. That is why we may love their music, but we are not deeply, devastatingly, heart-wrenchingly moved by it. Not often anyway. They’ve lost that ability to cause such intense emotional reactions in a wide range of people, when they’ve became a product, when they’ve became hit machines, which means when they’ve stopped being truly vulnerable instead of pretending to be, or when they’ve stopped being “allowed” to be less than perfect, or God forbid a little bit different.

That is why we cannot easily identify with them. The way they perceive the world is alien to us. It is unreachable and incomparable with what we are going through in our daily lives, even if they probably go through some similar stuff as we do, (the universal ups and downs of love and loss and break ups, which have for ever been the source material of song writers, and the staff everyone’s pain is made of), we can’t quite identify with them, connect with them or often believe they are not acting. Mimicking instead of feeling, or just being too weird for words... Like Lady Gaga visiting the Greek islands, being carried around in the little shops, in the hands of her bodyguard like a two-year old, because she is rendered unable to walk on her own two feet, on account of her gigantic heels. Sia being led on and off the stage like a blind person, because of the wig that is permanently hiding her face from her audience, or sipping her drink through a straw from behind her wig, when she was a quest at the Graham Norton Show (not that we all don't have days when we want to be covered by a blanket mind you). Madonna all serious, singing songs “about peace” in France, at the Place de la République, the spot that has become a shrine to the victims of the terrorist attacks of the 13th of November (or was it just me who thought she was out of place?). Mariah Carey being all weird, talking gibberish about the “powers that be” all the time, during her time as a judge on the American Idol, and waving around a pink, plastic, fairy wand, the kind favored by little seven year old girls, leaving us wondering "why??" Ariana Grande “making out” with donuts while declaring she hates America in a donut shop, actually causing it to have its health code rating downgraded, after she was caught on security camera licking the pastries on the counter… Jessy J,as a judge at the Australian Voice, having the biggest superiority complex ever seen on TV (or anywhere), to the point of actually making her fellow judge, Australian Pop singer Delta Goodrem bursting into tears and leaving the set. Taylor Swift being “obsessed” with her “Squad”, the group of young, beautiful, successful and famous women (actresses, models etc) who are supposedly her friends, and who create a sort of group of “superior” beings, that is a so-called feministic thing (female friendships and all that) but in reality, is creepily reminiscent of high school gangs of heartless, cheer-leader-type of girls, who are spending their days exchanging grooming tips and bullying the plain girls in their class… Gwen Stefani singing “Used to love you”, a song presumably written about her ex husband, overacting, mimicking grief (badly), posing for the camera, obviously being more concerned about how she looks, instead of showing any real emotion. And the same goes for the country singer Miranda Lambert in the music video for 'Mama's Broken Heart', ironically, a song about women being trapped in that old prison of appearances, and the desire to escape it. She obviously and sadly, couldn't: instead of expressing the raw feelings, the outrage, the urgency to be freed from the need to please others by always, and at all costs, being compliant and "lady-like" and well-groomed, even when one's heart is bleeding, which is what the song is all about, she did the opposite of that, posing sedactively for the camera, turning one of the bravest and most heart-wrecthing songs about the realities faced by all women, into just another vehicle for a singer to look good in yet another black lacy nighty... Or, Miley Cirus in that creepy, maddening, twerking rendition of 'Blurred Lines' with Robin Thicke at the 2013 VMAs, or slapping a black woman's behind and using black women as teddy bear props at the 2014 VMAs (!), or causing outrage for using racist words, such as “Mammy” – a derogative term that justifies slavery - at the 2015 VMAs… (Good luck to all the mums explaining all that to their girls who grew up with the Hannah Montana TV show…) I mean you just want to shout to them “WHAT IS WRONG WITH YOU PEOPLE?!”

But in the case of Adele, identification comes easy. Not because she is the girl next door type, or because she is not unique enough, pretty enough, charismatic enough, but because she is unguarded, unspoiled by fame and money. Her great gift is not just her beautiful voice and her song writing abilities - both rare and exceptional - but that quality of being well… normal! And of being connected and of drawing us in, that many of the “mechanical” pop stars lack. That quality of allowing us to enter into her world. Allowing us to connect with her on a human level and see her wounds and shuttered pride and betrayals and pain and tears and smallness even. That unapologetic vulnerability, that lack of pretensions which takes guts. And that is no small thing in this heartless, cynical world of ours. In this world of manufactured idols, and facebook pretensions, and phoney social media friendships, and Internet porn addictions, and dick / tit selfies masquerading as romantic gestures, and youtube celebrities, and sex tape relationships, and “thigh gap” beauties, being true to one’s self, is kind of a big deal.

We may dance to the music of those other pop divas, we may listen to it while we are doing the dishes, or taking the dog for a walk, but we need to make “space” for Adele’s music to listen to it properly. And we need to be in the right mood, because she is likely to take us where we dread to go. And when her albums first come out, we need to listen to her new songs while being on our own, because her stuff is lethal. We may start crying out loud, bellowing like “crumbling fools”. Other artists have sung about heartbreak and break ups, this is not her discovery, I agree. But what is kind of unique, is her truth. It’s that thing that’s right there for all to see, that exposed pain, that vulnerability, that humanity which are a rare sight. It used to be occasionally met in some folk and country singers, but rarely, and certainly not lately, and most definitely not in the A-listers. And it takes bravery and emotional depth to articulate your fears, to amplifying your heartache, to come face to face with your bitterness, to express vulnerability so openly, so publicly, but what most people don’t realize, is that it also takes a tremendous amount of confidence, grace and inner strength in order to know that you won’t crumple underneath the ruins of such confessions…

It is interesting that occasionally her interviewers treat her with a hint of condescension when faced with her down-to-earthiness, her self-effacing jokes, her sudden bursts of laughter, her cockney accent, her spontaneous swearing, in the same way that all unimaginative people treat anyone who is different than what they are used to seeing (Anderson Cooper in the Overtime commentary, that followed the “60 minutes” interview, back in 2012, is a good example of that, making fun of her hair, her home, being ironic about her working class background, etc) That’s because they are not used to her brand of honesty and mistake lack of pretensions as lack of class or intelligence. They don’t quite understand that it is often the deeply complicated and charismatic people who have no need for pretensions, like they also don’t understand the kind of intelligence it takes for a girl this young, to write such songs, and also the bravery it takes to be herself in a world full of identical idols. To go out there armed not with a set of killer abs and a carefully contrived sexiness, but with the power of her talent, and the warmth of her heart. Not to mention with her individual brand of beauty that she felt no need to “adjust” to what is generally seen as the “norm”. She doesn’t have the rehearsed manners, or the polished image of a pop diva, for the same reason she doesn’t have pyrotechnics and laser shows and explosions and half naked dancers in her concerts. Because she doesn’t need them… She is however repeatedly being asked about her weight as if it is astounding that a girl who is not borderline anorexic can possibly be successful, let alone THIS successful, a fact that she very rightly so, finds to be offensive. “It’s a little bit annoying that men don’t get asked that question” she said recently.

Anderson Cooper on the Overtime of “60 minutes”, for example kept asking her (almost attempting to fat-shame her, even after she pretty much put him in his place) whether or not she looks at other pop stars “like Rihanna and Beyonce”, or “people in magazines” and wishes she looked like them (the implication being obviously: as opposed to how hideous she does look…) “I don’t really need to. I AM selling records!” she cheekily and emphatically pointed out to him. Besides she doesn’t want people “confusing what it is she’s about”, she said at another time, referring to her looks and her desire to not be another skinny girl in sexy outfits. That’s kind of unique. A young woman, let alone a celebrity, who loves the way she looks, who feels that “exploiting yourself sexually is not a good look” , and doesn’t feel the need to succumb to the pressure of looking exactly like everyone else, who is not agonizing, apologizing, or feeling worthless, because she is not in her words a “skinny mini”! This in itself, is kind of a big deal! And for this alone, you gotta love her.

This girl who wears her heart on her sleeve, who takes her shoes off in the middle of a song because they hurt, who talks to her audience about her love life as if she is chatting with a friend; who drunk-tweets and then regrets it; who keeps a drunk journal the entries of which she turns into beautiful love songs; who before the encore announces to her fans at the Royal Albert Hall that she will just pop out for a minute, take her shoes off and have a sip of water, before returning back to them; this girl who makes public, embarrassing confessions of her love for her ex, who makes faces and silly jokes to diffuse the tension, is a real girl in the truest sense of the word. In a manner we’ve stop expecting people in the limelight to be, especially women, (Jennifer Lawrence runs a close second, with her habitual falling down routines and her constant, as well as refreshingly adorable foot-in-her-mouth faux pas) This girl, who worked at her local record shop, sorting Cds at the back , after her first album, (after the Grammys and all the success and the money and the adulation), so that she wouldn’t “lose contact” with what’s out there; this girl who in her words would rather go out for lunch with her friends rather than go to the gym; who when she had the world under her feet, took a four year hiatus in order to live her life like a normal person; who would rather sing in smaller venues rather than big arenas, because she is not “a massive fan of touring”; who refuses to endorse products because she doesn’t want “to get addicted to making money for doing shitty things”, who dresses in 60’s inspired somber gowns; who swears and cackles in the middle of interviews and concerts; who is sensitive but can be tough when it counts, and refuses to allow "men in suits" sitting in boardrooms, making decisions about her own work; who talking about herself and how people seem to love her so much, she says she has no idea “what the fuss is about”; who is not ashamed of her emotions and cries at the end of each song; this girl who is funny, cheeky and sarcastic but writes heart wrenching break up songs, is a rare fruit in the music industry. And this quality, this realness, this integrity, is what makes us feel a connection to her. It is not just her great voice with the range of God knows how many octaves, or even the honesty of her lyrics, it is above all the conviction with which she performs them, that makes every song feel like a punch in the gut.

And I’m thinking that mums who have girls, should see Adele as a role model for their daughters (and themselves), instead of aspiring them to live their lives trying to emulate a kind of Taylor Swift-like, icy, (and lets face it) obviously uptight “perfection”, or a Miley Cirus-like, in-your-face, creepy “sexiness”. They should encourage them to find their bliss, to live with integrity, to love who they are, and to stop living their lives seeking a kind of “perfection” that is limiting, cold, and measurable only by one’s ability to wear XS skinny jeans.

And also, to take a page out of Adele’s book who sings: “I want to live, and not just survive”!


Written in November 2015.

Read also: "Adele - She had us at “Hello”:

An Alternative Pop idol - Art & Words Copyright © Fanitsa Petrou. All Rights Reserved. Any unauthorised use - copying, publishing, printing, reselling, etc - will lead to legal implications.


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Art & Words By Fanitsa Petrou

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