What should we think when an artist can make people buy more than 5 million copies of an album in three weeks? Or when nearly half of all music sales in one week are down to one person?
The sales of Adele’s 25, as reported by Nielsen Music, are leaving the realm of commercial figures and nearing the increasingly implausible
It’s not that anyone doubted Adele, but this spike brings on more than a double-take.
No one idea explains the perfect storm. We know Adele’s good with the singing; we know she’s only 19 months older than Taylor Swift but somehow sounds 19 years older. And we know that people like the human they imagine behind the music. I am one of those people. Her recent TV appearances were a miracle of charm titration, admitting to Graham Norton that she drunk-tweeted herself out of access to her own account, surprising Adele imitators by joining their ranks, and then swinging by Jimmy Fallon to sing Hello with the Roots backing her on toy instruments.
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The idea that keeping the album off Spotify drove this physical sales surge doesn’t entirely scan. The entire album might not be available on the streaming service, but its first hit, Hello, is and, more to the point, the single premiered on the bigger streaming platform, YouTube, as a narrative video.
A WELCOMING ‘HELLO’
Four weeks have passed since the release of 25, and few people who are not hard-core Adele fans or music critics know 25 as well as they know Hello. In these record-setting weeks, the people buying 25 were buying something that might as well have been called Hello and 10 Others. This is a common way that albums become megahits. Nevermind was just Smells Like Teen Spirit and More Loud Songs to the millions who would never have otherwise bought a record by a band steeped in obscure, abrasive music.
I watched the Hello video like everyone else: the moment it was released, repeatedly. The song, written by Adele and Greg Kurstin, is a marvel of pacing. The four piano chords that anchor the verses, and which are the only accompaniment for the opening minute, move from F minor to C sharp. They are articulated in pairs that ring close to each other, separated by a pause, creating the sense that you can start anywhere in the cycle, and that any pair of chords might be the first in the series. It’s a song with a cannon of a chorus, but with no buildup before it goes off. You simply ride around in circles with Adele until she realizes what she wants to emphasize: HELLO FROM THE OUTSIDE, YOU PERSON, YOU.
The video can’t be undersold. The narrative is as wacky as Adele’s voice is comforting. Everyone noticed the anachronistic flip phone, and what about the abandoned house? Director Xavier Dolan opens with a full minute of Adele rediscovering an unidentified home, flinging aside the white furniture covers that exist only in movies and videos. And then she’s outside! In the only phone booth on the moors! We are being sold high melodrama on the wings of a bonkers perfume commercial. The loopy edges of the video allow us to believe in the passion of a broken, unresolved romance without feeling overburdened by intensity because, well, look at that coat. Ooh, that is a nice coat, now seen almost 600 million times. See? The numbers just sound made-up.
There is her voice, which I’m not immune to, but I belong in a splinter faction of Adele fans. I love the breath-control knuckle ball in Hello, when she takes in air quickly between “I’m” and “sorry” in the chorus, multitasking her singing and storytelling. The pause creates a side narrative, where Adele isn’t really sorry about anything and just wishes this bastard would call her back.
When the video has run its course, though, I don’t return. I tend toward things that pivot on a magnetic, unresolved question that bears repeated asking but is impossible to answer. Adele’s music might be too complete or too balanced. I want to be baffled, and Adele does not baffle. She does what I expect her to do, and even when it impresses me, I don’t reach out and grab it to see what it’s made of.
NO MYSTERY HERE
So what does Adele’s combination of virtuosity and rootedness provide?
It helps to think of what people are up to when they are not buying Adele CDs. Compared with other forms that provide consensus experiences — television, video games, movies — recorded music is a modest slice, almost a niche form inside of popular entertainment. While playing and writing about music for 30 years, I’ve seen a certain pattern repeat across age and race and location and gender. People discover music as tweens, remain curious listeners through college, then the floor falls out, and the music library doesn’t budge. The old favorites work. In most cities, radio can provide a half-hour of something you’ve never heard, and that is enough for many. Movies will be attended, news will be read, television shows yelled at; and then back we go to Songs in the Key of Life, The Hot Rock, Aquemini.
Pop music is a youth-obsessed art form and youth-generated. We are not yet seeing 19-year-olds directing Marvel widgets, but they turn up often on the pop charts. And if there is a medium more youth-obsessed than pop, it’s the Internet. The combination of the two exacerbates that post-collegiate drop-off rate. A 22-year-old who was almost feeling entirely up to date can open up Twitter, not know what dabbing or Slime Season 2 is, and suddenly feel like the entire Internet is cackling and screaming “What are thoooose?”
Adele isn’t just reassuring to older people; she reassures people who are feeling older younger. People want that lack of mystery to reassure them that nothing new and meme-tastic is going to rear up and make them feel out of it yet again. Maybe that’s what that dumb flip phone was doing in there.
So the people going to Target in actual cars to pick up an actual CD are likely not people who don’t actually like music — a phrase that condescends to people who love 10 albums rather than 10,000 — but people who just don’t need that much music in their lives. She had them at Hello.