The secret of Adele's stellar success, built from humble beginnings
The singer is one of the last of her kind - a working-class girl made good
Hello. It's me. I was wondering if you'd like to know where Adele isn't No 1 in the world right now? Kyrgyzstan, Niger, Anguilla and Burkino Faso. And that's more or less it. Some 119 countries have an iTunes chart. Adele is at the top of 110 of them. And this is just one of any number of records that she broke last week: the fastest-selling album in Britain, ever. The fastest-selling album in America, ever. The video of Hello has already garnered half-a-billion views; she's even shifted a million CDs - CDs! Who even knew they still existed?
It is, by any measure, a breathtaking, astonishing feat. Adele, a 27-year-old, who grew up in and around some of the poorer areas of London, raised by a single mother, is Britain's greatest cultural export since the Beatles. She, uniquely, has touched, and been embraced by, people, young and old, hipsters and their parents, here, there, everywhere.
What is it about Adele? It's an intriguing, elusive question that you're unlikely to encounter if you read her British reviews. "Five years on, Adele is still, metaphorically speaking, planted on her ex's lawn at 3am, tearfully lobbing her shoes at his bedroom window," said the Guardian. "That 25 is as innovative as a flip phone isn't a reason to criticise it," said Time Out. "So here's one: it's a bit dull." And the Independent: "A slew of plodding piano ballads... indulgent heartbreak, writ billboard-large in songs like the frankly terrifying single Hello, where her phone-stalker pesters an old flame for the chance to meet up and 'go over everything', three words guaranteed to make a man's blood run cold."
They're all male, mostly middle-aged rock critics but then I don't have to tell you that, it's right there in the copy and in the comment threads of every article that's been written about Adele recently.
But then, perhaps the most astonishing thing of all about Adele's success is that she's a loud, powerful voice articulating lived experience. And she's a woman. And not just that, she's a woman born working-class. Who hears from them, ever? Music is the only bit of public life where we permit it. Where we still hear the kind of voices that are now absent elsewhere.
Young black men. Young working-class women. What's so interesting about Adele, at the heart of her appeal, is that she gives an authentic voice to what are universal emotions: loss, regret, pain. We all feel those, men and women both, but there's something about her femaleness, that is, for a certain audience, unpalatable. There's a particular kind of contempt that's reserved for women in public life.
Adele has defied all odds. She shouldn't be No 1 in 110 countries, she should be stacking shelves at Tesco.
Working-class girls from West Norwood don't become global superstars, they don't even become solicitors or journalists or accountants. The story of Adele's success, the working-class girl made good, the hardscrabble rise from the streets of south London, just doesn't happen any more.
And if you're allergic to what you think are the sentiments of Adele's songs, think about that. About how it was the Brit school in Croydon that made it all possible. Adele received a brilliant, world-class education part-funded by the British government. "The kids were passionate about what they were doing there," she's said.
It's not rocket science, it's money. It's taxes. It's public services. It's a capital city that functions for all its residents including the poorest.
It's opportunities for all.
Adele isn't lobbing shoes at her ex's window. She is the thing of which she sings. She embodies a social mobility, a narrative of transformation, a story of talent overcoming the circumstances of one's birth, of a time that is now gone. You want nostalgia, think of a 16-year-old girl from West Norwood and what awaits her now.