We're led to believe by critics that at any given time there are a number of musical revolutions taking place. Every individual niche is sticking it to some other niche, willingly or not. You've got to wonder if this is the natural endpoint for criticism – if, at this point, a critic must make comparisons or else point out the opposites in order to get people to listen – or if there really is so little musical originality now that comparisons have simply become inevitable. As if everything is so similar that one would feel uncomfortable not
mentioning similar artists. Guilty, even.
It makes it very surprising when something happens that should spark a revolution but doesn't. Case in point: Adele's performance of “Someone Like You” at the 2011 Brit Awards. Adele in a black dress singing into a black microphone on a black stage with a black piano. Journalists raced to be the first to use the phrase “let the music speak for itself” and to contrast her performance with those of Lady Gaga, but there was more to it than that. If you watched and listened closely, you heard her voice grow shaky and you saw her eyes start to shimmer during the last chorus. It wouldn't be wrong to think that the critics were mistaken, then, to claim that she was letting her music speak for itself. Tears aren't like absurd costumes or set pieces, but they are a supplement nonetheless – one that could be perceived as a gimmick. But if the tears were artifice, they were also rooted firmly in reality which not only saved the performance but elevated it to something more. A gimmick is not necessarily always a negative thing; it only becomes a negative when the gimmick overshadows the music. Most people probably didn't even notice that it had happened. It was something special, almost secret, something to be shared with people who were paying attention. Without it, it was an amazing performance. With it, it was something even greater.
Because something else people might have missed is that she smiled afterward. That
is what sets Adele apart from her contemporaries, from the bombast of the current musical climate, from the gimmickry of award show performances and all their absurdities. Because her music is as much for her as it is for the audience. To make her feel the same pain over and over but also to work toward healing it. Too often these days it seems like artists cater to their audience, trying to write something they think people want to hear rather than writing something they themselves would want to hear and connect with. It's a problem that transcends genre, but who would have thought that a pop artist would be the one to find success by writing music for herself and finding that people will recognize that? On 21
, Adele's heartbreak is a beautiful, palpable thing, full of the requisite pain and, more importantly, believable in its bitterness. She is not doing anything new. On the contrary, what she's doing is quite old. It hearkens back to a time that for all we know might never have existed, when all music seemed genuine and full of real feelings and the power to inspire and sustain and move. Almost certainly it never existed. But hearing Adele sing makes it believable anyway. Hearing a voice that grows scratchy and threatens to break and has not been tampered with, has not been slicked over in a studio, a voice that reveals all that can be found within a person and also seems to hold something back, to suggest another truth just behind the veil.
What's quite sad is that there is no such thing as a musical revolution anymore. Technological innovations change the way we listen to music, but the music itself remains the same. There are still influential artists but the most they can manage are micro-revolutions. That is, I think, enough. But sometimes it's nice to wonder what could be if artists like Adele did
spark something. If they were to inspire a generation to feel as if they could beat back the darkness with their voice. As if they could be moved to tears by the depth of their own feelings and then to smile in the next moment and then to weigh which lasted longer and if it even matters.