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Monday, February 20, 2012

Congratulations Adele... So What's Next?

Adele is a phenomenon. There are no two ways about it, she is the music industry right now. With 2011's biggest selling album on both sides of the Atlantic, it was stunning to see the rapture with which she was received at last week's Grammy Awards. No doubt Adele will similarly clean up at tomorrow's Brit Awards, and deservedly so. She has managed to attain the holy trinity of pop success: enormous fame, gigantic record sales and universal critical acclaim. Reaching this pinnacle is far from easy; only a very few stars achieve such celestial alignment. Once you're at the top though, there are only two options: trying to stay there or going down again (gracefully or otherwise...). I'm not wishing to be a party pooper, but I'm genuinely fascinated to see what Adele does next. Before she decides, she might be well-advised to reflect on the fortunes of some fellow divas whose flames once burned as brightly. 

When she first emerged in 2008, Adele was but one of a clutch of British female singers who looked poised for world domination, and was not even "the girl most likely" to become the biggest star. I admit I'm late to the Adele bandwagon. Sure I bought 19, loved Chasing Pavements in particular and thought she was fun and refreshingly normal. Her voice had a raw soul that is extremely rare in white singers, Dusty and Amy are the only others who truly nail it. True soul music is like a whole-body vibration that starts in the toes, carries through the torso collecting emotional resonance and erupts from the throat like a primal scream. It's tough for a white girl to pull that off!

Something transformed for Adele with her second album, 21. It's well-known that it's a "break-up" album and Adele has managed to mainline the anguish of lost love, which is why it has connected on such an epic scale. Importantly, her experience gives her one of the key requirements of diva-dom: the broken heart. Adele is now a torch singer, we believe her completely when she sings "sometimes it lasts in love, but sometimes it hurts instead". If we had no knowledge of her real-life story, we would still know this girl had suffered actual loss. Most importantly Adele is a little bit rough, and I mean that as a compliment. She is not an over-polished gemstone, but a pure diamond that is only gradually revealing its potentially flawless quality.

So what happened to the other leading ladies in the Class of 2008? The three artists who appeared to be the clear frontrunners to claim the mantle of Queen of British Pop have all now fallen by the wayside. Duffy's wondrous album Rockferry sounded like a lost classic from the 60's, won her Brits and Grammys and sold over six million copies. Amy Winehouse's modern classic Back To Black was still going strong two years after its release, again garnering multi-million sales and awards. Perhaps the hottest star in music in 2008 was Leona Lewis, her album Spirit got the multi-million sales but not the major awards; no doubt in part due to snobbery about her talent show beginnings. However, four years on and Duffy is taking a self-imposed two-year break from music following the flop of her second album, Leona's second album similarly failed to impress and her third's release keeps getting delayed (it has just been pushed back to November) and, sadly, Amy is no longer with us. 

It is a big disappointment that this apparent third "British invasion" has fizzled out; we've gone from "shock and awe" to a commando mission. It can sometimes feel that all pop music careers are like all political careers; they end in failure. There are notable exceptions to this pessimistic view, but most hit artists who enjoy a prolonged career will eventually settle at a level of success far below their peak. Evidently, for Adele to sustain her success at anywhere near the levels she has enjoyed in 2011 will be a big ask. Setting fire to the rain is one thing, but how do you keep it ablaze?

It is no wonder that when asked in her recent Vogue interview what was next for her, Adele joked that she was "f**king off for four or five years" to focus on her relationship. The media storm this quote created demonstrates the pressure she will be under to produce more material. While her spokesman has reassured fans that this was an "off-the-cuff" remark, it would not be surprising if underlying it is a desire to escape this overwhelming fame and success and maintain some normalcy in her life. Whatever her true feelings, it sounds like Adele's priorities are in the right place for now.

So what can Adele learn from the experience of her diva peers? It is an age-old challenge in the music industry; balancing the artistic desire to create great music with the commercial imperative to strike while the iron is hot. Duffy and Leona are no doubt wise to take time before launching what will be "make or break" third albums; they have already paid the price for rushing out half-baked follow-ups to smash hit albums. I am sure we would rather Adele took an extended break and returned with an album of real quality than succumb to pressure to ride her fame tsunami till it inevitably crashes in disappointment. I am not saying it's impossible to maintain the level of fame, record sales and artistic credibility Adele currently enjoys, it's just that very few artists have managed to keep all three of these balls up in the air for very long.

I am, of course, assuming that Adele even wants to try and stay at the summit. There are notable examples of divas who found it all too much and opted instead to carve out their own path to happiness further down the fame mountain (hello Kate, hello Alison). I am pretty confident Adele is here to stay; her success is based on talent, pure and simple. Great songs sung by a great singer. She is clearly on an artistic roll and has a team around her she trusts and is in synch with. Surely the urge will be there to keep going and we can expect 24, or at the latest 25 to hit the shelves (how old-fashioned of me) before too long. I, for one, wish her nothing but success.

If you enjoyed reading this blog, please consider forwarding it or linking to it from your Facebook or Twitter account. Also you can hear the tracks mentioned in this week's blog on my Spotify account at the following link: Class of 2008.

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