How Adele’s ‘21’ Heralded A New Era Of Relatable Pop

A stark contrast to the theatrics of pop peers like Lady Gaga and Katy Perry, '21' changed the course of the last decade of pop music.

adele 21 photo

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In February 2011, just after the release of her second album 21, Adele took to the stage at the BRIT Awards.

Nervous, her eyes often avoiding the camera, the 22-year-old delivered a powerhouse debut performance of ‘Someone Like You’, completely flooring the crowd. From that moment, we were no longer witnessing a promising British artist — we were watching a global superstar.

Following the performance, ‘Someone Like You’ jumped 46 spots up the UK charts, becoming her first number one in her home country and beating Lady Gaga to the top spot. Album sales, meanwhile, surged 890 percent on Amazon within an hour of the performance.

This is not to say Adele was an obscure artist before she took to the Brit Awards stage. 21 was her second UK number one, following on from 19, and its lead single ‘Rolling In The Deep’ had reached number two. But there’s a difference between a home-country chart-topper and a megastar, however, and as ‘Someone Like You’ swelled, Adele started leaning towards the latter.

The US flame burned more slowly than the UK, but it would soon explode. 21 debuted at number one with a strong sales week, but far from the sort of numbers her peers like Taylor Swift were pulling at the time. Months later ‘Rolling In The Deep’ hit number one and ‘Someone Like You’ followed after another blinding performance at the MTV Music Video Awards.

While albums generally record their best US sales week in their first week, 21 did so in its 21st week at number one, following Adele’s performance at the Grammys. For much of 2011 and 2012, 21 only picked up more fans, finding appeal with everyone from suburban mothers to moody teens. As of last year, it was the 29th best selling album of all time and the best selling album of this millennium.

Turning 10 this year, 21 isn’t an album bookmarked to 2011. It’s a rare, timeless record by an artist that many feel they can relate to. Despite its everlasting appeal, however, it does symbolise a moment in music when pop music was once again turned on its head, and a struggling industry suddenly saw some light as artists began to strive for relatability.

The Anti-Lady Gaga

Pop music was outlandish in 2011. Lady Gaga’s theatrical, character-driven pop music was reigning supreme as ‘Bad Romance’ ruled the airwaves. Katy Perry’s candy-coloured Teenage Dream was collecting hits at an unstoppable rate. Ke$ha was brushing her teeth with a bottle of Jack and spraying glitter in every crevice. Of course, there were duller moments like Train’s ‘Hey Soul Sister’ and Owl City’s ‘Fireflies’, but the popstars that were nabbing headlines were theatrical and bold.

Adele, on the other hand, was labelled “the anti-Lady Gaga,” by The Wall Street Journal. “The unapologetically, full-figured Adele emphasises substance over style,” wrote journalist Ethan Smith.

It’s a bizarre fatphobic comment that’s unnecessarily belittling to Gaga, but you can see the essence of the point. While Gaga turned up at the Grammys that year in an egg after incubating for 72 hours, Adele was giving potty-mouthed press interviews in a Cockney accent, promoting an album that expressed heartache without filter or fashion.

In song, Adele was poised and powerful. From the rumbling revenge of ‘Rolling In The Deep’ to the soaring vulnerability of ‘Set Fire To The Rain’, she found a way to make her gigantic, soulful ballads relatable. No emotional declaration was deemed too much. ‘Take It All’ begins with just Adele’s voice asking, “Didn’t I give it all?”

Meanwhile, on ‘Rumour Has It’, she’s reading into murmurings of infidelity over stomping drums. Both nostalgic and reckless, 21 wears its heart on its sleeve. By the time her voice is boiled down to a whisper in the closing moments of ‘Someone Like You’, not only have you empathised with Adele, you’re resenting her ex too.

Both nostalgic and reckless, 21 wears its heart on its sleeve.

While people were falling in love with the record, they were also falling in love with Adele as a person. Most artists selling upwards of a million copies of an album were media trained within an inch of their life. Adele seemed to be untrainable. Swear words flew at an unfathomable rate and she was refreshingly conversational.

When The Observer asked what her response was to her defining Brit Awards performance she responded simply: “Shat myself.”

When asked by Q Magazine about the lack of sexualisation in her music she said, “If you’ve got it, flaunt it, if it works with your music… But I can’t imagine having guns and whipped cream coming out of my tits,” referencing Perry’s ‘California Girls’ clip. She wasn’t denouncing modern pop music as such — but she also wasn’t about to start playing that game.

Entertainment will never be one-dimensional, nor can it exist without the camp or surreal, but there was something uniquely relatable about Adele that listeners had been craving. Kylie Minogue told the BBC, “She’s human. She has something that touches all of us.”

Finding Someone Like Adele

The music industry was in a dire space around the time 21 dropped.

Nielsen’s 2010 End Of Year music report in the US recorded the lowest album sales in SoundScan’s 20 years of reporting — a drastic 13 percent lower than the year before.

With the streaming boom on the horizon but not yet really making an impact, digital sales were dropping as the industry grappled with piracy. By the end of 2011, however, Adele’s 21 had sold 5.8 million copies, assisting the industry in recording an album sales rise of 1 percent — the first rise since 2004.

Adele didn’t save the CD or digital download, of course, but she proved there was still life in the format if you could find an artist that could appeal to the whole family. And so, labels went searching for the next Adele. While scoping the next Gaga or Perry had been the model of the early ‘10s, relatability was now top of the agenda.

By the time Adele returned in 2015 with another blockbuster record 25, the pop scene was looking very different. Many of the biggest songs of that year were sweeping ballads or uncomplicated soul tunes.

Hozier’s ‘Take Me To Church’ was the fourth best-selling song of 2015 in Australia followed by Adele’s ‘Hello’, while Ed Sheeran’s wedding-ready ‘Thinking Out Loud’ spent its second year in the year-end chart after also ruling 2014. Sam Smith, Megan Trainor, James Bay and Rachel Platten also notched up impressive sales that year with ballads.

Sheeran’s rise, in particular, can be traced to the success of 21. Sheeran, with three US number one albums, now boasts some of the only sales stats that could hold a candle to Adele’s. His debut album + came months after 21 but it took until 2014’s x for the songwriter to truly crack the US. His modus operandi? Love and loss through an earnest lens. Tunes universal enough that the whole family could buy-in.

Sheeran’s modus operandi? Love and loss through an earnest lens. Tunes universal enough that the whole family could buy-in.

He wasn’t the only one dominating the charts with tales of heartbreak. Sam Smith’s In The Lonely Hour was arguably the biggest heartbreak album since Adele’s 21. When they appeared on Saturday Night Live with a particularly raw rendition of ‘Stay With Me’, the song was catapulted into the US top 10. It’s a moment akin to Adele’s BRIT Awards triumph.

Ballads were no new concept in 2011 but it had been some time since they had been global chart-toppers. A ballad, a big voice, and a broken heart was the key to the mainstream in the late ‘90s — Celine Dion, Mariah Carey and Whitney Houston can all attest. Adele’s success put ballads back in vogue, even with some of the most established artists.

Beyoncé cited Adele as an influence for her bare-boned 2011 record 4 which began with a hauntingly raw love song ‘1+1’. Rihanna delivered the sweeping ballad ‘Stay’ in 2012, Bruno Mars crooned over a piano on 2012’s ‘When I Was Your Man’ and Kesha reinvented herself with the bold ‘Praying’ in 2017. Even Gaga, for a brief moment, retired from being the anti-Adele when she embraced piano-led declarations of heartbreak on 2016’s Joanne, particularly the album’s biggest hit ‘Million Reasons’.

Adele is rumoured to be re-entering the pop sphere this year but it’s still a game that is favouring relatability and human connection. While there’s been a marked return to bold pop theatrics in the past year, records like Taylor Swift’s folklore and more recently Olivia Rodrigo’s ‘drivers license’ demonstrate that there’s still an appetite for de-glossed, emotional music.

Adele’s biggest drawcard remains her music’s timelessness. Ironically, for an album time-stamped with an age, 21 is impossible to tie to one particular year. It sounds like heartbreak — an emotion that can linger and toy with everyone’s heartstrings long after the author’s heartache has diminished.

Sam Murphy is a music writer and Co-Editor of The Interns. Follow him on Twitter

Photo Credit: Alasdair McLellan