music • 28.05.11
Just another fat lass who can sing was how somebody put it. I don’t much care for disparaging remarks like these but I get the point of that one. Adele is hugely over-rated. I don’t mean I dislike her music. She is perfectly listenable and easy to get just like a ton of other artists these days. And that’s fine. When I say over-rated I mean by critics and commentators, the ones who create the cultural context in which music is understood. I think of them as storytellers because in many ways that is what they are. They invent stories around music and its makers.
To them Adele is the real deal, authentic and unpretentious, and that is what I take issue with. The other day I dialled up her 19 album and the first thing that struck me was how unnatural it sounded. I noticed DI-ed acoustic guitars (i.e. recorded without microphones). I heard digital pianos where “real” ones might have been used. Moreover, I was surprised just how audible the tuning corrections were.
Now, I have no complaint with any of that especially tuning software per se. It can save a huge amount of time in sessions, time which can be given to things more important than fixing pitch. However, if you’re “authentic” then you probably wouldn’t artificially pitch the vocal. Or if you’re going to do that, you’d make sure it was imperceptible.
This is not to condemn Adele and her people as being fake. As I’ve said many times in these writings I don’t care about authentic whatever that is said to be. All performance is fake. All art is fake. In a way that is what makes it interesting. It is a fabricated version of life that brings perspective to the real thing. Actually I’d say authentic doesn’t mean authentic but its opposite. It means faking it like an actor fakes her part. The measure of her talent is her ability to fake convincingly. And anyway, I doubt it is Adele herself who is claiming to be faithful to any creed. She didn’t set out with an authenticity manual. It is the commentators, the storytellers, who are making the case for her “realness”.
My point here about such stories is that they are fashioned around artists and their work retrospectively and are a thing apart from their source material. They are constructions from the imaginings of commentators and are as much invention as the art itself. I used to find this bemusing as I often couldn’t connect the work with the commentary. Through time I realised that I didn’t have to connect the two. It was possible to engage an artist’s work without much adherence to its context which was as separate as I wanted it to be. It is well possible, and I do it all the time now, to have a good relationship with an artist’s work without any knowledge whatsoever of what is being said about it. Sometimes I know nothing at all about who an artist is but still engage their work meaningfully. And I rather like that relationship of minimal context. It is a much more direct and immediate experience.
Yes I appreciate that many people need help from a tastemaker. They need pictures painted. They want contextual material in order to “get” what the music is about. They want someone to expound on what the music means and answer that question. To me it is rather an unnecessary question because music can mean pretty much what you want it to mean. Perhaps you want it to mean not very much at all beyond the sensual pleasure of listening to it. I think that the requirement for too much context before a connection is made with music is actually detrimental to the art and to one’s relationship with it. It is rather like sugar and salt in food: too much and that is what you are tasting. After a while it’s the sugar fix you’re after before the nourishment.
Adele’s so called credibility is an additive. She gets spun by critics as the real thing, true and modest, not like your typically hyped pop star. Her record label XL pitches her that way. They happen to be the current hipsters translated into commercial success. I have no qualm with that. Success is the measure of good art. But the bullshit that gets spouted in its name is annoying. One piece I read this morning praised Adele for not using studio trickery. Huh!? The commentator spoke of her like a messiah come to save music. She must be really special because nothing’s good enough for this particular guy. In a world absolutely teeming with music old and new he finds little to please him so addicted is he to the sugar and salt of his own myth-making.
Significantly Adele complained this week about having to pay 50% of her big take to tax. She resented that apparently, having to give £4M to the exchequer. Banking the other £4M is not bad for a young woman singing songs. She was criticised for the remark and now you sense the tide beginning to turn, the story starting to change. Even an ex-boyfriend was said to be suing her for using their relationship as material for her lyrics. (barking!) She is no longer "just another fat lass who can sing” but now a massively rewarded pop star taking her place among the super-rich. I wonder how long will it be before her music isn’t sounding quite so good?
A few days after writing this I read Tom Ewing’s piece in The Guardian which also casts a sceptical note on spin. “Music business stories are a cocktail of post-facto rationalisation and wishful thinking,” he said. “A lot of good music gets released all the time: sometimes, some of it gets bought. Beyond these boring facts, the rest is storytelling.” He could’ve taken the words from my mouth, framing his piece around Adele and giving perhaps another indication that her credibility is already on the wane.
written 2011 when Adele was the
biggest selling recording artist in the world