Technological changes hit the music industry hard in the 2010s. Pop artists repackaged themselves to suit marketing campaigns in hopes that it would keep album sales from tanking further. And then there was Adele.
While others focused on creating constant content to satisfy the ticking time bomb of pop culture relevance, the North London singer-songwriter had her own strategy — Adele let the music speak for itself.
It was clear she was onto something when her 2008 debut album, 19, earned her two Grammy Awards. But in 2011, Adele skyrocketed when her sophomore LP, 21, became a runaway hit, securing her legendary status as an artist who played by her own rules and broke all the records.
An album of heartsick ballads like “Someone Like You,” and breakup songs like “Rolling in the Deep,” 21 won Adele numerous awards including six Grammys. She broke records in the UK and internationally. She broke Billboard chart history as the first solo female artist to have three singles simultaneously in the Top 10, and bested records previously held by legends like Whitney Houston.
The accolades are staggering. Even more so when you consider that her albums’ numbers correspond with her age at the time she recorded them. Three years after the release of 21, at 24-years-old, Adele Adkins became the mononymous Adele, and one of the world’s highest-paid celebrities under 30.
There’s a timelessness to Adele. In many ways, she is a throwback to another era, from her stripped down live performances, to her vintage-inspired style. Her singing voice is sometimes bluegrassy, sometimes soulful, but always powerful. Her self-deprecating humour and irreverence are an endearing contrast to her diva-esque vocals.
Adele’s honesty cuts through the noise of an industry focused on keeping up appearances. She is open about her stage fright, she fan-girls over the Spice Girls, and she has off-days. Even on off-days though –– like when she stopped the orchestra during a 2017 Grammy Awards in memoriam performance for George Michael to start over –– she is not above asking for a second chance.
Although success came to Adele relatively easily, the adjustment to fame did not. The momentum from 21 didn’t fade. By 2014 she had added Oscar winner to her resume for her Bond film anthem, “Skyfall.” The pressure was building to follow 21 with another hit.
“The bigger career you have, the smaller your life gets,” she has said in interviews. After 21, she pulled away from the spotlight, had a baby, and focused on parenting. Writing an album from a position of success was challenging. Fame was frightening to her. She didn’t want to become delusional and washed up, and she feared that people wouldn’t be able to relate to her music if she was living a life of grandeur.
In 2015, four years after 21’s release, she worried the world might have moved on in her absence.
On its first day, 25 sold over a million copies in the U.S. By the end of its first week it had broken sales records worldwide. 25 cleaned up at the Grammys and Brit Awards and broke chart records, surpassing Madonna. Most notably, in the age of streaming, people were buying CDs and LPs. There was demand for physical copies.
True to form, after 25, Adele retreated into her personal life once more. Now at 31, in a new decade of her own, details of her next project remain to be seen. Though she may not be the most prolific artist of the decade — compare her two albums to Taylor Swift’s five — her contributions to music are undeniable.
Adele’s music has done more than give the beleaguered music industry hope that artists can still find a market for their music. In a time of difference and disconnect, Adele’s music made people feel things.