The rise of Adele, new gay icon

The throaty chanteuse doesn't need Gaga's gimmicks. She's got the best weapon of all: She's real

Published February 25, 2011 9:40PM (EST)

If you pay attention to the pop charts, you know what it takes for a woman to get to the top of them. Show the world you're a party girl like Ke$ha. A bodacious confection like Katy Perry. A naughty firecracker like Rihanna. A diva like Lady Gaga. A blonde like Britney. Or you could be a throaty young Brit who sings convincingly of heartbreak and says, "I don't want to be a skinny pop star."

The 22-year-old singer Adele Adkins, whose sophomore release "21" is currently storming toward the top of the Billboard chart, is far from unknown on these shores. Two years ago, on the strength of her hauntingly romantic "Chasing Pavements," she took home the Grammy for best new artist and best female pop performance.

Since then, she's continued to steadily build a devoted following for her distinctively smoky, blessedly non-Auto-tuned style. But at the same moment that Gaga herself has a new release -- the calculated, Madonna-aping "Born This Way" -- who'd have imaged the young woman from Tottenham would emerge as the victorious chart topper, pop queen, and just for the hat trick, gay icon?

What is it that makes Adele so compelling? Surely much of it is her charismatic blend of retro glamour and easy accessibility. Katy Perry, Ke$ha and Gaga all have their charms, but none of them are trying too hard to cultivate an image as a living, breathing human being. Something about all the glitter and gun bras will do that for a lady. In contrast, Adele's version of being really out there is wearing heavy eyeliner. And though even MTV vixens go to the supermarket and get their hearts broken sometimes, there's something about a woman who doesn't look like she just stepped out of a UFO -- or the swimsuit issue of Sports Illustrated -- that makes her that much more relatable. She's the kind of woman you can imagine blowing the roof off the nightclub with her powerhouse pipes, then shooting back shots with her mates at the bar afterward. As she shrugged to the Guardian in 2008, "I'm very confident. Even when I read people saying horrible stuff about my weight. Until I start not liking my own body, until it gets in the way of my health or stops me having a boyfriend then I don't care. I'm fine."

And while Gaga is currently feeling the heat of backlash for that whiff of noblesse oblige in her "Here's your anthem, gays!" "Born This Way," Adele has quietly included her own self-described "gay anthem," "Set Fire to the Rain,"  in "21." As she explained at a recent performance, a friend complained that "Chasing Pavements" wasn't gay enough, so she came up with this.  There's no political message, no invitation to "just be a queen," none of what the Daily Beast's Jacob Bernstein this week referred to as Gaga's "pandering." It's just really, really torchy, a ballad of loss and longing. Because when you're crying in your car over a love song, the gender of the person you're crying over matters far less than the deep emotion the song evokes.

And it's that emotional authenticity of Adele's music, distilled into a style that she credits to influences like Loretta Lynn and Dolly Parton, Kanye West and Nas, that strikes such a potent chord across gender lines. If she doesn't sound like some factory-issued babe of the month, it's because she's not trying to be. Describing the beautifully bleak "21" to MTV this week, she said,  "It broke my heart when I wrote this record, so the fact that people are taking it to their hearts is like the best way to recover. 'Cause I'm still not fully recovered. It's going to take me 10 years to recover, I think, from the way I feel about my last relationship." It's an ambitious feat to attempt to articulate that universal experience of devastation, one all the more impressive for Adele's flair for combining youthful passion with world-weary regret. As she told the New York Post last week, "I always feel like I'm the only person that's feeling what I'm feeling. And there's millions and millions of people feeling exactly the same. If my record can make somebody be like, oh, I know exactly what she's talking about, my job is done."

Had "21" come out in the heady, "Teenage Dream" days of summer, it might have seemed strangely off-key. Instead, when Adele took the stage at the Brit awards earlier this month and sang the tenderly wrecked "Someone Like You," the stunning performance speedily amassed nearly 2 million YouTube views -- at least a few thousand of which were no doubt racked up by the weepy recently jilted, hitting reload and fighting the urge not to send the World's Saddest Text to their exes.

That's the perfection of Adele. She's not just the real deal, she's the real deal for those long, dark, I will never love again and am ergo never getting out of my sweat pants winter nights. Gay or straight, aged 21 or 65, who doesn't, from time to time, need to hear a little cathartic wailing about the "scars of love," a little belting out that a lover can "think of me in the depths of your despair?" And when you're nodding knowingly along as she achingly croons, "Sometimes it lasts in love, but sometimes it hurts instead," Miss Adele Adkins has done her job. And it hurts so good. 

By Mary Elizabeth Williams

Mary Elizabeth Williams is a senior writer for Salon and author of "A Series of Catastrophes & Miracles."

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