The Event Album We Deserve: Why We Need Adele’s ’25’ Now More Than Ever
Our current situation, I’m afraid to say, is rather dire. We have existed in a pop-music-as-uniting-force dead zone for too long now. 2015 has been, when surveyed from this late-in-the-year vantage point, disturbingly arid on the pop front. Despite rumblings and (a few) promises to the contrary, 2015 saw no releases from The Pop A-List, which includes Lady Gaga, Britney Spears, Beyoncé, Rihanna (more on that later), and Katy Perry, among others. (Side note: Things are currently much better in the rap and R&B realms, where artists like Drake and Nicki Minaj are keeping things more interesting. Neither of them have released an album [mixtapes don’t count] in 2015, either!) This is not to say there has not been great music this year; 2015 has been an incredible year for new releases, though none of them I would consider major in terms of sales or impact or universality. (The Weeknd’s Beauty Behind the Madness is the closest we’ve come to an exception, but even with all of his success, he is still not on That Level.) In short: what we’ve missing is an album like Adele’s 21, her 2011 sophomore juggernaut, which sold more than 11 million copies in the U.S. alone, spawned three №1 singles, won 6 Grammys, and basically, single-handedly, revitalized the flagging music industry and turned its creator, who has remained very quiet for the last four years, into The One to Beat.
21 was not the most recent game-changing blockbuster, of course. Taylor Swift’s (still) massive 1989 was the last work to impact like a meteor, but it has been almost exactly a year since its release, if you can believe it. And, too, though 1989’s impact is undeniable, it left a different sort of impression. Perhaps it is because the conversation about Taylor focuses on extraneous celebrity factors (her #squad, her Twitter spat with Nicki Minaj, her endless Best Friends Parade on the 1989 tour stage, her leaves-a-bad-taste-in-ones-mouth beef with Katy Perry, etc.) as often as it focuses on her music (if not more). Perhaps it is because Taylor’s ascendancy, by its very nature, was less thrilling to behold than Adele’s, for Taylor seemed preordained to rise to her current level while Adele came out of nowhere and delivered an album that resonated in the deepest, darkest corners of people’s souls. Perhaps it is because some people feel Adele is more relatable or seems nicer or has a better voice or is a better songwriter or is more genuine or less “problematic.” Whatever the reasons, though, it is different.
And other albums have made splashes since 21’s release, but not one of them on quite the same scale. Lady Gaga’s Born This Way, released just months after 21, inspired a briefer-than-expected cultural moment, but it was ultimately overshadowed by Adele’s continued reign and hurt by the slight waning of Gaga Mania. Beyoncé’s Beyoncé, released in 2013, became, literally, an overnight sensation, but that was due, at least in part, to its surprise release and the subsequent discussion about the future of the music industry. Justin Timberlake’s The 20/20 Experience was the best selling album of 2013, and it only sold 2.4 million copies. 2014’s best-seller, the Frozen soundtrack, was a phenomenon, surely, but among whom? Six-year-olds and their parents, mostly. And what else has there been? Good albums? Certainly. Great albums? Sure. But certainly nothing that sold like 21, and certainly nothing that brought us together as a music-loving community the way 21 did.
Cut to 2015, and the landscape is even bleaker. I’m sorry, but the current crop of rising pop stars, including Selena Gomez and Demi Lovato, both of whom just released albums they’d like you to believe are their most important and revealing yet, are not delivering on an incredibly impressive level. (PR is one thing, the facts are another. Selena’a album, Revival, is decent if not exactly mind-blowing. Demi’s Confident is simply dated and not very good. Neither album is breaking sales records or garnering Grammy buzz or producing №1 singles or even winning over fans the respective creator didn’t already have. None of it feels new or exciting.) Even Janet Jackson, who had not released new music in nearly eight years, came and went with Unbreakable, a well-reviewed and mature collection that spawned no hit and is already and quickly tumbling down the charts. Madonna’s Rebel Heart, released in March, failed to produce even a minor hit, and the album was her first since 1998 not to hit №1. The up-and-comers aren’t cutting it, the legacy artists aren’t cutting it. No one is cutting it.
Consider this: 2015 was a year in which we could not unite around a Song of the Summer. How far we’ve fallen! (We had less trouble coming to terms with last year’s Song of the Summer, the awful “Fancy,” for God’s sake.) Officially, OMI’s “Cheerleader” earned the honor in 2015, but take a poll and you’ll see that no one really agrees (or cares). Taylor’s “Bad Blood” was a hit, but even Swifties will admit it is one of 1989’s weakest offerings. The Weeknd, arguably the biggest breakout star of 2015, released had two massive summer singles, but both peaked too late to win the race. Fetty Wap’s “Trap Queen” was a contender, as was Wiz Khalifa’s abysmal “See You Again.” This is not an impressive roster of choices, a fact that is reflected in the people’s apathy. It seems we’ve all retired to our separate corners, and in the process we’ve made the world of pop culture more boring. But that’s about to change.
Other upcoming Q4 releases from Justin Bieber, One Direction, and (possibly? probably?) Rihanna are sure to improve 2015’s overall rating, though I’m willing to bet that not one of those albums will arrive with the force, fury, and fanfare 25 will. Despite showing musical growth, both Justin and One Direction seem destined to create for the same audiences that have been following them from the start. It may be unfortunate that some critics and listeners write those acts off as purveyors of garbage for tweens, but it is what it is. And then there’s Rihanna, arguably the only other person whose forthcoming project has the potential to really shake things up. But will it? Rihanna, we often forget, has never really been embraced as an “album artist.” Despite her astounding track record on the Hot 100, she didn’t score a №1 album until 2012’s Unapologetic (her most recent record), and her her reviews have typically been middling. That her three 2015 singles have all been slightly underwhelming — both in terms of chart performance and reception — is a slight cause for concern. But she could still deliver. ANTI, in fact, could turn out to be the defining album of her career. (I hope that is the case.) And yet, bet your bottom dollar that with respect to sales and accolades and maybe even zeitgeistyness, 25 will mop the floor with ANTI. (Rihanna, and God bless her for this, is, simply, a more divisive figure making a very different kind of music. Her detractors will remain her detractors, no matter what she delivers. It makes her a more interesting artist than Adele, but also an artist who is not competing on the same level.)
And that’s why I — and many, many others — await Adele. The hero we need, and the one we deserve. For we do deserve something better, something more than what we’ve had. We deserve more than half-baked, lukewarm bangers cranked out by the same three producers. We deserve more than to see what might be the best mainstream pop album of the year, Carly Rae Jepsen’s EMOTION, struggle to find a sizable audience. We deserve better singles that chart higher and that will still sound good two months, two years down the line. We deserve more than Shawn Mendes and Adam Levine features and everything about Ed Sheeran, good God. We deserve more than Sam Smith, whose Male Adele shtick only proves that what we’ve really been missing this whole time is Adele herself. We deserve more than Revival and Confident. Yes, we deserve more than 1989 (a fine album, although I think an incredibly overrated one). We deserve an album and an artist to rally behind, a reason to be positive, maybe even… nice? Yes, nice! Let’s be nice to one another; let’s take a break from thinking the only things we have in common are the things we dislike. Let’s all like something together. Or, at the very least, let’s politely agree to disagree about something that we’ve all, at least, actually listened to. We deserve all of these things.
We deserve 25. It will be the album we discuss over Thanksgiving dinner with our families. It will be the album wrapped up and tucked under so many Christmas trees. It will inspire discussion of its musical and lyrical content and not, hopefully, of the artist’s most recent problematic interview or the latest addition to her supermodel squad. It will be the album we tweet about and the album that inspires us to post cryptic lyric status updates on Facebook. It will inspire YouTube covers and Vine parodies. It will be the album that turns chart watching into a sport again. (Will it open bigger than 1989? Bigger than Oops!… I Did It Again, the album which currently holds the record of biggest opening week for a female artist?) It will be the album we write thinkpieces about, the album some of us will say is not as good as 21 and the album others will say is vastly superior to everything Adele has released before. It will be, for a moment, a thing we can all agree to talk about even if we disagree about whether it’s good or what it means. It will be unavoidable. It will be the thing, finally, that unites us.
There are valid arguments to be made about the banality and sameness of most mainstream pop, but pop’s power, when it’s at its peak, is that that it transcends everything: age, race, sexuality, gender, genre preferences, intelligence, trendiness. Everything. It remains to be seen whether 25 will resonate on the same level that 21 did, but I want, I need, to believe it will. Regardless, it will present us with an opportunity to engage, to participate in something exciting and major. These occasions, if recent history is any indication, are becoming increasingly rare. So cherish it.
What this all boils down to is that, for too long, we have gone without a true event album, the kind that forces everyone to stop what they’re doing and listen. Part of this is due to the fact that the music listening experience has been fragmented (for better and for worse) by surprise drops and streaming and the rise of a more brutal and insular fan culture, and part of it is because a lot of the music just hasn’t been compelling enough. (In the digital era, releasing solid albums often takes a backseat to releasing a few good singles and a lot of filler.) But here we are, and after the success of 21 — the biggest album of the decade — we are guaranteed a moment of reprieve from the banality and, I hope, the snarkiness. You don’t have to stan for Adele. You don’t have to buy 25. You don’t have to put it on your Year End Best-Of List. You don’t even have to like it. You just have to listen.
25 is out Nov. 20 on XL Recordings.