When I was young, people who could play a little piano would play one of two things: “Chopsticks” or “Heart and Soul” – at least the first part of it. Often one person would play the accompaniment, those interminable left-hand chords (I-vi-ii-V) over and over, while a second person would play the melody. Being amateurs, the piece was often performed in the most mechanical, rigid way imaginable – especially those left-hand chords (I-vi-ii-V, I-vi-ii-V, I-vi-ii-V, etc.) ad nauseam – to unintentional comic effect. In fact, this was such a common experience that it was included as part of an SNL skit in the 1970’s involving the inimitable Bill Murray and Gilda Radner as Todd DiLamuca and Lisa Loopner. I remember finding it hilarious at the time. Little did I realize that it was to become a portent of things to come.
What does this have to do with the British singer/songwriter, Adele Adkins? I shall explain shortly. First, however, I should give her a brief introduction that, for the most part, she doesn’t really need. Only the proverbial Rip Van Winkle, or a cloistered monk, could not have heard at least some of her music in the last five years – whether or not one realized that it was her music. Wherever there is background music – and let’s face it, to most people today, most music is background to some other activity – there is Adele. This twenty-something English singer has won Grammys, topped charts, and set records for album sales unheard of since the Beatles invaded American shores fifty years ago. I should note that she seems to have waned in popularity in the last year or so.
She has a rich contralto voice that she employs quite soulfully and is often compared to the late Etta James, whom Adele claims as an inspiration. With her voice, I have no problem. With her music and – dare I say it? – her generation, I do.
I learned a phrase back in college relevant to musical composition: “economy of means.” It involves taking a small number of elements, whether notes or chords, and using them to create a composition of rich variety. This musical ‘miracle of the loaves and fishes,’ this turning of paucity into plenty is a skill greatly admired in composers. It is also a skill that must be practiced by popular musicians, in that they are usually not performing from a fully elaborated sheet of music. From just a sketch of melody and chords, they have to create – compose on the spot – a completed piece of music. Now, let us listen to such a song sung by Etta James entitled “I’d Rather Be Blind.”
One does not have to be a fan of Rhythm and Blues to recognize the high level of musicality of both Etta James and her band. It is in the accompaniment variations, the phrasing and subtle rhythmic changes (as well as melodic embellishments) of the singer and, above all, in that difficult to define but real rhythmic phenomenon known as “groove.” But, above all, you don’t really sense that the piece consists of ONLY two chords. It just sounds like a simple, but good, piece of music.
Now let us listen to what Adele does with four chords in her song “Rolling in the Deep.”
No, it doesn’t sound like Lisa Loopner playing “Heart and Soul” on the piano; it’s certainly not that bad. And, yes, the song does have the virtue of a contrasting bridge and some interesting accompanimental variations, like the section with the hand clapping and the Gospel choir. However, with its pounding, rigidly repeated eighth-note accompaniment, it is quite obvious that it is, for the most part, a FOUR-CHORD SONG. It is almost like following the old bouncing ball on the movie screen: here is the FIRST CHORD (i), now here is the SECOND CHORD (bVII), now here is the THIRD CHORD (bVI), finally here is the FOURTH CHORD (bVII). You didn’t get it? Here it is again. Still didn’t get it? Here it is again, etc. In fact, this song could be put to use for dictation in the harmony component of a Freshmen Ear-Training class. Or, if you want to give your slow students some extra credit, play her song “Hometown Glory” which repeats the progression i-bVII-v-bVI twenty-six times in a row without interruption.
I should stress that Adele is not the only songwriter (let alone the first) to do this. This is a trend of the past 10-20 years, unfortunately. You can find this, inter alia, in the more aggressive hard rock songs of U2 and Coldplay as well as among television theme songs such as those for “The Office” and “Madmen.” The last one being particularly ironic because the 1960’s, the era in which the show is set, had some rather intelligently written television theme songs, like Lalo Schifrin’s theme for “Mission Impossible,” which is in 5/4 meter. Many others were at least tuneful and memorable, like Morty Stevens’ theme for “Hawaii Five-O.” Instead, the “Madmen” theme offers a rather parsimonious tribute to the decade: four chords performed two times over a drum pattern and absolutely no melody.
But I digress – or should I say, young people have regressed.
Some of us think that the musician/philosopher Theodore Adorno was overly harsh on the popular music of the 1930’s and 40’s when he wrote about the “regression of listening.” He compared the (relatively speaking) short-breathed melodies and harmonic denouements of Cole Porter and George Gershwin unfavorably to the long-range musical thought of classical symphonists. But when the musical building blocks out of which Cole Porter, George Gershwin, Burt Bacharach, Lennon and McCartney – and Barry Manilow! – built their songs have become foreign, just too much, for Generation Twitter, I start to think that Adorno merely jumped the gun.
So, is Adele’s music boring – snore inducing – as my title indicated? Well, it is rather uninteresting to those of us who have higher tastes. Is she incompetent? Absolutely not. Her music achieves its desired effect – an effect desired by millions upon millions of young adults who listen to and buy her music. But what is it that they desire?
I shall answer that question after dealing with one more aspect of her music – the lyrics.
I won’t go into detail as to what I think of her as a poetess, only that I would give her a B- if I were her English teacher. What is more pertinent is the content. Her lyrics are unmistakably those of a modern young woman. There are elements of female empowerment – “under your thumb, I can’t breathe,” “next time I will be my own savior, standing on my own two feet,” – and thus I referenced Helen Reddy’s feminist anthem “I Am Woman, Hear Me Roar” in my post title. However, unlike 1970’s feminists who felt that they needed a man about as much as a fish needs a bicycle, Adele (and her female listeners) clearly feel that they need a man. It is just that, unlike their grandmothers (although possibly like their mothers), they seem confused as to how to go about establishing a stable, healthy relationship with one. (To be fair, the men are often no help in the matter.) They seem destined to wander aimlessly and then root about in the fetid swamp of “relationships,” endlessly suffering the messy, emotional complications that these uncommitted commitments necessarily involve. Thus there are lines in her music about “turning tables” and “the games you’d play, you always win.”
OK, here, finally, is my conclusion and, as they say, it isn’t going to be pretty: Adele’s music is music for a generation of materially comfortable young adults who want a mere veneer, a thin skin of hipness, of soulfulness, stretched over an utterly rigid frame of the sort of predictable, mechanical rocking motions akin to those with which a mother comforts her child, or a mentally deficient adult comforts himself (there, I said it!) because – and here is the money quote – they lack the emotional stability and sense of identity which people in the past, sometimes growing up in the most grinding poverty, possessed.
That is why her music is so popular.
And that is my amateur sociological analysis – so take it for what it is worth. I am not a sociologist. But I am a musician and now I can speak with some real authority.
Her music may be popular, but why is it not great?
For example, if you are going to write a song about a bored generation, how do you do it? Well, you don’t do it by writing a boring song. You do it by writing an interesting, musically competent, song incorporating certain elements of the experience of boredom. You see, a great musician – composer or performer – has a knack for summing up an era, an aura, a mood, but always within the standards of his art. Thus, in Miles Davis’ piece “So What?” he gives us a glimpse of the laid back, blasé attitude of the beatnik habitués of a 1950’s coffee house. How does he do it? By limiting himself to two chords and, in the head, a repeated motive in the rhythm of the words “So What?” which repeatedly answers the string bass’ “question.” But it is far from a boring piece. The intricate melodic traceries of the improvisations, the accompaniment patterns of the rhythmic section, and the relaxed but precise swing of the performers all contribute to the greatness of the piece.
And this, I contend, is a truly artful way to snore.