Interviewer: So, I wanted to interview you about Adele, given that her latest album, “25,” came out recently. What do you think of it? I get the distinct impression that you don’t like her. True?
Kurt Poterack: Well, that’s not true. I don’t know her, except as a media phenomenon. If I dislike anything, it is the “Adele phenomenon.” I probably would have disliked Beatlemania, as I have a strong contrarian streak in me. If a whole bunch of people like something, I tend to dislike it – for that very reason. I just don’t like “crazes.” This puts me into a difficult position as I then have to struggle really hard to see if there is actually something of inherent worth in the thing itself. Honestly, I don’t know what is behind this ‘Adelemania’ as I don’t feel it and don’t particularly like her music.
Interviewer: Well, humor me. What do you think is behind the Adele phenomenon?
Kurt Poterack: Hmmm. Well, off the top of my head, I would say that there are three things which account for her popularity: 1) in her vocal style, she represents the on-going white appropriation of aspects of black culture – particularly music; 2) she actually is, at times, quite competent in her chosen musical approach, in fact, the best at what I call “the four-chord genre,” and; 3) in her lyrics, and life, she represents the brokenness of the millennial generation.
Interviewer: Let’s unpack this. Could you tell me a little about this “appropriation of aspects of black culture”?
Kurt Poterack: Well, this is something that has been going on for the last 100 years, if not 150 years. Everything from ragtime and jazz to rock ‘n’ roll, soul, and rap. Perhaps even some of the language of Stephen Foster’s songs represent aspects of black dialogue . . .
Interviewer: Such as?
Kurt Poterack: “Camp town races sing dat song, doo-dah, doo-dah.”
Kurt Poterack: I think so. I could be wrong on that specific example, but certainly the minstrel show and black face date back to that time. Also, there are some very interesting cultural exchanges. According to some, tap dance and soft shoe emerge when blacks try to imitate (and then adapt) Irish step dancing, and then whites assimilate tap dance and soft shoe. So the exchange was white to black to white.
Interviewer: And this is all very interesting, but what does this have to do with Adele?
Kurt Poterack: Well, she, by her own admission, was very influenced by recordings of the black soul singer Etta James. However, she (Adele) doesn’t really sing soul music. She has adapted this to her type of music. Personally, I am not a big fan of soul music and that style of singing, although I respect it. It is something that very much comes out of black Baptist and Pentecostalist churches – this very emotive style of worship, which is not my thing. Another good example would be Aretha Franklin, whose father was a minister.
Anyway, there are other ways in which blacks contributed to American popular music, soul music is only one particular stream. However it is the only one which most millenials know. It is on the fringes of their memory and, perhaps, seems ‘traditional’ to them amidst a sea of rap, heavy metal, techno, etc. Again, perhaps, it makes them feel hip, soulful, and yet . . . rooted? I don’t know for sure.
Personally, give me Ella Fitzgerald or Sarah Vaughan any day – and I didn’t grow up with them, but I appreciate their subtlety and sophistication.
Interviewer: Let’s get to your second point. You say that Adele has adapted this black style of soul singing to her type of music, which you call the “four-chord genre.”
Kurt Poterack: For the past 30+ years there has been a tendency in popular music to compose songs which consist entirely, or almost entirely, of the repetition of four chords, over and over. The classic popular song, at least since the mid-1920’s, consisted of 32 measures which are divided up into four 8-measure phrases, the third one being a contrasting phrase. Anyway, this 32-measure unit would consist of any number of chords, certainly more than four.
What Adele does is to put things into a minor key and that, plus the four-chord repetition, gives it a ‘mystical’ feel – almost like solemn, religious repetitions, (and this is not from “black” or pentecostalist religion). At least, this is the case at times. Her approach I call the “four-chord mysticism,” or even the “four-chord hypnotism.”
Interviewer: Interesting, now . . .
Kurt Poterack: If I were asked to provide a tempo or mood indication at the beginning of her songs, I would suggest “hipster mysterioso.”
Interviewer: Ha ha. Shut up, man, you’re too much!
Kurt Poterack: Well, I try.
Interviewer: So, are you saying that her music is religious?
Kurt Poterack: I think that she functions, in a sense, like a high priestess of a cultus. Or, at least, she writes the liturgical music for the lives of millenials and this may be why she is so popular. It’s a guess off the top of my head. The emergence of rock ‘n’ roll in the 1950’s could be seen as simply teenagers wanting to cut loose – most of them had some sort of formal religion. They weren’t looking for religious ritual or seriousness in their music, certainly. In fact, Elvis could be seen as a more up-dated version of the 1940’s dance bands that played for jitter buggers.
The 1960’s are a different case, and I don’t have the time to get into that, but by the early 21st century we have all of these “nones” – people who don’t have even a formal religious affiliation, and perhaps whose parents didn’t either. But what did Chesterton say? “When you take away belief in God, most people won’t become atheists, they will believe in just about anything.” I think that it is possible that elements of religious seriousness emerge in the oddest places – such as in popular music, and even over such topics as “why aren’t my relationships working out?” I think Adele speaks to this. Of course not in the most coherent or systematic ways. In fact her lyrics, in my opinion, range from passable to bathetic. Nor does she always address these issues in the most positive ways, to be sure. However, through her music, she puts these issues into a kind of a ritualized form and that, I contend, is what resonates with many people. At least, this is a thesis which I think should be explored.
(to be continued)