Interviewer: So, would you tie this into the phenomenon of “I’m not religious, but I’m spiritual“?
Kurt Poterack: Most certainly – and I don’t think that this is something that Adele or her listeners are doing in any sort of a conscious way. However, I think that it just comes out in the music.
Kurt Poterack: Well, let’s just make a distinction, first. We are sitting right now in a “hipster cafe,” drinking coffee and hearing all sorts of music in the background – mostly of the four-chord genre. A lot of it is quite superficial. Adele’s music is much more serious – she’s certainly better than Taylor Swift or Katie Perry. Adele’s music is, for the most part, in a minor key. Some of the chord progressions are interesting, for example the dm-F/C-Bb-gm in “Set Fire to the Rain” has a kind of ‘gothic’ starkness to it. It’s just that it doesn’t go anywhere. Now, I’m not sure if she could even write a chord progression that lasts more than four measures, but she seems to make a virtue of her limitations.
Interviewer: In what way?
Kurt Poterack: I think that the whole point of the repetitions is to give it some sort of a solemn, mystical sort of a feel – almost like a religious litany.
Interviewer: What’s a litany?
Kurt Poterack: It’s a long prayer in which there are many petitions to which the answer is always the same – something like “Lord have mercy” or “Christ have mercy,” etc.
Interviewer: Do you think that she is consciously doing this?
Kurt Poterack: I doubt it. If there is any conscious influence, it would be that of Eastern religion and its repetitions. At any rate, think of her first song on the new album, the song “Hello.” It is an apology (a confession?) to someone from her past that she broke up with – “I’m sorry for breaking your heart.” That combined with the solemn chord repetitions and that combined with the soul, ‘gospel’ style of singing make it somewhat religious or, excuse me, ‘spiritual’ – at least as ‘spiritual’ as a millenial agnostic, looking for some sort of meaning or purpose in life, is willing to get currently.
Interviewer: Is this a good thing?
Kurt Poterack: God only knows.
Kurt Poterack: I mean it quite literally. Only God knows for sure what is in a person’s heart, but as a musician and a cultural critic I am less than optimistic.
Interviewer: How so?
Kurt Poterack: Just listen to Etta James – or virtually any other black singer coming out of the gospel music tradition. I mean, Adele is not bad, in fact she is rather good but, when put side-by-side with someone who actually grew out of that cultural tradition like Etta James, there is no comparison. Etta James sings her into the ground. (Or listen to Aretha Franklin – at the age of 73 – out sing Adele on her own song, “Rolling in the Deep.”)
I fear that Adele may, at least in some ways, be just another example of a common occurrence of the past 50-60 years: angsty, young white people raiding other people’s traditions as a way of making sense of a world in which they are adrift – somewhat like the way youngsters got involved in communes and pseudo-Eastern religions back in the 1960’s. They go about the “junk yard” of life mixing and matching the various ideas and artistic expressions upon which they come – sometimes more artfully, often less so – in an effort to make sense of their lives. And, in the case of Adele, it is obsessively about relationships, usually failed ones.
Interviewer: In other words, they cobble things together. They don’t actually want to live within a tradition . . .
Kurt Poterack: Nor are they really capable of creating any sort of a lasting synthesis, either.
I am also toying with the idea that Adele, though she speaks to her generation and seemingly represents it well, will be a very passing phenomenon. Although she went to a performing arts high school in England, she only got signed to a contract after someone else, a friend, posted a demo of hers online. She wasn’t originally looking to be a performing artist, but to work in A&R. And now it seems that, since she has a more steady relationship with a man and they have a three-year-old child together, her singing career is less important to her. According to reports, she wanted to end this recording project much earlier to “get back to her son.” So, perhaps, the whole reason for giving artistic expression to the millennial discontents will no longer exist – and, with it, the artistic impulse.
Who knows? Perhaps someone else will emerge as chief cantor of the “Millennial Mystagogy.”
Interviewer: “Millennial discontents”? “Millennial Mystagogy”?
Kurt Poterack: Again, the brokenness when it comes to forming relationships, marrying, having children, forming families – and yet, “we are hip, cool, up-to-date.” In some of them, a self-obsessed attitude, a singing about themselves.
The ‘mystery’ of their generation – its story.
Older popular singers sang, for the most part, other people’s music. They may have put their own life’s experience and even pain into it, but they were singing in a general way. Ella Fitzgerald had a terrible life, arguably far worse than Adele and the millennials, yet she had a joy in her singing. There was no need to “speak to her generation” and its unique problems. The whole notion that a singer had to write his or her own music and sing in a confessional way, or represent a group, is a bit new.
Interviewer: So, what is your overall estimate of Adele?
Kurt Poterack: She is a good singer. She has a true knack for writing this sort of repetitive, four-chord music that embodies the whole “millennial mystagogy.” Her lyrics are the weakest part, in my opinion – very girly at times: “It was dark and I was over, until you kissed my lips and saved me.” The sort of mushy stuff that teenage girls used to write in their diaries, you know, the kind with a lock and key so that mom wouldn’t find out – or so that her bratty younger brother wouldn’t find out and squeal to mom.
It’s not all like that, but I think that, in general, her music saves the lyrics.
Interviewer: Any advice for Adele?
Kurt Poterack: Same advice I would have for any other young singer – sing other people’s music. Good music. Especially songs from the Great American Songbook.
Stop composing your damn songs for awhile. You have a lot to learn. I’m not interested in your generation or its story – only in good music. You should be, too, because this is what lasts.
Interviewer: OK, OK!
Kurt Poterack: So what did you think of Adele’s latest album, “25”?
Interviewer: Hey, wait a minute! Where does it say interviewee takes over interview? I’m supposed to ask the questions around here! Now, just calm down, be charitable and I want you to give your opinions on her latest album in Part III.
(to be continued)