What should we think when an artist can make people buy almost 5 million copies of an album in two weeks? Or when nearly half of all music sales in one week are down to one person?
The sales of Adele’s “25,” as reported by Nielsen Music, are leaving the realm of commercial figures and nearing the dimensions of a natural disaster, an event that unfolds in increasingly implausible numbers. You just stop trying to predict the next moment.
It’s not that these events are unheard of, or that anyone doubted Adele could create her own commercial weather system, but this spike brings on more than a double-take. Steph Curry and Adele may be sharing an algorithm.
The idea that keeping the album off Spotify drove this physical sales surge doesn’t entirely scan. The entire album — “25" — may not be available on the streaming service, but its first hit, “Hello,” is and, more to the point, the single premiered on the bigger streaming platform, YouTube, as a narrative video.
A welcoming ‘Hello’
Not much time has passed since the release of “25,” and few people who are not hard-core Adele fans or music critics know “25" as well as they know “Hello.” (Just Google “Hello cover” and see how many people have recorded their versions of the song, including a very loud marching band.) In these record-setting weeks, the people buying “25" were buying something that might as well have been called “Hello and 10 Others.” This is a common way that albums become megahits. “Nevermind” was just “Smells Like Teen Spirit and More Loud Songs” to the millions who would never have otherwise bought a record by a band steeped in obscure, abrasive music.
I watched the “Hello” video like everyone else: the moment it was released, repeatedly. The song, written by Adele and Greg Kurstin, is a marvel of pacing. The four piano chords that anchor the verses, and which are the only accompaniment for the opening minute, move from F minor to C sharp. They are articulated in pairs that ring close to each other, separated by a pause, creating the sense that you can start anywhere in the cycle, and that any pair of chords might be the first in the series. It’s a song with a cannon of a chorus, but with no buildup before it goes off. You simply ride around in circles with Adele until she realizes what she wants to emphasize: HELLO FROM THE OUTSIDE, YOU PERSON, YOU.
The video can’t be undersold. The narrative is as wacky as Adele’s voice is comforting. Everyone noticed the anachronistic flip phone borrowed from “The Wire” — what about the abandoned house? Director Xavier Dolan opens with a full minute of Adele rediscovering an unidentified home, flinging aside the white furniture covers that exist only in movies and videos. (In the ugly, non-"Hello” world, houses tend to change hands pretty quickly.) And then she’s outside! In the only phone booth on the moors! We are being sold high melodrama on the wings of a bonkers perfume commercial. The loopy edges of the video allows us to believe in the passion of a broken, unresolved romance without feeling overburdened by intensity because, well, look at that coat. Ooh, that is a nice coat, now seen almost 600 million times. See? The numbers just sound made-up.
No mystery here
So what does Adele’s combination of virtuosity and rootedness provide?
It helps to think of what people are up to when they are not buying Adele CDs. Compared with other forms that provide consensus experiences — television, video games, movies — recorded music is a modest slice, almost a niche form inside of popular entertainment. While playing and writing about music for 30 years, I’ve seen a certain pattern repeat across age and race and location and gender. People discover music as tweens, remain curious listeners through college, and then the floor falls out. The labor of labor kicks in, children sometimes appear, and the music library doesn’t budge. The old favorites work. In most cities, radio can provide a half-hour of something you’ve never heard, and that is enough for many. Movies will be attended, news will be read, television shows yelled at; and then back we go to “Songs in the Key of Life,” “The Hot Rock,” “Aquemini.”
The affinity gap between a person and the stream of popular music can appear incredibly quickly. A 25-year-old fact-checker approached me a few years ago, holding a sheaf of documents, and said quietly, “Sorry, I did my best. I don’t really know who Beyoncé is.”
Pop music is a youth-obsessed art form and youth-generated. We are not yet seeing 19-year-olds directing Marvel widgets, but they turn up often on the pop charts. And if there is a medium more youth-obsessed than pop, it’s the Internet. The combination of the two exacerbates that post-collegiate drop-off rate. A 22-year-old who was almost feeling entirely up to date can open up Twitter, not know what dabbing or “Slime Season 2" is, and suddenly feel like the entire Internet is cackling and screaming “What are thoooose?”
Adele isn’t just reassuring to older people; she reassures people who are feeling older younger. People want that lack of mystery to reassure them that nothing new and meme-tastic is going to rear up and make them feel out of it yet again. Maybe that’s what that dumb flip phone was doing in there.
So the people going to Target in actual cars to pick up an actual CD are likely not people who don’t actually like music — a phrase that condescends to people who happen to love 10 albums rather than 10,000 — but for people who just don’t need that much music in their lives. She had them at “Hello.”
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