"Don't pretend that you don't want me," Adele sings on "Water Under the Bridge," a deep cut from her new album 25, which comes out today. And there's no denying that her demands will be met. Five years after the release of her unbelievably popular, Grammy-sweeping album 21, Adele has returned with a 12-song album that is already in the process of rocketing its way to the top of every chart in existence.
Yesterday, 3.6 million Adele albums were shipped across the country and stocked onto shelves. That's an insane number of albums. If you had any questions about whether or not Adele was a massive star who could keep her fans through another album, this should squash those. Adele has the kind of stardom that sells albums in physical copies—that can withhold her album from streaming services for at least a few weeks. But why? What makes Adele so special? Why does everyone love her so goddamn much?
Here are five theories:
There's a precious balance for female stars between being talked about, and being talked about. Just like Taylor Swift, Adele can rise to massive levels of popularity because she doesn't do anything to alienate conservative fans. She doesn't dress provocatively, or make any kind of social proclamations with her music. It's kind of funny to call a woman who curses up a storm in every interview inoffensive, but Adele gets away with a lot of things because she's not American. That swearing can be written off as a Brit thing.
But it's also not in her music. Anything offensive and edgy about Adele completely evaporates into her songs about feelings. There is nothing about 25 that could possibly keep you from playing it in the car with your 5-year-old or in the living room with your grandmother.
Even though 25 is easily Adele's most pop-y album, it doesn't "sound like modern pop." There is no rap breakdown, and the instruments she uses are recognizable. “What’s been going on in the world of music?” she recently asked an interviewer sent from Rolling Stone. Maybe it's true that Adele isn't paying attention to the greater music world, but I kind of find that hard to believe. Her intention is that she just doesn't care. Adele is going to make whatever album she wants regardless of trends.
This praise of Adele is actually a critique of all other pop which people like to claim is shallow and over-produced. 25 is an immaculately produced album. It sounds smooth. Every instrument is balanced properly. But it allows people to hang onto this myth that "real artists," the ones who stroll into a studio with a notebook full of perfect songs, sing them, and walk out still exist.
She does, of course, sound like other pop stars—Adele sounds like literally every popular singer from 1930 to 1950 in America. But (without Amy Winehouse, and with Sam Smith on hiatus) Adele is the only bold, old-fashioned voice working right now.
Everyone loves Adele because she is "undeniably a great singer." But despite the fact that everyone believes this, there is no standard for what makes a "good singer." What people mean when they say Adele is a good singer is that she sounds like what American popular music has taught people a good voice is. Adele is, if you listen closely, the best winner American Idol has every produced. Those belting notes, the trembling runs, the deep moodiness, are all things American Idol encouraged listeners to believe is what good singing sounds like. This is fine! But no judgment of art is objective.
Let's take something that is objective for a second: vocal range. A singer's vocal range is how many notes on a piano they can hit unassisted on a consistent basis. For 25, Adele has improved her vocal range by two notes because she quit smoking and trained her chords. That brings her to two octaves and four notes. Lana Del Rey has three octaves and one note. Ariana Grande has a goddamn four octaves. Vocal range, of course, is not the only measure of vocal talent. This is just to say that it could be fairly easily argued that Adele is not the best vocalist in the game.
Chris Richards wrote a really great review of 25 in the Washington Post yesterday in which he wrote:
“25” is merely another totem built to remind us that human sadness will always feel more universal than human happiness. It’s a gracious, obvious, expertly sung album filled with truths we already know. It elicits no new feelings, produces no deeper knowledge.
Adele's 25 is not about "feelings" in the way that Taylor Swift's songs are about "feelings" in that while 1989 was an autobiography, 25 could be for anyone. It's a blank canvas on which a giant sad face has been drawn. Why is it sad? For whatever reason you, the listener, think it is. This, at times, makes 25 a much weaker album that it needs to be. It doesn't have the same heart that 21 conveyed in every beat. But it will make it a more popular album, because experience doesn't need to be lived to be felt.
This, in my opinion, is the reason that Adele is as incredibly famous as she is. There are plenty of studies that say that a person's music taste is pretty much cemented by 33 years old. You tie yourself to the bands that you've always loved and you listen to them on repeat. We become nostalgic so much younger than we think we do.
But Adele transcends that boundary for so many people of so many generations, because while she is someone that Millennials came to love in their own prime for accepting new music, every generation has been taught to love this kind of music: these big sweeping runs, these trembling belts. And the great thing about having an older audience is that they are overwhelmingly still buying albums.
Whatever the reason, though, it's undeniable that Adele is one of the most popular artist in the world. Happy Adele Day to us all!
Kelsey McKinney is a culture staff writer for Fusion.