Last week, Adele’s new album 25 sold 3.4 million copies in its first week of sales. Market analysts and cynics alike attribute the record-breaking sales primarily to a play taken from Taylor Swift’s book: releasing the album for purchase-only in the iTunes store and bypassing streaming services.
Despite its record-breaking sales, Adele’s album is, at least from a critical standpoint, fairly standard. It takes few—if any—risks. It isn’t innovative. It is, at its core, a showcase for Adele’s voice and nothing more. While an album this tame (some might say repetitive) might be a destructive career move for many other pop icons, Adele seems to have afforded herself the luxury of staying safely within her niche.
How, then, did the album reach such great heights? What sets apart Adele’s artistry from everyone else’s? Many would claim her success is the direct result of raw talent. After all, her voice is genuinely spectacular. That, however, is a bit of a cop-out—plenty of other artists (Emeli Sandé, Florence + the Machine, Jhené Aiko, to name a few) have some serious pipes. Their album sales are comparatively dismal.
That’s not to say that Adele’s voice plays no role in her success. CeCe Sammy for Vulture once described her voice as, “one of the few voices that we’ve got worldwide where she’s got that huge range that is incredible. I see so much that Adele can do with her voice, because it’s like a horse that is really fast and controlled.” And, while her voice might take center-stage and sparsely produced albums, it is not the full story.
Adele’s carefully crafted image is the missing piece in fully characterizing her immense success. If we consider the artistic progression of Adele’s career and her movement away from obscure soul to the more mainstream pop notes on 25, we might begin to uncover the whole story. Adele’s artistic maturation says more about the industry in which she operates, and less about her own agency in music. Her genre telescoping feels a bit too precise to be a natural progression, almost as if someone behind the scenes is crafting her image–an image we consume with unrelenting satisfaction. But what are the details and origins of this image? And what does it mean in the context of Adele’s artistry?
The Jennifer Lawrence Effect and Crafting an Image
How Adele has exacted herself the privilege of publishing fairly standard albums and reaching remarkable success remains to be a subject of speculation. Perhaps, it lies somewhere in her deliberate departure from the generic pop icon.
What form does this departure take? Adele simply doesn’t look like a modern pop star. Sure, her make-up department can contour like no one’s business, but she lacks the pop star “body,” popularized in the early 2000’s by Britney Spears (see music videos for “…Baby One More Time” and “Toxic”) and expanded upon by more recent pop stars like Taylor Swift and Beyoncé. In a police lineup of pop stars, Adele sticks out like a sore thumb. That, in addition to the tumultuous love life she ruminates over on each of her albums, packages Adele as a “real” artist, an artist people can see themselves in.
In that sense, perhaps Adele’s wild success really comes down to her ability to capitalize upon something that’s been popularly termed “The Jennifer Lawrence Effect.” While somewhat loosely defined, The Jennifer Lawrence Effect essentially describes the popular obsession with public figures who appear “real” to the little people. Stars that fit into this narrow range of broad acceptability typically reap significant benefits from breaking away from the superstardom stereotype. They may not be Barbie dolls and abide by social decorum, but their movies sell the most at the box office, they cover the most magazines, and their albums break industry records over and over again. (Interesting note: the Jennifer Lawrence Effect has only really been documented in women in the industry—notable exceptions to the rule are Chris Pratt and Zach Galifianakis).
But how much of this apparent realness is genuine? Media analysts often criticize the popular conception that Jennifer Lawrence is actually as sloppy as she seems (see NY Magazine’s analysis on Jennifer Lawrence’s most recent fall at the Madrid Mockingjay premier). One can’t really help but wonder if Jennifer Lawrence actually falls at every single premier she’s ever been to. Considering the fact that even Time magazine covered one of her bigger slips, there’s an understandable incentive for Lawrence to maintain the farce if it gets her some real media attention, especially as that super-casual-girl-who-just-can’t-figure-out-heels (she’s just that normal!).
It is naïve to assume that Lawrence doesn’t have someone behind the scenes managing her image. Perhaps some agent consults Lawrence in her stretch limo before every red carpet event, saying something along the lines of “Jenny [they’re very familiar], if you stumble on the stairs at this premier, Time magazine will literally cover it online. You haven’t been on Time in a while.”
Regardless of how it goes down, the fact of the matter is that Lawrence herself is not relatable. Her image is.
Lawrence isn’t the only master of this effect. While it’s considerably less obvious, Adele herself is the product of scrupulous manipulation. Like Lawrence, Adele has capitalized on the less-traditional form of perception manipulation: instead of being a pristine figure, a role model, she’s become an artist that’s infinitely relatable. Sure, Adele’s voice is not a media farce, but her image as being a washed up soul vocalist with a tumultuous love life couldn’t be further from the truth: she is married and has a child. Sure, it’s not unheard of for artists to dwell on past relationships in their work, but it’s rather convenient that Adele is patron saint of the broken hearted.
Adele’s migration towards pop and her tiptoeing on the edges of the border between pop and soul speak to her highly managed image. 19-era Adele was too obscure to be the relatable artist of the modern era. But, a somewhat pop-ier, more break-up prone Adele is a palatable star, a star that almost anyone can listen and relate to.
The Jennifer Lawrence Effect is a development of the modern digital age. In an environment where streaming services have shattered barriers to accessibility more and more artists have invaded the music industry. Rising above this ever-widening playing field is not just a matter of talent. Climbing the ladder in the music industry—or any entertainment industry, really—requires a certain degree of differentiation. It’s not enough to be talented; one has to be exactly what the industry demands at any given time. This digestible image doesn’t develop naturally; it has to be carefully constructed and skillfully managed.
This is the essence of Adele and industry moguls like her. Because of our comparatively small lives, we crave megastars that are more like us, in whom we can reasonably see ourselves. Generic pop stars like Justin Bieber and Taylor Swift feel too glitzy and over-produced, but stars like Adele, with their perfect imperfections, inspire a sense of comfort in us. This isn’t a safe bet for all stars, however. As in the case with Jennifer Lawrence, it’s not that hard to see right past the deliberate missteps. This begs the question, can the Jennifer Lawrence effect backfire? At what point do we see past the veil of imperfections?
The Uncanny Valley and Our Aversion to Fakeness
The “uncanny valley” is a term used in the study of humanoid beings. Simply put, the uncanny valley is a precipitous drop in a curve that relates human likeness to human spectator comfort level. As an object appears more and more human, people viewing it find more and more comfort in the object. However, when the object is just human-looking enough albeit for some minor characteristic quirk, the comfort level plummets and the spectator immediately notices the lack of humanity present in the object.
Industry megastars are essentially humanoids of entertainment. They put on the guise of being “real” people—touting achievable body images and wearing their hearts on their sleeves—but their image deviates from the reality of their situation. No modern megastar is as “normal” as they put on, no matter how many times they fall at movie premiers or write a song about heartache or flail their hands artfully in a (somewhat un-compelling) music video (see “Hello”).
Perhaps the aversion to fakeness comes when artists reach the apogee of the curve relating likeness to comfort. Skillful management and careful manipulation helps to keep stars whose image is based on relatability at just the right point on the curve to be loved and cherished by all, but a small misstep (falling for the thousandth time, selling the most records in a debut week in history) jeopardizes the act of camouflage. Pushing it just a little too far causes the star to plummet into the uncanny valley, from which there is definitely the promise of return, but also the danger of being “found out.”
This valley lies in different places for different people. My roommate bought 25 the second it was released, and he still listens to it to this day. My sister, on the other hand, claims to have been onto Adele since she produced 21. The true feat of any industry manager is crafting an image of a star that can reach universally maximum likeness and maximum comfort among consumers of varying cynicism. And, while Adele’s image definitely doesn’t accomplish this task universally, it’s tempting to consider her unbelievable success as a result of her ability to toe the line on so many peoples’ uncanny valleys.
The Future of (is?) Adele
Carefully managed star or not, Adele’s voice is probably one of the best to come to soul/pop in decades. However, raw talent on its own simply isn’t enough—at least not to sell 3.4 million copies of an album in its first week of sales. This bump in consumption can definitely be attributed at least partially to the fact that in order to listen to the album, it can literally only be purchased, but that same tactic left other practitioners of the art at a much lower selling point than Adele herself. Beyoncé, which was purchase-only for its debut week, moved about 830K sales, and 1989 (Taylor Swift), which remains purchase-only, moved about 1.3M sales in its first week. But neither Beyoncé nor Taylor Swift accomplish the under-the-radar image manipulation that Adele has mastered. As Amanda Petrusich put it in an article in the New Yorker, “Consider, in Taylor Swift’s ‘Shake It Off,’ the dumb chuckle Swift emits about twenty seconds in, after she sings ‘I go on too many dates’—no sentient creature on Earth is buying the spontaneity of that sound.”
The lingering question is what we can make of Adele’s immense success and what it means for the future of the industry. It might be a bit post-modern and apocalyptic to decry the music industry and predict the dissolution of any real talent in entertainment altogether as managers move away from searching for talent and more towards looking for artists that can represent to purest ideas of relatability.
That being said, there is definitely an interesting trend in the music industry: as more and more musicians come up through websites like Soundcloud and Spotify, megastars become more and more distinguished in their wide appeal. If we reconsider the uncanny valley, this distinction from the masses could spell trouble for future artists who seek to slip into the top-10 charts almost completely unnoticed. When an artist who purports to be just like us shatters an industry record, we can’t help but be a little put on edge about the incongruous nature of a totally-average-person selling more albums in the first week of sales than any person in history. We can’t help but be a little put off by megastars’ humanoid appearance.
This begs the question: will we eventually become sick and tired of artists craft themselves to look un-crafted? Who hide behind constructed imperfections in the hopes that we relate to them more genuinely? Probably not. People naturally crave seeing some of themselves in ultra-popular superstars, and that desire isn’t going anywhere. Even though we might see past the constructed image in some cases, artistic management will only get better at replicating and expanding upon the template that Adele is currently crafting, until—one day—we find ourselves sobbing along to songs by artists who look like us and act like us without even stopping to question them in the first place.