Adele on the Young Singer Conveyor Belt

You’ll call me daft or a fuddy-dudd for saying this, but it’s only in the last couple of weeks that I heard Adele’s voice for the first time.

Yeah, go ahead and get the jokes and heckles out of your system now…

It’s not often that I dig into the music of contemporary artists that are heavily marketed to the 13-35 crowd, simply because every time I turn on the radio, nothing grabs me. If you’re like me, and you’ve been spoiled rotten on Beethoven, Led Zeppelin, A Tribe Called Quest, and Brahms, you’re not going to go looking elsewhere for new music to listen to. I’ll turn on classic rock, or classical, or just zone out to Native American flute music, and that’s fulfilling enough for me.

Then once in a while, I go to a wedding reception, or I haunt a shopping mall, or I go get a latte at Caribou, and my ear catches something that sounds like not-your-usual-Top-40-song and I get curious. Or someone tells me, “Have you heard So-And-So?” and I get that empty feeling like I’m missing out on something.

That happened to me with regard to Adele, the biggest singer in the world who isn’t singing right now because she recently had surgery on her larynx. I went to go listen to her on the radio because all of a sudden, the ChoralNet forum exploded with posts about her condition and how music teachers wanted to use her experience as a “teaching moment” for their young singers. I thought, “So what does she sound like, that she had to have this surgery done?”

My first hearing of “Someone Like You” made me think, “Sweetie, can I get you a glass of water?” But only because the story of her surgery was the only thing that impressed itself on my mind. When I let that impression subside, and I looked her up on YouTube, the next thing I thought was, “She’s not skinny; she’s not dressed like a stripper, or dancing like one…OK, I like her now!” And I realized, head bobbing to “Rolling in the Deep,” what she was: the next incarnation of the 1960’s soul diva, with that smoky voice that’s not afraid to tell her man what she really thinks. And to those who suggested she lose weight, she replied: “I make music for the ears, not for the eyes.” Brilliant! How’s that for a young singer’s battle-cry? “We’re sick of having to look like prostitutes with our voices propped up by electronics–finally, we can just be SINGERS again!”

That’s all well and good, but will young people get to “just be singers” going forward, now that Adele’s career has been compromised in the one area that matters most?

I said that Adele was the next incarnation of the 1960’s soul diva, but others have called her “the next Amy Winehouse,” and this is where I start to wonder what will happen.

Now, I’m not talking about drugs and alcohol and dying young. That stuff will always be around, to a greater or lesser degree, in all music professions.  I’m talking about the voice, and what we, as an audience, are demanding from it.

The death of Amy Winehouse created a vacuum that Adele inevitably filled as the next-in-line, young/white/female/UK soul singer. Not that Adele was unpopular before; it’s just that now she has to fulfill an incredible demand to not only be that singer, but a higher ideal of that singer–a “pure” singer, who is not all stage antics and private drama made public. Her larynx has to compete with Katy Perry’s boobs, Lady Gaga’s wardrobe and Beyonce’s ass, and all are attached to larynges that do please the ear, each in their own way. And whenever Adele’s larynx wins the battle, we just want to hear more and more of it. Adele herself has reported in her blog about how she sang in spite of her condition, no doubt in response to the high demands placed on her. But how much more can those whisper-thin vocal fibers give?

We are a decade into the American Idol era of pop music, which is all about cutthroat competition between very young singers. Some are lucky to have had good vocal instruction, others have had good instruction and are following it, and others have had none. They’re all trying to do the same thing, which is to be high-demand singers before they’re out of high school.  This is before they’re done with puberty, before the vocal folds actually settle into their adult length and thickness. And they do it by imitating the singers they like, trying highly difficult runs and other things (which may or may not be assisted by AutoTune–we don’t always know for sure) so they can gain entry into the Biggest Karaoke Show On Earth. Those that “make it” will end up singing and singing and singing and singing…until they’re used up, vocally or otherwise, and then the next young singer mounts the conveyor belt. All the while, voice therapists and surgeons are seeing their fatigued and injured patients getting younger and younger all the time.

Adele has had to hit the pause button on her own career for now, though she enjoys the success of having been named Billboard’s Artist of the Year for 2011. In the meantime, the debate rages on about vocal technique in young singers: Do all “pop” artists have “bad” technique? Aren’t there better vocal models out there for young people to listen to? And what makes a technique “bad”? Don’t some artists do OK sounding like Axl Rose? Isn’t years of opera singing just as damaging? What’s the way forward?

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One thought on “Adele on the Young Singer Conveyor Belt

  1. Sarah says:

    Very very interesting post.

    But it’s also not really all that surprising that she sang “in spite of her condition”, is it? Was that really because of high demands placed on her? She obviously lacks self-control in many other areas. (Drinking, smoking, over-eating, inactivity).

    She may be “not afraid to tell her manager what she really thinks”. But willful self-destruction is not (in my opinion) enviable or worthy of praise. Is it?

    I don’t know what you think about that aspect to it, and her tendency towards self-destructive excess – across the board.

    To me it seems like her self-control problems (that we’ve seem manifesting via her visibly unhealthy physique) are now also rearing their heads in other parts of her body and life.

    It’s not an issue of “image” or appearance. People who lack self-control – and lack healthy habits of moderation – tend to crash and burn. And never have the opportunity to experience the freedom, efficacy, happiness and longevity that moderation and self-control create. That’s the really sad part.

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