Adele Proves That It's Talent, Not Just Sex, That Sells

We’ve been fans of chart-topping British songstress Adele since her debut album 19”she’s hyper talented, likeable and something about her just seems… different. We couldn’t quite figure out what sets her apart until last week, when XL Recordings founder Richard Russell pointed it out: Adele sells music based on the merits of her songs alone. The whole message with [Adele] is that it’s just music¦ there are no gimmicks, no selling of sexuality. Russell told The Guardian, adding that this tendency to over-sexualize”as opposed to focusing on the music”has led to “boring, crass and unoriginal” songs from female artists.

We’re sure Russell doesn’t mean to say that Adele isn’t sexy”anyone who’s seen her rock a microphone knows for a fact that she is. But the way she’s marketed her success on her rise to the top is almost exactly the opposite of the way other female stars conduct their business. Need proof? Look no further than your nearest magazine stand and check out the past several months of Rolling Stone. Rihanna graced the April 1 issue in shorts that, quite honestly, could have been painted on, and Katy Perry wore nothing but underwear and a come-hither stare in her most recent cover feature, Sex, God, and Katy Perry. (Yeah, why even make a mention of the music?) Either of these images would be right at home in Playboy, but isn’t RS a music magazine? Shouldn’t the focus of these cover stories be on these ladies’ songs and not their other, um, assets? Not to get all neo-feminist on everyone’s asses, but we doubt that the editors were asking Keith Richards to strip down for his cover shoot. (And actually, thank God for that.)

In an earlier interview with Q Magazine, Adele pondered her career and how sexifying it just wouldn’t work. I can’t imagine having guns and whipped cream coming out of my tits, she said. Even if I had Rihanna’s body, I’d still be making the music I make and that don’t go together.” The girl’s got a point”revealing photos and ridiculous costume choices aside, her reign at the top of the charts goes beyond promotion and into the music. Like her image, the entire message of her runaway success 21 is contrary to most of the women who dominate Top 40 radio. Rolling in the Deep is a song of power and liberation, a stark contrast to RiRi glorifying bondage in S&M or J. Lo‘s party anthem On the Floor. Come to think of it, there may only be one other Top 40 female who regularly keeps it PG while owning the charts, and that’s everyone’s favorite country sweetheart Taylor Swift.

Maybe it has to do with talent. After all, no offense to Rihanna and Katy Perry, but these are the facts: Adele is on a completely different plane when it comes to her writing ability and vocal range. Perhaps there’s a sliding scale of sexism in pop where talented female musicians prove their worth through music, and hot girls who can carry a tune get dressed up in barely-there outfits, hide behind a layer of vocal effects and rely on publicity stunts like making out with chicks onstage to promote their new material. You have to wonder: Is the world missing out on the next Janis Joplin or Chrissie Hynde because they don’t want to prance around in a thong and machine gun bra?

While we’re hopeful that Richard Russell is right and Adele will help alter how the industry markets female acts, change is slow in the music industry so it’s hard to be optimistic. But at the very least she’s stepping in the right direction, forcing label execs to look beyond the spandex-clad size zeroes for hit songs and to give consumers a little more credit. There’s nothing wrong with a fluffy pop song, and sure, sometimes it’s funny to watch people squirt whipped cream out of their tits. But maybe Adele will help spawn a new generation of songstresses who write less about getting sleazy and more about things that matter. Because while no one is arguing that sex sells, sometimes skill sells too.

Q&A With Ren Klyce, Sound Editor for "The Social Network"

Released earlier this month, feature film The Social Network tells the story of founder Mark Zuckerberg. The film, which stars Jesse Eisenberg (Zombieland, Adventureland) and pop star Justin Timberlake is a box office success, and its soundtrack is currently in the Billboard Top 10.

The music to the film was written by Nine Inch Nails‘ Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross and mixed by Oscar-nominated sound editor Ren Klyce. Klyce has also worked with The Social Network director David Fincher on such films as Fight Club, Where The Wild Things Are, Se7en, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button and Panic Room. We caught up with Klyce to hear about the challenges of sound design and the creative process behind adding music and sounds to feature films.

OS: You have worked with director David Fincher since you collaborated on a controversial anti-smoking ad in the ’80s. Can you tell us more about that first experience with David?

RK: That was a long time ago, we were very young and were working on an animated film called Twice  Upon a Time. I was an art assistant and David was doing visual effects on the film. I think we were about 18-years-old. He, even back then, was really motivated to express himself in terms of being a filmmaker. This commercial came along from the American Cancer Society and he had this idea of doing the commercial that discouraged pregnant mothers from smoking, by showing a fetus smoking.  Fincher wanted to shoot with a puppet on motion control cameras…a very elaborate camera set-up, even for that period of time. He hired all the people that he knew, all his friends, and someone to sculpt this little fetus, another person to build this little cigarette that would light up with an electronic system, another friend to build a smoking rig”there was a tube going through this fetus’ body so that at the right moment, someone could blow smoke to come out of the fetus’ mouth. There was a puppeteer… and the whole thing was on a camera-tracking system with the set. It was done without any visual effects and then I did the sound effects and the music for him. We did it for no money and it was a great learning experience.

"The Social Network" is still #1 at the box office.

OS: How involved is David in sound design for his films?

RK: David’s very involved in sound design for his films. He’s very aware of what sound can do and how it can help him in terms of his filmmaking and expressing his story and expressing the narrative thread, certainly. Sound, as he knows, can really enhance what’s just beyond the frame. On the screen, there’s the film, but all around the theater, there are speakers. He’s very much tuned into using surrounds for textures, for ambience, for mood…and that goes not only for the sound effects, but also for the music, as well. So he’s very tuned into what a soundtrack can produce for his images and vice versa.

OS: How familiar are you with a film before you begin work on it? Do you have any involvement with casting or choosing shooting locations?

RK: Oh gosh, no. I’m not involved in that aspect of it at all. He has a whole team of experts that he relies on quite extensively. His producer, Ceán Chaffin”who is also his wife”is very much involved with those facets. He will often times give me the script and I’ll read it and then we’ll discuss ideas about sound and ideas about what sort of music is needed, etc. In the case of The Social Network, right before he was going to shoot the Henley regatta boating sequence, he wanted to have a music track that would accompany the images and he wanted to have his picture editors, Angus and Kirk, cut the image to a piece of music. It was very important to him that we find an appropriate piece of music for the film. He got to Henley, in England, and he called me up and said “This is a real, British, traditional setting with an Edwardian, historical-type feeling…so what if we chose an Edwardian piece of music?” I started researching different composers of the time and that’s how we came up with “In the Hall of the Mountain King,” which is a very well-known piece of music, we all know it. David said “Well, let’s take that and have Trent Reznor do an electronic, 20th century version of “Chariots of Fire” with it. So he involves me in those sorts of things before he films.

OS: As you mentioned, the music for The Social Network was created by Atticus Ross and Trent Reznor, and then you mixed it. What was the goal for the sound of the music in the film?

Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross composing their electronic score.

RK: David’s goal, I think, was to reinvent the film-going experience that we had back in the 80’s, back when films were scored electronically. He wanted to have that feeling in the audience of getting the sensation of, “Wow, this is a very unusual soundtrack. I’ve never heard ‘Tangerine Dream’ before.” But he wanted to do it in a modern way with a modern twist. He wanted to have it feel almost retro. That, coupled with the idea that he had to use computers, because it’s Mark Zuckerberg, he’s blogging in his room…so he thought, well maybe the personality of the technology would be heard through the electronic music score, through this pulsating music that swirls and sequences throughout. So, that was the initial idea that he had. He’d pull out references like, Van Halen’s “Jump.” I’d say, “‘Jump?’ What do you mean?” and he’d say “You know, that keyboard sound at the beginning?” and he’d start singing it to me. He goes, “It’s that feeling, that sensation, that you’d never heard that kind of keyboard sound before in pop music.” So it wasn’t necessarily that he wanted that piece of music, it was more the idea of, “My goodness, it’s an electronic score, we haven’t heard one of these in ages!” So that’s when he thought of Trent Reznor and thought that he would be the perfect candidate to get involved because Trent is so versed in that style of music. Not just electronics, but blending of electronics and acoustic instruments. Then of course Trent had his writing partner, Atticus, in tow, so it was the two of them that scored the film.

OS: What were some of the biggest challenges in recording for The Social Network?

RK: There’s two big scenes, in terms of mixing…the opening sequence, which takes place at a bar between Mark Zuckerberg and his girlfriend Erica Albright and them breaking up…Fincher really wanted to have the sound pressure level of the bar overtake their dialogue. Traditionally when you mix a film, you err on the side of caution, you generally have the dialogue very loud and the sound effects very low, so that you can make out all the words that are being said. Particularly with the script that Aaron Sorkin has written, it’s really rapid-fire, quick-paced, and you really have to pay attention to it. Our initial mixes of the film were very conservative, in terms of suppressing the background, suppressing the music and turning up the dialogue. But Fincher really wanted to turn that on its head and say, “I want this to feel edgy, I want this to have a sense of urgency to it and I want people to struggle to listen in and struggle to hear the dialogue because that’s more realistic.” And he wanted the experience for the audience to be a realistic portrayal of people in a bar. So when you watch the film, it’s almost impossible to make out the dialogue for the first few seconds of the film. It’s sort of David’s way of saying “Pay attention and hang on for the ride, because there’s going to be a lot  of dialogue being thrown at you.”

Eisenberg and Timberlake in the Ruby Skye scene of “The Social Network.”

And the second scene that was difficult was the Ruby Skye sequence, in which Mark Zuckerberg has a business meeting with Sean Parker, who’s played by Justin Timberlake. It’s in this loud club called Ruby Skye, which is an actual club in San Francisco and it’s one of those clubs that has the loud, throbbing subwoofer with the house music blasting on 11. David, again, wanted to have this music overpower the scene and have the dialogue just on the edge of intelligibility. So those were very challenging scenes for us to mix and to work into the soundtrack.

OS: What are some of your proudest accomplishments in terms of challenging shoots or sound creations?

RK: What was challenging was dealing with the editorial process of the dialogue of the film. David was very particular about every single line of dialogue that was in the film and how it was being said and how it was being edited. It’s no secret that Fincher is notorious for doing lots and lots of takes when he’s on set and when he edits his pictures, you can see lots of picture cuts. What you don’t know is that, in addition to the picture cuts, there’s lots of sound cuts. So, when you’re looking at an actor saying his or her lines, for example, it’s not necessarily those actual words at that moment that are coming out of their mouth. It could be a composite of many, many different performances of alternate takes edited and spliced meticulously together to look in sync and to sound and feel the way that David wants the performance to feel. So that was the most challenging aspect for us.

OS: How do you use sounds and music to convey the feeling of a scene where there is little to no dialogue?

RK: Music is probably best suited for those types of scenes. Sound can certainly help in creating a sense of eeriness, a sense of mood, a sense of darkness…but music is really the key ingredient when you can’t lean on an ominous tone or a scary wind and you want to lift the film or you want to push the rhythm of the film. Once that’s needed or required for the film, once the film needs some kind of percolating pulse to push the audience along or to tie a scene together, that’s where music is critical. Atticus’ and Trent’s score is a predominantly powerful component and a main ingredient of this particular soundtrack.

OS: Do you have some advice for those who are interested in developing a career in sound design?

RK: Team up with young filmmakers! Young filmmakers grow up to be old filmmakers (laughs). Work with a group of people who you think are talented at making films and whom you have a good rapport with and learn how the music, the sound and the dialogue can really enhance an image. Working with people that can allow you to express yourself creatively and to help the film, I think is the best setting.

The Social Network is now playing in theaters. Be sure to pick up the soundtrack, mixed by Ren Klyce, on iTunes!