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.
A few weeks ago, Melbourne hosted the TV WEEK Logie Awards, which is like Australia’s Emmys, only with more reality TV, more cooking shows and music. Katy Perry and Maroon 5 represented American pop, and then there was rising UK star Jessie J, representing¦ well, I’m still not 100 percent sure. As she stalked the stage, decked out in glam-Goth basic black, performing her No. 1 UK hit “Price Tag,” my friend peeled his eyes away from the television, turned to me and announced, “Her look is cool and alternative, but her music is so lame and poppy. They don’t match at all!”
It’s a discordancy that’s starting to take over. Pop and rock and hip hop used to hang out on different sides of the playground, barely acknowledging each other, with the rare, revolutionary exception (think Run-D.M.C.‘s 1985 smash cover of Aerosmith‘s “Walk this Way,” featuring the vintage rock band on vocals and in the song’s video). If your music was too mainstream, strictly middle-of-the-road (a condition that afflicted neither Run-D.M.C.’s nor Aerosmith’s tunes at the time, which perhaps is why the hit sounded so effortless), there was no changing lanes. You could dress as wild as ’80s fashion would let you, but you would always be a pop star. Chart-toppers had little chance of drumming up street cred or working with artists whose tunes dangled from the cutting edge. Why do you think Duran Duran, one of the most influential bands of the Reagan era, still hasn’t been nominated for the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame and is only now, more than two decades past its prime, publicly earning the respect of well-respected men like David Lynch, who directed the band’s recent American Express online concert?
Suddenly its cool to be alternative and pop. We’ve got Katy Perry mingling with Snoop Dogg and Kanye West on record and with bad-boy British comic Russell Brand in holy matrimony, and Ke$ha singing some of the poppiest songs on the charts and casting James van der Beek, one of Hollywood’s most white-bread actors, in her video but tarting it up just enough to come across as one of the coolest girls in school. (Ever the trendsetter, in the ’80s, Madonna had the good sense to tousle her image by marrying bad boy Sean Penn.) Meanwhile, Rihanna”a pop princess if ever there was one”holds court with Eminem and sings about how she’s “Hard” (as Young Jeezy raps in her defense).
Lady Gaga dresses like a freak and breaks every sartorial rule while singing what is basically the rave music of every ’90s teenage dream. Her former video costar Beyoncé alternates between straight-up pop (“Halo,” “Sweet Dreams”) and darker hip hop (“Diva” and current single “Run the World [Girls]”), while A Rocket to the Moon and Wilco singer Jeff Tweedy are among those who have covered “Single Ladies (Put a Ring on It).” Try This (her 2003 flop that, in my opinion, is her best album) aside, Pink‘s ultra-commercial music has never mirrored her rock-chick attitude. Even Coldplay, one of the biggest rock bands on the planet, second perhaps only to U2, collaborated with, of all people, Kylie Minogue on the 2008 World AID’s Day charity single “Lhuna.”
As with so many recent musical trends, the current shift toward the mainstream and the cutting edge making strange bedfellows began with hip hop. If a roguish rapper like Eminem could rhyme alongside pop singers (first Dido on “Stan,” then Elton John at the 2001 GRAMMYs, and most recently, Pink and Rihanna on Recovery), couldn’t all musicians, regardless of genre, get along? Sure they can, but the commercial results have been mixed. There’ve been huge hits”the Katy Perry singles “California Gurls” and “E.T.” returned her rapper costars, Snoop Dogg and Kanye West, respectively, to No. 1 for the first time in eons”but when Alicia Keys met Jack White for “Another Way to Die,” the theme for the last James Bond flick, 2008’s Quantum of Solace, it was a one-week wonder on the Billboard Hot 100, peaking at No. 81.
Perhaps Keys’ R&B and pop fans and White’s alternative ones didn’t know what to do with the meeting of their musical minds, which was nonethess one of the best singles of 2008. Of course, there are artists who resist, too. Remember when Ryan Adams used to go off on fans who requested Bryan Adams‘ “Summer of ’69” because he was fed up with being compared to the ’80s and ’90s pop superstar with the almost-identical name? (He once had a fan tossed out of a Nashville concert for daring to do the unthinkable!)
Kanye West vs. Taylor Swift at the 2009 MTV Video Music Awards probably was as much about the cutting edge (hip hop) vs. the mainstream (country-pop) as it was about the visual supremacy of Beyoncé’s “Single Ladies” video. In February, I read a Billboard.com interview where empress of ’80s cool Chrissie Hynde talked about her upcoming Super Bowl weekend performance on CMT Crossroads with country diva Faith Hill, and she said she was unfamiliar with Hill’s music and admitted, “I don’t know much about country music, period.” Then there’s Kings of Leon, best known in the US for the Top 5 hit “Use Somebody”. Although the band would hardly be considered alternative in its recent hit-making incarnation, the guys nonetheless refused to allow Glee to use “Somebody.” (I bet South Park or Dexter or Weeds would have gotten their blessing.)
But if Jay-Z can let the Glee kids turn “Empire State of Mind” into a show tune, if Aerosmith frontman Steven Tyler can sit beside Jennifer Lopez at the American Idol judges table, if “F–k You” singer Cee Lo Green can go from collaborating with Danger Mouse (in Gnarls Barkley) to being one of Christina Aguilera‘s fellow judges on The Voice, then we might yet live to hear an Eminem track featuring Britney Spears.