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Through It All, Adele Remains a Different Kind of Pop Star

Unlike many of her peers, Adele is not obliged to keep a master narrative going to sustain general interest in her career. She just … sings.

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

A month before the release of her latest album, 30, Adele put on a private concert, seating 300 guests, including many celebrities, at Griffith Observatory in Los Angeles. CBS would end up producing the footage into a televised special, One Night Only, with Adele additionally sitting for a rose garden interview with Oprah. It was an extravagant scene reminiscent of Oprah’s two-hour dialogue with Prince Harry and Meghan Markle; One Night Only was a pop royalty coronation for a frank but elusive woman who commands a rare respect. Along with promoting her latest record, Adele fields Oprah’s many questions about her first child, her recent divorce, her current romance with Rich Paul, her reconciliation with her late father, and her newfound passion for weightlifting.

For the first couple minutes of the interview, though, Adele and Oprah do manage to talk about the singer’s music. Adele articulates a creative principle that’s always, to my mind, distinguished her from so many of her contemporaries in pop music. “I don’t think, as a person, I have what my singing has,” Adele tells Oprah. “I don’t think I’m that deep in real life.” This isn’t just some boilerplate humility from one of the world’s biggest pop stars—it’s a realistic assessment of the power in her voice. Indeed, the concert in One Night Only, with its breathtaking performance from Adele, sounds significantly more revealing and intimate than the interview.

Adele never seems thrilled to be so famous. She meets the media’s determination to turn her into a proper tabloid creature with genuine indifference. There’s still a rare measure of privacy in her superstardom. She’s still more singer than celebrity, more musician than meme, “Hello” notwithstanding. That’s no small feat for an entertainer working in the postmodern pop landscape with its imperatives for overexposure. Now, 30, billed by everyone but Adele herself as her “divorce album,” underscores a few true-to-life details first served to listeners via headlines. There’s a sad sample-driven song comprising mother-son voice memos (“My Little Love”), a terse late-marriage ultimatum (“Woman Like Me”), a woozy and bitter pop ballad intimating middle age (“I Drink Wine”). But I know a divorce album when I hear one; Here, My Dear is a divorce album. There’s a bit more ambivalence in 30, an album expressly inspired by the past few years in the singer’s life but still mercifully reluctant to turn those years into pop trivia.

That’s more than I can say for many of Adele’s peers. Nearly a decade after she released Red, Taylor Swift is once again litigating her former relationship with Jake Gyllenhaal on a new 10-minute version of “All Too Well.” Coincidentally, Kanye West has spent the past decade play-acting a feud with Taylor Swift, and Drake has spent his past couple rollouts play-acting a similar feud with Kanye West. There’s a certain tabloid tendency that’s come to dominate pop songwriting. It’s a tendency to craft each album as a personal diary populated by other celebrities or pseudo-celebrities, all together determined to obliterate the distinction between lyrics and gossip; between the real emotion and the pettiest details. This results in tedious, self-trivializing songs in too many cases. In seven years, have we learned nothing from “Bad Blood”? In contrast, Adele sings from a place of emotional abstraction. These are her songs but they’re also your songs. They aren’t watermarked with evidence of a contemporaneous feud with Katy Perry or Pusha T or whomever. Even in her autobiographical moments on 30, Adele, as a person, eludes us; we’re left with her voice and our own feelings about our own lives.

My colleague Rob Harvilla, reviewing 30, described the album as “messy.” He’s not describing the divorce intrigue (which we both find inconclusive and unsatisfying). He’s describing Adele’s wild musical gestures toward reggae and Afrobeats. But it’s Adele’s privacy—her lording over the zeitgeist but never sticking around to live by its rules and trends—that affords her the broad creative license to be messy without the pro wrestling pretense of Views, Reputation, or Donda. That’s freedom. She’s not obliged to keep a master narrative going to sustain the general interest in her career. She just … sings. She knows her music isn’t powerful for its specificity about her own life, as chronicled in headlines, but rather for its universality in so many details: Anyone who’s ever had “big feelings” and an achy heartbreak knows where she’s coming from and what her songs are about without reading a word about Simon Konecki or Rich Paul.

This isn’t to suggest that other superstars should necessarily make themselves smaller and scarcer. Kanye West is (dare I say) good at making a mess of his public persona every other year. I love to watch a sitdown with Oprah as much as anyone else. But I’m old enough to remember when celebrities openly resented this level of invasiveness from fans and the press. And I’m young enough to hope I’ll live to enjoy a resurgence in private personas, such as Adele, whose songs say more than they’ll ever tell.