Let It Be Known: Grieving Through Adele

January 10, 2022   •   By Kathryn Lofton

TWO-THIRDS OF THE WAY through “To Be Loved,” the penultimate track (already dubbed a classic) on Adele’s 30, she confesses to crying for something she wanted to lose. “Let it be known that I cried for you,” she sings. “Even started lying to you.” Pop music does not lack for tears and lies; packaging personal wreckage for mass distribution is its genre definition. But what Adele does better than most is to convey how serious she is about getting real and getting over, like she is cracking herself open to explain not only what a mess she is, but also what right she has to be one. She divorced him, but she isn’t letting that diffuse how lousy it makes her feel. You get to feel bad for making a free choice.

I’m thinking about why this seems radical, and I remember that eight years ago you died. Adele’s words about leaving love remind me of our life together and what it means to lose someone.

You would correct me. Don’t act like you forgot, you’d say, staring hard.

We spoke roughly to each other. If people overheard us, they often thought we were fighting, but it wasn’t disagreement. It was correcting talk against the daily lies that spilled out, twins pinching the other to get more real. We met as new faculty at a place that made a PowerPoint to showcase the background of its hires. When the presenter made a joke about my alma mater (“I think you’re the first from there we’ve had!”), I beamed back in reply, smooth at seeming ever unbothered. You squeezed my hand under the table, familiar from the first. “You don’t have to smile so hard at them,” you said, fiercely, “as they are calling you trash.”

From the beginning, Adele seemed as surprised as anyone that the world fell into her as I fell into you. There is a Saturday Night Live sketch with Emma Stone that depicts a series of office workers crying as they hear Adele’s “Someone Like You.” The song unleashes something extreme inside people who feel otherwise blah. Most of the time we keep our pop feeling private, but every once in a while a track pulls people into communal tears or onto the dance floor: “I Will Always Love You” by Whitney Houston, “September” by Earth, Wind & Fire, “Single Ladies (Put a Ring on It)” by Beyoncé, or “Rehab” by Amy Winehouse. That this history of unifying pop is more Black than white in sound and star is a subject for which Daphne Brooks, Nina Sun Eidsheim, Farah Griffin, Maureen Mahon, and Gayle Wald have been especially acute listeners and critics.

I am falling into 30 despite myself. I want to resist Adele because she is a soul singer who isn’t a great live performer; because as a white soul singer she should have handed Beyoncé her Grammy. But I keep liking her, and I think this is you, grabbing my foot underwater, laughing at my inability to let go and enjoy. It is Scorpio season and that will always be a wash of browning leaves and grieving for you.

I choose not to focus on the date you died because you did not die on one day. When they took to the street, protesting the police they blamed for your death, I thought about replying to the organizer that I had a list of sites I thought should be properly placarded. The Union Avenue Detention Center was on it. But those who loved you had a long list of names and addresses: of lovers and frenemies and dealers and doctors and colleagues who were in the presence of your suffering. Addiction is a social problem. Taking vengeance on it requires a harsh audit. All of us who live in a time when drugs exist widely must know our successes stand in the gap of others who use, and in using, lose.

When we met you did not have an abolitionist critique of the carceral state. You had, instead, the witness of a person who always knew their body would be among those circuited through visible and invisible systems of endangerment, desire, and control. You wrote out your life from the wager that your frailty would be given no gentle care. You talked about moisturizer all the time, about how much skin and body should be taken sweet care of. You, intensely putting on Aveeno while everyone sucks you dry. From the minute you stepped into the world, you believed that you could not move without being hunted, that you could not be in relation without being dispossessed.

White people who have this sense of existential recognition often align themselves with the cause of Black freedom. Adele is a white artist whose relationship to Black art is a subject of frequent acknowledgment. Speaking to Tom Power with CBC, she explains that 30 emerged from “listening to a lot of Marvin Gaye, I was listening to a lot of Donny Hathaway, a lot of Al Green, a lot of soul music.” Across her 14 years of promotional interviews, Adele cites Black artists as the reason she sings as she does. At times, Adele has received criticism for being “a culture-appropriating opportunist,” to borrow from Edward Bowser’s summary of the discourse. Bowser disagrees, “Support the artists who are still keeping it alive, and don’t waste time throwing stones at talented white artists.” Other writers have walked through Adele’s racial public with a similarly redemptive resolve, whether Amanda Nell Edgar writing about Adele’s Black sound at the 2012 Grammys or Brittney Cooper condoning Adele’s invocation of her “Black friends” during her 2017 Grammy’s acceptance speech. Something about Adele resists cancellation. In the interview where she name-checked Donny Hathaway and Marvin Gaye as primary influences on 30, she defined the inspiration of their soul era as one in which the artists released “the best take with the best feeling in it.”

The authenticity for which Adele is adored emerges from this precision release of her best feeling. This is the measure Adele sets for herself: she will make something — write its lyrics, record backups and main vocal at a studio, prepare the arrangement — and she will decide whether the result makes you feel her real. One definition of appropriation is using something to which you have no archival relation. Adele salutes soul music by studying, by singing so hard she fractured her voice on its behalf. She treats pop feelings seriously, as if feeling is the most important work in life we do. This is a spiritual commitment. It is also a political one.

Feeling isn’t orderly and it isn’t sweet. Human feelings prefer and make hierarchies. Feelings tell us to like one song over another, and they don’t explain why; feelings tell us we like one person over another, and they don’t explain why. You had a feel for nerdy cis women who totter on the edge of nice. From loving you we got the intimacy of someone who, in seeing us, unfurled all the wildness we often restrained. You pressed us to say aloud our deeply felt subtext, to sing out like we didn’t care if our liberated voices shredded a genteel scene.

Adele is living her best breakup life, and we get to watch as she lives and interviews; lives and dates; lives and gets a makeover. I keep thinking about those who didn’t live: Marvin didn’t; Donny didn’t; Whitney didn’t. Adele’s white survival is nobody’s surprise. “If everyone’s making music for the TikTok, who’s making music for my generation?” Adele said in an interview with Zane Lowe. “Who’s making the music for my peers? I will do that job, gladly.” Adele is nobody’s transom to revolution. She’s unabashedly about getting as many of us, across cultures and classes and countries, to feel her feelings, and she is a maestro of finding the middle of the moderate that includes both those who would implicate you in your own death’s location and those who think the detention center should burn. Her keenest racial complicity isn’t that she imagines structures of relation between people anew, but that she lays out with frankness the operatic repository of white emotional rubble.

Ever since you left, I have mourned how you pulled everyone from their bleakest self-regard and handled it like it was a sculpture of highest value. You crawled next to me on the floor, destroyed and destroying, and said, This is not an inappropriate place to be. You made those who loved you feel like their lowest ebb was the beginning of their best idea. You were a person who made friendship a pop song.

That H.D. line you loved (“yet to sing love / love must first shatter us”) was on the front page of your funeral program. You did not survive your shattering. On your behalf I resent those who climb out of their pain to profit from it, whether it is Adele or that person who wrote that book we thought was stupid, which to us then was nearly everyone. I squint irritated at those who never have sex with the wrong person or never need a drug to get through the next hour or who smile without lying. I think of you, and I resent every person who doesn’t comprehend how gritty and unforgiving are the crevices Adele packs into her three-syllable slay of the word “cry.” Every day I live after you I try to believe that survival is not a sign of lesser allegiance to what we knew when we sang ballads together into the night.

¤

Kathryn Lofton teaches religious studies and American studies at Yale University, where she also serves as dean of humanities.