Can Adele and her Marketing Men change the face of Women in Music?

Written for Bad Reputation, 1.6.11
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Poor old millionaire superstar Adele, eh? No sooner has the dust settled on the furore over her objections to being a higher-rate taxpayer, than she gets thrown into the vanguard of another of those putative Real Women in Music revolutions. A mere three years after she started out, and after just seventeen weeks of her second album at Number One, it appears to have suddenly dawned on Richard Russell that Adele exemplifies all that’s healthy and hopeful in the otherwise dire and overheated state of contemporary pop.

“The whole message with [Adele] is that it’s just music, it’s just really good music,” said Russell. “There is nothing else. There are no gimmicks, no selling of sexuality. I think in the American market, particularly, they have come to the conclusion that is what you have to do.”

The main reason why Russell’s claims about Adele should be regarded with scepticism is that Russell is the head of Adele’s record label. Even leaving aside such vested interests, his argument that she represents some kind of paradigm shift has been ably deconstructed here by Laura Snapes.

The Guardian article linked to above has a few frustrating facets of its own. I’m not sure why Rihanna’s ‘S&M’ should be hoicked in to illustrate Russell’s point: there’s a difference between having a sexualised image – usually, when it’s the subject of criticism, one that’s been externally imposed on an artist – and singing about sex and sexuality. Especially when ‘S&M’ is a more complex song than that framework allows for – arguably one in which Rihanna presents non-mainstream sexuality in terms of female agency. Finally, the idea of good-girl, sexless Adele vs bad-girl, sexualised Rihanna is a false dichotomy with problems in abundance.

Adele’s own image is hardly free of contrivance, harking back as it does to the blue-eyed soul divas of the 1960s – classily sexualised, perhaps, but sexualised nonetheless. In her chosen brand of popular music, a degree of sex in your self-presentation is, as Russell correctly identifies, inextricably linked to commercial success. It’s even arguable, unfortunately, that it’s Adele’s very distance from the currently acceptable aesthetic norms of her genre that has necessitated she be marketed with a different, ‘desexualised’ focus. Had Adele possessed her own voice but the body of, oh, let’s say Katy Perry, would her image have been sexed-up business as usual?

Russell is taking issue, of course, not with the marketing and self-presentation of all women in music, but with a particular branch of commercial pop, and the marketing therein of female artists by predominantly male management, which was ever thus. If his comments do kickstart a new way of measuring the money-making potential of women in music, then great, but it’s going to be an uphill struggle in view of the constant and increasing pressures on female performers – as well as male – to conform to a blandly beautiful industry standard.

Is Adele’s refusal to bow to that standard, as Russell claims, as radical today as the Prodigy were in the early 1990s? Let’s face it, mainstream acts are so limp and colourless right now, and popular culture so devoid of ideas, experiments and imagination, that yeah, it probably is. Never mind that the Prodigy were highly politicised and engaged with a wider oppositional culture, while Adele is outspoken in bemoaning her tax burden.

While no one can begrudge Adele her success, or deny that it’s refreshing to witness, the fact that she can be said to occupy a radical position is more an indictment of contemporary music than it is a compliment to her. The most positive thing about Russell’s remarks is the opportunity they offer to reiterate a greater truth: that commercial profit-driven pap purely designed to generate a profit is more than socio-culturally damaging for women, it’s dull.

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