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David Hajdu on Music: Billboard Goddesses

Stardom isn’t normal. It’s familiar, even commonplace—ever-present not only in the realm of actors, singers, and other pop entertainers, but also in the overlapping circles of athletes, politicians, tech “visionaries,” and ambiguously skilled celebrities-as-celebrities whom Americans love to ogle, aggrandize, belittle, and resent. The impulse to idolize is as old as the gods, of course. Jesus was a superstar some time before Andrew Lloyd Webber came around. What’s abnormal about the phenomenon of stardom is the condition of being a star, of living as the object of desire of, and the subject of scrutiny by, countless strangers. Stardom is normal for everyone but stars.

Yet one of the things we expect of celebrities is a hint, at least, of normalcy—a strain of mere humanity among the superhuman qualities we demand of and project upon the hyper-famous. That thread of ordinariness, however thin or slippery, gives us something to tie ourselves to. By retaining an imagined connection to the celebrities we celebrate, we can make use of them as objects of aspirational fantasy without wholly succumbing to the feelings of profound personal inadequacy that go along with celebrity worship. We can love our stars instead of loving ourselves, but without hating ourselves too much for doing so.

In pop music, normalcy is a commodity of fluctuating value, and its scarcity, like the gold that is electro-sprayed onto million-selling records, is manufactured—controlled and varied to suit the conditions of the market. Every phase in popular music calls for its own measure of apparent ordinariness: hayloads of it during the folk-music craze, considerably less of it in the disco era, more in the days of punk and grunge, and not so much in the extravagant luxury hip-hop of Kanye and Jay-Z, or in the high pop theater of Lady Gaga. This year the biggest star on the music charts is the English singer Adele, whose staggering popularity is rooted squarely in her image as both an extraordinary musician and the world’s most ordinary person. “In England I’m thought of as common as muck,” she said in an interview with The Sun, and she has nurtured that mode of thought successfully, flawlessly, while rising to the most rarefied strata of musical stardom. Adele has brought into line the fine-weight prices of muck and gold.

Through the potent combination of unblushing commonness and hard-earned glamorousness that permeates her music as well as her public presentation, Adele has become one of the most successful artists in the history of recorded music. It is only four years since she made her first album, titled 19 for her age at the time she started recording it; and it established her quickly, first in Britain and shortly thereafter in the United States and much of the rest of the world. With a boost from the modestly ruminative and terrifically catchy single “Chasing Pavements” (co-written by Eg White, an English hitmaker-for-hire), the album has sold several million copies—probably another thousand since the start of this paragraph—and earned Adele the first of her many Grammy awards.

Then she began to get serious, two years later writing (or co-writing, with White and a crew of other industrial tunesmiths) a triumphalist musical diary of entrapment in and escape from a bad relationship, titled—fittingly for her age of coming of age—21. The biggest of the record’s string of hit singles, “Rolling in the Deep,” with its soaring hook—“We could have had it aaaall”—is now permanently situated in the subcortex of every creature endowed with the sense of hearing. The album took all of this year’s Grammys outside the Polka category, and that’s mainly because the Polka category has been discontinued. With the success of 21, Billboard put Adele in the Top 10 of its list of “Top Money Makers,” while noting that she is one of only four women ever to have had a record in the number-one position on the album charts for thirteen weeks or more. Adele has joined Judy Garland, Carole King, and Whitney Houston as one of the Four Goddesses of the Billboard Charts.

Ordinariness is hardly what springs immediately to mind when one thinks about Judy Garland today, more than fifty years after the Carnegie Hall concert that has served as the pivot point of her myth since it was staged and recorded for release on a double-LP set in 1961. The Garland of the contemporary imagination is a figure defined almost entirely by association with drag culture and hoary gay stereotypes—a burlesque of old-school stardom as nobly preposterous queenhood, an American Kabuki show of histrionic pandering and decrepitude. It is a drug-rattled version of this mythic Garland that is tormenting audiences of the quasi-biographical play “End of the Rainbow” on Broadway this season. When, six years ago, Rufus Wainwright performed the entire concert that Judy Garland gave at Carnegie Hall on the same stage, I talked about the show with the songwriter Jill Sobule (best known for writing the same-sex valentine “I Kissed a Girl” a decade before Katy Perry stole the idea), and she said, “That’s the greatest, gayest thing I’ve ever heard of in my life.”

But at the time of the concert—or so I have been given to understand, since I was in the second term of kindergarten when the recording of it was released—the story of Judy Garland at Carnegie Hall was generally seen as a triumph of Puritan values, a narrative of normalcy lost and regained. Before the concert Garland had become infamous as fodder for the Hollywood scandal sheets, ravaged by drugs, escorted off movie sets—a symbol of betrayal of the Midwestern virtues that she had embodied as Mickey Rooney’s gal in a hundred shows put on in a hundred barns. She came to Carnegie Hall, at thirty-nine, nicely cleaned up, trimmed down, and strong in voice and personality. Film footage of the performance shows Garland somewhat de-glammed in pants and a satin jacket, but teeming with show-biz pizzazz. She beams, reveling in the adulation of an audience that seems primed to cement the event as a comeback of a kind later to become familiar: the climax of a celebrity recovery drama. Every account of the concert that I have ever read has used the language of recovery, emphasizing how healthy and strong and happy and trim and energetic Judy Garland looked that night. She provided the prototype for the performance narrative of victimhood and triumph that Adele updated with synths and hooks on 21.

Released less than three months after the concert, the double-LP set of Judy at Carnegie Hall won four Grammys, including Album of the Year (the first by a woman ever to win that award). It was on the Billboard charts for seventy-three weeks, thirteen of them as number one. When I think of the chintzy faux-walnut console stereo that my parents had in the overdone Latinate living room of our house in New Jersey, I picture the narrow row of albums it stored: the South Pacific soundtrack, Sinatra’s Only the Lonely, a Tex Ritter album—I’m not sure how that got there—and Judy at Carnegie Hall. My mother loved the Garland record, and she wasn’t a gay man. Like Adele for another generation, Garland in her time was a female pop idol with a hefty base of female fans. I suspect that my mom saw in Garland a role model for mid-life, a symbol of comfortably de-eroticized middle-age puissance. And for my current-day nieces whose Facebook playlists are mainly migrated from the contents of 19 and 21, I think Adele probably stands for something not so dissimilar: a puissance comfortably de-eroticized for youth in a time when young life already has enough sex in it.

In the era of Judy at Carnegie Hall, much as today, the individual song, not the album, was the dominant form in popular music. Albums, which sold for four or five dollars apiece, were a little pricey for the babysitting-money budgets of the adolescent girls who were the primary market for single records. LPs, targeted to the smaller market of older listeners, generally sold in far lower numbers than singles; hence hit status came at a lower cost for albums—until the mid-to-late 1960s, when the rock generation aged a bit and the album came into its own as a form in rock. In recent years, through the atomization of pop culture, and the rise of pocket devices and 99-cent downloads, the song has returned to its historic place as the currency of exchange in popular music, and the audiences for singles and albums are once again divided by age lines. The fact that kids now tend to buy (or trade) singles, while their parents get albums, mirrors the early ’60s and makes Adele’s success in both arenas all the more impressive.

During the year Judy Garland had the number-one album in the country, the hit songs playing on rec-room record players were, for the most part, pillow-book fantasies of teenage life, and a great many of them were written or performed by young women not much older than the junior high schoolers listening, dancing, and making out to them. “One Fine Day,” recorded by the Chiffons, “Will You Love Me Tomorrow,” done by the Shirelles, “Take Good Care of My Baby” and “Go Away, Little Girl,” sung by men with boyish heartthrob looks like Bobby Vee and Steve Lawrence: each of these songs, and quite a few others like them on the pop charts in the first years of the ’60s, were composed by Carole King not long after she left Queens College and took up the business of songwriting for Brill Building music publishers. Exquisitely wrought little trifles, these songs were co-written by the lyricist Gerry Goffin, whom King married in 1960, and they dealt with the everyday dramas of adolescence in the language of the lunch room. Their aspiration was an idealized but not glamorized vision of normalcy, where a crush fulfilled can deliver nothing less, but nothing more, than the having of one fine day.

As she reminds us in her new memoir, A Natural Woman, King started out as a specialist in the production-line system of music-making, though she went on to help establish the rock-era alternative to that system by diversifying, writing her own lyrics as well as music and singing her own songs. With the photo on her second solo album, Tapestry, King presented not just a new image but a new set of aesthetic terms for both women and men in pop: those of intimacy, hominess, earthiness, and naturalism—the tenets of the very-old-as-new normalcy of the counterculture. The picture shows us King at home, weaving a tapestry, as she relaxes on a window seat with a gray-furred cat, lit only by the sun through sheer Indian-print curtains. When we hear her singing in her dry, unaffected, non-singer’s voice about feeling like a natural woman, the naturalness she suggests seems more to do with purity of the spirit than pleasures of the flesh. With Tapestry, King became the first woman since Judy Garland to have a number-one album on the charts for at least thirteen weeks. The record sold more than twenty-five million copies, including one to my mother, who actually took up making tapestries after she got the album.

In a concert that Carole King performed with James Taylor at Madison Square Garden a few years ago, she gave Taylor credit for leading her to the approach to songwriting that she took up and that Adele carries on today. “It was James who convinced me that it was okay to write my own lyrics,” she said. “I said, ‘I don’t know what to write about,’ and he said, ‘Just write about what’s going on in your life. Write about the things that you’re feeling. What happened to you today? What about that.’”

The King-by-way-of-Taylor principle of faith in the aesthetic validity of day-to-day experience and moment-to-moment feeling has become a rule of practice among singer-songwriters, and it explains most of Adele’s songs. Though she works with collaborators hired by producers in the Brill Building manner, Adele writes nearly all her own lyrics, and they deal mainly with her life and mostly with her relationship problems in language just a bit more poetic than dinner conversation on an intense night. “Old friend, why are you so shy?” she sings in “Someone Like You,” one of the hits from 21. “Ain’t like you to hold back or hide from the light.”

As Adele has explained repeatedly, 21 is essentially a reality-based concept album about a destructive love affair, a subject that she sees as fitting neatly in her scheme of resolute normalcy. “This record is inspired by something that’s really normal,” she said in her Grammy acceptance speech this year, “everybody’s been through it, a rubbish relationship.”

The conception of the normal that Adele advances, for the most part, is superficially grim—an almost Dickensian view of life, especially romantic life, as a miasma of gold buried in rubbish and muck. At the same time, she makes clear her grasp of that view as something both realistic and performatively dramatic, and she makes use of it, ultimately, in service to a larger narrative of triumph. In her September 2011 concert at the Royal Albert Hall, which is preserved on YouTube, she sings “I’ll Be Waiting,” and tells the audience: “That one was a very rare upbeat, happy, optimistic one. I’m sure you know about that, if you have my albums—I’m pretty miserable on record, really.” Then, bursting into a laugh, she says, “Not in real life! I’m happy in real life.”

Vocally, Adele has always been a potent force, and she keeps getting better—and not just bigger, though her voice has grown in power since she started recording. The timing of her Grammy sweep this year, the day after the death of Whitney Houston, led inevitably to lots of talking-head patter about Adele being Houston’s heir, and the awards being the coronation of the new pop queen. After all, Houston was the last woman in top-forty music to have Adele’s kind of explosive early success. She was just twenty-one herself when she made her first album, a glossy-stock gift-bag of impressive, expensive-sounding pop items. Titled “Whitney Houston,” the record was the best-selling album of the year on the Billboard charts and, not coincidentally, won the Grammy for Album of the Year.

Reared in the tradition of black gospel music by the great Cissy Houston, her mother, Whitney Houston knew how to sing to heaven, and she could reach it without amplification. Gospel has always been one of the few spheres in music where both women and men have been equally free to roar with untempered gusto. Whitney Houston brought that implicitly spiritual but utterly physical gusto to mainstream pop, feminizing and sexualizing it. Nothing conventional was a part of Houston’s story, until personal troubles and the demons of stardom conspired to speed her decline and her end.

Adele has admitted publicly to an early aspiration to emulate Houston, and a debt to Houston is apparent in Adele’s steady movement toward a more soulful, more American sound—a blacker sound. “I’ve always wanted to sound like Whitney Houston,” Adele said in a video interview. “I remember being seventeen in front of the mirror, singing along to ‘I Want to Dance With Somebody’ or something like that, with my hairspray in my hand.”

What a sweet, funny image: teenage fandom as a giddy fantasy of stardom. Happy in real life, miserable on record, Adele seems very much the mirror image of a figure like Whitney Houston—or Judy Garland. By celebrity standards, perhaps Adele is not so normal, after all.

David Hajdu is the music critic for The New Republic. This article appeared in the May 10, 2012 issue of the magazine.