Adele’s Pathological Perversion, or We’re Sorry Saint Valentine

On this Valentines day, here is a short meditation on dealing with relational destruction. Clearly I’m a cheery one. Actually, this is provoked by my annoyance with the recent ubiquity of Adele’s song, which I find insidious. Considering that Saint Valentine was martyred––a witness to the truth––I think he would agree with the need for honesty. Especially on a day that is his namesake.

If you haven’t heard, Adele did quite well at the Grammy’s a few nights back. She has a very good voice, and I’m sure a good human being, more or less. However, her song, “Someone Like You” is disturbingly dysfunctional:

Of course such an observation of dysfunction in pop music is nothing new. Indeed, codependency is one of the major pathologies of pop music today (to call it a theme would give pop music too much credit), but here we also have wires crossed in another way: the sublime is beauty; chaos and pain is now what is beautiful; its concept of fittingness is dysfunction.

The video exudes ‘classy’: set in Paris (which, by the way, is a city that I love, and I am particularly fond of the Latin quarter); black and white; Adele appearing rather chic; and a soulful sound to the song, if not haunting. Thus by most standards the video’s appearance of aesthetics, coupled with the strong, intimate voice, qualifies as beautiful. It depicts a ‘classy,’ exposed heart that pulls on the audience’s heart strings, and this somehow passes for beautiful. Perhaps the song and video are pretty, but they are not beautiful.

Why? This is ultimately an attempt to transcend a destructively, tragic memory of a failed relationship by aiming to relive what she will not let go. Instead of growing beyond the flaws that proved fatal for the relationship, Adele sings about finding someone like the person she refuses to truly get over it. The refusal to make the healthy move results in the warping of one’s aesthetics. Rather than call the unhealthy what it is, which challenges the decision to remain unhealthy, Adele instead simply calls beautiful the memory of the tragic destruction. This, then, is yet another glorification of tragic dysfunction, but at the same time also gets the aesthetics horribly wrong to ensure that the challenge to make healthy steps is cast aside. In theological terms, it’s like a bad theology of the cross. It is certainly a living death that poisons her future by trying to make it like her past. In sum, the video distorts other transcendentals: it is not a good life and it warps the truth.

As a constructive response, I do not suggest a perfect song, but one that is certainly much more honest by its naming of “an addiction to a certain kind of sadness” (which Adele seems guilty of), the ability to allow for estrangement, and the inclusion of the second voice sung by Kimbra. Indeed, the the song and music video may qualify as beautiful. It is Gotye’s “Somebody I Used to Know”:

And, uh, happy Valentines day.

Update: I try to refrain from psycho-analyzing people, especially people I do not know. That is why the above is focused on the songs/videos rather than their personal lives. There is a development that may, however, pertain to future songs: Adele is taking the next five years off for love. I’m not sure what that truly entails, but I do wish her well.

Update again: The Daily Mail lied, er, was horribly wrong. Probably for advertising hits. Clearly they’re not so good at hacking phones anymore. No more updates.

  • Gary Wake

    “Somebody…” is a great song. Have you seen the Walk off the Earth version? I love to play it for people without them watching the video and have them imagine the instrumentation first.

    • d. w. horstkoetter

      Yeah, I’ve seen it. But I wasn’t a good audience––the guy on the right with the beard cracked me up.

  • Tommy S.

    I don’t think Adele was being prescriptive, rather descriptive in her song about a broken relationship. She wasn’t prescribing her reaction as a positive or healthy response that others should emulate, just describing her very personal feelings – during a particular time. We all can identify with being jilted by another person, how in the days and weeks after we wanted to recapture certain aspects of the broken friendship, how we struggled to move on. That’s why so many people identify with the song. And the whole tone of the music video reflects isolation and sadness, again, descriptive of how she felt, but doesn’t necessarily call for us to live there. To call this song “insidious” goes too far.

    The Gotye has been on my playlist for a while; wonderful song.

    I live in Minneapolis and worked with the co-writer of Adele’s song, Dan Wilson, for a year or so, shooting behind-the-scenes footage for his upcoming album. ( Dan’s songs often capture a snapshot in time; “Someone like you” is a snapshot, and a true one.

    • d. w. horstkoetter

      If it was a snap shot in time, that part of the comment would be right. But this isn’t a snap shot within weeks or days of a breakup. The lyrics at the very beginning require years to be able to say: “I heard that you’re settled down. That you found a girl and you’re married now. I heard that your dreams came true. Guess she gave you things I didn’t give to you. Old friend [and they presumably have not seen since the breakup because she admits she just “couldn’t stay away” and “how time flies”], why are you so shy?” This is not the song of someone grieving soon after the relationship is over.

      Now, it could be a snap shot long after the relationship is over, but that doesn’t absolve it of what I was getting at because:

      1. I understand your point about struggling to move on, but she is rejecting that very point with: “I’d hoped you’d see my face and that you’d be reminded that for me it isn’t over” and “Never mind, I’ll find someone like you.” She is looking to replicate the relationship by finding, or even perhaps making, a ‘copy’ of him (I say him because it looks like a male at the end of the video and I say copy because he is the one who is that which determines the one like him). If you’re trying to replicate, you’re not moving on, but instead, you’re trying to relive it. And that is a fantasy–a harmful one at that.

      2. Now, as for the descriptive vs. prescriptive, what I was getting at with noting that she has confused the beautiful and the tragic is not dependent on whether she was being descriptive or prescriptive. It is the operating foundation to how she is relating to her past–how she understands herself formed by the past. This is the point of view. It is the paradigm. It is fundamental to either a prescriptive or descriptive action.

      • Tommy S.

        Thanks for the thoughtful response. I guess the reason I responded to this post is because I felt you were placing Adele’s emotional state in a fixed universe, which I believe you are alluding to as her “operating foundation,” her “point of view,” her “paradigm.”

        Here’s my take on the song: There was a breakup (you’re right to assume much time has passed); the guy moved on. Adele hadn’t “moved on” (a slippery concept), wanted another shot at some better times. Resigned herself to finding someone that shared her ex-boyfriends traits.

        I’ve been married almost 20 years. If, god forbid, my wife and I ever split, I would definitely want someone who shared her outlook on life, her values, even her looks. I get what you’re cautioning against, the propensity to become “stuck,” or “addicted to sadness.” But I don’t place Adele’s ode to a broken relationship in a fixed universe, thus my referring to it being a snapshot. A true, if not completely “healthy” snapshot.

        I would warrant that we’d both agree it’s not an emotional place that we would want to stay. I guess we differ in that I believe it’s an OK place to be… for a while. Healthy? Depends on how long you stay there.

        • d. w. horstkoetter

          I certainly do not want to short circuit the grieving process. Mourning is important, vital even. But, years later, it doesn’t feel like she wants “a type.” For her it isn’t over–it isn’t done for her. She refuses estrangement, more so emotionally than geographically. This is why I don’t see the song/video as just looking for similar traits–she maintains a formative connection to the dead relationship (she is still formed in relation to the memory of the relationship) and desires to maintain that connection in another relationship, rather than a wholly new relationship with a genuinely new person in her eyes. But all of this is nothing new for pop music.

          What seemed less done in pop music is her fusion of beauty and unhealthy obsession with tragedy. This is what seemed insidious. We respond today so quickly with “oh thats is beautiful” when something pulls on one’s heart. We take the appeal to evocative tragedy as a beautiful letdown. The reason why I say this is a paradigm is because this is what establishes worth and value at the most fundamental level. It is that with determines what is important and how one sees the world. Of course one can move to another paradigm, but to do so is talked about in terms of conversion. This isn’t her emotional state, but an assumption about relationality, history, and what it means to be human. The emotional state is informed by this. One can stay in an unhealthy place because assumptions about what it means to relate to others do not challenge one to relate in a different way. This is how one can talk about healthy and unhealthy, rather than simply competing emotional states.

          One last thing, this song is all too similar to the way the Norse went about attempting to achieve immortality: great deeds are told and re-told amidst the understanding that everything dies–generations come and go, but the great ones can live on in the stories of their deeds (e.g. Beowulf). Adele seems to remember the relationship in a similar way, and therefore shapes the audience’s way it understands remembering–we join her and sing along with her because we know the pain, but we are soothed in the idea that the story is beautiful. So if this song is to be told and re-told because of its striking beauty, this will continue to confuse us on the correct understanding of beauty. This is another reason why I say insidious. There are assumptions here that are conveyed, and if we do not interrogate them, one can easily end up accepting the assumptions without realizing it. And to do so will make us living avatars of that point in time. I don’t mean to be Debbie Downer, but this is very important considering the fact that Christianity is built on anamnesis (a way of remembering that forms us to be like that memory, specifically Jesus). How one remembers is crucial to who one is, and if we are going to be taught a bad way of remembering, the end result is losing the cruciform pattern of Christianity.

          • Tommy S.

            Wow, too much for me to unpack in a comments thread; I could write pages. In any event, I believe you and I are “on the same team” when it comes to calling others to ways of remembering well. Appreciative of your time and thoughts.

  • Tommy S.

    I don’t know why the link to Dan’s song didn’t work. Here’s a revised link: