Why Adele speaks to you

Story highlights

  • Gene Seymour: Adele is dominating the pop culture universe
  • He says she follows path of other white women blues singers
  • Young people awaiting her return empathize with her emotional trials, he says

Gene Seymour is a film critic who has written about music, movies and culture for The New York Times, Newsday, Entertainment Weekly and The Washington Post. The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the writer.

(CNN)As you read this, the numbers cited below are changing at such a spectacular rate that the recording industry is pinching itself to see if it's dreaming ... or, more likely, in utter disbelief that it's still alive. And well.

Because in an age when niche marketing and downloads are so prevalent that it's possible to believe there's no longer any such thing as popular consensus when it comes to music, "25," Adele's return to the international pop music bazaar, at this writing has sold 3.38 million copies in its first week in the U.S.
    The last time that happened? It's never happened. N'Sync (remember them, kids?) came the closest 15 years ago when their "No Strings Attached" disc sold roughly 2.4 million in one week. Will she continue to break records like this? The pop pundits aren't ruling it out, this week or the next. Or the week after that.
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    You want digital numbers? As of last Monday, "25" was the No. 1 download on Apple's iTunes chart in 110 countries.
    And then there was the recent "Saturday Night Live" episode. Not only was Adele the musical guest, but she was the premise for a holiday skit in which cast members and guest host Matthew McConaughey played a quarrelsome family whose dinner-table arguments were all rendered moot with each of them lip-syncing "25's" first breakout hit, "Hello."
    This isn't mere success. It's global domination more reminiscent of distant days when Michael Jackson, the Beatles or Elvis Presley enveloped the pop music landscape.
    Does Adele really belong in such thin-air reaches? The other artists were capable in their heyday of arousing waves of attention from varied ages, races and cultures just by showing up on screen or on record. They changed their worlds.
    Does Adele? Will she? Even with an armload of Grammys from her previous album, "21" from five years ago, she still shares the cutting edge of pop with Beyonce Knowles and Taylor Swift, both of whom are just as capable as Adele of drawing big crowds to their performances and products as soon as they materialize.
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    But neither of them spent five years away from the spotlight the way Adele did. And though she evokes a raw, sensual glamour that's hers alone, Adele doesn't carry the glittering movie-star aura worn by Beyonce, Swift and Katy Perry. Or, for that matter, the more idiosyncratic quirks displayed to similar attention-grabbing effect by Miley Cyrus and Lady Gaga.
    Maybe that earthiness helps explains Adele's widespread appeal. Is that the only thing that does?
    Let's back up a little: In terms of style and genre, Adele isn't the first or even the final answer to a question first asked decades ago by such artists as Dusty Springfield: Are white British women capable of rendering soul-style ballads with as much authority and conviction as their black American counterparts? Other singers such as the late Amy Winehouse and the still very active, and potent, Joss Stone can likewise claim Springfield's considerable legacy.
    Racial crossover is by now a no-sweat proposition for mainstream pop artists to the point where hardly anyone (thus far) seems to give much thought, disparaging or otherwise, to the interracial romance depicted in rueful decline on the video for "Hello" (The video, by the way, is yet another record-breaker, according to YouTube, which counted more than 100 million hits in five days, compared with the six days it took Cyrus' "Wrecking Ball" video to exceed the same number.)
    If there is an unanswered question connected to Adele, it's why there was a five-year interval. She apologized to her fans for the long wait in a thoughtful letter alluding to difficult emotional trails. "You know, life happened."
    Imagine millions of 20-somethings nodding in empathy, and you can now begin to understand her appeal in ways that nonplused non-millennials can't.
    Adele's albums could be viewed as markers in the collective life of a generation that snaps up her albums the way masses used to grab newspapers in bygone days to find out the news. They use her not to tell time so much as to hear and see what she's found out about being alive and aware -- and 25 -- that they either don't yet know or already suspect.
    This was the same generation that showed up at various points in their childhoods to be among the first to read the latest "Harry Potter" installment. It was possible to believe in those years that they weren't just devouring these stories to find out how Harry and his Hogwarts friends turned out. They were, on a deeper emotional level, hoping to get some sense of how they would turn out.
    So it is with Adele and those who have followed her emotional growth from "19" (2008) through "21" (2011) and now. She presents herself to the world not as a "dream girl" in the manner of a Katy Perry or a Beyonce, but as someone who is very much on the ground with the rest of us, struggling to figure out the world and where one fits in it.
    If you don't understand why that attracts people, well, you obviously haven't been 25 in a while.