In less than a day, someone has already created a mashup of Adele’s latest single, “Hello,” with Lionel Richie’s tune of the same name. Which is kind of fitting — two classics, one older, one newer, fused into one.
Adele’s “Hello” is a great song: elegantly arranged piano, lyrics that are simple and universal at once, not to mention that voice: unequivocal heartbreak and passion distilled into a mezzo-soprano that has broken hearts and sold billions of records globally.
Adele is blissfully ignorant of the here-and-now — she uses a flip phone in the sepia-hued video, for Christ’s sake. The video is more suited for 2005, back when the Motorola RAZR reigned supreme. She blatantly recalls a foregone era to the most painfully obvious extent. “When I call, you never seem to be home,” she croons. It’s like she’s time-warped back a decade or two, back when you’d actually call people on their landline, not on their cell phone. She’s old-fashioned.
“Hello” follows in the honored lineage of the “torch song” — the ashes of a relationship risen up into an anthem of painful, almost-gaudy commitment. Think Whitney Houston’s “I Will Always Love You” or Phil Collins’ “Against All Odds.” If you’re not willing to go back to the greatest hits of the ‘80s and ‘90s, then think Drake’s “Marvins Room,” or even Adele’s own “Someone Like You.” They’re songs about loving someone who doesn’t share the same feelings to the point of sheer self-embarrassment.
We know that Taylor Swift’s made a career of this, in which she can lampoon this tired trope and put it to bed. So has Adele, whose success both in her native England and abroad has stemmed from a classic neo-soul revival meshed with diary entry-lyrics of heartache blown up on a stadium screen.
On an episode of the podcast “This American Life,” the excellent writer and producer Starlee Kine described why torch songs are so crucial. “Torch songs are about the most pathetic, desperate, and lonely part of yourself, the part you’d never admit to your friends,” Kine explains. But there’s the rub. If given the chance, we’d confide these innermost “pathetic” parts to our friends. And Adele has made it so easy to do just that.
“Someone Like You” is so synonymous with heartbreak that even “Saturday Night Live” has done a skit on it. Kim Kardashian-style ugly crying to Adele’s torch songs is acceptable, even relatable. You’re not alone in your sadness because Adele is here for you. She’s the best friend who will bring you a carton of Ben and Jerry’s and “The Notebook” to make you feel better.
She’s built her entire career out of these anthems for the brokenhearted. On her immensely acclaimed breakthrough 21, “We could have had it all” turns into “She ain’t gonna be able to love you like I will” in the span of two songs. She’s always the one jilted and heartbroken and left to mourn the remnants of this failed relationship.
Except, on “Hello,” the script is flipped. She’s the heartbreaker, the one who left her partner high-and-dry. She knows you’ve pained, but she’s still a victim. She’s sorry for breaking hearts, even when she has no reason to be. “It clearly doesn’t tear you apart anymore,” Adele observes.
The stadium-rock drum fills phase out as Adele recites it for the last time, as if she’s just fully realized that you’ve moved on — that whatever she does has no bearing on your life anymore. It’s a “torch song,” most certainly, except it’s coming from the other side.
Instead of joining us in her pity or longing, she’s singing from the opposite viewpoint. She’s not your best friend anymore — she’s the ex who tore your heart in two. Adele fulfills the wishful thinking that all of us face when dealt the cards of heartbreak. We want, oh so badly, to move on. And better yet, to live a life so fruitfully that the ex still has you on their mind. We want our exes to “Wonder if you’re bendin’ over backwards for someone else,” as Drake so rightfully put it in “Hotline Bling.”
And that’s the beauty of “Hello” – it’s painful, devastating, but we’ve moved on.
Thank God Adele hasn’t.
Watch the music video below:
Contact Joshua Bote at [email protected].