The Triumph of Adele

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As soon as 21 wrapped up in the summer of 2010, Adele and Sony went to work making sure it had maximum buzz. At an industry show in Los Angeles, she sang a few of the new songs to an audience that included Zach Galifianakis and movie licensing execs – one of whom chose "Rolling in the Deep" for the trailer for I Am Number Four, which introduced the song to U.S. audiences in a big way. With its earthy roar and primal stomp – Epworth says Adele was pounding on a wooden step with her Chanel pumps in his studio – "Rolling in the Deep" connected with listeners at an almost unheard-of pace. "When we tested it, within 10 seconds, people loved the song," says JB Wilde, former program director of the Atlanta dance-pop station Wild 105.7. "Usually it takes a song a few hundred spins to become familiar with the audience." Thanks to that initial single, 21 sold 352,000 copies its first week of release, in February 2011.

Everyone knows what came next: Number One singles, awards, rapturously received sellout shows and pop ubiquity, including a hilarious viral "Shit Adele Says" clip that brilliantly satirized her pop-working-girl image. A year-plus after its release, 21 is still moving about 20,000 copies a week; other albums released around the same time, like by Avril Lavigne, Britney Spears and R.E.M., have long disappeared from the charts. After a decade of female pop-star glam, Adele brought the idea of a diva back down to recognizable, accessible earth. Fans didn't simply relate to the torn-up emotions in her songs; they related to an unapologetic midsize girl who chatted up her audience onstage between tunes and mocked her own semifrumpiness. "I can't dance to save my life," she cheerfully told a New York crowd. "It sounds authentic coming out of her," says Santigold, who has covered the 19 ballad "Hometown Glory."

"I read an interesting thing: 'Would Adele be as successful if she wasn't plus-sized?'" Adele ruminated to Rolling Stone, reflecting on the attention sometimes given to her figure. "I don't know if I would be. I tried going to the gym. I don't like it. I like eating fine foods and drinking nice wine. But even if I had a really good figure I don't think I'd get my tits and ass out for no one. I don't rely on my figure to sell records."

Perhaps despite herself, Adele's life has been perfect fodder for a tabloid age. Starting with 19, which detailed the rise and fall of a previous relationship, she lived out her life in song. Her ups and downs – her breakup, her vocal-cord problems, her issues with her father, who sold his own story to the tabloids – turned her into a walking-talking reality show. "I'm a drama queen," she told Rolling Stone, and indeed her life in the past few years has had as much tumult as a VH1 reality series. "People have this feeling she's telling it to them straight," says Wilson. "You're going to get a journalistic report from where she's at in life."

At the same time, Adele has been almost MIA for a star of her magnitude -she hasn't plastered herself all over TV or toured nonstop. Some of that absence is for medical reasons: Thanks to the vocal-cord hemorrhage that forced her to undergo surgery last fall, she canceled a major U.S. tour in 2011. A potential 2012 tour was derailed after she and her boyfriend, Simon Konecki, a co-founder of the British charity Drop4Drop, announced this summer that she was pregnant. Her manager and label also decided they didn't want to oversaturate the market, so they made only two videos for 21 and avoided appearances on American Idol and its ilk.

Intentional or not, Adele's relative absence has created something rare in pop in the 21st century: a sense of mystique and a focus on the music. Years ago, especially in the pre-Internet era, pop stars weren't in our faces on an hourly basis. We didn't see them in commercials or television shows or in grainy TMZ clips. We knew what they looked like, but we related to them largely for their songs and records. Adele harks back to those days, and not merely with her Dusty Springfield bouffant. "She knows less is more," Stringer says, adding with a slight sigh, "We've lost our sense of aura, like we had 30 or 40 years ago. It's gratifying to know we can get across to people with just the power of music."

Adele's air of mystery may continue whether she wants it to or not. By the end of the year, she'll have a baby, and everything else will come to a halt for a while. Dickins says Adele might be working on new material at home, but the manager can't say for sure. Epworth met with her in London a few weeks ago and came away with the impression that making a new album isn't exactly high on her priority list. "I get the feeling she's not in the head space about making music at the moment," he says. Tedder has sent her a few new ideas for songs but isn't sure what will come of them, either. (At press time, Adele was rumored to be singing the theme song to the upcoming James Bond film, Skyfall, but a representative at Sony says such stories are "speculation.")

In other words, the follow-up to one of the biggest albums in recent memory will have to wait – Dickins expects at least until 2014 – during a social-media-driven time when long gaps between albums are viewed as career suicide. "She decides when and where," says Sony's Barnett as cheerfully as he can. "And that's her call." For the moment, Adele isn't commenting, but consider what she told RS last year: "I'm really happy to be me, and I'd like to think people like me more because I'm happy with myself and not because I refuse to conform to anything." All of which sounds pretty punk rock.

This story is from the October 11th, 2012 issue of Rolling Stone.

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