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That’s for the American Revolution!

Cor blimey, guv, Adele’s only gone and shown them flash buggers across the pond what talent really sounds like.

Patrick West

Patrick West
Columnist

Topics Culture

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Adele’s double, middle-fingered triumph at last night’s Brit Awards, in which she was named Best British Female and won Best Album, was hardly surprising. The volume of her record sales in recent years bears testament to the wide appeal of this redoubtable contralto and her laments of defiance. The six trophies she picked up at the Grammys the other week had already confirmed this.

But her success and influence today cannot be gauged by awards or sales alone. For some she has become an icon of unpretentious, working-class sincerity and musical authenticity in an era of gloss, marketing and X Factor superficiality. Her award-winning album 21 was inspired, she declared prosaically, by ‘a rubbish relationship’. And she says the word ‘snot’ in public. Because of this, some regard her as a totem of unaffected, old-fashioned, cor-blimey-guv Britishness.

‘At the Grammys, Adele was a revelation, bringing back to America one of our authentic native genres: the spiritual power and purity of the human voice’, wrote Camille Paglia in The Sunday Times. ‘Many Americans stereotype Brits as theatrical swells with posh accents. Thus Adele is doing path-breaking work as a cultural ambassador… With her womanly dignity, her primal imagery of ocean, rain and fire, Adele has set a new standard for young artists by humbly returning to the richness of the past.’

The veteran feminist echoed the sentiments of TV and radio presenter Paul Gambaccini, who wrote of Adele this month: ‘she has not played the promotional games that are considered de rigueur in today’s business… Adele acted as if she feared that having her image captured on camera would steal her soul. She had one proper video made, “Rolling in the Deep”, relied on a televised performance of “Someone Like You” to virally publicise that song, and put out a concert clip of “Set Fire to the Rain”. Unlike almost every other major female star of our time, Adele has not launched a fragrance and does not have a fashion line.’ Thus, somewhat tongue-in-cheek, Will Hodgkinson in yesterday’s Times (London) described her as ‘the saviour of the music industry, the most successful artist of the decade, the last real singer amid a confederacy of fakes’.

Much in the way that the press used to remind us that Lisa Stansfield was from Rochdale, Adele is invariably qualified as ‘…from Tottenham’, an insalubrious part of north London better known for its rioters and (until this season) feeble football team. This, and the fact that she writes down her lyrics on her mobile phone, is meant to illustrate her conventional grounding. ‘Mum, girl did good’, she announced at the Grammys. Hell, she’s so normal she can’t even talk proper!

The British media lap it up when our musicians make it in the United States. ‘Grammy awards 2012: How America fell for Adele’, read the headline to Gambaccini’s article in the Daily Telegraph, which noted the previous success of Dusty Springfield, Duran Duran, and, more substantially, Led Zeppelin, the Rolling Stones and of course The Beatles. ‘What is unprecedented about Adele’s recent US takeover’, Gambaccini continued, ‘is the sheer magnitude of her triumph. The truly astonishing aspect of her success is that Adele has managed it as an American outlier.’ In the wake of Adele’s achievements across the water, a recent headline in the Mirror trumpeted ‘Look! It’s Adele on the cover of US Vogue.’ While yesterday, in anticipation of the Brit Awards, the Sun pronounced ‘This is a really exciting time for British music… so let’s CELEBRATE’.

‘With her subdued dress, appealingly modest demeanour and empathetic vocal delivery, Adele was in total sync with a crowd swaying between grief and joy’, waxed Paglia of the Grammys. ‘Lady Gaga, in contrast, bizarrely costumed with a tight veil and pretentious gold sceptre, looked repellently egotistical.’ This is exactly the kind of thing a British readership likes to hear. It pays homage to the hackneyed adage that Americans are vulgar and ghastly show-offs, and that we can play their own type of music just as well as they can.

That boring old cliché that Americans are culturally inferior to the British was reinforced as recently as last month on BBC4 in its concluding episode of The Story of Musicals. This asserted that Andrew Lloyd Weber almost single-handedly saved Broadway from going to the wall in the 1980s. For this reason, many Brits reacted with smug astonishment in the 1970s when discovering how popular Monty Python’s Flying Circus had become in the USA. The British had assumed that Americans were too stupid to comprehend anything more sophisticated than Benny Hill.

Adele’s success, and that of other British pop stars, only perpetuates an air of haughtiness that is unmerited. When British artists do well in the States, it merely exposes Brits’ seething inferiority complex towards a country which has been vastly more culturally influential in past decades – and which remains so. Like the fictional band Spinal Tap, performers and the media alike regard it of paramount importance to tap into America. This is why many were vicariously proud of Amy Winehouse when she made it there, and likewise disappointed when Britflops Oasis and Blur didn’t.

The British remain in envy of the United States. No amount of recent prognosticating rhetoric about China and India emerging as superpowers has diminished this. People wouldn’t give a monkey’s if Adele picked up an award in Beijing. Perhaps the defeat in the War of 1812 still rankles in the British collective unconsciousness. Why else was the arrival of British pop music in the 1960s (and 1980s) revengefully dubbed an ‘invasion’? We’ve never forgiven our own kin for becoming better than us, for disseminating our language throughout the globe, and displacing us from our rightful position as the rulers of the world. No amount of guff about Adele being ‘down to earth’ can disguise this.

Patrick West is a freelance writer based in the UK and Ireland. Read his blog here.

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