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Adele: girl power 2.0

The music industry's number one commentator Jo Whiley examines how Adele is leading the new wave of talented and fearless singers taking charge in the world of music.

"Standing on stage at the Brits in February this year in just a simple black dress and with only a piano for accompaniment, Adele Adkins sent a shiver down everyone’s spine and in the process became a bona fide worldwide phenomenon.

I was in the audience when the 23-year-old sang Someone Like You that night. Suddenly the whole place sat up and took notice. We were under her spell, listening as her voice cracked with emotion, willing her not to mess it up. Of course she didn’t; she delivers every single time.

What we were witnessing was raw, unbridled talent and everyone knew it. While many performers put on a show with troops of dancers and every trick in the book, she blew us away with the power of her voice. And that’s what music is all about. No wonder her performance went round the whole world on YouTube – viewed by over 42 million people of all ages and musical tastes who fell in love with her.

To date, Adele has won a Brit, two Grammys and has had 49 award nominations. Her second album 21 sold its 10 millionth copy in early September. And after a similar show-stealing performance at the VMAs in America on 28 August this year, she made history by jumping from number 19 in the Billboard Hot 100 to the number one top spot – the biggest leap ever. Even Beyoncé says going to an Adele gig is “like listening to God”.

What’s even more remarkable is that she’s done it entirely on her own terms. She hasn’t given into the usual music industry pressure to writhe around on stage in skimpy clothes. Yes, she’s got the lashes and the big hair but she’s not wasting away on some diet – she won’t even talk about her body image in interviews. When she welcomed us to her flat for a Live Lounge recording, she wore a pair of leggings and black top even though she was being filmed. She’s not a package, she has no agenda other than music and that’s why people love her – she’s a normal girl not styled to within an inch of her life. She’s not compromising.

Adele must have a core of steel to stand her ground like this. I love the idea she’s got the biggest bosses in the biggest record companies in the world calling up and saying, “Please headline Glastonbury. Please play the O2,” and she’s refusing point-blank. That’s seriously impressive. I can’t tell you the amount of pressure she would’ve been under because that’s where you make money these days. But she won’t be bullied. I know it’s partly because of nerves but it’s also because she knows her music – her art – suits smaller, more intimate venues. And I love the fact she’s broken America but when she goes over there she flies her mates out with her too.

But it’s not just this. Along the way Adele has helped usher in a new era for women in music, an industry that has traditionally had very little time for them. While it took 21 years for a female solo artist to top the UK album chart, in 2011 women occupied the number one spot for 25 of the first 29 weeks.

How ironic that she openly cites the Spice Girls and their ‘Girl Power’ message as an influence. Older people like me were immensely sceptical of the ‘Girl Power’ message, cynical that it was a gimmick dreamt up by men manipulating younger women. But Adele was nine when Wannabe was released and became genuinely obsessed with them – I know, I’ve been to her flat and seen the evidence. There are pictures on her walls of all her friends dressed as the group – Adele naturally chose to emulate Ginger, the loudest Spice. To me, there’s a delicious irony in the fact that their manufactured message has brought us one of music’s most celebrated genuine talents.

She has no agenda other than music. That’s why we love her

What Adele has done, like Gaga and Beyoncé Stateside, is create her own brand of, not Girl Power, but women’s strength. This club is for grown-ups only. These honest, uncompromising divas want to be recognised for the music they make and that’s the most important thing to them.

It’s not that there haven’t been any women on the scene in the interim, of course. We’ve had huge-selling groups like All Saints, consistently incredible female artists like this year’s Mercury Prize-winner PJ Harvey and Britpoppers such as Justine Frischmann of Elastica and Skin from Skunk Anansie – all fierce, talented women.

We’ve also been exposed to the cynical inner workings of the music industry thanks to shows like The X Factor, the birthplace of Leona Lewis. There’s something soulless about this and I think that’s why people are embracing music with true integrity now. We know when something’s been created like a musical Frankenstein’s monster and equally we know there’s real, raw talent coming through. We knew it with Amy Winehouse and Lily Allen, with their spiky lyrics and tell-it-like-it-is attitude, and we know it with Adele. I can still remember how great it was when those three broke through and suddenly women were dominating BBC Radio 1’s Live Lounge.

And now we have a huge tidal wave of women in the charts, from Florence Welch and Jessie J to Ellie Goulding, Katy B and Laura Marling. And newbies like Lana del Rey and 15-year-old Birdy.

What’s more, you just know there are more great things to come from Adele. Despite the emotion in her performance, I feel she’s still holding back a little bit. She hasn’t laid herself bare, like perhaps Amy and Lily did. I want to hear her write more songs. The stories are just going to get stronger and stronger. I have no doubt she will have a great legacy long after she’s gone. She is in the same class as a legend like Ella Fitzgerald.”

The Jo Whiley Music Show begins on 21 October at 10pm on Sky Arts 1

Picture credits: Rex Features