Newly bleached blonde bouffant a little askew, Adele Laurie Blue Adkins clasps her hands at her waist and begins to dish. "I came home from touring with my first album, and I caught up with some friends, trying to be all posh and stuff," she tells a rapt audience. "A nice lunch, some cocktails, pretending we were in 'Sex and the City.'" She pauses and tilts her head. "I'm a Miranda"-the show's brainy, pragmatic but sexually liberated character-"don't know about you, girls... and boys!" She winks, clicks her tongue and then reflexively cackles, the most guttural, life-loving cackle, rumbling from the diaphragm. She tosses her hair back, plants her hands on her hips and explains why the song she's about to sing -- "Rumor Has It," from her multiplatinum second album, "21" -- was written as a tongue-in-cheek "fackawff" to friends with the wrong idea about her love life. Then, Adele launches into the song, a Motown-invoking blues number that showcases the scratchy kick in the back of her vocal runs.
That's a clip from the DVD "Adele Live at the Royal Albert Hall" (released Nov. 29), a document of the zippy 23-year-old singer cursing and wisecracking in one of the world's classiest venues. It's also a microscopic view into why Adele has captured the imagination of the world.
This year, pop music was dominated by pop art. Superstars Beyoncé, Rihanna and Lady Gaga each released albums that embodied their blown-out extravagance, and wore outfits to match. Katy Perry embarked on a never-ending, "Candy Land"-themed world tour, and Nicki "Barbie" Minaj tried on as many personas as she did multihued wigs. Pitbull and Jennifer Lopez proved a glitzy techno formula could work across markets, and even veteran diva Gloria Estefan reached into the stars, enlisting the Neptunes to produce her first album in four years. Taylor Swift, princess of diarist lyrics, veered increasingly toward Hollywood, while her peers in Lady Antebellum coated their new album in pristine Nashville gloss. Lil Wayne emerged from prison with a brand-new album, which was talked about just slightly less than his outrageous leopard-print pants. The world seemed coated in multicolored costumes and conceptual videos. In many ways, 2011 resembled a classic David LaChappelle photo shoot, rainbow-colored and just a little bit fantastical.
But then there was Adele, who represented something like austerity. She's raw in every way, whether regaling fans from the stage or channeling emotion through her unforgettable alto on wax. She's a quintessential BFF; warm, intimate and personable even when she's entertaining thousands. She idolizes Bette Midler, who at first may seem like a curious role model for a woman of her young age. But they're both larger-than-life, consummate entertainers, playing up their brassiness to their advantage. It's the kind of swag that carries a career across decades.
"Adele knows how good she is. You can't underestimate that. Artists that tend to work long term, most of them tend to have a clear-cut idea of who they are," says Rob Stringer, chairman/CEO of Columbia Records, her U.S. label. "Adele can kind of do it all. She's never cocky... but she doesn't fear to tread, ever."
Still, how did a hyper-real, refreshingly thick, British singer manage to captivate -- and subvert -- a notoriously difficult American pop audience? On her sophomore album, no less, and two years after her debut? This year, "21" became this year's No. 1 seller in America (4.8 million units sold, according to Nielsen SoundScan) and in the world (13 million copies worldwide, according to the label) in just 11 months. It's a testimony of "21's" broad appeal, which blends earlier soul and gospel influences with traditional country music, a style she picked up while playing in the States with a tour bus driver from Nashville.
"She said she wanted to make an organic album that was of one sound, not a patchwork quilt of different-sounding tracks pieced together," says Rick Rubin, who recorded and produced the bulk of "21." "Her songwriting and voice unifies the album."
Clearly the secret to "21's" success: Virtually anyone can relate to the album's gut-wrenching heartbreak story. Adele is a real girl, down to her vintage dresses and average body size, and superstardom doesn't exempt her from earthly troubles.
"I'm never self-conscious and never have been," Adele writes in an email. (She's recovering from throat surgery that removed a benign polyp from her vocal cords and was instructed by her doctors not to speak.) "The thought of changing yourself or toning yourself down, or up for that matter, to please someone else seems ridiculous to me."
Her confidence translates to the audience. "She has a natural ability to communicate things in an honest way," says Richard Russell, head of London-based XL Recordings, where she signed in 2006 after the label discovered her on Myspace. "In a world where things have gotten so incredibly complicated, and overdone, and overpackaged, and overthought, overwrought-what you get with her is her personality and her music."
Still, there was also a remarkable amount of strategy involved in breaking Adele this big, and a battle plan that ultimately hinged on an unusually long lead time, practically unheard of for a major-label artist of Adele's stature.
Rewind to June 2010. After taking a full year to pour the remnants of a crippling breakup into "21," recorded in Malibu, Calif., with Rubin and in London with Paul Epworth, Adele was ready to play it for her labels. The album was initially scheduled to be released in November 2010, but after hearing it, Columbia chairman/COO Steve Barnett made the key decision to push its release to the top of the year, giving the label a full six months to set up a strategy.
Having the music that far in advance was a coup, so the team at Columbia used it to its advantage, taking the album (and sometimes Adele) out to major potential partners to preview.
"We didn't expect to sell this many records, but everybody knew it was brilliant," Stringer says. "Now did we think that it would sell 2 million, 1 million? That wasn't the conversation. But everybody thought it was great, so we went out on the road and played it to five retailers in three days."
The music was undeniable, and when Adele was present-whether at manufacturers or TV stations -- she charmed every staffer into oblivion. "She was literally sitting in the middle of a conference room with the staff of VH1, pouring them tea and asking them what they thought," Columbia director of video promotion Grace Lee says.
Early on, the Columbia team concerned itself with reaching out to loyal fans of Adele's first album, "19" -- particularly those Americans who'd come onboard after learning of her two Grammy Award wins in 2009 (for best new artist and best female pop vocal performance) or who had seen her on high-profile TV gigs, like her 2008 "Saturday Night Live" performance (when she shared the stage with then-vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin). Columbia's marketing department began licensing as early as October, and by December it had locked in a deluxe deal with iTunes. The team also landed an exclusive release with Target, with bonus tracks that included a cover of Lady Antebellum's "Need You Now," performed with Darius Rucker and excerpted from the CMT show "Artist of the Year."
So, by January, when "Rolling in the Deep" hit radio, retail mechanisms were already long in place, and the track was gaining steam at triple A. In the three weeks leading up to the release, Columbia's digital marketing team, lead by VP Kathy Baker, launched the viral campaign "21 Days to Adele," which ultimately garnered more than 150 million impressions; the ferocity of her online fans perhaps even surprised the label a little. Touchstone Pictures had integrated the track into a key scene of its teen sci-fi film, "I Am Number Four," and was using it in the trailers.
Meanwhile, the PD for Clear Channel's top 40 WXXL Orlando, Fla., added "Rolling in the Deep" immediately upon hearing it, setting the stage for Adele's eventual takeover of pop radio. "It took on a momentum of its own," Columbia marketing manager Erika Alfredson says. "All of the hard work we'd done over the past six months paid off. Once the album came out, the ball started rolling, and it's been rolling ever since."
By the time "21" was released, "Rolling in the Deep" was playing on eight different radio formats: adult top 40, triple A, adult contemporary, top 40, R&B/hip-hop, adult R&B, alternative and rhythmic, amounting to 3 billion in cumulative audience.
It's a nice mile marker: 4 billion more to go, and technically, everyone in the entire world will have heard "Rolling in the Deep." No wonder that the still-unnamed ex-boyfriend who inspired 21 began sniffing around for royalties. In May, Adele told the Sun, "He really thought he'd had some input into the creative process by being a prick. I'll give him this credit: He made me an adult and put me on the road that I'm traveling."
One would think he'd be satisfied with being the subject of such a ubiquitous emotional paean as "Someone Like You," "21's" second single. In early November, "Saturday Night Live" staged a skit in which an entire office staff -- and musical guest Coldplay -- played the agonizing breakup piano ballad from a cubicle and simultaneously wept empathy tears. Clearly the song is omnipresent, having infiltrated the American pop culture so well that it's already ripe for parody. But the skit also spoke to its resonance, playing on the idea that even skyscraper window-washers must stop mid-squeegee in order to take in the song's full emotional heft.
"Her power or ability to turn something into a message that other people can understand is so important," says Epworth, who produced and co-wrote three songs on "21," including "Rolling in the Deep." "She writes very close to the bone, and sometimes just says it in a way that hasn't been said before."
This year also yielded a devastating loss to music: The death of Amy Winehouse in July, at the age of 27. She was, of course, a pioneer for a clutch of white, British soul singers who came after her, including Adele (who has also worked with Mark Ronson, the producer who helped Winehouse shape her Back to Black album). But more important, Winehouse shared that "close to the bone" impulse. It's something Adele recognizes -- she dedicates a song to her in "Live at Royal Albert Hall"-and appreciates.
"[Amy] created herself. That's what inspired me. I see no appeal in having a very specific plan as an artist. Who fucking cares if people don't get it or don't like it? I'd rather trust myself, to like what I've done and stick to my guns than make music I don't like, wear clothes that don't suit me and flutter between genres because I'm scared I won't be relevant if I pass my 'sell by' date," she says. "Amy tattooed that in me. She made music because she was good at it and wanted to. And she was a huge artist who was always a bigger fan. That's why I gravitated toward her and listened when she sang and spoke... Or snarled."
For the rest of the year, Adele will refrain from performing as she heals from her surgery. But aside from a few live dates she missed, winding down was the plan, at least until the Grammy Awards in February, where she is clearly a favorite. "The surgery couldn't have gone better," Adele says, "but because I was singing with damaged vocal chords for three or four months and because of the surgery and because of the silence after the surgery I now have to build myself back up vocally. It's going to be a lot easier for me to sing now. And mentally I won't be worried about my voice onstage anymore. So I have to get used to that. That'll take most of January, so February I'll be singing properly."
She may have major-label backing stateside, but she approaches her life and career like an indie artist-deliberate, personable and without pretense-and she is mindful of never overexposing herself, according to longtime manager Jonathan Dickins. "Strategy plays a part, but at the end of the day, it comes down to Adele," he says. "People relate to that voice and to those lyrics. That's 95% of why people connect with this record."
And because people realize it's not a ruse -- "21" is the album of the year because it reflects who Adele is. Rather than going to celebrity-studded parties to rub shoulders with people -- "who know me but who I don't know. I'm Z-list when it comes to that shit" -- the singer prefers a more low-key lifestyle. "One of the things that sets me apart from other artists who have had the same kind of success is that my life isn't speculated about. And you can't escape that, which makes you more high profile whether you want to be or not. I feel very lucky that that isn't really part of my life. Then again," she says, "I did do a tell-all on my record anyway [laughs]. I'm incredibly private but I'm also incredibly honest, and that creates a kind of 'meet in the middle' respectable ground."
The third and final single from "21," "Set Fire to the Rain," is No. 37 on the Billboard Hot 100. "Someone Like You," in its 22nd week on the Hot 100, is No. 6. And "Rolling in the Deep," now in its 48th week, is No. 36.
"When we signed this artist, we said this would be one of the most important signings ever for Columbia in America," Stringer says. "That's what we said. We've signed very bad artists, and really good ones. But we just knew there was something unusual. And the truth is, she has made more right decisions than most artists I know."
Adele says that right now she's not working on new music, and she might not release another album for quite some time. For the moment, she's enjoying her time off. "I'm just going to lay some concrete, set up home and just 'be' for a bit," she says. "I'll disappear and come back with a record when it's good enough. There will be no new music until it's good enough and until I'm ready."