Adele performs at Etihad Stadium on March 18, 2017 in Melbourne, Australia. Credit: Graham Denholm/Getty Images

What happened to sex, drugs, and rock’n’roll?

Music today is anodyne compared to the heydays of Britpop and the sixties and seventies

Artillery Row

This week, Adele, the “multimillion-selling British music star” (as her publicity might call her) or “the cheeky North London pop songstress” (as the late, lamented Smash Hits would undoubtedly have described her), releases her new album, the imaginatively titled 30. Admirers of the Adele Adkins oeuvre are unlikely to be disappointed. Lyrically and musically, the songs revisit well-worn territory of emotional desolation and heartbreak. Some of their titles even verge on the self-parodying; they include “Oh My God”, “Cry Your Heart Out” and my own favourite, “I Drink Wine”. The album will undoubtedly sell in the tens of millions. The tour next year will be, predictably, massive.

Whether 30 is any good or not is essentially an irrelevance. As an admirer of Adele’s first two albums, I knew that the jig was up when I heard the launch single, “Hello”, for her third album, 25. It felt precision-tooled as a big number for an X Factor contestant to belt out, which they duly did. It was produced and co-written by Greg Kurstin, a “pop phenomenon” who specialises in working with leading female singers: his past and present clients include Lily Allen, Pink, Sia, Britney Spears and virtually every other chart-topping artiste of the past two decades. (There is also, bizarrely, a Scott Walker — Scott Walker! — production credit from 2018 lurking, too.)

Any manager or record label boss who sends their client into the studio with Kurstin knows what they are buying into: carefully tooled, high-velocity mainstream pop music, of the kind that sells, or to be more exact, streams in huge quantities, and can be cross-platformed into film, television and advertising. And, yes, into whatever talent shows still exist, although thankfully we seem to have seen the retreat of the Cowell-fronted ones, for the time being at least. The songs remain vastly popular, even as their performers rise and fall, and they represent the peak of modern craftsmanship.

Yet there is also something depressing about their rote competence, where the often chaotic brilliance of British talent and the music that it produced has been subsumed to bland competence. As with the similarly dispiriting Marvel production line, individuality has left the building, and eccentricity wasn’t even allowed through the door. In their place is a cynical pandering to expectations. Listeners know exactly what they are going to get from an Adele album in 2021. The only question, really, is how well it’s executed.

Currently, the UK’s most successful musical exports are Adele, Ed Sheeran and Coldplay. Broadly speaking, Adele gets a very easy ride from music critics and commentators, whereas Sheeran and Coldplay don’t. This stems in large part from Adele being a working-class woman (albeit one who now lives at a level of luxury and privilege that the vast majority of her fans could only dream about) and Sheeran and the Coldplay quartet being middle-class men, many of whom are privately educated. While Adele’s “Gor blimey, I might be living in Beverley Hills, but I couldn’t half murder a Maccy D’s with lashings of HP sauce on the chips” routine often feels like social kabuki, she at least can claim a degree of authenticity, that all-important currency, which her countrymen and chart rivals simply cannot.

They are the artistic equivalents of a meal in Pizza Express

It would be unfair to direct an ad hominem attack towards Sheeran simply for his appearance and demeanour, so let it merely be said of him that, despite his fame, success and, presumably, limitless stylist budget, he still comes across as an oddly unassuming figure who has won a competition to be a globally famous pop star, rather than someone who has captured the zeitgeist through his intrinsic brilliance. And the Guardian music critic Alexis Petridis, a consistent though by no means wholly dismissive sceptic when it comes to Coldplay, remarked in a review of a recent concert of theirs that “If you thought their early Noughties releases dealt in windy generalities, they sound almost painfully acute and incisive next to the later stuff”. Naturally, Sheeran appeared as a special guest at the same concert.

From a marketing perspective, it is easy to understand the continued popularity of British pop music’s Holy Trinity. They are undemanding, unthreatening figures whose music soothes and comforts, rather than challenges, and whose singers all mostly or wholly eschew alcohol, let alone other recreational drugs. They are the artistic equivalents of a meal in Pizza Express or Sheeran’s favourite, Nando’s; predictable, perfectly pleasant and mostly forgettable. The stranger, angrier legacy of British music is nowhere to be found.

Of course, many of the megastars of yore still continue to have careers. Whether it’s the Rolling Stones (sadly now without Charlie Watts), Paul McCartney or The Who flying the flag for veteran Sixties musicians or the younger likes of Damon Albarn, the Gallagher brethren and the great Jarvis Cocker continuing to write, record and tour, there are still iconoclastic and interesting figures producing new music, often to dynamic and thrilling effect. Sometimes, of course, they can end up sinking their careers. And, interestingly, British female stars have had nothing like the same longevity; unlike the likes of Patti Smith, Madonna and Debbie Harry, people such as (the admittedly reclusive) Kate Bush and Annie Lennox are barely seen or heard from these days.

A once-great British export that now has all the dynamism and excitement of a trip to Centre Parcs

But with the decline in record sales and the resulting rise in massive live performance, the entire industry has become geared to those who – like Sheeran, Adele and Coldplay – can sell out worldwide stadia without blinking. In order to achieve this kind of globe-conquering success, the songs have to be relevant to audiences from Chicago to Cape Town, meaning that the lyrics have to be blandly universal, with the music largely consisting of self-consciously anthemic singalong choruses. Musicians have to become brands, as universal as Apple or Netflix, and less challenging than either. And those of us who still mourn the loss of truly great British musicians are left with little solace or consolation.

Adele might sing that she drinks wine, or at least used to. If something more interesting doesn’t shake up the industry in the near future, we’ll need a rather stronger substance to come to terms with the continued banality and mediocrity of a once-great British export that now has all the dynamism and excitement of a trip to Centre Parcs. Where, no doubt, the ubiquitous troika of Adele, Ed Sheeran and Coldplay can be heard day in, day out, without respite, or hope of salvation.  

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