Communication Currents

Looking White, Sounding Black: Adele and Musical Authenticity

June 1, 2014
Theater & Performance

As images and commentary about Adele’s 2012 Grammy performance swept across the Internet, a complex audio-visual message emerged. While the singer’s body glowed white against her black gown and the darkened stage, the Internet questioned the meaning of her “black” sound—and these seemingly contradictory representations found an unlikely home alongside headlines touting Adele’s authenticity.

It may go without saying that Adele is white. Her fair complexion, blonde hair, and blue eyes are only exaggerated by the singer’s consistently black wardrobe. And Adele’s 2012 Grammy performance contrasted the singer’s brightly lit face and hair against a black background with lights so dim that her backup singers literally appeared as black shadows in the sparkle of Adele’s glowing skin.

But if race is generally understood visually, what does it mean to “sound black”? And how can a visually white person be understood as sounding both black and authentic? Answering these questions requires consideration of the music industry as a historically racialized space.

First, and perhaps most important, the idea of an essential quality of black sound is a social construction. In other words, we only understand particular sounds as black because we have been told (over and over) that they naturally emanate from singers we understand as black. This is intuitive if we think historically. White singers like Elvis Presley built their signature sounds from blues stylings, but the genre as a whole is still usually associated with southern black performers. The sounds themselves are racially linked only because we have traditionally understood them through a lens of race. This does not mean that white performers can’t imitate black sounds with immensely profitable results. In fact, this type of imitation has been a staple of the industry since its inception.

So decades before Adele entered the musical scene, the stage was set to frame particular sounds as black. Specifically, Adele’s sound draws from vocal characteristics of historical black singers like Ethel Waters and Josephine Baker who were known for performing songs slightly higher than their natural voice range. This technique, called “coon shouting,” strains the voice, resulting in a breathy or “fuzzy” sound often associated with vocal injury or pain. Though Adele’s signature sound carries a degree of breathiness that adds complexity and interest to the sound, this effect is most pronounced in the middle of her 2012 Grammy performance. At her first appearance since traumatic vocal cord surgery, Adele seemed to grow tired as she growled through the lyrics “played it” in the song Rolling in the Deep before adding a high pitched yelp to punctuate the physical struggle of the performance. This moment, coupled with stretches of breathiness and breaks in the musical line in which the singer quickly grabs a breath, aligns Adele’s timbre with historical black performers like Waters and Baker.

Of course, it is no coincidence that vocal injury and pain came to be understood as part of a black voice. If we understand some genres to be historically associated with black expression, then the characteristics of black music can be seen as growing from a “specific situation of not having”—in other words, the blues is a product of black pain. This is the point at which race and authenticity most clearly intersect. The racialized experiences of slavery, the Jim Crow south, and contemporary iterations of racial violence and discrimination led black performers to create particular types of sounds, sounds that were (and are) true and real expressions of pain and oppression. Pain can be understood as the intersection of black sounds and authenticity.

Much of Adele’s brand is explicitly linked to experiences of pain. As I discussed earlier, techniques of breathiness and growling vocal sounds communicate this type of pain through sound, influencing discussions of the singer’s “black voice.” But perhaps even more important, Adele’s persona is closely linked to her failed relationships, and this history of pain is often used to undercut claims that Adele’s performance of vocal pain is an inauthentic technique for increasing record sales. By insisting that Adele’s music is an “authentic” representation of her pain, rather than questioning the historical and cultural context of her musical style, discussions of the singer’s sound disguise the music industry’s tradition of exploiting the sounds of black experience for white profit.

Of course, the intersection of white and black performance is complicated. On one hand, Adele didn’t invent this type of performance, though she certainly profits from it. On the other hand, despite her success in racially ambiguous musical performance, Adele’s sound does not grant her full entrance into the most “authentic” realms of the music industry,historically dominated by white male alternative rock singers like Kurt Cobain. Instead, the singer’s awards solidified her position in the mainstream “pop” genre, often dismissed as a faddish foil to the authenticity of “real” musicians.

Despite the stubborn and complex issues of race and authenticity embedded in musical genres—or perhaps because of them—Adele’s 2012 Grammy performance offers a ray of hope. The context of “post-racial” culture, which is ambivalent at best and violent and dangerous at worst, has made real discussions of what race means difficult and unpopular. Though online forums have not always supported questions of Adele’s “black sound,” they have most often indulged such suggestions with reasonably thoughtful—and, in the forums I explored, rarely racist or hateful—responses. It is hopeful, then, that Adele’s performance of black sounds could mean more than simply a continuation of historical exploitation of black musical traditions for white profit. Thoughtful discussions of her performance could, instead, signal a willingness of consumers to examine the contexts and meanings of race within the music industry. 
By highlighting the shakiness of race in musical performance, Adele’s 2012 Grammy performance may have opened a space for thoughtfully considering what it means to sound black and look white. In a culture governed by assumptions about who is and who is not authentic or “real,” such a discussion may do more than sell records. It may, in fact, lead us all to question our assumptions about race, music, and authenticity’s role in defining and enforcing spaces of privilege. Doing so is a small, but necessary, move toward creating a more authentic—or at least more egalitarian—space for musical expression.

About the author (s)

Amanda Nell Edgar

University of Missouri-Columbia

Doctoral Candidate