Performances That Pop: Adele at the 2011 BRIT Awards

There’s romance in the idea of one performance changing your life.

The idea suggests that everyone, regardless of skill or talent, is a hair’s breadth away from making it. It reinforces the “grind” mentality of working hard to manifest that performance. It promises destiny or fate. Your performance was written in the stars; you just don’t know when it’ll come. (The romance often doesn’t account for the institutional barriers and eased paths that play a silent but substantial part.)

Some of the best life-changing performances come from their passivity. The performer isn’t doing anything particularly special or different from their repertoire. However, the weight of their talent comes into sharp focus. Their talent is so undeniable, so clearly defined, that it knocks you off your axis. It’s the performance you realize that person is unique, and everyone else realizes it too. That realization hits so heavy that it changes not only the artist’s life but also the rules of pop music.

Adele at the 2009 Grammy Awards (Courtesy: The Recording Academy)

By the time Adele took to the BRIT Awards stage in 2011, she was at least a known quantity in most music circles. “Chasing Pavements” peaked at #2 in the UK as part of the British pop diva wave that included Duffy and Leona Lewis. She won 2 Grammys for the song, besting her peers, and performed on the main stage. However, 19 didn’t foretell record-breaking, industry-shaking success. “Rolling in the Deep,” the lead single from her follow-up 21, peaked at #2 upon its release. Impressive, but not indicative of anything spectacular at first blush.

The music world didn’t realize the impending juggernaut, “Someone Like You,” was coming. The album’s closer and second single is a soul-crushing lament of lost love. The nakedness of its emotion is still astonishing a decade after its release. Over a simple yet unforgettable piano melody, Adele sings about missing her lover, who’s moved on to another. She remembers and regrets plainly, before shifting into a chorus that serves as comfort, defiance, and desperation. The emotional nakedness of its lyrics and Adele’s performance is astonishing to this day. Pop isn’t supposed to get this deep, this honest.

Adele chose “Someone Like You” to sing instead of “Rolling in the Deep.” It was surprising, bold, and the most inspired choice of her career. After an introduction from pre-Carpool Karaoke James Corden, Adele stood alone with her piano accompanist in the middle of the O2 Arena. She lowered the tempo just a hair, giving her the space and time to register every word with the enraptured audience. When she hits the chorus with the vocal power of a steel battering ram, there is no escape.

There is no escaping the maelstrom that Adele creates with her voice and lyrics. Every feeling of “Someone Like You” is heightened and brightened by that sparse, steady arrangement. The sadness, anger, weakness, and strength are all there. The emotions overwhelm even Adele. Her power is constant, but her voice wobbles from the middle onward. It’s as if she is fighting hard against the wave that’s already consumed the rest of us. She holds it together just enough to finish the song, tilting her head towards the piano in a bid to recompose.

Adele’s soul-stirring performance of “Someone Like You” at the BRITs clarified her role in pop music for the British public (and the rest of us who watched on YouTube). She would be our emotional avatar, putting heartfelt words and exceptional voice to what we can’t process alone. How advantageous was it that 21 covers the full scope of pain that follows a breakup? Each song is relatable, even though they are borne from specific experiences. The album is excellent in its own right. In the context of the trust that Adele inspired through her performance, it is a vital record of the 21st century.

Adele’s sophomore album, the best-selling 21 (Courtesy; XL Recordings/Columbia)

Following the BRITs performance, “Someone Like You” became Adele’s first UK #1 single, staying on top for five weeks and selling over a million copies. In the US, 21 debuted at #1 with sales of 352,000 copies and remained in the top five for a record 39 consecutive weeks. “Rolling in the Deep” peaked at #1, as did “Someone Like You,” following a similarly-staged performance at the MTV Video Music Awards. By the end of the album’s promotional run, it topped the charts in over 30 countries and sold 31 million copies worldwide.

There is no definitive proof that Adele’s BRITs performance directly led to 21’s global success. Still, it feels like the moment changed everything for her and the music industry. That performance defined Adele’s artistry with a jolt. It showed that we could trust her to make us feel when needed. That trust manifested in the kind of global adulation that very few artists ever achieve. It’s hard to imagine that happening without the BRITs performance. 

If you could describe one performance from the last 20 years as life-changing, it is this one.

You can view more articles in the Performances That Pop series here.

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