What Was Adele Doing on Saturday Night Live?

NBC

It’s been almost five years since Adele Adkins released new music. Her last album, 25, delivered emotional, vocally masterful, classicist pop just in time to soothe listeners during taxing election seasons in the U.S. and U.K. An excellent Saturday Night Live sketch back then even posited that her hit “Hello” could be the one thing to bring together feuding family members at Thanksgiving dinners. Continuing Adele’s streak of blazing commercial success, 25 ended up being the best-selling album in the world that year.

With campaign stress—and the melancholic chill of sweater weather—in the air again, now would seem an ideal time for listeners to be comforted by her voice once more. Earlier this year, Adele told congregants at a wedding that 25’s follow-up would arrive in September, but that month came and went without any new music from her. There was, however, one tantalizing bit of news: Adele was booked to play last night’s SNL. Today, her status as the queen of heartbreak remains intact; the role she played was not musical guest but teasing, affable, yet ultimately unmemorable host.

“My album’s not finished,” she said early in her monologue, after raising the question of why she wasn’t going to play music in addition to hosting. “I’m also too scared to do both. I’d rather just put on some wigs … have a glass of wine or six, and just see what happens.” Fair enough, but then why bother to show up at all? The answer isn’t hard to guess. Hosting SNL is a chance for Adele to make like some other pop titans of our era and keep her celebrity status intact without rushing the risky, taxing project of trying to match her past musical success. After all, in the social-media era, an entertainer’s personality can be their product.

Luckily for everyone, Adele’s personality is a delight. Although her music consists of solemn storytelling about the perils of romance, her affect in interviews, behind-the-scenes footage, and even royal ceremonies over the years has been loose and jokey. The phrase loves to laugh is a cliché, but it really does seem to define Adele as a human being.

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So there was something viscerally lovely about seeing her pop up in sketches like the one in which a group of friends—in the year 2019—visited a fortune teller. The predictions they received were puzzling ones about dreary social isolation and Zoom mishaps. As Kate McKinnon’s hammy psychic looked Adele’s character in the eye and spoke of a future inexplicably filled with adult coloring books, Adele appeared to be biting her tongue so as to not crack up.

Fans of Adele’s singing did get a concession in the form of a sketch imagining Adele—the actual, famous Adele—as a cast member on The Bachelor. While other contestants tried to woo their hunk with chitchat, Adele broke into her hit singles—including “Rolling in the Deep,” “When We Were Young,” and “Someone Like You”—at inappropriate times.

The bit was funny because it relocated the high drama of Adele’s music into the banality of a reality dating show. But the actual point of the sketch was to prove that Adele could still sing (as if anyone had doubted it) and to remind people that her catalog includes some absolutely walloping choruses (as if anyone had forgotten!). In emphasizing her songs’ bombast, the sketch also cut a contrast with the hypnotic cool of H.E.R., the R&B singer who ably served as the night’s official musical guest.

The danger of trying to maintain one’s likable brand via SNL, however, became apparent late in the show. Adele, McKinnon, and Heidi Gardner played divorced women advertising vacations to Africa, a continent that their characters seemed to use for sex tourism. As McKinnon’s character cooed a list of amenities that included “tribesmen,” Adele totally lost composure. She laughed—or stifled laughs—through almost the entire segment. It can be charming to see entertainers break character (see: Jimmy Fallon’s entire career), but given that the sketch arguably reveled in the same colonialist attitudes it tried to mock, it was a weird time to chuckle uncontrollably. (Not helping with the backlash now unfolding on social media: Adele’s recent Instagram picture that many followers felt showed her treating Jamaican culture as a costume.)

Beyond that sour moment, the episode will go down as a blip both in Adele’s career and in SNL’s history. Less than two weeks before an election that, according to early signs, could break voter-turnout records, SNL’s political fare last night was strikingly meek. The cold open was even more forgettable than the debate it sent up, with Jim Carrey continuing to play Joe Biden as a collection of facial tics and suppressed rage. The only jolt of energy in the sketch came from McKinnon’s Rudy Giuliani, who worried that he’d been caught in a Borat trap again. Later, a fake ad fretted that Americans will have nothing to talk about if Donald Trump leaves office. Many viewers might have wondered if SNL was really fretting about itself, even though seeing the show send up Trump hasn’t been very enjoyable for a long time.  

“Weekend Update” at least had some fun by staging a mock Village People concert to comment on Trump’s use of “YMCA” and “Macho Man” at his rallies despite the band asking him not to do so. SNL’s Village People sang insinuations about Trump and Jeffrey Epstein, and then leveled a threat to shave Ivanka Trump’s head. When the “Weekend Update” anchor Colin Jost objected to the band saying such incendiary things about the first family, Kenan Thompson’s cop-crooner character explained, “Hey man, everything is legal if you sing it in a song.” Fact check: untrue—though, as Adele knows, having a beloved music career does buy you a lot of goodwill.