The Adele Machine

‘Hello’ confirms it: She’s unstoppable.

Chris Pizzello / AP

Earlier this year, the global music industry moved the agreed-upon weekly date for new releases to Fridays. This robbed poor little Tuesday of its one ensured moment of cultural excitement and also placed music in the same context as new movies: entertainment meant to usher out the week, to accompany Saturday and Sunday fundays, and to be declared a flop or hit by Monday morning.

This Monday’s report: Movie-ticket sales did terribly in the past three days, perhaps because potential filmgoers shut themselves into dark rooms alone and put Adele on repeat. The British singer’s new single, “Hello,” came out Friday morning, broke one-day streaming records on Spotify and Vevo, and appears on track to set a benchmark in the category of one-week U.S. digital song sales. It easily beat competition from a new Justin Bieber song, smashed a record recently set by Taylor Swift, and has already been viewed on YouTube far more times than the Star Wars trailer released a week ago.

It might be helpful to think of Adele as akin to a blockbuster film franchise herself. 25, the album that “Hello” previews, is explicitly the culmination of a trilogy, the Return of the Jedi to 19’s New Hope and 21’s Empire Strikes Back (Adele has already said that the next album won’t be named after her age). And it’s being marketed in a way that has more in common with current Hollywood models than the now-vogue music strategy of ambushing the public with an album and then doing the marketing push afterwards: Adele’s song and CD release dates have been announced in advance, with TV commercials and publicity coordinated to raise awareness.

What’s more, “Hello” sounds like a sequel, which is to say the same as before but bigger. The ingredients are recognizable—piano, orchestra, that enormous voice, that enormous heartbreak—but the ratios are ever-so-shifted away from risk-taking and toward ensuring further dominance. Like Michael Bay ladling in more explosions with each Transformers iteration, Adele and co-writer/producer Greg Kurstin engineer a pyrotechnical hook delivered twice per chorus; each of the song’s three choruses lasts about 50 seconds, and each is under-girded by percussion and strings creating ever-greater amounts of drama. It’s a standard ballad formula, but the way “Hello” alternates from hushed verses of almost no instrumentation to big, walloping crests of sound is a move away from the somewhat inventive spirit that characterized much of Adele’s previous work. “Rumor Has It” or “Rolling in the Deep” crashed around, grooved, and felt a little more variegated; “Someone Like You” featured a lively and distinctive piano part throughout, with a chorus defined far more by the vocal melody rather than production.

Which is not to say that “Hello” doesn’t feature wonderful vocals. Adele’s as powerful as she’s ever been, jagging her voice upwards and downwards for contours sharp enough to remind us why we call pop melodies “hooks” in the first place. The lyrical conceit, about wanting reconciliation with a long-ago friend or lover, escapes banality through very Adele-ian and very relatable self-effacement—when she says “It’s so typical of me to talk about myself,” it almost comes off like shade toward other pop stars’ conflation of vanity with empowerment. And the motif of the word hello is kind of perfect as pop-poetry: It works within the context of the song, the forthcoming album, and Adele’s comeback narrative.

The commercial dominance of “Hello” owes to all of these things, as well as pent-up demand for the particular brand Adele represents. Pop history has shown that initial sales for albums are often referendums on the success of an artist’s previous release, and Adele’s 21 is one of the most successful albums in history. Plus there’s the fact of market differentiation: To anyone who says they wish for less-manufactured stars than those usually topping the charts, Adele is there—no matter how calculated the roll-out, the song construction, or the producer credits on the forthcoming album (Max Martin and Shellback produced track No. 2). Her brand is set and solid; her instincts and choices so far seem impeccable. The only suspense about 25, right now, is over just how big it will be.