For most everyone, 2021 has been a long and lonely year. Pop stars, it seems, are no exception. Although music about heartbreak has been around for as long as there’s been music, this past year’s charts have looked particularly lovelorn.
Pop music has been a months-long opera of celebrity splits. We went from Olivia Rodrigo’s world-conquering “Drivers License” in January to Adele’s new album, 30, which she’s said is about “divorce, babe, divorce.” In between, Kacey Musgraves also dropped a divorce album and Taylor Swift rerecorded 2012’s Red, including a 10-minute version of the breakup anthem “All Too Well.”
On the podcast The Review, Shirley Li, Spencer Kornhaber, and Sophie Gilbert discuss how these albums approach loss and why 2021 was the year of the breakup album. Listen to their conversation here:
The following transcript has been edited for length and clarity. It contains spoilers.
Shirley Li: Today we're talking about Adele’s new album, 30. But since it continues the theme of breakup records this year, we thought we’d go into that trend a little bit as well. There’s Kacey Musgraves’s divorce album, Star-Crossed; Taylor Swift’s rerecorded breakup album, Red (Taylor's version); and of course, Olivia Rodrigo’s Sour, which kicked off this big year of big emotions. But before we get into all that, let’s talk about Adele. You know, Adele is, in her own words, talking about “divorce, babe, divorce,” on the album 30. Spencer, a while back you wrote about how it’s a good idea to think of Adele as akin to a blockbuster-film franchise. What makes Adele such a powerhouse?
Spencer Kornhaber: We live in this era where we don’t have that many huge stars that everyone can agree on. But there’s nobody who unites grocery stores across the country quite in the way that Adele has for more than a decade now. And she’s done it by being a really classic, traditional-minded musician who also brings a certain amount of personality and pop chops to a very familiar brew. And she’s been out of it for a while now, and she takes enough time between her albums that whenever they’re released, it feels like a major event and the world stops and everyone has to at least listen to it once to have something to say about it. And so, here we are at 30. Each of her albums are named for the year of her life in which she created them.
Li: Yeah, she has described the way she names her albums as a way to let the listener know that these are snapshots of her life. Sophie, what do you think is the key to Adele being such a powerhouse?
Sophie Gilbert: Her voice is insane. Her heartbreak is potent. And what makes this album really interesting to me is that, typically, her albums have been about the pain that she feels because of someone else. Whereas with 30, it’s really about the pain that she feels that she has inflicted on herself and her family. It’s about her wrangling with feelings of unhappiness in her marriage and her desire to break that marriage up, and then her feelings of guilt over her son. It’s kind of a solipsistic album in that sense. It’s much more about: How am I feeling? How should I feel? Is this my fault? Like, what is a person supposed to do in this situation? And I did find this sort of wrangling with that in song to be really compelling.
Li: The opener is called “Strangers by Nature,” and it starts with that incredible cinematic line: “I’ll be taking flowers to the cemetery of my heart.” And it sounds like something out of a classic movie musical score.
Kornhaber: There is something very cinematic about the way the album unfolds and tells a story over time. It does that by moving through a bunch of different styles, and some of them are quite modern and almost shocking to hear from Adele. There’s that one song, “Can I Get It,” produced by Max Martin and Shellback, the Swedish producers who wrote all your favorite Britney Spears songs. It has whistling and breakbeats. It’s a total corny dance song and I kind of love it.
Li: It is so corny, but also so chaotic because you go into this album expecting it to be divorce ballads all the way through.
Kornhaber: Yeah, there was one song, “Send My Love,” on her last album, 25, that I feel sets the tone for this new album. It’s rhythmic and dancy, and more interested in being a modern pop song. And there are a couple of those kinds of tracks in the middle of this new album that are like: “Hey, record label, look; I’m still trying to make a hit.” And then that gives her the license to record five songs that are longer than six minutes that just exist only so that you can cry to them in the shower.
Li: I’m really curious about what you thought of the voice notes sprinkled through the songs on this album. Adele incorporates these voice notes that she recorded, I believe, partly as a therapeutic exercise to explain why she’s feeling what she’s feeling. She recorded conversations with her son, Angelo, and they are such intimate voice notes that are sprinkled through this song that’s addressed to her son. And I wonder what you think about it, because Adele is this artist who can capture every single emotion in a single breath, right?
Kornhaber: It’s a little “tell, not show,” right? And artists often do little skits or monologues in their albums. But Adele tells her story with the emotion in her voice, and this felt like an attempt to say, “This is a concept album. I’m really telling my story.”
Li: Sophie, what do you make of them as the one parent on this podcast?
Gilbert: Well, I do want to thank Adele for giving us the instant classic of a sentence, which is: “Mommy’s been having a lot of big feelings recently.”
Gilbert: If I could get that in GIF form somehow, I could use it in every situation in my life. I found the voice memos really devastating. I felt like a voyeur because she does keep her son out of the spotlight and keeps her family life very private. And so, to have access to this moment where she’s trying to explain the drastic upheaval of her child’s family, it felt a little uncomfortable to me, but also really, really sad. And I’m sure that’s what she was going for.
Li: I think my favorite track from 30 is “To Be Loved,” but that’s also a track that she has said that she will not perform live, that even when she listens to it, she wants to cry.
Kornhaber: It is such a doozy. Yeah, that’s a song about how she walked out on this relationship and it’s like, Did I do the right thing? It’s a weird emotion to hear someone work out in a song.
Gilbert: Yeah. That line “I’ll be the one to catch myself this time” feels like a good motif for the album—that she’s maybe been relying on other people for emotional strength that she needs to find within herself, as we all do.
Li: We all could use what Adele is singing about it. And we should also zoom out because, as we mentioned at the top of the episode, this album comes after a string of divorce or breakup albums this year. In a single year, we went from Olivia Rodrigo singing about her very first heartbreak to Adele singing about divorce. We went through a lifetime of relationship drama in 2021.
Gilbert: Is it COVID? Is COVID breaking everyone else up because they’ve been forced together? I mean, that’s basically what happened with Kacey Musgraves, right? She blamed the pandemic for giving her no distractions from her marriage and forcing her to assess what was not working within it.
Li: I’m glad you brought up Kacey, because I do think that one of the tracks on her divorce album, Star-Crossed, called “Good Wife,” was written at the very beginning of that marriage. And when you listen to that song, you’re like: “Oh, this is someone with a lot of doubts about marriage.”
Gilbert: Yeah. And it has kind of a strange idea of what marriage is, like that template of the ’50s housewife who stands by her man, which obviously I know is a country staple. I love this album and I know Kacey has said Sade is one of her inspirations, but she also has this similarity to Sade, where she doesn’t have a lot of emotion in her voice. So it’s this fascinating album that expresses all these emotions, but in an almost flat, slightly numb way.
Kornhaber: That’s such a good way to put it. I’ve always enjoyed Kacey. She’s always been a chill, easy listen that I don’t have a very passionate response to. And that’s maybe kind of why she’s been popular in this era. You can put her music on your Spotify playlist and it usually fits in. She’s clever and modern, but without ruffling too many feathers. And so it’s really interesting to hear her now talk about this disruption in her life and try to articulate a really specific story. I thought it was very cool how this album is her stepping outside of her own life and analyzing it.
Li: Yeah, she’s become a very vibes artist. On this album, though, I think she sold it a little too heavily as a big divorce, Romeo and Juliet–inspired album. It’s titled Star-Crossed. It comes with a whole visual album. And so I went in with these high expectations for big emotions, but because it was a vibes-y album, it felt like going into a Christopher Nolan movie and then getting a rom-com.
Li: I don’t have anything against rom-coms! The more I’ve listened to Star-Crossed and set aside the way it was sold, I can enjoy it.
Gilbert: One of the issues that goes along with what you were saying, Shirley, is that the album is divided into three acts. The first act is supposed to be about the issues, then the middle act is the breakup, and the final act is catharsis and coming to terms with things. But it’s hard to see it that way when the general tone is so “I’m getting divorced, but everything’s okay.” It makes it a little harder to feel the drama of that structure.
Li: Yeah, it is inherently sad that here’s an artist who’s trying to convince herself that she’s absolutely fine. But you can’t quite get that from the music when everything’s almost jingle-y. Like, a song like “Easier Said,” where the message is just: Boy, love is easier said than done!
Gilbert: (Laughs) Yeah, that’s a fridge magnet, not a song.
Li: Yes, but in the scope of there being so many breakup albums this year, the ones that don’t go into big emotions are also valuable on their own.
Gilbert: Right, we have Adele for crying in the shower, and we have Kacey for playing in the backyard barbecue where we bitch about our exes. And so with that in mind, how are we listening to Red (Taylor’s Version)? While scrapbooking?
Li: When you’re knitting a scarf?
Kornhaber: Yes! So this is Taylor Swift’s rerecording all of her albums to get back at a business rival. She did her 2012 album, Red, and added a 10-minute version of the most devastating song on it, and everyone got in their breakup feelings for a few days in October.
Li: Her entire rerecording project really depends on that nostalgia for where you were at those times.
Kornhaber: The project has taken on its own life, where every six months now, Swift’s fans worldwide get to do another lap around the memory circuit and revisit their favorite albums, and Taylor gets to make another play for making those albums a hit again. And with Red, she’s really done an extraordinary thing of placing a 10-minute-long song at No. 1 on the Hot 100 and performing on SNL and making everyone cry to this 10-minute song. It’s like something that’s literally never been done before on the level she’s done it. What do you guys think of that song?
Li: Oh, I’ve listened to it a lot. We were talking about Spotify Wrapped [the music streaming platform’s year-end summaries for users] before hopping on here, and I don’t know how it skyrocketed into my top five. But what’s so fascinating about Taylor is that these songs don’t sound significantly different. She has more mature vocals. Some songs she’s fiddled with the production, but mostly what’s interesting about what she’s doing is the packaging around these songs, the way that you market music in 2021 versus in 2012.
Like when a track from 1989 started trending and going viral on TikTok, she released Taylor’s version of that song. That’s a big shift in the way that she has to sell these rerecords versus the way she sold these albums when they were first released. It’s fascinating to me. And this is where I’ll bring in Olivia Rodrigo. She kind of came out of nowhere in January with “Drivers License,” a ballad about a breakup that you don’t really see being No. 1 on Billboard for eight weeks straight. Everyone was in a Big Emotions phase in the pandemic, but it also really sparked something in Gen Z on TikTok. It’s just got this dizzying array of emotions that captured people’s imaginations.
Kornhaber: Yeah, I’m particularly confused about the era that we live in and whether it’s an earnest era or an ironic era or an era that is completely beyond those paradigms. Olivia Rodrigo is this Disney Channel star who most adults had not heard of until January of this year, when her song started smashing chart records and amazing everyone because it’s really slow and sad and she sounds on the verge of tears, and it’s about ... getting your driver’s license? And it’s like: Well, I guess we were ready to feel some things!
But Olivia Rodrigo is a huge student of Taylor Swift, and at least part of what the success of her career came from is her incredible ability to blend music and art with the sheer power of gossip. This was a breakup single, allegedly about another Disney Channel star, and there was another young star involved in a love triangle. And that gave it a little bit of the activation energy that you need to have a hit. And of course, Taylor Swift, with this reissue of Red, we’re all talking about a relationship that ended at least a decade ago with a movie star I will not name.
Gilbert: What I find so interesting is that Taylor Swift had such a remarkable 2020. She dropped those two albums, Evermore and Folklore. She’s 32 now, and she’s expressed frustration in the past that she’s often been reduced to this figure of drama with her personal life. And yet here she is, after making these two albums of pretty incredible artistry that stepped out of the personal narratives, but now here we are in 2021 and suddenly all we’re talking about is the breakup of this relationship that lasted for three months when she was 20. And I know that there’s a choice in that and I’m sure there is something savvy in courting TikTok with: My life has ended because my boyfriend of three months broke up with me.
Li: I do think that she’s kind of caught between a rock and a hard place, though, right? Like because part of this is a business decision that she’s molded into a moral argument, this project of rerecording her old albums. But then part of it, too, are these vault tracks, like a 10-minute version of a fan-favorite song. All of this is for the fans, and I believe she’s been trying to express in interviews that, to her, “All Too Well” is no longer a song about that breakup. It’s a song celebrating how far we’ve come together.
Gilbert: But that’s just not true! There are new lines added about how his new girlfriend is the same age that she was then when she was too young.
Kornhaber: Taylor Swift is the ultimate breakup artist. And if you’re going to revisit your catalog, you’re going to have to reckon with the breakups in it. But part of what I really love about the rerecording of Red and the 10-minute “All Too Well” is that they really emphasize how, all along, this music was about reassessing something in your past. And what is a breakup piece of art about if not trying to impose a narrative on something that was kind of messy?
These songs are about nostalgia. They’re about feeling like you were in that car with your hot boyfriend, remembering particular fights and trying to figure out who is right. And there’s something universal in that we all kind of go through that process. But, you know, she’s also such a savvy celebrity that she’s going to put the little bacon bits of gossip in there.
Li: The great thing about breakup albums is that they validate the big emotions you have. I keep saying “big feelings” over and over. But it’s also specifically this year, these past two years, really, when it feels like the rest of the world is spinning kind of out of control. There are so many other impactful and tragic and horrible things that a breakup can feel like something you shouldn’t really bring up. And so, I’m glad that there’s this music that kind of validates how sad you are about personal things versus the bigger picture.
Kornhaber: It’s also music about being alone, right? And that’s something that we’ve all had to think about a lot. These are all works that are like: Yeah, maybe it was nice to be with someone else, but you know what? There’s something really righteous about making it on your own.
Gilbert: Like Adele says, she’s not used to being lonely.