The numbers have rolled in for Adele’s new single “Hello,” and boy did they roll deep. She’s obliterated a digital downloads record that was previously held by Flo Rida’s mindless DJ-sex masturbatory radio fodder “Right Round.” And “Hello” is by no means a traditional radio banger, it’s a tangled yarn of the grief-rage that fuels most of her music, bolstered by some whale song Enya harmonies. The song debuted at #1 on the Hot 100, marking her fourth #1 song so far, and racked up streaming records that are only comparable to meme-event songs, like Baauer’s god-awful culture-appropriating “Harlem Shake.”
“Hello” has streamed over 60 million times total, with 20 million people accessing it via streaming services, which, for context, is double the streams that Justin Bieber’s new single “What Do You Mean?” earned in its first week. Over a million people bought the song in an age where owning a whole album has become meaningless to most people, let alone a solitary song. So why does Adele move us in this way?
Adele’s songs tap into the raw and raging wildness of the human experience. Numbers aren’t everything, but they speak to the magnitude of people who are interested in her particular form of grief. Here, the scope of that mourning has shifted. The initial songs that connected for Adele “Someone Like You,” “Rolling In The Deep,” and “Set Fire To The Rain” dwelt in a specific, finite frame. “Someone Like You” is probably the closest to the eternal grief that fills “Hello,” but her earlier song hinges on that never mind right before the chorus, flipping into a settled grief gone cold, one that accepts the loss of a partner and how they’ve given themselves over to a new life. It acknowledges that we all have those moments when we desperately want the past back, but surges forward toward the possibility of something better, of being with someone who eclipses the past.
“Rolling In The Deep” erupts out of the fiery, fevered anger that follows initial sadness; when you creep to the edge of the deep, dark abyss that is your former lover and peer down into its most awful parts, those you hid from yourself when you were in love. It rolls around in the pathos of what almost happened, if only your lover had been stronger, better, more loyal, loved you more. “Rolling” confronts the truth of an ex’s flaws while still projecting his or her perfect potential on a screen in your mind. It’s also delicious because it’s anger as pop self-actualization, a promise of revenge even if that revenge just means healing and believing in your own power again.
“Set Fire To The Rain” is one step closer to the doomed relationship’s existence, and is about savoring and mourning the last connection, the last kiss, the last time love made every one of the elements seem like they existed in your own personal blazing storm. These songs are immediate, of the moment, and born of the raw initial stages of heartache. “Hello” is different.
Part of why “Hello” succeeds is because it comes to us on the heels of those three songs. We’re primed for the areas of our heart that Adele lords over, we know what she’s going to make us feel. Now is probably a great time to note that she also possesses one of the most beautiful voices currently in existence. You can’t teach a voice to feel, you can’t teach a voice to be velvet, familiar and regal. It’s a gift, it’s luck, it’s as much up to chance as love and death are. Her voice is part of the love story; it’s the blind beauty of an unexpected encounter. Her voice isn’t just her vocals either, every song written by Adele is full of this enormous, marvelous drama. She believes in the majesty of her own feelings, her songwriting honors how deeply she loves and hurts and breaks. There’s never a word in her songs that feels stilted or overwrought, they’re simple, concise stories of a woman in love. Stories of a woman who believes the movements of her heart are eternal and deserve to be preserved.
“Hello” is eternal, even as it grounds love in the mundane, everydayness of a telephone. Powerful breakup songs tap into the immediacy of an audience going through similar situations, but it’s the backstory of “Hello” that makes it even more universal. Everyone who has lost love probably wishes for one more conversation, one more message. “Hello” has taken time, but feelings haven’t changed. It is not born of the initial jaggedness that comes with a breakup—no one to text, no one waiting for you at home, the “how could you” of separation—”Hello” is an old wound that won’t scar. As much as we like to believe in the ability of time to save us from ourselves, sometimes it can’t. And even if it can, most of us are still in the middle of waiting for the relief of a scab. But a scab can be flicked away easily, and this is the kind of song that transports you back into the fullness of old aches and pains. It has the exact, startling effect that a message from an ex out of the blue has. And technology — namely our phones — has increased the potential for those messages to appear more often than ever.
Pop radio has had an obsession with phones in the last few years, ironically, as our phones have become the source that a large majority of people use to interact with music. A phone is full of the same eternity as the relationship Adele tries to mourn in “Hello.” There’s always the potential that even after days, months and years, you could get a message. Things could change. Someone could reach out. We live with the possibility of reconciliation in our pockets at all times. We live a few keystrokes away from reconnecting with the ones that abandoned us. Our phones have become the lifeline to those we love, and in some ways, a representation of our love. As long as we have the possibility of connecting, how can we fully move on? “Hello” wraps the eternity of a grief that won’t heal in the immediacy of a phone call. She’s combined the timelessness of a forever broken heart with our very modern obsession with phones. Of course, this also explains our immediate revulsion at her flip phone—doesn’t Adele know we’ve moved so far past that? We have touch screens now, baby! But that flip phone is just as emblematic of this song’s appeal as the lover you can’t let go of: Remember how it once was? The flip phone asks. Remember when you loved me like this?
We remember, 60 million times over.