At this Sunday's Grammys, many eyes will be on Adele, the stormy British belter who's up for six trophies, including Record, Song, and Album of the Year. Her performance on the broadcast will be her first television appearance since she had vocal cord surgery in November; if "Set Fire to the Rain" remains at No. 1 on the Hot 100, she'll bask in the glory while sitting atop the U.S. singles chart. The night could serve as a coronation for her, a victory lap after a year in which her second album 21 sold millions of copies, her singles "Rolling in the Deep" and "Someone Like You" were added to iPods en masse, and she graduated from being a Winehouse-come-lately to an artist of her own with a singular artistic vision and aesthetic that captivated consumers around the globe.
But based on the stories that have been coming out during her recovery from the surgery, when she hits the stage on Sunday night, quite a few people will probably be scrutinizing her appearance as closely as they do her ability to hit the big notes in the wake of her recovery; there are murmurings about it now, ones that Karl Lagerfeld made explicit by calling her "a little too fat" in the context of being asked about the similarly retro-styled chanteuse Lana Del Rey. If Adele emerges from her hiatus looking substantially different than the way she did during 21's promotional blitz–which is to say, if she's lost a noticeable amount of weight–expect tongues to wag and "Has Adele's weight loss made her a new woman?" headlines to pop up.
Which shouldn't surprise too much. As a woman in pop, of course, she's subjected to the same scrutiny that inspires so many hateful blog posts and BEACH BODIES EXPOSED!! coverlines on tabloids. The difference is that up until now, Adele's weight, which, while not public in terms of lbs. is certainly higher than that of her fellow pop starlets, has set her apart; descriptions of her with adjectives like "classy" and "mature" are common, a not-so-subtle way of saying that even though she's 21 years old and in heavy rotation on the radio, she doesn't wear skintight clothing or sing about getting down and dirty like other women who are currently on the charts. But what would happen if she did? Would it alter peoples' enjoyment of her songs? Would she seem less relatable? Would the chattering classes take her attempts at sexiness seriously at all?
One of the common adjectives used to describe Adele is "authentic," a lightning-rod term often used by people to differentiate the artists they like from those they see as shallow or somehow lesser, and to differentiate themselves from those who consume pop culture's lighter, or more cynically crafted, offerings. Her soul-throwback songs and rich, expressive voice are chief among the reasons for this; her aesthetic brings to mind the pre-MTV era, or at least the era where people were able to enjoy pop music before being made being aware that they were being sold a packaged product. Despite her using some of the same songwriters-for-hire as "fake" pop stars (OneRepublic's Ryan Tedder co-wrote "Rumour Has It"; Semisonic's Dan Wilson assisted on "Someone Like You"); despite her being reared at the UK performing-arts academy the BRIT School, like Jessie J and Leona Lewis; despite her having stylists and publicists and all the other accoutrements befitting a chart-topping global star who can actually coax people back into the habit of buying music, this narrative about her still persists. (Her resistance toward Twitter was also cited by people looking to heap cred points on top of her; unfortunately for them, she broke that fast while recovering from her surgery.)
But there are just as often times when discussions of her authenticity are rooted in the way she looks. She gets hailed for not dressing "slutty," for not throwing down aggressively sexual songs like Rihanna's "S&M" or Ke$ha's "Grow A Pear"; instead she sings of heartbreak and vengeance, her steely voice building in intensity and blossoming as she sorts through her emotions while exquisitely outfitted in tasteful black lace, her hair perfectly coiffed. The intensity of emotion with which she sings can mirror that of a good roll in the hay.Singing of romantic travails also makes her more relatable to women, in a way, because she's not talking about how she's luring men in with her looks, she's creating a heroine who can serve as a projection for even those with the lowest self-esteem. Her relative stateliness brings back a time when vocals trumped images; that her popularity hit its peak the same year that The Voice, which similarly prioritizes sound over vision, landed in America is probably not an accident. The codes of the club–tight, short, loud, hyperactive–are completely separate from her allure.
But what if she were to sing of sex in an explicit way–perhaps not running to Dr. Luke's compound for beats, but talking plainly of pleasure a la Anita Baker's sumptuous "Sweet Love," or Sade's "Your Love Is King"? One can imagine the snide gossip-blog posts lining up to take potshots at her, to declare that they just couldn't believe that anyone would have sex with her, and that songs like "Rolling in the Deep" were, while enjoyable, inevitable anthems for someone so dimpled and unlovable.
The Package Of Adele sticks out from the rest of the pop pack in all sorts of ways–sonically, thematically, and visually. It's such a cohesive, individual whole, in fact, that it's hard not to wonder if altering any one part of it might cause the rest to strain and buckle, throwing the whole picture slightly out of whack.
Adele's forthcoming trip back into the spotlight might very well put this theory to the test. Back in December, Adele tweeted a photo of herself getting "back on the grind." Her hair was swept up and her eyeliner was in place, but reactions about her appearance were swift, and the cheering wasn't so much for her feeling better as it was for her shrinking. Us used "slim" as the first word in its headline; Celebuzz exclaimed "Whoa, Adele is down in the pounds!" in its lede. These exclamations and assertions both put aside the basic relationship between having surgery on one's throat and not eating as much, and instead elevate the point that Adele's pop stardom means that her body is something that'll be commented on by the peanut gallery no matter what situations it gets in.
"I wish we didn't have to discuss how the big girl is a big girl all the time!," says Jessica Wakeman, a blogger for the female-centric pop-culture blog The Frisky. "While I understand that entertainment is an image-based industry, it's annoying to read articles or blog posts that always make remarks about her physical appearance. Do we always have to say the black girl is black? Do we always have to say the redhead has red hair? "
Well, in today's media environment, where a pop star walking down the block can inspire a thousand photo galleries, the answer is probably "yes." Particularly when those physical that set pop stars apart from one another can be latched onto more easily than, say, discussions of song structure or vocal timbre; in some ways pop fandom has become a sort of sport, one accelerated by the Internet, where chart positions and image changes can allow stars to accrue fantasy points.
In an age where the weight-loss-program endorsement is something of a rite of passage for female celebrities with curves, Adele's physical self is as much a part of how she's perceived by listeners as her throaty bellow on "Rolling in the Deep"'s chorus. The key will be whether or not she looks those people gazing at her right in the eye, maintaining the resolve and strength that's made her music so relatable and special to listeners all over the globe, both in the music industry and outside of it.