It's been a meteoric month for Adele (21) and Eminem (Recovery). Their digital album sales, exceeding 1.017 million and 1.005 million respectively, have made music history. The artists seem to be a pair of space bound rocket ships aiming for the moon. But soaring success in cyberspace is not all they share. A closer look reveals they might be singing different versions of the same song.
Adele's powerful vocals and Eminem's innovative delivery open a window to emotions many of us have experienced -- rejection and the pain of unrequited love. Perhaps that's one reason why they're so popular. They remind us of our desire to belong to someone or something other than ourselves. And they remind us of what happens when our attempts at belonging backfire. We can scream with Eminem "love is evol." Or we can cry with Adele when she remembers her ex's wise words, "sometimes it lasts in love and sometimes it hurts instead." Rejection is the great equalizer. And rejection, quite literally, is painful for us all.
Adele's and Eminem's great popularity also owes itself to rejection's companion -- regret. We press the pause button on our own worlds just like we pause the songs on Adele's and Eminem's albums. We freeze time and exhibit some control. With life on pause we can walk freely through the past to search out answers and make sense of our experiences. We can decide whether we did anything to cause the rejection. We can relive the time we invested in our relationships. We can reconsider the promises we made. We can figure out what went wrong. And we can ask ourselves the age-old question: why does love hurt?
We hit play again. We hear Adele and Eminem providing distinct answers to our questions. What's more, we hear them modeling distinct methods of coping with heartbreak. And their models are anything but equal. They're stereotypically appropriate ways for women and men to deal with the ambiguities of complex emotions. Adele is often forlorn, resigned, upset and passive. Her reactions are often delayed. Eminem is often aggressive. He rejects rejection, denies reality and expresses emotional distress physically. Adele looks toward the future. Eminem remains lost to the past.
Sadly, these reactions are right in tune with society's stereotypes about men and women. Women are passive. Men are aggressive. Women are emotional. Men are logical. Women are weaker. Men are stronger. Women play it safe. Men take risks. Women hope. Men brood. The list goes on and on. We've all heard them before and we all know that they're limiting. So, why do these ideological shortcuts continue to sound so sweet to our ears?
One answer is pessimistic. Adele's just another weepy woman and Eminem's just another mad man. And their appeals to gendered expectations, like their riffs on affairs of the heart, are slippery. They're accepted and rejected. They're both driven by illusions and rooted in kernels of cultural truth. They're fraught with ambivalence. And our ambivalence is what makes them the stuff of art... and big business.
The other answer is optimistic. Those of us who don't fit in with those around us or don't belong to the ones we love can at least relate to Adele and Eminem. After all, they share in our pain of rejection and express it in ways that are socially sanctioned (at least most of the time). Maybe that means Adele and Eminem are wildly popular because they're simply supporting the status quo. But maybe these talented artists are providing a greater service to society. They're helping us fulfill the need for belonging by turning personal rejection on its head. Helping us figure out what we should be, shouldn't be, are allowed to be and, if we listen closely enough, what we don't have to be.