adele, by the numbers

on the most successful artist of our generation

If we’re talking about Adele, we should talk about her sophomore album “21, ” and if we’re talking about “21, ” a number, we might as well talk about other numbers. “21” has, for example, sold at least 28 million copies worldwide, with an estimated 12 million in the United States alone. This is remarkable for an album released in the 2010s; the music industry has been in a steady state of decline for about a decade, and album sales have dipped alongside the rise of services such as YouTube, Spotify, and The Pirate Bay: ways to enjoy your music without paying a nickel. For comparison, 100 albums went platinum (sold at least a million copies) in 2001; in 2012, only 10 albums did.

If you wanted to compare the sales of “21” to album sales from previous years, a fair way to do so is to compare market shares. For example, in the year 2000, The Beatles’ “1,” a compilation album, had a market share of about 1 percent worldwide, which means that for every 100 albums sold, one of them was “1.” The market share of “21” in 2011 was 2.4 percent, the highest for any album ever. If adjusted to the year 1999, a year with a much healthier sales climate, it sold an equivalent of 78 million. The best-selling album of that year, Santana’s “Supernatural,” sold about 26 million.

So by the numbers, “21” is the biggest album of all time worldwide. This is not hyperbole; “21” is literally the biggest album of all time. And we’re not even taking into account its singles, the number one hits “Rolling in the Deep,” “Someone Like You,” and “Set Fire to the Rain,” all three of which dominated the radio, iTunes, and YouTube. Even “Set Fire to the Rain,” which doesn’t have a music video, boasts the most-viewed fan-made lyric video ever, with over 300 million views.

Adele is well-aware of her impressive numbers: “I don’t think I’ll ever have more success with an album than I did with ‘21,’” she said in an interview with USA Today on Nov. 20. “Every album I ever make will be following ‘21,’ because of the impact it made.” In retrospect, this view was clearly pessimistic, considering how her follow-up, “25,” is already faring. Lead single “Hello,” which you’ve likely heard if you’ve wandered within 10 feet of a radio this past month, has broken the records for most digital sales in a single week, fastest Vevo music video to hit 100 million views, most Spotify streams worldwide in a single day, and many, many more. It’s overshadowed comebacks from Drake, Justin Bieber, and Ariana Grande, and the list of names continues to grow.

“25” is also the most preordered album in history, with upwards of 500,000 sales before release. Now it’s been released; at the time of writing this, seven songs from the album are in the top 10 of the iTunes chart. Billboard predicts it will sell upwards of 2.5 million copies in its first week, which would make it the largest debut of all time. [Editor’s Note: “25” sold 3.4 million copies in its first week.] This is a record that’s been held by *NSYNC, of all artists, since 2000, making it a record that generations of superstars, from Eminem to Beyoncé, have repeatedly failed to break.

Numbers aren’t all there is to Adele; she’s received impressive critical acclaim, from 10 Grammy awards to features on Pitchfork magazine. This begs many questions. What’s different about Adele that’s made her the most successful artist of our generation? How is she able to appeal to seemingly everybody, from the general public to music critics? Why is Adele able to sell a monstrous amount of music in a dying sales climate?

The obvious answer is her voice. Soulful, emotive, and oh-so powerful, Adele’s voice is what first got her noticed by the general public, when she performed “Someone Like You” at the Brit Awards in 2011, launching the single and her album to the top of the charts. With a voice like that, it’s easy to root for her; for those who care about talent, she’s a breath of fresh air for mainstream pop, and for those who don’t give a shit about that kind of thing, her songs, heavy on pianos and drums and little else, remain different enough to be interesting but not so obtuse as to be off-putting.

But Adele’s not the first singer to break through with her voice. Singers like Alanis Morissette and Norah Jones, known for their great voices and catchy songs, sold obscene amounts of albums back in the day. But those two fell off the radar quickly, arguably inexplicably, while “25” is shaping up to cement Adele as anything but a flash phenomenon.

Adele’s comeback defied expectations, logic even; a naturally private person, she’s been on the downlow for years, raising her child and recuperating from vocal cord surgery. And now she’s everywhere, performing on television, plastered on billboards, inundating the radio, charts, and Internet blogosphere. To answer those previous questions on why she’s so successful: I don’t really know. It’s a mixture of talent, likability, well-executed promotion, and luck. Adele’s not the first artist with this concoction, nor will she be the last, but her success is unmatched and inimitable.

It’s probably best to not overthink these things. After all, we finally have another Adele album, and the release is exciting even without the records it’s bound to break. I haven’t listened to it yet, but I have a long car ride tomorrow, which is perfect for such an occasion. I’ve read some reviews, many of which are positive, and I know my suitemate finds it pleasant. There’s also comedy to be found; an image of Target selling tissue packs next to copies of “25” has been circulating the Twitterverse. Memes have been made, with one of her conversing with Lionel Richie reaching mild virality.

By the time you read this, we’ll have had a few weeks to take in the album. All those records are nice, but it’s still the music that we will remember her for. She’s already written herself into the history books, and with “25,” she’s just looking for a way into your heart once more. And with all those numbers out of the way, hello again, Adele. It’s great to finally have you back.