The following piece originally appeared as a feature in the Sunday Commentary of the Richmond Times-Dispatch on December 11, 2011.
When you listen to the British singer-songwriter Adele croon her smash hit “Someone Like You,” it really is as if the whole world – with its inglorious, break-neck speed – suddenly stops. Of course, genuinely feeling the contours of Adele’s masterpiece depends on having enough lived experience to be able to arrange the complex narrative of human love in precisely that way: “Sometimes it lasts in love, but sometimes it hurts instead.”
Although the microphone and the moment are hers, what has the stage and what seemingly gives the song its transcendent appeal is this earthly clash between Hope and Melancholy. Two familiar foes, as it were, they passionately fight for us – pulling and yanking in an undying tug-of-war along the vast landscape we call Love.
This explains, in part, why I found myself at turns smiling and laughing as little Zoe and little Ada covered Adele’s hauntingly beautiful ode on the stage of the school gymnasium at Linwood Holton Elementary in mid-November. How else are we to respond when children sing: “You know how the time flies/Only yesterday was the time of our lives”? That is indeed a very old melancholy to be entrusted to the voices of two third-graders brimming with hope.
Culturally speaking, I suppose you can easily draw a direct line from American Idol (and its sibling talent shows) to the first Holton Talent Show, sponsored by the PTA. Such is the American environment and thirst for entertainment and achievement. Not to mention youth. We simply cannot get enough of performance – especially star-making performances.
And on this night, surrounded by a flash-mob dance number featuring Holton teachers, a groovy cover of Gnarls Barkley’s “Crazy” by an all-white jam band and a stirring rendition of Sam Cooke’s “A Change is Gonna Come” from a fifth-grade African American student, Zoe and Ada’s performance stood out. Eight-year-olds were translating Adele, herself all of 23, for the grown-ups in the room. It was the stuff of child’s play, except it wasn’t child’s play in the least.
I heard that you’re settled down/that you found a girl/and you’re married now
Recently my six-year-old daughter revealed a significant secret: she told me the name of the boy she wants to marry. Naturally I took her decision in stride, given the balance in our savings account and what my daughter doesn’t yet know. But she did emphatically proclaim that this boy has the most beautiful hair she’s ever seen.
Hearing Adele’s rueful sense that “The One” got away, that marriage was involved and that another woman has necessarily left her out of this equation was more striking, more penetrating, because two young girls were relaying the lyrics. Sorrow, which has a tendency to become bigger than our lives, was somehow better contextualized and made to appear more to scale through the medium of a child’s adult rendition. They know not what they sing, right?
Regrets and mistakes, they are memories made/who would have known how bittersweet this would taste
When children begin to speak way out of their league, it is mostly undeniably charming. For instance, the day before Thanksgiving, my five-year-old son shared that he will no longer be responsible for hunting the turkey, killing it and cooking it; the work is exhausting and he is officially retiring. Of course, he’s never had any of those jobs, and when he was asked to recall Thanksgivings past he launched into an impressive yarn in which, as a three-year-old, he walked alone to Bryan Park, shot the great bird, picked off its feathers and later stuffed it into the oven for dinner.
The story had our family thoroughly – joyfully – bemused, which is exactly how I responded to Zoe and Ada. Two children were imploring me to transform my view of regrets and mistakes – consider them memories, if you will. They were channeling the mature realization that broken relationships are often bittersweet. Love’s story was way out of their league, yet somehow the charm worked and I was laughing and smirking – at myself.
I had hoped you’d see my face/and that you’d be reminded/that for me, it isn’t over/Nevermind, I’ll find someone like you
Here Adele’s words are perhaps their most soulful. They cannot help but emit a relentless hopefulness, something that is strong and from a deep place. It is as if these particular words stare down melancholy with a persistent, optimistic glare. Yes, very much like a child.
Listening to Zoe and Ada try desperately to bring the soul from a deep place, I was reminded of those funny E*Trade television commercials. You know, the ones in which an adult’s voice humorously inhabits the body of a baby, who is in diapers but also thumbing a smartphone, wheeling and dealing his portfolio. In the girls’ case, however, they inhabited the adult, and what their voices described in that moment remains more heart-wrenching than stocks and bonds and more substantial than getting rich.
At the Holton Talent Show, in the middle of an otherwise average adult week, it was always going to be about form and content. In the end the children were singing our songs. They were interpreting our difficult longings and ever-present questions.
And how is it possible that their music can have such a peculiar, lingering effect on us? Because they are – this should come as no surprise – someone like us.