Adele’s “Set Fire to the Rain” and Katy Perry’s “The One That Got Away” address longing, loss, and memory. They are hits by singers in full control of their abilities and who are clear about their aesthetic sensibilities. The songs also point to how complicated and expansive a field popular music can be because, no matter their superficial similarities, these two songs are profoundly different from one another, and they point to the gulf in artistic ability that separates these two talented performers.
Katy Perry is all winks and nods. She makes incredibly accessible music that nonetheless references the history of “serious” popular music that probably goes over the heads of many of her target audience. It’s hard to believe that her hardcore fans would love Radiohead as much the characters in her song did, let alone understand its reference to June and Johnny Cash. Those references are there as an ironic gesture to listeners who think themselves too sophisticated to like her uncritically but who “get” her music nonetheless. Just like the nostalgia of the song is tempered by an unobjectifiable irony, so too is most of her music delivered with a tongue-in-cheek sensibility that allows uptight listeners to enjoy it as the delightfully sweet foamy froth it’s supposed to be. She also always seems to be working at the edge of her talent and the lack of seriousness also betrays a lack of faith on the part of the singer to deliver something straight. There’s probably a good reason for that. Those moments in which she opens up her throat and really sings, like when she repeatedly yodels “the one” in this single, are really the worst part of her music. The strength of her work lies not in her technical mastery; rather it lies in the lightness of her touch, which allows us to love her music without ever taking it seriously.
You have to take “Set Fire to the Rain” seriously. This song does not invoke the history of popular music, it makes itself at home in it. This is music that would make Dusty Springfield happy and jealous. Adele does not work in nods or references. There is something very sincere and vulnerable in her music. Her imagery is dark and anguished. She sings: “I set fire to the rain/And I threw us into the flames/When we fell, something died/’Cause I knew that that was the last time, the last time.” The pain feels immediate and recent, and yet we are at the same time raised by it. It’s paradoxical but the pain that the song expresses fills you with joy because of its expression. This songs makes the emotional tourism of emo music into a mass experience: it makes us all happy to be sad. But it does this while still holding something in reserve. Surely it paints its picture in broad strokes but it does so without quite reaching the level of melodrama. This has to do with the texture of Adele’s voice, I think. She can convey the subtlety of emotion with understated phrases. She keeps from using the full strength of her voice in order to draw a fuller emotional picture. This is ultimately what separates her from Katy Perry: even while holding something back for the sake of her music, Adele can climb heights impossible for Perry.