By SEAN DALY
Times Pop Music Critic
Right in the middle of Super Bowl hoopla and the Republican primary and fervent Oscar overkill, the Recording Academy giddily trumpeted its most relevant news in almost a decade:
"ADELE TO MAKE MUCH ANTICIPATED RETURN TO THE STAGE ON THE 54TH ANNUAL GRAMMY AWARDS."
If watercooler chat that day started with whispers of Mitt, Manning and Moneyball, by noon it was about Brit neo-soul belter Adele, who hasn't performed in five months due to problems with her vocal cords. Her 2011 album 21 was tops last year with 5.82 million sold. That more than doubled the No. 2 seller — Michael Buble's smarmtastic Christmas — and was pivotal in helping album sales increase, even if just a smidge, for the first time since 2004.
Not even Lady Gaga could do that.
And to think the woman born Adele Laurie Blue Adkins keeps her clothes on, doesn't drop f-bombs and stays out of the tabloids. Despite all that, 21 has remained No. 1 on the Billboard charts longer than any album since 1993's The Bodyguard soundtrack — 18 weeks and counting.
And that's just in the United States. In the U.K. Adele has sold more than 4 million copies of 21, and you better believe a global audience will be watching Sunday night when Adele returns to the stage to prove she can still unleash that gospel-tinged R&B gift.
Such is the cross-generational multicultural allure of the 23-year-old broken heart from North London. Young girls love her; but dads and granddads of young girls also bought 21 and its biggest hit, Rolling in the Deep, in great buzzing numbers.
"Adele is the perfect Grammy ambassador: Her music sounds young but feels old," says Popdust.com editor in chief Craig Marks, a former top editor at Spin, Billboard and Blender now running the popular online music site. "She doesn't promote an oversexuality, which is usually the place where female pop stars are put in these days. We haven't had someone like her in a while. She feels real, and there are always people who want what they love to be authentic."
That is exactly what the Grammys want to hear. After all, this is the very same awards show that, in the dubious year 1990, named Milli Vanilli best new artist. Adele allows the Grammys and the music industry to feel good about themselves again. And that's been a long time coming.
At first glance, Adele's success is an anomaly when you consider the pop universe over the past decade. The 21st century has been ruled by Britney Spears and American Idol, heavily processed cheese that, no matter how enjoyable, makes you somewhat guiltily wonder just what you were consuming. Is that really Britney singing? Did my vote for Clay Aiken really count?
But Adele, as compared to many of her predecessors, is startlingly authentic. She doesn't look like a Barbie doll; she looks like us. She is the evolution of another world-turning star, country singer Taylor Swift, whose diary-entry songs and tabloid titterings are what passed for authentic and real and grounded the past few years.
Sure, Adele and Swift are on the same boy-bashing page; 21 is all about Adele's failed relationship with a man 10 years her senior. But whereas Swift's popularity skews young and mainstream, Adele transcends age and in-crowd boundaries as well.
"We sell her CDs and LP a lot," says Kristin Stigaard at Daddy Kool Records, a bastion of the pierced and tattooed in downtown St. Petersburg. "Sometimes the most random people come in and ask for the album — people I'd never think would like her. And guys! Guys like her! Indie crowd, older crowd, younger. Over Christmas, everyone was buying her. She's amazing."
Last year Adele was forced to scrap a series of U.S. concert dates, including a sold-out Orlando stop, when she developed severe problems with her vocal cords. She had surgery in November. Her spot on Sunday's Grammys — the runt of the award show litter, still nursing accusations of being out of touch — will be Adele's first public appearance since her surgery.
The 2011 Grammys posted their best ratings since 2001, with almost 27 million people tuning in to see what Gaga, Eminem and Cee Lo would do. Along with performances Sunday from Rihanna, Coldplay and Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band, Adele should make this year's show a must-see event.
"21 is a blockbuster, the size of which people weren't sure the music industry could still have," adds Popdust.com's Marks. "It feels organic, and that makes people feel better about themselves. Is she going to be the Titanic of the Grammys and sweep all the categories?"
She just might.
Adele is nominated for six shiny trophies Sunday, including album of the year, and both song and record of the year for Rolling in the Deep. The Grammys love to fawn over top sellers, especially in a year when the music industry had a miraculous rebound. She didn't do it alone; Gaga, Lil Wayne, Drake and Jason Aldean also had huge years. But Adele was No. 1 by a historic margin, and as Marks said, she's easy for the Recording Academy to market: popular, classy, talented.
What a novelty.
Sean Daly can be reached at [email protected] Follow @seandalypoplife on Twitter.