Someone Like Us

Essays, Music — By on August 2, 2012 at 8:29 am

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 and deeply feeling the contours of Adele’s vocal 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 Adele’s, what commands the stage and what seemingly gives the song its transcendent appeal is a well-worn earthly clash between Hope and Melancholy. Two familiar foes, as it were, they fight for our lives—pulling and yanking us in an unceasing tug-of-war.

All this explains, in part, why I found myself at turns smiling and laughing as two young girls—little Zoe and little Ada—covered Adele’s hauntingly beautiful ode on the small stage of the school gymnasium at Linwood Holton Elementary in Richmond, Va.. How else are we to respond when children begin to sing: “You know how the time flies/Only yesterday was the time of our lives”? That is a desperately old melancholy to be entrusted to the voices of third-graders, brimming with hope and with no pimples.

Culturally speaking, I suppose you can draw a direct line from American Idol (and its progeny talent shows) to the First Annual Holton Talent Show, sponsored by the school’s PTA. Such is the American thirst for entertainment and achievement. Not to mention youth. We simply cannot get enough of performances—especially star-making ones.

Surrounded by a flash-mob dance number featuring brave teachers, a groovy cover of Gnarls Barkley’s “Crazy” by an all-Anglo jam band and a stirring rendition of Sam Cooke’s “A Change is Gonna Come” from a fifth-grade African American student, this night belonged to Zoe and Ada. Mere eight-year-olds, they were crafting a loose translation of Adele, herself all of 23 at the time, for the grown-ups in the room. It was indeed the stuff of child’s play—only 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 seven-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 current 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 the equation was more striking, more penetrating, because two unaware girls were relaying the lyrics. Love’s sorrow, which has a dastardly tendency to become bigger than our lives, was somehow 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 last year, 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 a local 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 singing at me, 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, irreducibly, 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 emit a relentless hopefulness, something that is strong and from a deep place. It is as if these particular words seemingly stare down melancholy with a persistent, optimistic glare. Yes, very much like a child.

Listening to Zoe and Ada try urgently to bring the soul from a deep place, I was reminded of those ridiculous and occasionally 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 case of Zoe and Ada, however, they had inhabited the adult. And what their voices navigated and described in that moment exceeded stocks and bonds.

So it was in the middle of an otherwise very average adult week: a local talent show provided a moving midrash on music’s form and content. In the end the children were singing our songs. They were re-interpreting our difficult longings and ever-present questions.

No wonder, then, the peculiar effect of that evening still lingers. Children are—to no one’s great surprise—someone like us.


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