At least once in the lifetime of a queer woman, and hopefully not more than once, a particularly devastating break up will occur. Also, at least once in a lifetime, an artist will release an album that resonates so universally, and is so beloved, that in retrospect, its release is seen as a cultural moment.
In my life, these two milestones coincided; Adele’s 21 also came to be considered an ultimate breakup record, and provided the soundtrack to my ultimate breakup.
Oddly enough, the intensity of the angst caused by a breakup may have little to do with whether or not the person you broke up with was actually well-suited for you, or if they were even nice to you. In my case, I had placed a profound amount of pressure on the first relationship I had with a woman after coming out. My previous, first ever relationship with a woman, had lasted two years and had occurred from within the closet. This relationship was greater than the one that came after in every possible way: It was formative, infinitely more loving, intellectually and creatively stimulating, and based on a mutual respect and full understanding of one another. The split with my first love was deeply painful, and epically drawn out, but I was able to at least fall back on the justification I made to myself that I wasn’t “fully gay,” and therefore believed I wasn’t meant to end up with a woman.
In contrast, years later when I started dating my second girlfriend, I had fully accepted my queerness, and was ready to share a relationship with my family and a wider circle of friends, and to let this aspect of my identify become more fully integrated into my life. Therefore I projected, a lot, onto a person who had done nothing to earn such certainty. Before we even fully knew one another, I tried to form her, to form us, into the idyllic, committed partnership I wanted for myself. When she broke up with me, I didn’t so much mourn the loss of this person from my life (truth be told, she was kind of a dick), but I did deeply mourn the death of a fantasy I’d created for myself. Our relationship had become my lifeline, proof that I’d made the right choice by coming out, and when this line was severed, I found myself in choppy waters, with only Adele to sing me through it.
Adele’s first single off of 21 was “Rolling in the Deep.” Its release preceded the full album and therefore came out when my ex and I were still together. Having followed Adele’s career since “Hometown Glory” was first available as a free download on iTunes, I quickly took notice. I loved the song’s aggressive, guttural, soulfulness and, as if portending my own demise, I stuck it on a mixed CD for my girlfriend. “Who’s this?” she asked in that flat way she delivered everything, and though I was surprised she’d never heard of Adele, I later came to appreciate this moment. It made me feel like Adele was my friend first, a friend who would confide to me post break-up: “I never liked her.” She was quite literally belting out “I can see you crystal clear!” at my girlfriend while I was making these heartsick attempts to earn her favor. My ex only listened to the mix once or twice; she was almost exclusively playing Iron & Wine’s Our Endless Numbered Days that winter.
Every song on 21 dealt with a different aspect of a breakup, which perfectly suited the manic nature of my grief. When I indulged in the belief that she’d left me to be with someone else, it was “Rumour Has It.” When I was bemoaning the mixed signals she’d given me over our eight months together: “Turning Tables.” If I was feeling sorry for myself: “Take It All” or “Don’t You Remember.” When I wondered if I should try to win her back: “One and Only.” And when the rage came on: “Set Fire to the Rain.”
I don’t claim that I was particularly mature at the time of this breakup; even though I was several years older than 21, I was experiencing somewhat of an extended adolescence that can occur to queer women when they only start having same-sex relationships in their mid-to-late 20s. Due to my melodramatic state of mind, and the fact that the real-life relationship that Adele was singing about seemed to also be a highly dysfunctional one, I allowed the emotions within the songs to temporarily become my own. To be quite honest, I’m not sure my relationship with that album was terribly healthy; it gave me much-needed moments of catharsis, but I also used it to give power to imagined narratives that may not have had much in common with reality.
Perhaps ironically, the one song that did not remind me of my ex was “Someone Like You.” Instead, it made me think about and long for healthier past relationships and partners. Eventually, when my ego finished smarting, I got over the breakup when I accepted the truth: I didn’t want to be with someone like my most recent ex.
Hopefully, we’ve all grown wiser as we’ve grown older since 2011, and I look forward to the insights within 25, Adele’s first album since 21, which is poised to break all of the records.