A Social Rumination on a Popular Song: Adele’s “Someone Like You” and the importance of Early Childhood Parenting

     I was recently listening to NPR and they had a fun segment on Adele’s hit song “Someone Like You” and the use of  “Appogioturas” to accent the emotions of the song.  An appoggiatura is a term used in classical music to denote the use of a dissonant note resolving into consonance.  (http://www.npr.org/2012/02/14/146888725/another-take-on-the-appoggiatura)

     While I found the segment interesting, I also found it inadequate to fully explain the unique emotional power of the song.  I think the most essential aspect of the song is its use and evocation of shame to first break our heart, and then redeem it through a recovery from this shame.  The emotional climate of our society first tends to induce shame and then freeze that shame into a toxic isolating and soul-crushing experience.  From our strict morals and emphasis on punishment to our cold or distant parenting styles we rarely offer people a chance to recover from shame.

     But I believe this song reaches so many people because of the release it creates by touching on our shame and then bravely overcoming the barriers to recovery.

     The affect, or emotional display, that defines shame occurs when a positive affect is partially impeded. When this occurs we characteristically lower our face and eyes.  The uniquely painful quality of shame is tied to the simultaneous focusing of attention on the face/self even as that person attempts to hide the face/self from public or interpersonal view.   The famous psychologist Sylvan Tompkins says of shame, “While Terror and Distress hurt, they are wounds inflicted from the outside which penetrate the smooth surface of the ego; but shame is felt as an inner torment, a sickness of the soul.”

     Adele’s song paints a masterful picture of a woman whose former lover now finds a happy life with another woman.   As she guides us through her journey through the experience we find ourselves growing to a new place of compassion and power.   The song is a rare glimpse of healthy emotional functioning in the disturbing world of popular song, television, and media.

     The first verse describes the woman as she has just received news that her former lover has recently become married to a new woman.  She sings to herself and we imagine her in a dark, corner, perhaps staring out the window or looking at a picture of him:

“I heard that your DREAMS came true,

must’ve gave you things,

I didn’t give to you.”

     Shame is often felt as in an internal attack.  Adele feels the news as a direct reflection of her own inadequacies, of the things she didn’t or couldn’t give.  The next verse turns the attention to his shame:

“Old friend, why are you so shy?

Ain’t like you to hold back

Or hide from the light”

     The songwriters (co-written by Adele and Dan Wilson) use words like “shy” and “holding back”, “hiding from the light” to accurately capture the shame that he must be feeling.  By highlighting his shame, we know indirectly that he still has feelings for Adele, but we don’t know what they are, or why he holds them back, therefore adding to the richness of the image.  Adele’s lyric “Ain’t like you to hold back” conjures up the past and focuses on the loss of the present simultaneously.  Now for the killer lines in the song:

“I hate to turn up out the blue uninvited

but I couldn’t stay away, I couldn’t fight it

I hoped you’d see my face and that you’d be reminded

That for me it is isn’t over”

     The whole key to the song is that Adele refuses to be impeded by the shaming effect of the news.  She “couldn’t stay away” in spite of the shame, and hopes that he “sees her face” and changes his mind.   Her insistence on being seen is so important for her own recovery of dignity and pride.  I would argue that it is precisely because she is able to overcome her shame that she is able to reach a compassionate and redemptive, albeit still painful, conclusion.

“Never mind, I’ll find someone like you

I wish nothing but the best for you, too

Don’t forget me, I begged, I remember you said

Sometimes it lasts in love, but sometimes it hurts instead”

I found these particularly interesting quotes as I was finishing the blog. Adele says,

      “Well, I wrote that song because I was exhausted from being such a bitch, with ‘Rolling in the Deep‘ or ‘Rumour Has It‘ … I was really emotionally drained from the way I was portraying him, because even though I’m very bitter and regret some parts of it, he’s still the most important person that’s ever been in my life, and ‘Someone Like You,’ I had to write it to feel OK with myself and OK with the two years I spent with him. And when I did it, I felt so freed.”(Wikipedia)

     I would emphasize the last two lines, that writing it helped her to feel “ok” with herself and the loss, and that it resulted in emotional “freedom”.  Shame is an isolating emotion, and one that causes us to attack those we love as well as ourselves.  To overcome shame is to re-establish connection, and so move forward in a positive way with life

     Research and clinical experience shows that our ability to overcome shame is closely tied to early childhood experiences.  In the first year of life,  the mother, or primary caregivers attunement, feeding relationship, and facial mirroring are closely linked to the development of the capacity for pleasure.  In the second year, as the child becomes more sensitive to disruption in this attunement, she must rely on the parent to aid in her recovery from the inducement of shame which is highly pervasive.  Shame impedes infants and toddlers from feeling safe in the expression of emotions, ideas, movements, and the unfolding of their entire being that is functionally identical to optimal brain development.  Early safe attachment describes a relationship between child and parent that results in a re-establishment of interpersonal contact after a shameful withdrawal.  These experiences teach us that it is ok to seek out the help of others to normalize the soul-torturing aspect of shame.  These experiences also help the child to learn that it is possible to recover from fear and shame experiences and go on in an expansive, energy-moving way that characterizes healthy development and learning.   We often have the idea that children must be “hardened” to prepare for “real life.”  In fact Adele shows us that we must soften in order to face a painful truth, and melt into acceptance and wisened love.

     Adele must have had a mom or caregiver that taught her how to recover from the shame of lost love.   Through her artistic fantasy, she may have helped people who hear the song feel a momentary surge of relief from their frozen shame.  By looking at him face to face, she can now see that their past retains its value:

“You know, how the time flies

Only Yesterday, was the Time of our Lives

We were born and raised,

In a Summer Haze

Bound by the surprise of our Glory Days”

And the future now somehow more palatable:

“Regrets and mistakes

They’re memories made

Who would have known how Bittersweet

This would Taste”

     The entire album is an opus on lost love, and as the last song on the album “Someone Like You” provides a rare glimpse into a process so tragically deficient in our society: recovery and resolution.   How often do we become bitter, frozen, disempowered, fearful, resentful, and heart-broken?  These can be the secondary emotions of a state of chronic, toxic shame.    Thank you Adele, for a picture of something different.