Random Tracks: Adele’s “Chasing Pavements”

In Random Tracks, I review a random hit song from any point in the history of the Billboard Hot 100 going from the chart’s beginning in 1958. If you like what I’m doing, comment and let me know what random Hot 100 hit song you want me to review.

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Adele- “Chasing Pavements”

PEAK: #21 on February 28, 2009

SONG AT #1 THAT WEEK: Flo Rida’s “Right Round

Nowadays, Adele is the type of artist we all take for granted. We all know her now as the Queen of Heartbreak, an artist that sells more than any other artist today, and someone that can generate buzz by not doing a whole lot. All Adele has to do is mention new music and people will start talking as we’re seeing now with the rollout of her upcoming 30 album.

But when Adele first bursted onto the scene in 2008 with her debut album 19 and its big hit “Chasing Pavements,” there weren’t many signs to suggest she would become this monstrous selling superstar that would soundtrack crying sessions and Thanksgiving dinners everywhere. 19 and “Chasing Pavements” made Adele an immediate star in her native UK but in the US, a country notoriously known for ignoring hyped-up British acts, it took a while for her to catch on. It would take a high-profile TV performance, Sarah Palin, and the Grammys to break Adele into America and set the stage for the successes to come.

Listening to “Chasing Pavements” today, it’s a song that still sounds like pure Adele. It’s not all that different from what we’ve come to expect from her. And yet as someone who first came to Adele with 21 and “Rolling In The Deep,” “Chasing Pavements” is a song that feels to me like an afterthought albeit a very good one at that.

As usual with Adele, “Chasing Pavements” was written from personal heartbreak. The story Adele tells goes that one night after finding out her boyfriend was cheating on her, she confronted him at a London bar which led to them arguing with Adele punching him in the face. After being thrown out of the bar, Adele walked alone down the street noticing the pavements and wondered to herself whether this relationship was worth it. Soon enough, the idea for the song came about with Adele co-writing with Francis “Eg” White, a former member of the British boy band Brother Beyond before shifting to behind the scenes work writing and producing for various artists with “Chasing Pavements” being the biggest thing White has had a hand in. (In the US, Brother Beyond’s only charting single was 1990’s “The Girl I Used To Know,” which peaked at #27.)

Going by the lyrics, you wouldn’t tell that “Chasing Pavements” was inspired by finding out your boyfriend was cheating on you. Instead, it touches on the start of the relationship where you think you’ve found that special someone but are questioning yourself on whether it’s all worth it. Adele delivers the song as an internal monologue where she begins to have the courage to express her love to this boyfriend but then has second thoughts about the relationship wondering she should continue to pursue this guy even if it will eventually lead nowhere. It’s really that chorus that makes the song so much so that the bridge is just the chorus sung in a different melody.

At the time, many were quick to compare Adele with the other big-voiced British female singer of the moment Amy Winehouse but listening to their songs, you can hear major differences between the two. While the both of them were singing about heartbreak in voices that made them sound much older than they were, Winehouse had this cool swagger and danger to her singing where Adele was more relatable and down to earth. Hearing Adele sing the chorus on “Chasing Pavements” over and over is the type of thing that, if you’re in a new relationship, will make you wonder yourself whether you should give up or just keep chasing pavements. With that type of delivery, it’s no surprise at how Adele managed to catch on with so many people. When in the right mood, her voice and lyrics can hit you hard.

Musically, the song works following along with Adele’s voice. On the verses, it’s all quiet led by a strumming acoustic guitar, an eerie electric guitar, and a warm electric piano before it gets all loud on the chorus with strings and horns swelling up. It’s the perfect accompaniment to Adele’s singing being able to show off her different ranges while not overshadowing her. While many would label “Chasing Pavements” as blue-eyed soul or old-school pop, to my ears it doesn’t fit into any one genre. It just sounds like Adele. Compared to later songs, “Chasing Pavements” doesn’t hit as hard but as Adele’s first hit, it did what it needed to do. It’s a catchy song that establishes Adele’s identity as an artist.

Another thing I like about “Chasing Pavements” is its music video. It was shot in Los Angeles made to look like London’s Hyde Park. In it, we see Adele and her boyfriend in a car witnessing the aftermath of a serious car accident where a couple is seen lying on the pavement presumably dead as police investigate. Adele gets out of the car to walk towards the investigation and at the end is seen singing right in front of it like a narrator observing what’s happening. Then on every chorus, the couple on the pavement comes to life embracing each other along with their shadows. It reminds me of the scenes from Six Feet Under when you see the dead people come to life speaking with the living characters. It’s a pretty cool creative choice for the video.

When Adele recorded “Chasing Pavements” and 19, she was a fresh high school graduate who had landed a record deal with local indie label XL Recordings after its head heard a demo on MySpace that one of Adele’s friends posted. Compared to Winehouse, Adele didn’t come from a musical family or have any industry connections but from the look of it now a lot of effort was made to break Adele into the public right out of the gate. She was performing on the BBC before she even had a song out. Adele’s first song “Hometown Glory” was released in October 2007. It didn’t chart in America but went to #19 in the UK. For any artist starting out, that’s not a bad start.

“Hometown Glory” wound up being the warmup for the big success. “Chasing Pavements” was released a few months later in January and was an immediate smash debuting on the UK charts at its peak of #2. 19 was released a few weeks after and it debuted straight at #1 on the UK album chart and over there it’s not certified eight times platinum. (Notably, 19 remains the only Adele album to be released while Adele was the same age as the album title.) The UK music press continued to hype up Adele which culminated at the 2008 BRIT Awards held in February, amid Adele’s breakthrough, where she was awarded the ceremony’s first-ever Critics Choice award (now called the Rising Star Award). Everyone there from host Sharon Osbourne to presenter Will Young to the audience were not shy in expressing their excitement over this new talent.

Through all this UK success, in America, Adele was largely an unknown. 19 got released five months later in June 2008 with Adele signing to Columbia and embarking on a small scale American tour but it hadn’t done much to raise her profile. That wouldn’t come until Adele was picked by Saturday Night Live to be its musical guest on an October episode hosted by Josh Brolin. More importantly, it’s the episode where Sarah Palin made a high-profile appearance during her campaign for Vice President. The buzz from Palin’s appearance gave SNL its best ratings in over a decade and that buzz quickly spread to Adele when viewers saw her performances of “Chasing Pavements” and “Cold Shoulder.” (Unfortunately, there aren’t many clips of Adele’s performances I could find online to share. SNL and NBC are pretty tight about those things. The only place I could freely find these clips are on sketchy foreign streaming-video platforms.)

The day after the show, 19 became the biggest selling album on iTunes topping its chart and on the Billboard 200 album chart, it got up to #11 the week after, a good showing for an album that had initially debuted at #61. From there, Adele began pushing the album more in America performing “Chasing Pavements” on more shows- David Letterman, The View, and Ellen. But it wasn’t until the 51st Grammys in February 2009 when Adele’s breakthrough in the States was finally cemented. Adele wound up winning the Best New Artist award beating out a field that included Duffy, the Jonas Brothers, Lady A, and Jasmine Sullivan.

During the ceremony, Adele performed “Chasing Pavements” with the country duo Sugarland coming out at the end and singer Jennifer Nettles duetting with Adele in the great Grammys tradition of mash-up performances that don’t make a lot of sense. Nettles’ contributions isn’t really all that bad but completely unnecessary. They should have just let Adele finish the song by herself. (Sugarland’s highest-charting single, 2010’s “Stuck Like Glue,” peaked at #17.)

The great critic Chris Molanphy has this thing he calls the “Grammy Bump” where an artist that wins or performs at the Grammys will enjoy a nice boost in sales and chart success soon after the show. For 2009, Adele was a clear beneficiary of this “Grammy Bump.” 19 rose to #10 on the album chart the week after the show thanks to another boost in sales. “Chasing Pavements” also started to gain traction in America reaching its chart peak of #21 a few weeks after the Grammys. Apparently, the song could have gone higher but radio stations began to drop the song after a rumor spread about how the title was about Adele chasing gay men which Adele flatly denied. 

Regardless of that strange controversy, the fact that 19 and “Chasing Pavements” were able to do that well in America is some kind of a miracle. In the context of the American pop charts in the late ‘00s, Adele and her music were out of step with the dominant electropop sounds of the moment so it’s easy to see why she needed outside factors like the SNL performance and the Grammys to break through in ways that hype alone just couldn’t. And that wasn’t even it for 19. A few years later, 19 reached its biggest peak of #4 in March 2012 just as 21 was enjoying a new run at the top presumably thanks to people rediscovering her first album after 21’s success. It’s now certified triple platinum in the US.

13 years later, “Chasing Pavements” and 19 all feel like a footnote in the career of Adele after the massive success of her next two albums garnering her most signature hits that people continue to remember. This isn’t all that surprising. “Chasing Pavements” feels small compared to the rest of the work much like how a lot of artists’ songs sound from before they got really big. But it’s still a good song and an important one nonetheless just on the fact that it helped to establish Adele in the world. As we all look forward to Adele’s new music, let’s all remember that she wouldn’t be who she is now if it wasn’t for “Chasing Pavements.”

GRADE: 8/10

BONUS BEATS: Here’s the bit from the 2008 teen movie Wild Child where “Chasing Pavements” soundtracks a kiss and car ride between Emma Roberts and Alex Pettyfer:

BONUS BONUS BEATS: Here’s rapper turned pop-punk star Machine Gun Kelly rapping over a heavy sped-up sample of “Chasing Pavements” on his 2011 song of the same name:

(Machine Gun Kelly’s highest-charting single, the 2016 Camila Cabello collab “Bad Things,” peaked at #4. It’s a 3.)

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