First things first: Ryan Adams’s “1989,” his album of Taylor Swift covers, is really good.
The record, highly anticipated by Swift and her legions of Twitter fans, dropped Sunday. That means we’ve had a full four days to listen and feel our feelings about it – feelings which have largely been positive. Swift herself has been retweeting praise and even appeared on Beats 1 Radio with Adams, gushing about the album.
Swift also stands to benefit financially from Adams’ covers, procuring enough money for years of girl squad gatherings.
So why does this week’s wave of gushy tweets, serious music criticism and side-by-side reviews feel a little icky?
“Yesterday the New Yorker wrote a review/ evaluation of the Ryan Adams cover album. Just to be crystal clear, they NOT review 1989,” tweeted Kelsey McKinney.
As McKinney points out, the New Yorker reviewed Adams’s version of “1989,” but not Swift’s. Write-ups from other publications have verged on the condescending (at Uproxx: “This project shows what a strong songwriter Swift is”), the hedging (the Atlantic headline: “Ryan Adams’s 1989 is the Vindication of Taylor Swift”) and yes, the man-splainy (the New Yorker wrote: “These songs, rearranged by Adams, might sound to some ears more authentic, raw, or genuine – suddenly more his than hers”).
Ah. The ickiness.
At issue here is not Adams’s covers themselves, or even his decision to cover Swift’s album. (Have you heard his “Wildest Dreams”?)
As Christina Cauterruci wrote over at Slate: “The music industry has a history of dismissing the musical contributions of women, people of color, and purveyors of certain music genres (notably pop and rap – often the domains of women and people of color, wouldn’t you know) until they’re covered by a more palatable artist.”
Is Adams that other artist? His covers of Taylor songs have already been heralded as deeper, more emotional versions of Swift’s hits.
The conversation surrounding the two albums is just the latest iteration of an ongoing problem in pop criticism.
With “1989,” Swift cemented her move from sweet-girl country roots to stadium tour-selling pop icon. As website The Mary Sue points out, pop is a musical genre largely consumed by women and defined by female experience – one that doesn’t require validation from a male artist to be “serious music.”
As popular as Swift is, having her most popular album covered by a man – specifically a man like Ryan Adams who inhabits a genre so divorced from Swift’s own poptimism – has allowed her songs to be described in a way that they never were before.
Again, both albums are good. You can listen to both, and enjoy both, and it’s great that we have both to listen to (unless you’re on Spotify).
But Swift is still chained to a certain public perception. She’s a millionaire, and she’s friends with Lena Dunham, but there are also a lot of things that she can’t do. Her friendships are scrutinized as “cliquey” collections. She has a reputation as an “earnest,” “try-hard,” “crazy,” “emotional” woman. It’s the persona she skewered in the “Blank Space” video, and one Adams doesn’t have to deal with. He’s the indie darling, and he and his ilk will always be heralded for bringing a depth to superficial pop tracks – no matter that they were already emotionally deep and good songs.
In the world of “1989” reviews, Adams is lauded for feeling feelings, and for making music about feeling feelings. That’s a privilege Swift is still earning, it seems.
Ryan Adams’ 1989 info:
Taylor Swift, coming to AT&T Stadium in Arlington on Oct. 17