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Ryan Adams’s 1989 and the mansplaining of Taylor Swift

Despite good intentions, Ryan Adams’s 1989 has enabled dozens of music journalists to mansplain Taylor Swift’s own album to her.

When I first heard that Ryan Adams was covering the entirety of Taylor Swift’s Eighties pop-inspired album 1989 in his troubled troubadour style, I thought of Butch Walker’s “You Belong With Me”, a stripped-back cover of Swift’s 2009 single I stumbled across on Spotify as a teenager. Around the same time, I found a compilation album called Guilt by Association: a smugly ironic affair that sees indie artists like Devendra Banhart and The Concretes cover bands like Destiny’s Child and Take That. The album’s titular pun rests on the assumption that pop artists are insincere and embarrassing; guilty pleasures that can only be truly redeemed by the authenticity of more alternative singers. Of course, this is a fairly unsophisticated, derivative approach to music. Pop songs are not inherently devoid of meaning, and alternative genres are not deep by default. It’s the kind of tired opinion you exorcise in your conventionally contrarian phase while listening to “Panic”. Yeah! Hang the DJ!!!!

Apparently not. The media’s most highbrow music critics, the same ones who barely batted an eye at Swift’s release, have rushed forward to gush over Adams’s transformation of a cheesy pop album into something more serious. In the words of American Songwriter, Adams is “bestowing indie-rock credibility” on Swift’s album, potentially even “showing her up by revealing depth and nuance in the songs” and “giving her a master class in lyrical interpretation”. The New Yorker’s review of Adams’s 1989 (it’s worth noting that the magazine did not review Taylor Swift’s album at all), is headlined “Haters Gonna Hate”. Like Guilt by Association, the joke dismisses the pop artists at the music’s core: “You’re going to hate this, but we actually reviewed an album written by Taylor Swift”. In it, Ian Crouch writes that Adams’s cover is “subversive” and “more sincere than the original”:

“‘Blank Space’, Swift’s posh, sexy provocation about the thrills of being a wild woman, becomes, in Adams’s hands, a hushed, whispery lamentation of troubled love. In that song, Swift’s ‘long list of ex-lovers’ is a boast about the hearts she’s broken; the same line, sung by Adams, is a warning about his emotional baggage, the heartbreaks he’s suffered.”

Crouch’s criticism is undeniably gendered. Swift is hypersexual and uncomplicated: something to be looked at, rather than seriously listened to. Indeed, for Crouch, Adams’s achievement is that he didn’t sympathetically engage with Swift’s lyrics at all, but simply appropriated her words by applying them to his own, more complex, man emotions.

“Something in his state of mind and musical sensibility listened to the romantic exuberance of a young woman’s pop album and heard his own melancholy. He responded with music that is both personal and generous.”

When Crouch celebrates Adams’s generosity and candidness, he does so because he sees these as qualities that Swift’s original lacks. Where Swift is “goofy”, “wistful” or even “banal”, Adams is “urgent, confessional, lonely”. Of course, these are the qualities that Adams, a genuine fan of Swift, so admires in the original songs. “They’re constructed from such an honest place,” he told Entertainment Weekly. “They’re all completely giving.” In the same interview, he also said that he sees Swift and himself as singing about the same things: “The world of romance and the confusion of being alive and knowing how you fit in – all that stuff is there. It’s what we write about.” This is hardly surprising: Adams and Swift are both singer-songwriters rooted in country music, who slowly but surely started pushing at the edges of their genre. The only difference is that while Adams danced around the mainstream, Swift was catapulted towards it.

A whole range of publications make a similar claim that Adams’s masculine, alternative cover lifts Swift’s original to higher plains. Even reviews that laud Swift’s original achievement applaud Adams for making us realise its strength, as though Swift’s album alone could never convince us. The Atlantic wrote that Adams “vindicated” Swift; the Telegraph that he exposes “emotion beating beneath [her] gleaming surfaces”; the A.V. Club that he provided “a stark reminder that Swift’s songwriting continues to deserve respect and kudos”. (Seemingly, only Pretty Much Amazing thought to invert this patriarchal logic with their piece, “Taylor Swift Writes Ryan Adams’ Best Album”.)

It’s a response that will be eerily familiar to women across the globe who have sat in a meeting and watched as their ideas have been shot down, only to be taken seriously when co-opted by a male colleague. Who have listened to male friends repeat their own jokes back to them, as though they had hit on something funny utterly by accident. Even with the intention of celebrating her, Ryan Adams has made it possible for dozens of music journalists to mansplain Swift’s own album to her. 

When a clip of Adams’s “Style” was first released to trail the album, music bloggers the world over creamed themselves over one lyric alteration. As Neil McCormick in the Telegraph writes:

“Where Swift had brash fun with her break up with One Direction’s Harry Styles on her perkily upbeat ‘Style’, which celebrates the ‘James Dean daydream look’ in his eye, Adams recalls a lover with ‘a Daydream Nation look’ in her eye. The Sonic Youth reference is reflected in shimmering, echoing guitars as he attacks the undertone of loss and longing in a snatched memory of happier moments.”

But guys, Sonic Youth!!!!!! The excitement caused by this nod to one of the most overtly hipster bands of all time reminded me of their role in Juno. When Juno first meets the potential adoptive parents of her unborn child, Vanessa and Mark, she is scornful of Vanessa’s pristine appearance, bright-white home and cloyingly-posed photographs. Mark, however, impresses her with his “realness”: he owns a cool guitar and wears plaid, so, duh, he gets her. They bond when he plays her a Sonic Youth cover of The Carpenters’ “Superstar”. When she eventually exposes Mark as a self-involved, insincere man-baby, utterly dismissive of his wife’s emotions, Juno ends her dressing-down by spitting, “Oh, and you know what? I bought another Sonic Youth album and it sucked! It’s just noise.” Her 16-year-old realisation is that being alternative is not the same as being genuine or being good.

For me, Adams’s cover is fine, but bland. It takes the kaleidoscopic landscape of 1989 – which is at turns, joyful, bittersweet, nostalgic, hopeful, sad, cathartic, and, most often, a combination of all the above – and flattens it. Swift’s happiest moments are tinged with irony (“Style”, for example, with its self-conscious longing for an unachievable fantasy, is hardly “brash fun” in my mind), and even her saddest songs can be playful. But Adams is consistently melancholy, therefore limiting the emotional complexity of her lyrics. Swapping out pristine production for manufactured lo-fi fuzz can’t negate that.

Serious analysts of pop culture have often, and fairly, criticised Swift’s public persona, whether for the troubling casting of people of colour in her videos or her basic understanding of feminism. But you don’t have to like her brand to understand that she is an extremely talented songwriter. You shouldn’t have to listen to a middle-aged man repeating her words through a distorted microphone to understand that either.

Now listen to Anna discussing this piece on the NS's pop culture podcast:

Anna Leszkiewicz is a pop culture writer at the New Statesman.

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Social media tome #Republic questions the wisdom of crowds

Cass R Sunstein explores how insulation pushes groups towards more extreme opinions.

Cass Sunstein, one of the leading public intellectuals in the United States and a former Obama administration official, has worried and written for more than 15 years about the effects of the internet and digital communications on democracy. This book, his third on the subject, tackles social media.

The heart of his argument lies in the cumulative, collective effect of what individuals do online. Networking, shopping, dating and activism are all transformed by the engine of opportunity that is the internet. But those new links and choices produce a malign side effect: “filter bubbles”, inside which like-minded people shut themselves off from opinions that might challenge their assumptions. Insulation pushes groups towards more extreme opinions.

Sunstein’s organising principle is the ­difference between consumer and political sovereignty. The former promotes individual choice despite its possible consequences; the latter takes into account the needs of society as a whole. His inspiration is Jane Jacobs, the historian of US cities who celebrated, in poetic language, the benign and enriching effect on democracy of random encounters between citizens on pavements and in parks. How do we now reverse or dilute the polarisation driven by Facebook and Twitter?

The solutions Sunstein proposes for this very difficult problem are oddly tentative: websites stocked with challenging ideas and deliberative debates, voluntary self-regulation and “serendipity buttons”. He rightly stresses transparency: we know far too little about the algorithms that sift news for our attention on the networks. Facebook has talked about trying to show news that is “engaging” and “interesting”, without ever engaging in detailed public discussion of what these words mean. The disclosure requirements for social networks “require consideration”, Sunstein writes, without saying whether Facebook might have to be required legally to explain precisely how it routes news to almost two billion users.

Sunstein’s most interesting arguments are myth-busters. He questions the “wisdom of crowds”, while refraining from pointing out directly that the single strongest argument against this idea is the inequality of opinions. Not all opinions are equally valuable. He warily suggests what only a very few American voices have so far dared to say: that the First Amendment to the constitution, which guarantees a free press, should not be treated – as the courts have recently tended to do – as an equally strong protection for the freedom of all speech.

Sunstein is nostalgic for the media system and regulation of the past. I spent years working for a daily “general-interest” newspaper (the Times) and regret the decline of those outlets as much as he does, yet there is no reversing the technological and economic changes that have undermined them. It might have been a mistake to deregulate television in the United States, and killing the “fairness doctrine” might have had unforeseen effects, but that does not deal with the dilemmas thrown up by WhatsApp or Weibo, the Chinese version of Twitter.

Users of these platforms face the problem of managing abundance. Writers such as Sunstein imply that people who lock themselves in filter bubbles are deplorably unable to break out of their informational isolation. But we all now live in bubbles that we design to make sense of the torrent of information flowing through our phones. Better-designed, heterogeneous bubbles include the unexpected and the challenging.

Yet the problem lies deeper than the quality of your bubble. Polarised societies can no longer agree on how to recognise the truth. Filter bubbles play a part, but so do a preference for emotion over reason, attacks on scientific fact from religion, decades of public emphasis on self-fulfilment, and a belief that political elites are stagnant and corrupt. Like many journalists, Sunstein treats the problem of a malfunctioning communications system as a supply-side matter: the information being generated and distributed ought to be better.

In the case of fake news, that is indisputable. But there is also a demand-side problem, one that hinges on the motives of those consuming information. If, inside their bubbles, people are not curious about alternative opinions, are indifferent to critical thinking and prefer stoking their dislike – of, say, Hillary Clinton – will they have even the slightest interest in venturing outside their comfort zone? Do we have a right to ignore the views of others, or an obligation to square up to them? Millions of Americans believe that one of the most important guarantees in their constitution is the right to be left alone – and that includes being left alone by the New York Times.

Sunstein does not venture far into this territory. He only hints that if we worry about what people know, we must also worry about what kinds of societies we build. Globalisation has reshaped communities, dismantling some and building others online, but the net effect has been to reduce deliberation and increase a tendency to press the “Like” button, or loathe opponents you can’t see or hear. The ability to debate civilly and well may depend on complex social chemistry and many ingredients – elite expertise, education, critical thinking, culture, law – but we need to be thinking about the best recipes. 

George Brock is the author of “Out of Print: Newspapers, Journalism and the Business of News in the Digital Age” (Kogan Page)

#Republic: Divided Democracy in the Age of Social Media
Cass R Sunstein
Princeton University Press, 328pp, £24.95​

George Brock is a former managing editor of The Times who is now head of journalism at City University in London.

This article first appeared in the 22 June 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The zombie PM

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