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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.

Ben Whishaw as Hamlet by Derry Moore, 2004 © Derry Moore
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The art of coming out: how the National Portrait Gallery depicts the big reveal

Portraits of gay celebrities, politicians and sports stars line the walls in a new exhibition called Speak Its Name!, marking 50 years of advances in gay rights.

I have a million questions for the doctor friend I’ve brought with me to the National Portrait Gallery. A million questions that, if I really think about it, boil down to: “Why were the Tudors so godforsakenly ugly?”

Inbreeding? Lead makeup? An all-peacock diet?

I don’t know why I assume she’ll know. She’s a neonatologist, not a historian. But I’m desperate for some of the science behind why these 500-year-old royals look, if these imposing paintings of them are anything to go by, like the sorts of creatures that – having spent millennia in pitch black caves – have evolved into off-white, scrotal blobs.

My friend talks about the importance of clean drinking water and the invention of hygiene. We move onto an extremely highbrow game I’ve invented, where – in rooms lined with paintings of bug-eyed, raw sausage-skinned men – we have to choose which one we’d bang. The fact we’re both gay women lends us a certain amount of objectivity, I think.


Alexander McQueen and Isabella Blow by David LaChapelle, 1996 © David LaChapelle Courtesy Fred Torres Collaborations

Our gayness, weirdly, is also the reason we’re at the gallery in the first place. We’re here to see the NPG’s Speak its Name! display; photographic portraits of a selection of out-and-proud celebrities, accompanied by inspirational quotes about coming out as gay or bi. The kind of thing irritating people share on Facebook as a substitute for having an opinion.

Managing to tear ourselves away from walls and walls of TILFs (Tudors I’d… you know the rest), we arrive at the recently more Angela Eagle-ish part of the gallery. Eagle, the second ever British MP to come out as lesbian, occupies a wall in the NPG, along with Will Young, Tom Daley, Jackie Kay, Ben Whishaw, Saffron Burrows and Alexander McQueen.

Speak its Name!, referring to what was described by Oscar Wilde’s lover Lord Alfred Douglas as “the love that dare not speak its name”, commemorates 50 years (in 2017) since the partial decriminalisation of male homosexuality in England and Wales.

“Exhibition” is maybe a grandiose term for a little queer wall in an old building full, for the most part, of paintings of probably bigoted straight white guys who are turning like skeletal rotisserie chickens in their graves at the thought of their portraits inhabiting the same space as known homosexual diver Tom Daley.


Tom Daley By Bettina von Zwehl, 2010 © Bettina von Zwehl

When you’re gay, or LBTQ, you make little pilgrimages to “exhibitions” like this. You probably don’t expect anything mind-blowing or world-changing, but you appreciate the effort. Unless you’re one of those “fuck The Establishment and literally everything to do with it” queers. In which case, fair. Don’t come to this exhibition. You’ll hate it. But you probably know that already.

But I think I like having Tudors and known homosexuals in the same hallowed space. Of course, Angela Eagle et al aren’t the NPG’s first queer inhabitants. Being non-hetero, you see, isn’t a modern invention. From David Hockney to Radclyffe Hall, the NPG’s collection is not entirely devoid of Gay. But sometimes context is important. Albeit one rather tiny wall dedicated to the bravery of coming out is – I hate to say it – sort of heart-warming.


Angela Eagle by Victoria Carew Hunt, 1998 © Victoria Carew Hunt / National Portrait Gallery, London

Plus, look at Eagle up there on the “yay for gay” wall. All smiley like that whole “running for Labour leader and getting called a treacherous dyke by zealots” thing never happened.

I can’t say I feel particularly inspired. The quotes are mostly the usual “coming out was scary”-type fare, which people like me have read, lived and continue to live almost every day. This is all quite mundane to queers, but you can pretty much guarantee that some straight visitors to the NPG will be scandalised by Speak its Name! And I guess that’s the whole point.

Eleanor Margolis is a freelance journalist, whose "Lez Miserable" column appears weekly on the New Statesman website.