Ryan Adams, misogyny and “sensitive” masculinity

The accusations made against Adams will resonate with women who have been manipulated by “sensitive” men who engage in a more insidious strain of destructive, misogynistic masculinity.

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Yesterday, the New York Times published a damning investigation into the behaviour of indie musician Ryan Adams. In it, “seven women and more than a dozen associates described a pattern of manipulative behaviour in which Adams dangled career opportunities while simultaneously pursuing female artists for sex”, before eventually becoming “domineering and vengeful, jerking away his offers of support when spurned, and subjecting women to emotional and verbal abuse, and harassment in texts and on social media”.

Several of the accusers are high-profile musicians themselves: Mandy Moore, Phoebe Bridgers, Courtney Jaye. One was an aspiring musician who met Adams when she was just 14; she said her encounter with Adams deterred her from persuing a career in music. Adams denies some of the claims, calling the piece “upsettingly inaccurate” and at times “outright false”, but offered an apology of sorts. He tweeted: “I am not a perfect man and I have made many mistakes. To anyone I have ever hurt, however unintentionally, I apologise deeply and unreservedly.”

For many, it comes with the dull, heavy feeling of familiarity. Women working in and around the music industry were quick to say they’d heard it all before. Rumours had circulated about Adams’s behaviour for years; the industry is infamous for these tired, exploitative dynamics: older men taking advantage of the musical ambitions of younger women in order to gain their sexual attention.

And it will resonate with many others, too; women who have been emotionally manipulated by self-professed “sensitive” male partners, who engage in a more insidious strain of destructive, misogynistic masculinity, not burying their emotions but wielding them as weapons of domination and control. This masculinity is narcissism disguised as vulnerability and emotional honesty. It demands indulgence and infantilisation, and thus protects itself. It comes with a generous side of self-absorption performed as judicious self-awareness, making it immune to criticism.

Adams’s career has been dogged by criticisms of his behaviour for over two decades: he has been characterised as reckless, ranting, unstable, and obnoxious. But even more frequently than that he has been perceived as sad and sensitive, still in some ways the 17-year-old who emancipated himself from his parents, to become an adult too young. As Adams himself said in an interview with Rolling Stone, “I see this beautiful and tragic world, and I do my best to describe it, because it’s been crushing to me since I was a kid.”

Throughout his 20s, 30s and 40s, the music press variously perceived Adams as a melancholy young genius, unusually susceptible to the harshness of the world, and a whiny, defensive immature mess selling out with frequent releases of poor quality. He’s been described as a “lovable fuck-up”; a grown man with “a childlike sense of wonderment”; a peddler of “performative sadness”, his music a series of “lonely-boy laments” or “pain-streaked bar-stool ballads” or “white-boy blues” songs; a man with enough “self-awareness” to give his misery “a meta quality”; a “childlike sketch of how an overnight rock star should act”; and “a boozy, druggy brat”. Pitchfork even called his music “an open invitation to fondly remember that time when you relied on a fucked-up guy like him to save your life”.

In one sense this is entirely unrelated to the accusations of abuse that Adams has faced in the last 24 hours. Branding is not, after all, evidence of any questionable personal behaviour. But in another, it’s not. The way we celebrate, excuse and even ridicule masculinity is not unrelated to the points at which masculinity spills over into abuse and misogyny.

Back in 2015, when Adams covered Taylor Swift’s album 1989 in full, I compared the rock critics who adored his lo-fi rearrangement of her sparkling pop songs, and hated the original, to Mark from the movie Juno. Mark is a rock fan who likes the Carpenters best when covered by Sonic Youth, and a grown man who hits on pregnant, teenage Juno and abandons his wife and unborn, soon-to-be adoptive child in his quest to become Kurt Cobain. I was careful not to tar Adams with the same brush as his reviewers (though the reaction “really upset” him). In retrospect it feels like there are more obvious, damning comparisons to be made between Mark and Ryan Adams.

Reading a 2003 interview with Adams in Spin, I came across a quote from producer James Barber, praising one of Adams’s most mournful songs, “Anybody Wanna Take Me Home”. “There’s two ways to hear that song,” he says. “One is the ‘I’m really lonely and devastated, and I don’t know how to communicate with women,’ and the other is that this is the best damn pickup line in the world. It works both ways. I love that about Ryan.”

That sensitive guy we all know. Is he lonely, devastated and unable to communicate with women? Or does he know exactly what he’s doing? I guess it works both ways.

Anna Leszkiewicz is culture editor of the New Statesman.