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: