Home > Culture, Music > Ryan Adams’ Covers of Taylor Swift’s 1989 Album and Pop’s Distrust of Vulnerability

Ryan Adams’ Covers of Taylor Swift’s 1989 Album and Pop’s Distrust of Vulnerability

Indie-roots-rock critical darling Ryan Adams released his latest album recently. It consists not of original compositions of his own but entirely of covers, indeed of covers of one album in its entirety: Taylor Swift’s megaselling powerhouse 1989. This is no mere gimmick (it’s more like flattery, if both Adams’s and Swift’s statements about the record’s sincere intent are any indication), though the album does clinch Swift’s ascendancy in indie music circle as music geeks’ superstar pop princess of choice.

I haven’t a particularly distinct or developed critical view of Adams’s 1989 to offer, seeing as such a perspective would require a closer familiarity with Swift’s original work than I can admit to having, despite previous musings on her oeuvre. I know that it’s worth a listen, and that generally speaking I prefer the Neil Young-ish dichotomy of “wooden music” ache and ragged glory rock anthems practiced by Ryan Adams to Taylor Swift’s polished pop production on every day of the week as a matter of personal inclination and taste. There may be deeper factors undergirding this aesthetic judgement, and I hope to untangle these a bit more below.

One particular contrasting feature of the Ryan Adams 1989 compared to the Taylor Swift 1989 that is impossible to miss is the more openly, nakedly emotional nature of these covers. Listeners with a good grounding in Adams’s songs know that he can muster exquisite, soulful heartache with prodigious and moving skill, and he wrings every ounce of available pain from Swift’s compositions, known more for their peppy radio-friendly joyousness. At Vox, Todd VanDerWerff considers this effect of the album, or rather considers how the reception of the Adams album emphasizes the sadness that he “finds” in Swift’s songs without recognizing that these notes of melancholy and vulnerability were always already present and evident from the original album’s release. VanDerWerff argues that the poppy and the darker elements of Swift’s songs create an “emotional tension” on 1989, and Adams’s cover versions eliminate that tension and go full-on sad, with occasional irruptions of anger.

There’s something to this, but I’m not sure it’s quite right. Many of pop music’s pinnacles are products of the tension of light and dark, hooks of delight connected to depths of doubt and despair: Michael Jackson’s “Billie Jean”, Outkast’s “Hey Ya”, and Fastball’s “The Way” come to mind, supremely catchy hits respectively about a thorny paternity controversy, the fragility of romance, and dead old people. You can see a definitely vulnerability in Taylor Swift’s lyrics, but Ryan Adams, with his traditionalist rock approach as the still barely-ascendant shorthand for authenticity (which VanDerWerff is right to be dubious about), is able to pull that vulnerable nature out more readily and evidently than Swift can in her glossier arrangements.

Look at “Shake It Off”, for example, the megahit lead single from Swift’s 1989. With the boppy sheen of the goofy video and the glare of cultural appropriations to distract and direct our attention, Swift’s original emphasizes her beefs with tabloid media speculation about her personal life and emphasizes her overwhelming sense of positivity, her ability to “shake off” the jibes and keep dancing. As it is presented for a mass audience, there’s nothing complicated or (it should be said) particular interesting about the tune (“Blank Space”, as I have discussed, is much more fascinating to think about).

But listen to Adams’s low-key cover of “Shake It Off” and different tones and meanings emerge from Swift’s words. When Swift repeats the criticisms of her intelligence and her worthiness as a romantic partner over the best state-of-the-art electronic beat that money can buy, it comes off as defiant and mocking, a confident kiss-off to the “haters” who are, after all, “gonna hate”. Adams draws out the hurt and sting in those epithets, though, as well as the low simmer of self-doubt that they create. Swift brushes off the hurtful words hurled at her, but Adams worries that they might just be true.

There are deep-rooted factors that condition this reading, that presage the transmission of these meanings. I mentioned, as VanDerWerff does, the lingering claim to authority of expression that rock claims over pop. One can also point, as VanDerWerff does, to the privilege of Adams as a male artist as opposed to Swift as a female artist, and how the underlying sexist norms of the still-patriarchal circle of music criticism construct the soulful, profound male singer-songwriter as superior to the frivolous, superficial pop queen. It is only through the prism of our prejudices that Adams’s versions are seen as deeper or truer or sadder than Swift’s, and any preference for the former over the latter is a sort of discrimination; the prism is a glass ceiling.

This is not exactly VanDerWerff’s point, but the thrust of the observation gets at the point that I wish to make about the duelling 1989s. Regardless of the web of preconditioned perspectives that make us understand the Ryan Adams 1989 as more emotional open and raw than the Taylor Swift 1989, it unquestionably presents that way. This element is not, as VanDerWerff has it, something that listeners of Swift’s songs have somehow “missed”. There’s a melancholy in the bones of Swift’s music, but how her music is composed, arranged, and especially presented betrays a lack of trust in the value of that melancholy.

We might interrogate whether this distrust is Swift’s own or that of the corporate entertainment machine arrayed behind her. Most likely it’s both, with Swift’s uncertainty about expressing the sort of vulnerability that a close reading of her lyrics betrays predetermined by marketing imperatives and focus-group research. Much of this effect has roots in assumptions about gender norms, as well, about how much vulnerability a female artist can safely display. The mainstream feminism attached to a figure like Taylor Swift privileges strength and agency and positivity in a progressive and liberated woman of the modern world. Vulnerability and emotional openness can be considered signs of weakness, and pop-feminism has not often displayed the subtlety and nuance to reconcile these characteristics with its valorization of “Girl Power”. The glossy pop of Swift’s music is an aesthetic (and commercial) choice, but it also serves to distance her pop star persona from the hurtful emotional consequences that underscore her basically happy songs. It can operate as a mask to hide the tears.

It’s instructive to recall that Swift began her recording career in country music, a genre that has annexed much of rock’s sphere of influence with white audiences when it comes to mediated expressions of emotional authenticity. Her early songs, naive high-school fantasies about princesses yearning from their imagined castles though they may be, carried a melancholy about them too, but you could say that it was a melancholy about the limits of their expressive breadth and depth. Pop star Taylor Swift has expanded and sharpened her emotional expressiveness while girding that precious expressiveness in layers of Top 40 sparkle to protect it from exposure. Ryan Adams removes that armour in his cover album of 1989 and lays bare wounded hearts, not only his own but that of the songs’ composer. The record tells us quite a bit about Ryan Adams, but it might just tell us even more about Taylor Swift and the culture that helped to shape her.

Categories: Culture, Music
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