It may have started as a joke. Or maybe a form of break-up therapy. Whatever led alt-rock singer-songwriter Ryan Adams to record his own track-by-track version of Taylor Swift’s mega-hit album 1989, it’s turning out to be a big win for the two artists on many fronts. In what has to be a music history first, both Adams’ and Swift’s versions of the same record will be in the top 10 on Billboard‘s forthcoming chart, and Adams will be the inaugural musical guest on the rebooted Daily Show with Trevor Noah this week. Swift will profit from Adams’ success on the songwriting front—she co-wrote every track and will receive publishing royalties—and the story will keep her album in the news and generate publicity.
Although Swift has expressed unqualified delight at having her album covered by Adams, a number of critics have been discussing the two records as two sides of a battle between pop music and Important Music—or, as one pro-Ryan/anti-Taylor reviewer put it, between his “nuance” and her “cliché-ridden high school talent show ditties.”
The gender biases couldn’t be more clear. Triple J, the Australian Broadcasting Company, has in the past refused to play Swift, but this week aired one of Adams’ 1989 covers. Fortunately, numerous smart, feminist-leaning writers have taken note of the sexism. Anna Leszkiewicz wrote a brilliant piece analyzing how music journalists have been “mansplaining Taylor Swift’s own album to her”; Todd VanDerWerff pointed out that rock writers are giving Adams credit for bringing a depth in Swift’s music that was there all along; and Forrest Wickman called the hipster publication Pitchfork out for failing to review Swift’s hit record entirely and then showering praise on Adams’ cover version.
As a longtime, devoted Ryan Adams fan and a relatively new appreciator of the Taylor Swift experience, I’ve been following this story closely and I tend to agree with Ann Powers’ assessment that “Adams’s 1989 recognizes a rock lineage born of a woman.” In response to those who say that Adams adds credibility to Swift’s compositions, Powers emphasizes Swift’s primacy: “He’s not legitimizing Swift’s work—he’s figuring out how her voice can validate and include his.” At the same time, I feel unsettled by the unusual asymmetries and power dynamics at work in the Swift/Adams recordings and in the discussions that have ensued. Yes, her record has sold over 5 million copies, and she has garnered a multitude of honors, including, at age 23, a Country Music Association lifetime achievement award. She plays sold-out arena shows, and has fans so ardent, they embrace the label of “Swifties.” Without disparaging Adams (again, I’m a HUGE fan), he is simply nowhere near as famous as Swift. Which is why it’s all the more bizarre that so much attention is being paid by music journalists to the compliment he has paid Swift by covering her album.
I cannot think of another example of one artist covering another artist’s album in its entirety while said album is still at the top of the charts—less than a year after it was released (the closest might be Booker T. & the MG’s April 1970 McLemore Avenue, a track-by-track instrumental cover of the Beatles’ Abbey Road, which had been released in September, 1969). Some bands have covered older classic albums in their entirety. For example, The Flaming Lips covered all of Pink Floyd’s Dark Side Of The Moon, Camper Van Beethoven covered Fleetwood Mac’s Tusk. Because of the proximity to the original, however, what Adams has done feels incredibly personal, both on his own behalf and toward Swift’s creation.
Adams has said that he admires Swift’s songwriting. In 2012, he remarked on Twitter of Swift’s “We Are Never, Ever Getting Back Together” that “every tune of hers is like the one you wait a whole lifetime to write.” His 1989 seems like a heartfelt interpretation.
David Browne reports in Rolling Stone that Adams and Swift were in close contact during the recording:
As the project was underway, Adams kept Swift apprised of its progress and promised her she’d be the first to hear the completed record. As soon as it was wrapped up, he sent her a link to the tracks, and the two spoke about it at length the next day. “She was listening, and we were exchanging commentary as each track went down,” he says. “She was stoked. I imagine it was surreal—someone she knows is singing her an entire cover of her whole record. I can only imagine what that’s like.” (Swift soon tweeted that it was “surreal and dreamlike.”)
Browne comments that the finished record is “devoid of irony or novelty aspects,” adding with obvious surprise, “How exactly did he achieve that?” To which Adams replies, “You just have to mean it….Even if I do something funny, I’m going to fucking mean it. As I was singing those songs, they mattered to me as much as any of my own songs ever did. Or I wouldn’t have sung them.”
Having listened to the two records, I can affirm what many critics are saying—that they’re both quite good because the songwriting is solid, the melodic hooks are infectious and the themes resonate. In covering the album, Adams makes it his own (the Smiths and Springsteen connections are in his DNA). Yet an undeniable air of incongruity arises when you listen to the original tracks side by side with those of Adams. It’s hard to completely forget that he is a 40-year-old man covering a widely known record by a 25-year old woman. Some listeners have been angered because Adams switched the gender pronouns and references so that his versions of the songs come from a heterosexual male perspective. At least one writer takes queer pleasure in the “gender-bending” mashup. But perhaps the most lingering effect of hearing Adams’ 1989 with a knowledge of the original is a worry that he may have invaded and occupied her material. Whether his version is viewed as a stunt or a tribute will, to a certain extent, be up to listeners to decide.
There is speculation that Swift and Adams might end up competing against one another for Album of the Year at next year’s Grammy Awards. The same record. Different styles. One by a woman, the other by a man covering that woman. What could possibly go wrong?
I can’t help but think of the research that shows how women’s work is judged differently and more harshly than men’s, for example last year’s Stanford study on gender bias in the sciences; “when evaluating identical resumes, scientists may be significantly less likely to agree to mentor, offer jobs, or recommend equal salaries to a candidate if the name at the top of the resume is Jennifer, rather than John.” Of course, in the event of a Swift/Adams Grammy showdown, their gender identities would be known, but the biases could be as pronounced or more so. To be sure, these particular artists benefit from white privilege, and biases are more pronounced against artists of color and especially women of color—and transgender artists face bigger hurdles still. Nonetheless, there’s something painful about the prospect of Swift facing competition from someone else’s rendition of her own record.
My hope is that Swift and Adams will perform the songs together sooner rather than later—doing so will increase the wider perception of the two as artist peers. I would also be thrilled if Swift were to return the favor and cover one of Adams’ records. After all, both are wonderful songwriters and talented performers who know how to bring nuance to their interpretations of other people’s creations. If they can get listeners to understand that great songs transcend stereotypes, then the joke will be on those who fail to recognize their own biases. The rest of us will be singing along!
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