Taylor Swift is a bona fide pop culture phenomenon. Few female pop singers have achieved the kind of status she has in a career, let alone in seven years. Starting out singing a kind of Pop Country tune, the kind of stuff that would play well on the Coasts as well as flyover country, she’s slowly but surely erased the Country until all that remained was 1989.
The album was a phenomenon itself. It sold millions of records when artists are having trouble selling the idea of purchasing a record instead of streaming it. And it did so on the strength of its quality. Here was an album that hearkened back to the glory days of bubblegum pop, to influences from modern Hip-Hop, and chock full of classic female songwriting, wiping away the final traces of Country Taylor.
In steps Ryan Adams, a man who himself has straddled the lines of pop and country, always with an “alt” edge. He is a manic writer, coming out with album after album, release after release. His list of classic albums is pretty much all of them—yes even Rock N Roll, and he is in short company when it comes to equals in songwriting over the last twenty years.
In fact, he’s a great interpreter of music, through and through. Whether he’s covering Danzing or Neil Young, the results sound as if Ryan Adams owned the song. There is no greater example of this than his cover of “Wonderwall.” He cut the track for Love is Hell, the two EP set, and by the time it was used for an episode of The OC, it was gaining notoriety for being better than the original. So much so that Noel Gallagher himself performs the song Adams way.
He was barely fifteen-years-old when Taylor Swift was born, but that hasn’t stopped him from seeing something in her music, and 1989 is perfect fodder for Adams to tackle. The songs are earnest nuggets of struggle and triumph, lost and found love, all covered in gooey pop goodness. Swift has a way of writing deeply personal lyrics that seem utterly universal, something that Adams has himself done over his long career. All that has changed in his cover version is the music.
Obviously obvious, but this changes the album completely. So much of what Swift’s 1989 lacks Adam’s 1989 creates. Where the bubble gum creates a radio friendly atmosphere, Adam’s reverbed single-coil guitars (his tone of choice as of late) reveal the poetic nature of her music. The only time that his cover struggles is on “Shake It Off,” which is so utterly pop that he sounds mildly like an Ed Sheeran doing a milquetoast version of a rap song. “Shake It Off,” is cheeky and that’s what makes it great, going slow wasn’t going to do it justice.
The main questions here weren’t are his versions good? or should he have released this at all? Both answers are yes (obviously). The questions everyone seems to be asking are was this done in earnest? And who needs who?
What Adams reveals over the course of the album is a deep intimacy with the source material. Save for “Shake It Off,” each of his cuts honors the original without taking from it or mocking it in any way. His attention to detail is so fine that he gets them all right, down to the addition of a string section and the photo that graces the cover.
Compare this to Father John Misty’s covers of Adam’s covers of Swifts songs that he did in the style of Lou Reed, but then took down after Lou Reed told him in a dream that it was cheap. While they were incredible takes on the songs, they did not attempt to honor the originals, and based on the production value, were clearly done on a lark.
Which brings us to point number two. I’ve seen comments go both ways suggesting that Adams needs Swift, or that Swift needs Adams. And both reactions are horrendous for entirely different reasons.
One popular thread seems to go that Ryan Adams is on the last legs of his career, and covering one of the most popular albums of the last ten years might help him in some way. I think the most used word here is stunt. It’s a stunt being pulled to help Ryan Adams seem cool.
Ryan Adams is not cool. Ryan Adams has never been cool in the way that yes, Taylor Swift is cool. But he didn’t need to be (does he want to be?). He just wrote heartbreaking and heartbreakingly good songs, and gained a following. I’ve been a fan since Gold, and how many times did he do something lame like leave snotty voicemails on critics phones, or storm off stages, quit music, etc. in the meantime? Who cares as long as he keeps making great music?
Frankly, I don’t care if he did this or not, his fan base is pretty solid at this point. But I’m glad he released it. It’s fun (cool?) in the sort of way that Coltrane doing “My Favorite Things” is fun, or Hendrix doing Dylan. This is not Punk Goes Pop.
Worst of all, it seems that some people are using this is as an excuse to be sexist. As if it weren’t hard enough to be taken seriously as a female artist, the idea that Ryan Adams is the one who made these songs good is especially egregious. Paraphrasing one tweet that I saw: “who knew these songs were so good? It only took a man singing them…”
It’s as if Adam’s version gives license to critique Swift’s writing abilities. So what if she has co-writers if the end result is so good? She may not be your thing, but Adam’s didn’t make the songs good, he saw what was good in them and used that to recreate them in his image. Which is exactly what a good cover song does.
And that’s what you have at the end of the day. Two albums of good songs, both equally listenable, but one is going to be better than the other based on what your tastes are. That’s all there is to it.
Article: Christopher Gilson