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Taylor Swift doesn't need anyone's help
On Sept. 21, Ryan Adams released his 15th studio album, a track-by-track cover of Taylor Swift’s 1989. Both versions are currently sitting on the Billboard Top 200 list, with Adams’ version leading Swift by one slot—the first time two albums with the same name and the same track listing to have ever appeared in the top 10 of the list together.
Adams has transformed Swift’s megahit album—which sold over eight million copies worldwide since its release just under a year ago—from a synth-pop string of confident and invigorating anthems to a collection of weary and nostalgic rock ballads. Whereas Swift’s “Bad Blood” bitterly details a feud with another female artist, Adams reconstitutes it as a sorrowful fight in a torn marriage. “Out of the Woods” has been altered from a look at an on-and-off fling to a desperate portrayal of a crumbling relationship. In “Blank Space,” Swift’s tongue-in-cheek narrative about a manipulative man-eater, Adams replaces Swift’s snark with a gentler, self-reflective voice.
According to Adams, the album is borne from a deep appreciation for Swift’s songwriting talent, and was not made ironically like many assumed. In a recent interview on CBC Radio’s q, Adams said, “here is this unbelievable person [Swift] who is just being themselves [sic], who is writing these songs that are true to her own life and representing that by being a […] stellar songwriter, who is also a stellar person.” He cites the songs as helping him through a recent divorce, and credits Swift for taking him to the next step in his career as a songwriter, by allowing him to analyze and recreate 1989 from front to back.
It is always interesting when musicians, especially cult-classic icons like Adams, reinterpret albums in their own genre. In this case, he connected with songs based on the life of a young woman coming into her element, stating, “How easily it was for [him] to find [himself] in her shoes, in those songs. And how easily it was to lose [himself] in the feelings presented, and the melodies.” The heartbreak and the emotional gravity he places in this album resonate in each song. At the same time, whereas Swift’s album felt fresh, exciting, and deeply personal, Adams’ version comes across as simply another folk-rock album, forgettable and unoriginal in comparison. Without the subtle, novel, and distinguishing factors that set apart Swift’s 1989, Adams version is just what you would expect from him—if not a little less. Perhaps this criticism would not be so harsh nor warranted if Adams weren’t covering Swift’s songs for profit. Artists cover songs all the time, but what can be made of Adams charging close to the same price as Swift for his album, only to produce less-than-original reworking of 1989? Adams rides on the success of 1989 and benefits from Swift’s millions of fans worldwide, yet adds little to nothing particularly new to the picture worthy of the price he charges.
Swift may in fact be the frontrunner of a new genre of musical criticism known as “popism” or “poptimism.” Popism is described by Jody Rosen as where “[pop] producers are as important as rock auteurs, Beyoncé is as worthy of serious consideration as Bruce Springsteen, and ascribing shame to pop pleasure is itself a shameful act.” This is not to say that all pop music should be considered as worthy of praise—much of it is vapid, but to dismiss all pop music as such is to risk overlooking talented singer songwriters such as Swift herself. In Swift’s case, her choice to mould her songs into uplifting and hopeful pop anthems does not chip away at their value nor their depth. The ability for Swift’s songs to be equally believable as pop anthems as well as sad, rock ballads, speaks to the timelessness and wisdom behind the lyrics and Swift’s strength as a songwriter, no matter her chosen musical genre.
Adams’ album is thus not necessarily more important, nor worthy of praise due to the spin he put on it; however, his album is noticeable in that it puts Swift on a pedestal higher than she was before, leaving Adams’ version as the one propping her up—interesting and entertaining, yes, but entirely forgettable is more like it.
Ryan Adams stands up for pop
In his unique reworking of Taylor Swift’s bubbly, pop album 1989, Ryan Adams turns the raucous riffs of the album into acoustic or minimalist melodies while slowing down the effervescent rhythms to transform the album into a far more atmospheric piece. His beautifully fragile voice puts the finish on the captivating musical metamorphosis, making the tone of the album unrecognizable from the original. The cheeky winks towards fleeting romance of “Blank Space,” for instance, are mutated into a lonesome love letter in Adams’ interpretation. Sure the album is purely covers, but Adams uses everything in his creative toolbox to make this album an entirely different entity from the original.This is why the project should be commended as a piece of art, not simply a cheap way of riding someone else’s success to riches.
Yet, for all the creativity used by Adams to make his version of 1989 different sonically from the original, the star of the project is still Swift’s writing. Adams doesn’t sell short the gifted songwriting ability of Swift. He takes the beautiful chords and delicate lyrics and removes the glitzy production and beat machines that come with a radio friendly pop record, laying out Swift’s remarkable gift for all to see. Adams croons, "You took a Polaroid of us / then discovered the rest of the world was black and white / but we were in screaming colour” in “Out Of The Woods” over the simplistic sound of an acoustic guitar to thrust the beauty of Swift’s writing to the forefront of the listener’s mind. The true value of the album isn’t the aesthetics of what Adams produces, but rather what those aesthetics highlight. There is also great cultural significance in a ‘serious’ artist such as Adams creating an ode to the beauty of songwriting on a pop album like 1989.
Ironically, for all the critical acclaim that Adams has received on this album, it isn’t a very deep remake. There is original feeling here, but his motivation for the album isn’t especially profound. As he tells the online publication Grantland, “Over the Christmas holiday I had a three-week break, and that’s when I originally started to track 1989… I’ll make it an after-tour, fun project.” Depth and artistic inspiration on 1989 comes from Swift, a fact that is acknowledged in a number of reviews of this album. Rolling Stone Magazine declared that “the real star here is Swift's infallible material, evidence that the country music defector still worships Nashville's fondest saying: The song always comes first.” Of course people recognized Swift’s brilliance, but the true lyrical and artistic prowess of such a piece is only really talked about when Adams allows us to focus on the songwriting. The spotlight that such an album casts on the songwriting ability of Swift, is one that isn’t often projected upon pop musicians.
Given that Adams’ artistic motivation for the album is innocent, and a lot of the emotion from the project is derived from Taylor Swift, it doesn’t seem like this album would have been particularly significant to pop culture, but it is. Pop scholars have existed for years, so it’s not as if 1989 is original because it highlights the genius of pop music writers. Pop writers have been lauded since The Beatles started doing their thing, but often it feels like pop music hasn’t been getting the credit it deserves. Sure, maybe some pop music is manufactured in a lab by people who are looking to get the biggest profit with the least amount of effort, but the rhetoric saying that ‘real music’ only exists outside of Top 40 radio is utter bollocks. Adams’ 1989 doesn’t save pop, nor does it revolutionize the genre; however, it gives many people a much needed reminder that love, passion, artistry, and lyrical prowess are all just as prominent in the songwriting of a pop artist as they are in that limited edition Neutral Milk Hotel vinyl. Pop music may have found it’s unlikely defender in Ryan Adams.