Cover Boy: Ryan Adams’ “1989”

Ryan Adams released his promised remake of Taylor Swift’s 1989 this week. It’s a quiet, incredibly thought-out reinterpretation that feels as full of reverence for the original as nostalgia of the time period that album title refers. It’s also kind of a dadzbop record; an album that will appeal to people who don’t want to listen to Taylor Swift because she’s a pop artist and not a sensitive white dude strumming a guitar.

But it is lovely to listen to and it’s a pretty great gesture for an artist of Ryan Adam’s stature to not only embrace Swift’s album but want to make loving interpretation of it. It’s also a little disheartening how many push against the idea of it happening.

Album remakes in and of itself are a curious case. Using another’s art as inspiration to create a unique response to said art shouldn’t be a bad thing. In the 50s and 60s, Black artists would remake songs of their white counterparts and vice versa, but a lot of that was due to the segregation of radio. Music is a genre with a lot of political baggage and in the case of Ryan Adams and Taylor Swift (and also the business of writing about music on the internet), the politics are inescapable. In the age of poptimism and the sweeping popularity for non-white male centered music, a thing like Ryan Adam’s “1989” feels not only like stepping backwards but fuels (however unintentional) these ideas about authenticity and real artistry in music.

One need only to look at recent essays from both the NY Times and The Washington Post, to see dismissive and condescending attitudes towards pop music but especially the way in which pop music has become a critical darling as opposed to the butt of many a serious music writer’s jokes. As this pop adoration continues, the vocal dissenters continue to push back; part of this push back usually consists of speaking up in favor of rock music, which usually involves the idea that rock is the thing that is pure and real in a world of what they see as artificial, plastic music.

There is a classist attitude in all of this that Ryan Adams both benefits and earns demerits from. So when the album finally came out, on twitter, you could see people incredibly excited to listen to it and you could also see people who felt the need to protect the artistry of Taylor Swift. Divorcing the politics of music from the actual music is a difficult task and, in this scenario, is close to impossible to do.

It also should be noted that Taylor’s status as a woman in popular culture and Ryan Adam’s maleness and the maleness of his music are also at play. There’s certainly sexism on display if not because of this record than around it, but a great deal of it seems to be people reacting to sexism they assume is probably happening but haven’t seen. Does it exist? Probably, but for the most part the only people who are obsessing over “what this record means” are people who write for a living.

Cover songs at their best are love letters to our favorite songs or musical moments. At their worst, they’re cheap cash-ins and, at their worser, they are goofs or attempts at irony. This is the sword with which rap music has been the most speared, but a lot of pop and electronic music has been smited in this way. The acoustic song version of a pop song was once a popular pastime for going viral and has rarely ever been done with any sincerity or love for the original song. Sure, you might get an Afghan Whigs cover of an R&B song that actually feels well-arranged and performed by people who actually listen to those songs, but a good amount of these covers are goofs meant to poke fun at the silliness of a pop record while upholding the status quo of true artistry.

Ryan Adams’ “1989” works because it is both been blessed by Taylor Swift and is made by someone who loves her music. If you like this Ryan Adams record, it’s because you like Ryan Adams but it’s also because you like Taylor Swift’s music. You can’t divorce the two things because the album doesn’t allow you to, even if you would rather find comfort in the familiar blanket of quiet, emotionally charged Replacement-era vibes. You can run from poptimism if you’d like but pop music cannot be escaped or abandoned. All of your faves probably owe a lot to popular artists anyways, Ryan Adams just had the awareness to hat tip and show his appreciation.

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