For the past couple months, the indie music blogosphere has been practically buzzing at the prospect of everyone’s favorite mop-haired and melancholy singer, Ryan Adams, releasing a song-by-song cover of Taylor Swift’s 1989. In the beginning, most people assumed Adams was playing a big practical joke on the music establishment, and that has everything to do with the artist he chose to cover. But on Monday the speculation came to an end and we found out it was no joke.
It’s worth noting that this project started as a sort of hat tip to Swift’s songwriting prowess. Adams even went so far as to say that “White Horse” and other T-Swift favorites have influenced him as deeply as Hüsker Dü and the Smiths. When the project was announced, Swift visibly lost her shit on Twitter, clearly thrilled at the prospect that someone with Adams’ indie music cred would be reinterpreting her work.
The air of mutual respect between the two artists is clear. Adams has repeatedly defended Swift’s songwriting ability in the press. In an interview with Entertainment Weekly, Adams took an opportunity to gush about Swift’s unparalleled ability to invoke emotion. “Those songs are fragile and vulnerable at their core. They’re constructed from such an honest place,” he told EW. “Those are the kind of songs ... I don’t think they’re overshares. But they’re all completely giving, to the point that they move people to tears.”
In fact, a New Yorker review of the album accused Adams of being “too reverent” of Swift’s album in his covers. This reverence has been misinterpreted by plenty of fans and music writers as some kind of improvement on the original, with The Daily Beast even saying that Adams had “turn[ed] Taylor Swift into Springsteen.” The suggestion is that Ryan Adams lends “credibility” to Swift, who many critics are happy to dismiss as yet another manufactured pop princess, a Britney Spears or Mandy Moore who just happened to make a detour into country music.
But let’s be real. Taylor Swift is, however you feel about her music, an incredible songwriter, and has been since she was that plucky, upstart kid first cutting her teeth on sappy country love songs. She’s always had a way with language, producing such lyrics as, “The rest of the world was black and white/ But we were in screaming color.” As a fresh-faced teenager, Swift wrote “Tim McGraw” and “Mean,” both seemingly simple, but deeply layered with emotion and nostalgia.
Whether due to her current power-pop aesthetic or the fact that she is a young woman in music, all of that has continually been discounted. Of course, now that a man of Adams’ caliber has come along to praise her, critics are starting to pay attention to the deeply poignant lyrics that Swift has consistently been writing since the beginning of her career. Boston Globe critic James Reed wrote that Adams’ cover album “even makes you appreciate Swift’s stealth songwriting.” Wait, what?
Swift doesn’t need a cover album by anyone, not even Adams, to lend her credibility. This is a woman whose songwriting ability has already been recognized by the Songwriters Hall of Fame (of which she will no doubt be a member someday) and the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences, among countless others. If you don’t already recognize Swift as one of pop music’s best songwriters, there’s probably a reason why. People don’t take Swift seriously because she is a young woman with a fondness for cheesy pop beats. People do take Adams seriously because he’s a mid-30s male with a knack for recognizing the good stuff.
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A lot of emphasis has also been placed on the emotional content of both records, with critics and fans alike raving about Adams’ “moody” cover of “Bad Blood.” Undoubtedly, Adams has an incredible ability to evoke a range of emotions, and this album is no exception, but why didn't people react this way when Swift sang the same lyrics over a catchy beat? Is there something about a whiny guitar that somehow makes the listening public more capable of feeling emotions?
Nope. People are just more likely to recognize good music when it’s recorded by a man. Women’s contributions in music — from Billie Holliday's to Björk's — have long been minimized, with credit given to their male collaborators. Remember that Pitchfork review that called Solange Knowles her producer’s “muse,” even though she’d co-written every track on the album in question?
Fortunately, Ryan Adams has been quick to remind everyone of what this album actually is — a tribute to a great songwriter. But when the next artist decides to remake a pop album to give it a little credibility, will that same respect still be there? Or will we see more of the same old attempts to take credit for the creative labor of women? I guess we’ll have to see when Father John Misty inevitably records his version of “Problem” by Ariana Grande or whatever.
Ultimately, both recordings of 1989 are great albums on their own. Swift’s first effort as a bonafide pop star will forever be remembered as one of the great pop albums, and Adams’ covers will stay in rotation on indie music snobs' playlists for years to come. But it is incredibly important that the Ryan Adams version not overshadow the Taylor Swift recording of 1989 — those are her words, her lyrics and her emotions, and they don’t need anyone else's help to be taken seriously.