Ryan Adams by Taylor Swift: Authoring ‘1989’

Even if you've never heard Swift's original performances, you're hearing them when you listen to Ryan Adams perform 1989.

On the night of the Super Blood Moon and Total Lunar Eclipse, the sky was covered by clouds here in Ohio. Nothing to see, not much to say. Around midnight, as I sat on the back porch, a possum ambled by. For a couple months he’d been passing through our backyard regularly, workmanlike, and this night he looked at me, seemed to shrug, and kept going.

That’s not to say Ryan Adams covering the entirety of Taylor Swift’s 1989 isn’t noteworthy. But if we’re all looking for a Super Blood Moon and Total Lunar Eclipse when we listen to music, I’m pretty sure Adams’ version of 1989 is cloud cover. Musically, it’s conventional. What’s more compelling is the concept.

Dig this: In the history of pop and rock ‘n’ roll artists, there are almost no examples of a male musician covering a female musician’s album. Beck covered The Velvet Underground and Nico for his Record Club project, Camper Van Beethoven recreated Fleetwood Mac’s Tusk in 2001, and Rufus Wainwright covered the entirety of Judy Garland’s 1961 Judy at Carnegie Hall. The full-album tribute is the most loving, most obsessive homage you can pay, even when it’s an extended joke or filled with rage. So until now, judging by the evidence, male musicians have not felt terribly compelled to pay explicit homage to female musicians.

Indeed, it’s rare to hear a male musician even acknowledge the influence of a woman’s work, though, as Ann Powers recently argued in a review of Adams’ cover project, “Tom Petty’s whole ’80s output can be viewed as a buried dialogue with his friend and vocal doppelganger Stevie Nicks.” Buried being the key word.

Nothing about Adams’ dialogue with Swift is buried or covert. The best of his versions are “Shake It Off” and “Wildest Dreams” and maybe “Clean”, all of which play to the strengths of his voice. In “Blank Space” that voice touches the high notes in the second half of each verse like you would touch a baby’s cheek: on the words face, mistake, play, friends, ends, hand, want, month, come, God, drunk, jealousy, leave. But this trades off Swift’s blend of uncertainty and defiance for Adams’ mumbling.

Adams’ version also inexplicably cuts the song’s bridge, the part where Swift sings, “Boys only want love if it’s torture,” which a. is often true and b. subverts gender stereotypes in both directions. Just that pause in the song, that suspension, gives Swift’s performance a drama that Adams flattens. Apply all of this double-fold to the anthemic rock soup of “Style”. The guitars are deaf to each other in opposite channels.

In Swift’s version, synths pulse underneath the chorus, their accents creating a slight syncopation; Adams’ guitars turn that into molasses power chords. Generally the strategy is to slow down what’s fast, exposing the sad heart of the pop song—”How You Get the Girl”, “Blank Space”, “Out of the Woods”, “Shake It Off”, “I Wish You Would”, “Bad Blood”—and in the case of “This Love”, to make what’s slow even slower. And add reverb. If there was a subtitle to this album, it would be Reverb Was On Sale.

There’s some disagreement about where the term “cover song” came from, but given the charts of the ’50s, the practice is pretty clear: if someone scored a hit record, you covered it to rake in some share of that dough.

One theory suggests purely business motivations, as in “covering” the market. The transmission of radio signals in the ’50s could travel hundreds of miles in seconds, but distributing the actual records of the hit song took longer. A different motivation, one ingrained into rock ‘n’ roll history, was to “cover” the black American identities behind an R&B hit by having a more sanitized, pop-friendly white group re-record it. The 1954 doo-wop hit “Sh-Boom” is a perfect example. Months after The Chords’ original version charted, The Crew-Cuts’ re-recording bumped it down the charts. The Chords’ performance starts with the group’s vocals, putting the harmony of ordinary but aesthetically rich black voices reaching for something in the song’s center. The Crew-Cuts sound like Fred Astaire dancing around a movie set. If nothing else, it’s compelling to think of a cover song as an attempt to obscure the original.

Adams’ version of 1989 comes out less than a year after Swift’s, and while some might see it as a cynical cashing-in, I can only hear the unpredictable and impulsive guy who once released three albums in a year digging into mysteries that move him, that have made sense to him even if they haven’t been solved. Like plenty of other rock artists, he’s reversing the old rock/blues/folk-to-pop pattern of covers; now, pop songs are taken up by rock bands. (I once heard The Twilight Singers do a smashing version of “Hey Ya”; Greg Dulli has a long history of covering black artists with the Singers and The Afghan Whigs.)

But Adams bears no trace of the smug irony of The Gourds covering “Gin and Juice”, or Father John Misty’s retort to Adams’ project with his own Velvet Underground-style cover of “Blank Space”. (Misty sings like Lou Reed here; that’s four artists wrapped into one song, five if you think of Beck’s project! All for free!) Though he does include the bridge, his version is like a two-times removed Andy Warhol soup can, and once you hear it you never need to hear it again.

Ironic covers don’t obscure the originals, they expose and shame them. Maybe even negate them. Not Adams.

Swift was born in 1989. Thus, the title of her album; she was 25 when she released it. Most articles and reviews have focused on the music made in 1989, but it seems to me that age 25 is when nostalgia for your youth starts creeping in. Except that Swift is working from secondhand memory of 1989, if we can call it memory. It’s a kind of uchronia: a less complex version of a certain time in history we didn’t live through, a cultural memory, eg. The Wild West.

So I imagine my 25-year-old self in 1999. What is my uchronia then? Weirdly, it’s the ’30s. I’m rediscovering my teenage fascination with early blues, country and old-time folk, but undoubtedly I see a connection between that music and the newer music I’m into, which includes Adams’ band Whiskeytown. Which makes me wonder if Swift’s 1989 isn’t a similar kind of connection—not just an homage to past sounds, but a certain way of being she hears in that music and invokes today through her own.

After the shock of meeting each other wears off, I explain to my younger self that the world’s computers won’t stop working at midnight on the 1st of January 2000. Then we listen to Swift’s album.

“This is way better than ‘Baby One More Time’,” 1999-me says. I tell him it’s the same producer, Max Martin, and it dawns on me that if someone wants to claim Swift has no real agency in her music, then they should have to explain to me why the Martin-produced Backstreet Boys’ “I Want It That Way” is unlistenable garbage and Katy Perry’s “I Kissed a Girl” is a crime, but the worst you can say of 1989 is that it’s good, catchy pop.

It also occurs to me that pop music today is by and large much better than it was in 1999, or 1989 for that matter. “Anyway,” I tell my younger self, “here’s the Ryan Adams record.” We gave it a spin, starting with “Welcome to New York.” The confusion spider-crawls its way through my younger eyes. No fiddles, no lyrics about beer bottles, no references to having been in a punk band. No “Lo-Fi Tennessee Mountain Angel”. Just like the sad, confused, stoned little boy in that YouTube video, my younger self says, “Is this gonna be forever?”

Swift all but asks the same thing in “Blank Space” and answers it in “Wildest Dreams” with “Nothing lasts forever.” Her music says otherwise, or at least it asks the question knowing it doesn’t need to be answered. For Swift there’s a give and take between what lasts and what doesn’t, but, as in so much pop music, that debate matters less than the youthful thrill of discovery, of being on the brink.

Adams is 41. He knows how life answers the question, knows how hard it is to keep discovering, and you hear that in every word he sings and every sound on his 1989. Now it’s got me thinking of The Crew-Cuts again, whose version of “Sh-Boom” spent 20 weeks on the charts, outlasting The Chords’ original record. I wonder if they were thrilled, if they thought the song’s success would last and last. The Chords already knew. They had to change their name to the ungainly ChordCats. They disbanded in 1960. But look up both versions of “Sh-Boom” and you’ll instantly recognize the voices of The Chords. You’ve heard it already. Cultural memory is fickle, but sometimes just.

One person you won’t hear weighing in on 1989x2 is the scholar and critic Harold Bloom. In his 1973 book The Anxiety of Influence, Bloom suggests that “weak poets” never overcome the preceding father-figure poet’s influence while “strong poets can read only themselves.” (No room for women here, apparently.) Any artist who’s self-aware and honest will admit to this: you listen to Taylor Swift or Ryan Adams and you think, Would I do this? What’s here that I can use? Thus, Bloom writes, “any poem” by a strong poet can be read “as its poet’s deliberate misinterpretation, as a poet, of a precursor poem…,” the evidence of the poet working through the titular anxiety.

Adams isn’t writing new poems under the influence of Swift, he’s performing her poems in his own way. There really isn’t a poetry-world equivalent of this, the closest thing being to write “after” someone, “in the style of,” or to write after another work of art, e.g., ekphrasis. If anything, we’re tracking back into the shared tradition of oral poetry, a history of communal works without authors.

That’s also the tradition of folk music, from “Staggerlee” to “Pretty Polly”, and that sense of authorless works reemerges in different form between the late ’40s and the early ’60s, the era of “Sh-Boom”, when the song seemed to count more than the people who sang it. The cover song always tests how much that tradition has changed, how much we love the singer more than the song.

Adams is influenced by Swift’s songs and performances, and the application of Bloom might just open up some new ideas, especially if we agree that despite this contemporary culture of relentless co-opting, reappropriation and remixing, some anxiety about influence remains. Bloom argues that the strong poet overcomes this through six methods. The one that fits best with Adams’ 1989 is “daemonization”: “The later poet opens himself to what he believes to be a power in the parent-poem that does not belong to the parent proper,” writes Bloom, “but to a range of being just beyond that precursor.” In other words, Adams’ “deliberate misinterpretation” as one poet listening to another taps into the same thing he believes Swift tapped into; she doesn’t own it, but the only way to it is through her songs.

Adams all but said as much describing Swift’s songs to Grantland’s Steven Hyden: “You break them down from what they are to this raw element, and they’re just super powerful and they can tear you up.” There’s a side effect, though, according to Bloom. The later poet’s work “generalize(s) away the uniqueness of the earlier work,” sapping its power and originality.

I don’t hear that happening in Adams’ version; if anything, it affirms the uniqueness of Swift’s album. But then, Bloom’s theory is a war between the younger poet and the older poet. Strong poets win. Every one of Bloom’s methods, when successful, results in the failure, reduction or obliteration of the predecessor.

Who authors Ryan Adams’ version of 1989? As the performer, he does, but Swift wrote the songs and in a very real way she continues to write them through Adams. Politically this matters a great deal since women still aren’t given the credit they deserve as songwriters; to say that Swift doesn’t own the power and that Adams can go through her to its source—in essence, that he can succeed at an even greater scale than her—is disturbingly sexist and also kind of grossly sexualized. Why isn’t it possible that the locus of power is Swift’s music, period?

Back to Powers, who writes that Adams “always keeps [Swift’s] words, her worldview, her voice at the center. Swift is not a blank slate that Adams writes upon. She is his album’s defining element. And that is a change that women musicians have deserved for a very long time.”

But I’d go even farther, into weirder territory. Swift is not just the defining element, and is not just writing through Adams; she is not a thing, and neither is she the lady-writer in her parlor. She’s a performer in the American spectacle, a singer—not a great one—and so she performs Adams’ words as they come out of his mouth. I know that sounds weird, but even if you’ve never heard Swift’s original performances, you’re hearing them when you listen to Adams’ performances. He has created the occasion, but she creates so much else. Powers writes that Adams is “(s)peaking through Swift’s voice,” but on some of these songs, particularly the more countrified ones, it’s as if you can hear Swift speaking through Adams’ voice, as if she has possessed him.

None of that necessarily makes Adams’ version of 1989 good—aesthetics are not sociology, just as art is not a science—but it might explain how the album works, and how it might be heard.