In promoting his newest album, folk-rock hero Ryan Adams has had nothing but good things to say about his friend the pop star Taylor Swift. He went on at length about the brilliance of her songwriting to Grantland's Steven Hyden:
The structures that she’s building are a lot of clean lines — the songs are all ends in themselves, the top line and the song itself are usually mirrors of each other, and I like that she’s able to be very vulnerable, but she doesn’t have to be wordy to get there. It’s not minimalism, but definitely it’s, like, content by reduction. It’s the same kind of stuff that I love about Noel Gallagher’s writing, or classic Rolling Stones songs.
There's good reason for this. Adams's latest album, 1989, is a song-for-song cover of Swift's album of the same name, only Swift's pop-heavy production has been inverted in favor of the acoustic folk sing-alongs and rock rave-ups Adams favors. If Swift's album was '80s pop gloss, Adams's album favors '70s roots rock. Swift, for her part, has been the project's biggest cheerleader.
Adams's cover album is simultaneously a fun listen, a fascinating experiment, and a defiantly weird chapter in both artists' history. (Also, since it's on Spotify, which Swift pulled her music from, it may be the only way you'll be able to hear the songs from 1989 on that service.) If you're even the least bit curious about the album, it's worth a listen.
But the way the album has been talked about — even in some corners of the press — seems to miss much of what made it possible in the first place. The prevailing argument seems to be that Adams found some sort of hidden emotional resonance in Swift's mere pop songs that wasn't there before.
And that's simply not true.
Adams's 1989 is more overtly sad than Swift's
The "emotional resonance" argument is perhaps most succinctly described by Yahoo Music's Chris Willman:
A collection of songs that in [Swift's] hands was the sunny pop album of the decade has been strangely but not unnaturally transmuted into the heartbreak album of the year.
On its face, Willman's statement makes sense. The surface-level production of Swift's 1989 is all glimmering pop sheen, while the surface-level production of Adams's 1989 is more akin to the world's best bar band ripping into an unexpected cover shortly before closing time. Both of these approaches reveal different facets and aspects of the songs on the album.
But the tone of much of the writing around Adams's 1989 suggests (inadvertently) that the singer-songwriter is somehow absolving Swift of her sins of pop stardom. Nearly every review agrees that Swift is a hugely accomplished songwriter. What seems to swirl around much of this coverage is the thought that she's somehow wasting her time on pop music.
On some level, the argument here is that the sadness inherent to Adams's version of these songs is more authentic than the joy in the pop versions. Adams initially began recording his album in the midst of the end of his marriage, and though he talks around this as an impetus in interviews, it's clear how much the emotional devastation informed his work — and how much Swift's album served as a lifeline during that time.
What critics — and Swift herself — have said about the new 1989
Many critics have made this basic argument: Swift's versions of the songs were about being hopeful after bad times, while Adams's were about being rueful. Writes Annie Zaleski in a well-argued A.V. Club review headlined "Ryan Adams transforms Taylor Swift's 1989 into a melancholy masterpiece":
Swift’s 1989 felt upbeat and empowering, though its lyrics touched on damaging breakups, irresistible bad decisions, and romantic regrets, because she never gave up hope that things might work out in her favor. Adams’ interpretation of 1989 is a case of seeing the glass half empty: He operates under the assumption that things are irrevocably damaged, and responds accordingly.
Ian Crouch at the New Yorker (which, in a telling nod to the state of establishment music criticism, reviewed Adams's 1989 but not Swift's) argues that this regret is somehow more honest:
If anything, Adams’s version of "1989" is more earnest and, in its way, sincere and sentimental than the original.
Even Swift herself makes this argument. In his Yahoo Music piece, Willman quotes a radio interview with her: "There’s this longing, aching sadness in them that wasn’t in the original."
Is this true? Maybe! But it's at least a little strange to argue that an album of covers is somehow "more sincere" than the original, especially when earnest, sad-sounding covers of seemingly happy songs are a bit of a cottage industry of late. The underlying message of all of these songs is the same: Did you know this was sad? You do now!
Popular music criticism is increasingly losing the stance that all other genres run a distant second to the "authenticity" of rock music, but it's still prevalent enough that music writing devoted to other forms still seems to be reflexively butting up against the form's past. (Indeed, there's even a name for this movement: poptimism.) After all, the foremost face of music criticism in America is still Rolling Stone, which gives albums from aging baby boomer rockers perfect scores almost as a matter of course.
Music criticism has also had a long — slowly changing — history of writing off female artists at the expense of male artists, unless they were in certain pre-approved genres or forms (like the acoustic singer-songwriter). Women in rock were considered a huge novelty as recently as the 1990s, and much of the reflexive dismissal of pop music is bound up in gender bias that dates to music criticism's earliest days. Swift is one of the most respected artists of her generation, but she's still fighting two very different uphill battles, whereas Adams has no such struggle.
That's reflected in the reception of Adams's cover album. Where Swift's 1989 might sound more hopeful, it's ultimately based atop the same structure that Adams's 1989 is, and that structure is inherently melancholy and regretful. It's the album of a 25-year-old, suddenly realizing that life is filled with consequences and isn't a constant series of upward trajectories.
Both 1989s are built atop emotional tension
Willman points, in particular, to "Blank Space," the second single off Swift's 1989 and perhaps its best, most knowing song. Willman describes this song as a "joke," a play on Swift's well-known relationship with the tabloids and the constant rumors of her romantic liaisons and breakups.
This is how we tend to write about Swift — as a terrific songwriter who's mostly about giving tabloids fodder by dropping hints about past relationships. (To be fair, Swift has definitely done this on multiple albums in the past.)
But listen to "Blank Space," and it's hard to hear it as a joke. Its pop production might glimmer, but it has all the echo of an empty room. "Boys only want love if it's torture," Swift sings, seeming to throw the blame at her lovers, before looping back around to blame herself: "Don't say I didn't/say I didn't warn you."
Even "Shake It Off," the album's most forthrightly poppy song, seems to be about the mania of trying to ignore something dark that's right behind you the more you listen to it. Swift is laughing at her tabloid interlocutors, but she's also wondering when it all will stop.
Listen to Swift's 1989, and throughout, the album throws these moments at you. The lyrics are the most obviously melancholy part of the album, but the music itself is filled with minor chords, strange progressions, and out-of-nowhere tonal shifts that evaporate almost as quickly. Consider, for instance, this Vox dissection of "Style," which drops into the middle of a normal pop progression a minor chord that gums up the works.
Swift's 1989, then, is built atop the emotional tension between the outwardly "happy" sound of its pop production and the much darker, more emotionally mature content buried in the songwriting craft. That tension is what makes the album a success — and its lack is what turns some of the album's songs (like the seemingly endless "Welcome to New York") into such slogs. Swift's songwriting thrives on reversal of expectations — you thought you were going to be happy, but now you're sad.
And she's savvy, too. She's gotten out in front of Adams's cover album, even giving interviews about it. Instead of griping about it or even staying silent, Swift has been smart about making sure that her role in the album's creation is always present, that it's not simply written off as an ironic riff on one of the era's most popular artists, but instead two artists mutually celebrating each other.
By highlighting the melancholy that was always present in the songs, Adams hasn't somehow discovered it or made it safe for music fans to appreciate. He's simply eliminated much of the tension inherent to the original 1989, which can make long sections of his version collapse into pleasant but droning sameness.
When his album works, however, is when it finds an emotional tension of its own, only his is between sadness and anger. This may be why, for instance, Adams's version of "Bad Blood" is an improvement on Swift's. Where Swift aims for rage and mostly ends up with a smug sense of superiority, Adams really gets there — but he's forever balanced out by the sadness that threatens to consume him whole.
When Adams's 1989 taps into that anger, it doesn't improve upon the original, but it really does reveal a new face hidden within it all along — not the sad one that was always there, but a spiteful one that seems curdled with age. If Swift's 1989 is the album of someone just about to turn 25, is it any surprise that Adams just entered his 40s?