Ryan Adams’ ‘cover record’ of Taylor Swift’s worldwide bestselling album 1989 dropped online yesterday. It was much anticipated and long rumoured, and on first listen is undoubtedly a technical success. Adams rewires Swift’s literally swift-moving synth pop into a slower burn folk style, with touches of classic Springsteen-style stadium rock vocals to bring home some of the bigger numbers. It’s a lovely listen – but is it a guilt-free one?
The entire project is something of a curio; a remake of a very recent record, it lacks a strong precedent. Cover songs are nothing new in the world of popular music, but track-for-track ‘cover records’ are rarer and require a far greater artistic investment on behalf of the covering artist.
In between releasing Grammy Award-winning albums, Beck has recorded a number of cover records with a revolving door of musical collaborators. The creative project, named ‘Record Club’, takes place in his home studio across the course of a single day for each album, with videos of the recording processes uploaded to YouTube (the best of these, a cover of INXS’s Kick, thrums with energy and DIY messiness). Ryan Adams’ 1989 is a much more polished effort – a full bodied record, cleaned up in postproduction, it stops only just short of sonically mirroring the pop confection it pays homage to.
Still, it’s hard to figure out why Adams deigned to do this. 1989 doesn’t immediately lend itself to a reworking like this; the songs are brilliant pop hits, but they’re not structurally classic, or easy to reinterpret. Innovation like Swift’s is hard to remodel into old modes, and there is creative risk in doing so – Adams could easily come off as the fuddy-duddy here, a Franzen-like luddite for the music crowd. But there’s honest fandom in this project, along with recognition of the cultural moment Taylor Swift has created and its significance.
Like Swift, Adams has country roots, but both artists also have broader appeal and a large and varied fan base. As Swift moves from country to pop, some country radio stations in the US have struggled to reconcile this evolution, while still wanting to keep her songs in rotation and claim her success as their own. Adams – once married to pop ingénue Mandy Moore – has had a similar trajectory, but of a more alt-country bent. His records bleed into rock, but their country roots, like all roots, are always there at the base.
What Adams may achieve with his cover of 1989 is what Triple J monumentally failed to do at the start of this year, when an online campaign was launched to push Swift’s song ‘Shake It Off’ into the Hottest 100. The movement was a democratisation of taste on a scale that would have made Sontag proud, but Triple J saw it as an affront and acted on the defense. The debacle exposed a kind of corporate brand-first mentality on behalf of the national youth broadcaster – and look, plainly, I haven’t tuned in since. Does Triple J even play the likes of Ryan Adams anymore? And who cares one way or the other; clearly they are incapable of the creative fandom and leveling of taste that Adams has achieved with his 1989.
But we need to be careful in comparing the two – Adams is a dude reinterpreting one of the most successful female artists in contemporary music, and the gendered reading of his undertaking is complex. He’s not just vacuuming up a musical epoch, but subsuming the lyrical perspective of a young woman. The inherent risk is that the two versions – original and remake – become a His and Hers set. Taylor good for the girls, Adams’ remake made for the broody boys who can’t get into her perky beats and rhythms. Those broody boys are sensitive souls, and Adams gives them legitimacy in this critical rebuilding. They’ll own this record, but only in online spaces – watch for the eventuating Pitchfork review as a barometer for the album’s reception – and are unlikely to participate in the more visible social fandom surrounding Swift’s music (my partner and a number of our friends are making a pop music pilgrimage to Sydney later this year to see Swift perform).
The way to disrupt these inevitable comparisons is to embrace both records, but to do so vertically, not side by side, on the horizontal. Swift needs to be at the top; for this work, the original must be acknowledged as ‘the best’. You can reject Adams’ remake if it doesn’t suit your needs, but even if you really like Adams’ 1989, I ask that you never ever say that it’s the better version. This would be to insult Taylor Swift, and by extension her incredibly vocal and loyal fans. Adams has temporarily but dramatically quitened Swift’s music – let’s not for a second pretend that he could actually quieten her cultural agency.
Swift herself is excited by the release, and her approval might be its greatest test (how will she hear it?).
1989, as retold by Ryan Adams, is a fine effort by a male mortal, a tip of the hat to the songwriting powers of our biggest contemporary pop singer – an immortal cultural icon on a scale we are still trying to get our heads around. And really, it can never be anything more.