I'm not going to make commentary on Taylor Swift into my personal #brand or anything, but I did want to write a few words about this week's development in Swiftiana: Ryan Adams' entire-album cover of 1989.
First off, I am a huge cover-song fan. I think it's a fascinating form of artistic expression and interaction. I have a fairly sprawling covers playlist on Spotify (which, incidentally, is public and open, so if there's anything you want to add, please do!) and I've sought out and enjoyed conversations about the phenomenon of the cover song (and actual cover songs) all over the internet. I've come to originals through great covers and sought out covers of songs I love. I've even done that embarrassing thing where you love a song without knowing it even is a cover. There are tons of fascinating covers projects out there. There's an album entirely comprised of reimaginings of a single Bjork song. One made up of covers of the wide variety of artists who have been featured in Wes Anderson films. There are a cappella covers of classic rock and swing jazz covers of hip hop and classical covers of pop music. My favorites tend to be these genre benders—especially when they are also gender-bent. Therefore, I very much enjoy Ryan Adams doing his rootsy-rock take on T. Swift's pop gems.
However, I've read a lot in the past few days about the complicated politics involved in an established, respected, critically beloved male artist taking a young female performer's work and making it his own. Many people have been uneasy with the idea that Adams is somehow legitimizing Swift's work by adopting it, that he is making it okay for "serious" listeners to like her songs by translating them out of the denigrated, devalued, feminized world of pop music and into something more worthy. Many reviews I've read have used the language of "transformation" and "revealing"—as though Adams was able to pull something out of Swift's songs that she herself was unaware of, unable to articulate. There's definitely some truth to that when you look at the ways certain populations have reacted the the album, but personally, I'm uncomfortable with all the negative connotations that have been piled on this conversation.
Cover songs are clearly a work of interpretation. While some cover artists may strive to recreate the original song as closely as possible, the more common and more interesting experiments happen when the covering artist brings something new and personal to the songs, and I think Adams clearly does in his versions of Swift's hits. The genre, tempo, instrumentation, and even lyrical changes that he makes are interesting, deliberate, and, sometimes, inspired. But I think what they are, most of all, to my ears, is deeply in love with Taylor Swift's originals.
Artists don't cover songs because they hate them. They especially don't cover entire albums that they think are garbage. (In fact, I went poking around, and it seems fairly unusual for a single artist to cover a whole album track-by-track at all.) You don't spend that much time, effort, and attention (not to mention money—the economics of covering something like Taylor Swift on an actual recorded album kind of boggle the mind) on something that you don't feel is worth your energy. There is a great amount of love that goes into a project like this. It reminds me of the critical impulse in literary studies: When you love something, really love it, when you're fascinated with it and intrigued by it, you want to take it apart, to see how it works and to get into every single nook and cranny, to live inside it—and you also want to share it with everyone. It makes you think and gives you good ideas. You want to talk about how it made you feel and what it made you want to do. And that's how I think about what Ryan Adams is doing on his version of 1989.
I don't get the feeling that Adams intends any of his versions of the songs on the album to be corrective—I don't get the sense he's saying Taylor should have done it his way, or that one take is better than the other. I absolutely think the best way to listen to his album is as a companion piece to the original, and thus I think it will hopefully send anyone who has been somehow avoiding Taylor Swift straight to the source to figure out why Ryan Adams' versions are so interesting in context. I think Adams in his own right is a very smart artist, with some great songs in his back catalogue ("Oh My Sweet Carolina"/"She Wants to Play Hearts"/"Oh My God, Whatever, Etc."/"Easy Hearts"), but he's also been pretty uneven over the course of his career. And the overlap between his native fan base and Taylor Swift's is probably not a perfectly circular Venn diagram, my own proclivities notwithstanding. This feels like a bit of a creative risk for him, and I respect it. I also respect people who come to Swift after hearing her work covered by Adams. There is great value in being able to help people experience things with new, fresh eyes (or ears, as the case may be). For all the positive feelings I have for Taylor Swift, you can't really argue with the fact that many of her songs are a little overexposed, especially on the radio airwaves. I welcome the critical interpretive space that Ryan Adams' cover versions open up and the work they can help do of exposing several groups of listeners to things beyond their usual comfort zone. OF COURSE there are major gender issues involved in the kinds of things that are being written about these albums and their relation to each other and OF COURSE I have feelings about those, but others have said plenty on that subject this week, so I'm going to stick to my positive spin for now. And let's talk more about what you think of the albums, the critical discussion, cover songs as an art form, or other great Taylor Swift covers in the comments or on Twitter.