I suspect most critics are waxing poetic over Ryan Adams’ interpretation of Taylor Swift’s 1989 album. It’s the sort of quirky endeavor most critics find charming, as they also see themselves as enlightened beings dipping their toes into pop culture on a regular basis.
I’d love to wax poetic here, but I’m all out of wax poetry. This album sounds bland as hell, at best. I generally don’t read Pitchfork, but Mark Richardson nailed it. Somebody refresh my memory. Wasn’t Ryan Adams the guy who blew a gasket every time some boorish asshole at one of his shows bayed out “Summer of ‘69” the way boorish assholes used to bay out “Freebird”? The joke of course being Ryan is one letter off from Bryan Adams, and the thought of him doing a Bryan Adams song live seemed outlandish and, in Ryan Adams’ mind, insulting.
Well, I’d put Bryan Adams’ pop legacy up against Taylor Swift’s any day of the week, and there’s a lot of what Ryan Adams is doing now that reeks of bullshit. I would have found Ryan Adams doing a Bryan Adams tribute album a lot more palatable, just as I would have found Bruce Springsteen paying tribute to Bob Seger much more enjoyable than his ho-hum Pete Seeger tribute album.
Adams in a Rolling Stone interview: "I was listening to that record and thinking, 'I hear more.' Not that there was anything missing. I would just think about the sentiments in the songs and the configurations. It wasn't like I changed them because they needed changing, but I knew that if I sang them from my perspective and in my voice, they would transform. I thought, 'Let me record 1989 like it was Bruce Springsteen’s Nebraska.'"
He would have been better off recording Bruce Springsteen’s Nebraska like it was Taylor Swift’s 1989. That, I'd be interested in hearing. What a pile of nonsense all this is. The most cynical part isn’t even the concept of doing this to rope in younger fans (and I suspect he won’t rope in many as there’s an enormous gulf between what he does and what your average Taylor Swift fan expects from music). It’s the muddy reverb/echo effect he’s added to every vocal on the album … that same horrible production gimmick now used by every overly serious folk/country leaning artist. It sounds cheap and terrible; I’m not even sure who’s responsible for making that such a cliché with artists like this. My Morning Jacket? I love the band, but that vocal effect has turned into the archetype of the half-baked hipster trying to make you believe he’s deep, man.
I did a quick tool through youtube and checked out Taylor Swift’s videos from this album (as I can’t listen to it on Spotify). That sort of stuff is what it is and surely has a large audience. It’s pleasant enough and a lot of fun to watch/listen to, but not something I’d seek out or follow. Which is fine, I’m far from the target audience here. You need to ask yourself what in the hell has happened in pop music when someone who is clearly this generation’s Olivia Newton-John is being positioned as, I don’t know, Fleetwood Mac, maybe, in terms of artistic respectability. The Buckingham/Nicks/McVie iteration of Fleetwood Mac was light years beyond what Taylor Swift has going on, which I suspect she’d readily admit. And as far as I’m concerned, their level of talent is beyond whatever Ryan Adams has going on, too. There used to be a whole swath of Top 40 acts in the 60s and 70’s that had a level of talent far beyond what the Top 40 has to offer the past few decades. It’s not a bad thing that they came and went: it’s a bad thing that nothing of comparable artistic worth has replaced them, and fans have lost any sense of recent pop history to even know or remotely grasp this. Since the 90’s, it’s been roughly the same songwriters mining roughly the same genres with generic songs that snap into any sort of pop-star template applicable.
And I like Ryan Adams, however much this new album puts me to sleep. From the first time I heard “Excuse Me While I Break My Own Heart Tonight” I was all in. He’s done songs over the course of his career that have flat-out floored me and consistently has a few tracks per album that I’d put up against any artist out there. I don’t even fault him for messing around with a concept like this. But it’s the sort of thing he should put out on a lark, maybe available via his website, with a knowing wink. Not presented as something that horseshit critics are going to fawn over and find cultural value where there is none.
I cast my mind back to 1989. The year, I take it, when Taylor Swift was born. In Wyomissing, no less, about an hour south of where I’m from. 1989? I was halfway through my 20’s! New York City still felt new to me as I’d only been here two years. What was I listening to at the time?
It’s hard to say. I had yet to buy a CD player but would within a year, and this was the first song I played on it. Records had been on their way out all through the 80’s, and I’d get rid of my turntable within five years (a decision I don’t regret at all). That was an awkward period where my main media format was cassettes, a very short-lived time, maybe a 2-3 year window in the late 80’s.
My tastes were all over the place. I actually have an iTunes playlist called “NYC Late 80s.” Here it is:
Aztec Camera - More Than a Law
Bowie - Absolute Beginners
Bowie - Blue Jean (Dance Mix)
Bowie - Miracle Goodnight
Bowie - Never Let Me Down (12-inch remix)
Chilton, Alex - No Sex
Coolies, The - Mrs. Robinson
Crenshaw, Marshall - I'm Sorry (But So Is Brenda Lee)
D'Arby, Terence Trent - Wishing Well
Del-Lords, The – Judas Kiss
Depeche Mode - Personal Jesus
Erasure - A Little Respect
Eurythmics, The - Shame
Ferry, Bryan - Slave to Love
Fine Young Cannibals - I'm Not The Man I Used To Be
Godfathers, The - Birth, School, Work, Death
Godley & Creme -Cry
Havalinas, The - Another Out
Haysi Fantayzee - Sister Friction
Jesus & Mary Chain - Darklands
London Quireboys, The - I Don't Love You Anymore
Michael, George - Kissing a Fool
New Order – Temptation
New York Dolls - Showdown
Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark - Dreaming
Pet Shop Boys - Jealousy
Pixies, The - Hey
Pop, Iggy - Isolation
Prince - Alphabet St.
Ramones, The - Howling at the Moon
Reed, Lou – Legendary Hearts
Talking Heads, The - (Nothing But) Flowers
Texas - I Don't Want A Lover
Verlaine, Tom – Swim
Waits, Tom – Hang Down Your Head
When in Rome - The Promise
Understand, I was listening to a lot more than this, but I picked the list to grasp songs that defined how I felt living in New York City in my mid-20s. A lot of new wave, some Brit pop, some R&B, more than a few alt country bands (before alt country existed). Go ahead and youtube/Spotify songs you may not recognize – you’ll be surprised how catchy they are. A lot of those songs are lost to the winds of time. And a lot of them, had you walked into some cool New York bar or club, they would be playing on the sound system, and you would feel cool, too, by extension. It seemed like every time I walked into The Ritz on 11st Street in The Village, "Birth, School, Work, Death" by The Godfathers was blasting from their sound system.
So I can’t fault Taylor Swift for being in her moment. She’s doing her thing. I don’t’ care for her music, but I like her, or at least how she presents herself. I like that she’s from Relatively Nowhere, Pennsylvania, as I am, and she’s done well for herself. I like Ryan Adam, too. Bed-head haircut, thorny image and all. He’s written some great songs along the way, every now and then, he locks in on a level I recognize as being a cut far above the rest, and I’ll always give him a chance.
But, man, this album he’s done is just the worst fucking idea he’s had in a long time.