Ryan Adams’ track-by-track interpretation of Taylor Swift’s most recent album, “1989” is supposed to offer proof positive that Swift is a great songwriter.
Why? Because Adams is clever and creative, and look, he’s a great songwriter and record-maker himself, and he likes Taylor Swift, too. I always knew she was so much more than just a high school diarist who learned a few guitar chords, made it huge as a country artist, and then dumped country like a worn-out pair of Daisy Dukes the first chance she got, in order to delve into the all-encompassing world of mainstream dance-pop. She is in fact a true feminist.
Since Adams dropped this thing on the public, there have been several published reviews that follow the tenets of feminist criticism to extol the genius of Swift, and others that credit Adams with bringing out the dark undertones in Swift’s songs. There have also been a few that simply cry foul of the whole affair.
Here’s the thing: Adams did not bring out the nuance in Swift’s songs. He created nuance, where before, there was only Max Martin and Shellback dressing up Swift’s cliché-ridden high school talent show ditties as nightclub bangers.
The depth you hear in “Welcome to New York”? It’s not Adams channeling Swift’s textual complexity. It’s him adding complexity where none existed.
You hear the haunted sense of yearning in Adams’ version of “Blank Space”? He put it there.
Wonder why “All You Had to Stay” sounds like a cross-pollination of power-pop and angsty ’80s alt-rock, rather than a cloying arena-sized cry of the lovelorn narcissist? Because that’s something Adams has always been able to conjure.
Adams could quite likely cover Rick Astley’s “Never Gonna Give You Up,” and make it sound like something from Bob Dylan’s “Blood on the Tracks.” If he ever did such a thing, guess what? Rick Astley would still be Rick Astley – a footnote. Adams adding emotional complexity to his tune would not transform Astley into an emotionally complex pop artist.
Ryan Adams could sing the Yellow Pages, and it would sound like he was tearing the material from the depths of his tortured soul. As far as raw materials go, “1989” is a step above the Yellow Pages. (Maybe two. Maybe.)
Adams’ “1989” is an interesting diversion. It boasts moments of beauty that are worthy of the man. But consider this: When Sam Cooke sings “Cupid, draw back your bow/and let your arrow go/Straight to my lover’s heart, for me,” it sounds like something sublime, infused with significance and emotional import. That’s because of the way Cooke sings it. Those lyrics are stupid. They don’t sound stupid when he sings them, which is testimony to Cooke’s abilities as a “presenter of the song.” The same can be said for Adams here.
Adams’ sometimes ambitious and mostly credible interpretation of “1989” does not earn credibility for Swift. She’ll have to earn it on her own. Credibility is not the same thing as fame, or money, or a big following. It’s tough to define. But you know it when you hear it.