Let’s face it, Taylor Swift deserves our respect. Even if her brand of pop isn’t your thing, not many critics will argue against her sincerity, the strength of her performances, and her songwriting abilities. Sure, I sort of resent that typing “1989” into a search engine currently puts her hit 2014 album above the fall of the Berlin Wall, at the top of the page. But so what, really. In historical terms, it’s temporary; and Taylor has earned her place in the pop world. She’s everywhere (as they say), and generally, she’s been trying to be a force for good in a music industry that’s still struggling to reinvent itself.
Ryan Adams is a different kind of pop star. Coming up young and fast with Whiskeytown in the late 90’s, the brooding crooner went solo and quickly matured into a formidable songwriter. He’s a flawed character, but apart from the occasional display of star arrogance, many of his flaws are quite endearing, at least where listening to his music is concerned. When Adams lets his guard down, and he often does, he has an especially deft touch with ballads. I’m a fan of at least half his catalog – and that’s a lot of music.
In any case, as most of us know by now, Ryan decided not long ago to cover Taylor’s 1989: not just a song, but the whole album. I’ve listened to it a couple times through over the last few weeks, and I have to admit, it’s a very interesting and worthwhile record. Don’t be surprised if you hear about this one at Grammy time- Adams has been to that rodeo a few times before.
I’ll spare you the quasi-artsy rants, and metaphoric analyses. RA’s 1989 is important because it’s a crossover – it connects two parts of the universe that are, at least somewhat disparate. Put it this way: Adams could be categorized “alternative”, but he isn’t that far left of center. He’s mainstream/commercial enough to have sold a lot of records. So maybe what we have here are two pop stars; part of the same galaxy, but each following their own orbit.
So this: your kid probably listens to Taylor Swift. Or at least admires her on some level. Your same kid probably didn’t know who Ryan Adams was until last month. And now they do. And now, the two of you have something to talk about.
(pretty good, eh?)
Let me just get this off my chest. The only music lover I deplore is a music snob. Don’t be one. And don’t suffer them. If you know someone who loves popular music, or any music, encourage them. Never laugh at them. Never put their music down. Don’t much care for Kanye, or Drake? Me neither, so suck it up! Consider this: when Bob Dylan was a teenager, his friends would come over to the Zimmerman home in Hibbing, and jam with Bobby around his family’s piano. It was 1957, the kids were 16, and they were smitten with rock’n’roll. One day his father poked his head in and scorned them for being wild, stupid kids. And guess what? The sensitive young man was so hurt, he mostly didn’t speak to his dad from that point on.
Seriously. Think of the first album you ever bought. Kiss Alive, right? No? Framptom Comes Alive? Don’t tell me it was K-Tel’s 21 Golden Greats! Oh, man! Oh yeah…speaking of golden greats.
Back to our topic: Ryan and Taylor have a mutual admiration thing going on, and it’s a good thing. Ryan Adams’ take on 1989 is heartfelt, and haunting. These are mostly intimate performances, drenched in reverb, sometimes evoking the bleak landscapes of Springsteen’s solo stuff. The songs are better than I thought they were. With Ryan I can hear past the production, into the emotions. Obviously, Taylor’s versions of these songs are just as valid – she wrote them.
Remember, only crotchety old audiophiles say things like “Music today is superficial crap.” Don’t be one of those haters. Music is alive and well, and it’s better than ever. If it takes a gutsy move by an artist we respect to peel back those layers, then lesson learned.
I look forward to hearing Taylor Swift covering some Ryan Adams tunes in the future. Kudos to them both.