Saturday, 14 November 2015

The Mansplaining of 1989

So, as you probably already know, Ryan Adams recently released his own cover album of Taylor Swift's 1989 album.

It all just seems like another iteration of the tired belief that "pop" means vapid and meaningless, while "indie" is deep and intellectual. Now that a piece of indie royalty has blessed Swift's album with some white-boy-with-a-guitar credibility, critics who were too cool to acknowledge 1989 upon it original release are falling over themselves to gush over this version of the album. Reviewers are suddenly finding hidden depth in Swift's lyrics. Neckbeareded hipsters are nudging each other, smirking over listening to a "Taylor Swift album".

Am I to believe that Ryan Adams is so magical, that just by playing Swift's songs in his own style, they are suddenly more sincere? While I don't actually believe this to be true, their are countless examples of people who seem to think it is.

The Australian radio station Triple J, for example, has actually refused to play Swift in the past, but hasn't hesitated to play one of Adams' covers.

Pitchfork, who have never reviewed a Taylor Swift album (despite consistently including her in their end of year Best Of lists), have, of course, reviewed Adams' release. While Pitchfork is generally considered to be an "indie" publication, the truth is that they regularly review releases from major artists - Kendrick Lamar, Kanye West, D'Angelo etc. In fact, they have reviewed each of Adams' albums, most of which were released on a major label themselves.

The truth is, melancholy, earnest-sounding covers of upbeat pop songs are every these days. Like anything, some are good and some are bad. But slowing something down and sounding sad while you sing it does not add to its sincerity.

I think the main issue with how each version of 1989 has been treated is the undeniably gendered way each artist is talked about. Swift is portrayed as uncomplicated and sexual, not to be taken too seriously; Adams is praised for taking these lyrics and applying them to his complex man emotions. Now that Adams has revealed to us these hidden depths (after all, how could she possibly do that on her own?), it's suddenly okay to like Swift's album.

I can't help but wonder how this would have been received, had the roles been reversed. Imagine, a 40-year-old female musician, covering a chart topping album from a 20-something-year-old male pop artist, not even waiting until it's dropped out of the charts. Would she be praised for this? I don't think so. At best, it would be seen largely as an ill-judged publicity stunt; at worst, an embarrassing attempt at clinging on to youth, reaching a younger audience (after all, this is certainly the most mainstream attention Adams has received so far in his career).

Women in all areas of work/art/etc are used to having their work judged differently to that of their male peers (if you don't believe me, there are studies that prove this).

Just to clarify, my problem isn't at all with Ryan Adams choosing to cover Taylor Swift's 1989; I actually like his version and, from what I've read, I do think he's sincere in just simply wanting to cover an album he enjoys (after all, his public praise of Swift dates back before this album was even recorded, let alone topped the charts). My problem is purely with the response of so many "indie" music critics, the presumption that Taylor Swift is now credible enough to like without irony, and how this album's reception ties into the treatment of women's work in general.

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