We Shouldn’t Have Let Ryan Adams Cover Taylor Swift’s ‘1989’

When Ryan Adams covered Taylor Swift’s 2014 album ‘1989’, it was initially met with approval from those in the music industry who refused to acknowledge her status as a game-changing singer-songwriter. Junkee takes a look at how the project has (or hasn’t) held up today. Words by Eilish Gilligan

By Eilish Gilligan, 27/10/2023

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In September 2015, a few years before he was met with multiple allegations of sexual harassment and abuse, Ryan Adams released his own version of Taylor Swift’s 1989. In 2023, we can probably get away with calling it 1989 (Ryan’s Version), which is what I’m going to do in this article.

Taylor Swift’s 1989 was released in October 2014, to widespread acclaim. From Billboard (“[1989] is Swift’s best work — a sophisticated pop tour de force that deserves to be as popular commercially as with Robyn-worshipping bloggers,”) to The New York Times (“By making pop with almost no contemporary references, Swift is aiming somewhere even higher, a mode of timelessness that few true pop stars even bother aspiring to,”), almost everyone agreed that 1989 was a game changer.

1989 was considered Taylor’s first true “pop” album — having toyed with the genre on Red back in 2012, 1989 was the first time Taylor really leaned all-in to that world. Taylor took the title of her album deadly seriously — 1989 is a synth-pop album ostensibly influenced by the shock of colour and electricity that was late ‘80s pop. During the rollout, Taylor cut her hair into a dramatic bob and proclaimed her love for New York City (a far cry from the country-loving Nashville girl she once was). On the world tour, the album’s title was plastered in brash neon across literally countless merchandise items from cups to blankets to keychains, in an uncanny meeting of ‘80s kitsch and mid-2010s online-luminescence.

By the time Ryan Adams covered 1989, the original album had been out for nearly a year. Taylor was well into her 1989 world tour, already parading supermodels and celebrities out in front of sold-out stadiums with her every single night, as though she were a glowing beam of light attracting countless well-to-do moths.

Taylor Swift had the world at her feet. But even with her incredible success — or perhaps because of it — there was a subset of the music industry, and the public in general, who were determined to prove she wasn’t all that.

If Taylor Swift Is So Genuine, Why Does ‘1989’ Sound So Fake?” decried Forbes, in a piece which made the strange comparison between the conviction it took for Taylor to pull her music from Spotify in protest over low royalties in 2014, and the quote unquote “fake”-sounding production on 1989.

And as per The Washington Post: “In addition to penning real-talk mega-hits about breakups, make-ups, flame-outs and happily-ever-afters, Swift is always honing the illusion that she’s an underdog — a global superstar earnestly beseeching our sympathies, our ears and our dollars. 1989 makes that illusion seem more ridiculous than ever.”

Even in 2014, a Taylor Swift album review all too often transformed into a Taylor Swift Review; a judgement not on her music but on her entire personhood. This echoes the kind of scrutiny Taylor dissected on 1989’s ‘Shake It Off’ and ‘Blank Space’ — “I stay out too late/got nothing in my brain/that’s what people say…”

And in 2014, the music industry was still very much divided as it was in days of yore — “indie” music was cool. Mainstream pop was not. Taylor Swift may have been the most popular musician on the planet, but cool, she wasn’t.

To put it in Swiftian terms, as she addresses a snobby ex-boyfriend on ‘We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together’: “You would hide away and find your peace of mind with some indie record that’s much cooler than mine.” 

Enter Ryan Adams.

Ryan “Ass So Tight” Adams

In late 2014, Ryan Adams was recovering from his divorce from actress Mandy Moore.

As he told it, the 40-year-old singer-songwriter stumbled across Taylor’s 1989 in an attempt to distract himself from his heartbreak — which, funnily enough, is a deeply relatable scenario in any Swiftie origin story. He ended up loving the album so much that he decided to cover it, in its entirety, in a tribute album released in full in September 2015.

The musician’s impulse to dissect music that’s enjoyable and special is understandable — even Taylor Swift has done her fair share of cover songs over the years. Covers can breathe different perspectives and ideas into songs, with each interpretation teaching us something new about the language of music.

1989 (Ryan’s Version) is pretty much exactly what you’d imagine a miscellaneous Ryan Adams album from the mid-2010s would sound like. It’s rocky, rambling, steadfast in tone and production and just, well, kinda boring. His interpretation of the tracklist shows no real respect to the originals — he clumsily changes melodies to fit into his slacker-rock vibe, decimating phrasing that was, in its original state, already hyper-engineered to be as effective and hooky as possible.

In other words, he fucked it.

There’s something fundamental missing in Ryan Adams’ interpretation of 1989. Where Taylor’s originals are vibrant, electric, “in screaming colour” — Ryan Adams paints the entire record with the same old withered brush.

It could be as simple as the fact that no women play on the record at all. In fact, in his covers, Ryan did his very best to erase the inherent, bright femininity in Taylor’s original work, painstakingly changing every telling pronoun so that the narrator is always male and the love interest always female.

By doing this in ‘Blank Space’, for example, he completely misunderstands the satire in the original — Taylor Swift wrote the song to make fun of her “serial dater” reputation in the tabloids. Changing the lyric to “‘Oh my God, who is she’/you get drunk on jealousy/but you’ll come back each time you leave” in Ryan’s version, cheapens the original, transforming the once-cheeky, sparkling song into a bland narrative between two boring, toxic lovers.

Let’s not even start on his decision to change the lyric in Style from “Good girl faith in a tight little skirt” to “Good girl faith thing, ass so tight”.

But it goes deeper. The issue lies in Ryan’s motivation behind covering the album at all.

Speaking to Entertainment Weekly at the time, he said: “I kept going back to [Taylor’s 1989]. I found myself side-writing it a little. I’d think about the lyrics and play a few minutes on acoustic guitar. It got me thinking.”

“Side-writing”. It’s an interesting phrase. It’s easy to imagine a man like Ryan Adams, deeply revered in his songwriting (at that time, anyway), noodling away on the guitar while listening to 1989, thinking to himself: yeah, this album is good. But I can do it better.

And why shouldn’t he have thought that way?

Pitchfork-Approved (Kind Of)

Many major outlets really did think Ryan Adams’ 1989 was brilliant.

A popular argument was that Ryan found sadness, or a deeper meaning, in Taylor’s work that even she hadn’t been able to draw out herself, as per Yahoo Music: “A collection of songs that in [Swift’s] hands was the sunny pop album of the decade has been strangely but not unnaturally transmuted into the heartbreak album of the year.”

Esquire opined miserably that it was really Ryan Adams who should have been as big as Taylor Swift: “He should have been her, after all. Maybe not the biggest pop star in the world, but at least […] a rare niche artist who, by virtue of talent and ego, became a household name.”

Ryan Adams’ 1989 was the first time Taylor Swift’s songwriting had been reviewed by the pantheon of sophisticated music criticism, Pitchfork. At that point, they had never published a full review of a Taylor Swift album. They had published at least eight reviews of various Ryan Adams projects to that point.

To be fair, this was not a very positive review of Ryan’s interpretation of 1989. However, it was a nod of acknowledgement. It was the silent understanding that if his hands were on this record, and not Taylor’s, only then was it worthy of a critical eye from the foremost music publication of the 2010s. Even if his version kinda sucked.

Recent readers might not remember this era now, but back in the mid 2010s, Pitchfork was a staunch global authority on the divide between “real” music and radio-friendly pop. If Pitchfork signed off on something, it was cool (think Sun Kil Moon, Aphex Twin, and of course, who can forget, anything from Radiohead).

What was left for those they didn’t cover were two options — total ignore, which is what Taylor experienced at that time, or a brutal dressing down in the form of a negative, sometimes cruel review — their infamous “review” of Shine On by Jet comes to mind, as does their enduring grudge against anything Ed Sheeran has ever done.

Taylor’s Version

Taylor’s widely-publicised battle for ownership of her masters, and the following re-recording Taylor’s Version project, was groundbreaking for the music industry. As arguably the biggest artist in the world, she made the risky decision to re-record her old music to lessen the value of the originals she no longer owned. It’s a major shake-up of the well-worn pathways to financial success in the music industry.

It’s also an opportunity for Taylor Swift, now 33 years old, to rewrite the narrative surrounding each album’s re-release.

1989, an era that should have been entirely triumphant for her at the time, was slightly darkened by an industry quite unprepared for a woman like her — a skilled and accomplished songwriter, an innovative performer, a savvy businesswoman.

By “trying too hard” to be genuine, she was told she was fake. She was too radio-friendly to have her music properly critiqued by revered music publications and, not to mention, too “surprised” when her songwriting was acknowledged.

1989 is a masterclass in pop-songwriting and production. It changed the trajectory of pop music forever, heralding almost a decades’ worth of ‘80s-tinged synthesisers on our radios, not to mention transforming a relatively unknown musician Jack Antonoff into one of the most significant producers of the last ten years. Taylor’s writing, so intimate and so relatable, shined vibrantly amongst the electronic bed.

Now, Taylor Swift is more powerful than she has ever been before. Her re-recording project has been more of a success than anyone could have predicted, and she has just released 1989 (Taylor’s Version).

The re-release of 1989 gives fans an opportunity to celebrate everything the original album achieved, the music it inspired and Taylor’s first whole-hearted embrace of pop music. It also gives the public an opportunity to re-examine how we interpreted the album then, perhaps even looking at how we interpret the artist, the celebrity of Taylor Swift differently too.

Eight years on from 1989 (Ryan’s Version), what is its legacy? Is it just another oddity in Taylor Swift’s extensive lore, or is it an ominous, sticky thing that somehow still holds power in a still-male dominated music industry?

Of course, the shock of the multiple sexual misconduct allegations made against him, revealed in 2019, dramatically changed the way the world considers Ryan Adams (not that he has been deplatformed in any way, however).

In his own weird, self-important way, Ryan Adams covering 1989 forced the industry to acknowledge that yes, Taylor Swift is a good songwriter and yes, she’s worth listening to. And as per the reviews of his version, it became glaringly clear that her songwriting was worthy of thoughtful criticism and analysis. It was embarrassing for review outlets to cover Ryan’s versions of these songs before they covered the originals and unfortunate that for some people, it took an old indie rocker’s nod of approval to realise that Taylor Swift can write good, or at least worthwhile, songs.

To those who claimed 1989 (Ryan’s Version) was brilliant — so much of this praise hinged on Ryan’s ability to excavate something in the songs that “wasn’t there” previously, a tortured genius with a magical eye for “side-writing” 1989 into critical relevancy. But how can something “new” be excavated that wasn’t already inherent in the work?

Ryan Adams painted over the intricacies of 1989 like a landlord might do a shitty paint job of your apartment, painting lazily over light fixtures and powerpoints and little bugs on the windowsill. His interpretation was so cheap that he couldn’t even bring himself to sing the original pronouns as written lest he be, for one tiny moment, even considered something other than strictly heterosexual.

This is the 1989 (Ryan’s Version) legacy. A man convinced that his input would inherently improve a woman’s already-accomplished work — and having a chorus of influential voices agree with him that yes, his input was necessary, and good — and even if it wasn’t good, at least worth acknowledging, worth critiquing, worth discussing and thinking about.

While her adept songwriting was often acknowledged in album reviews, it was widely agreed (by mainstream reviewers and “cool” music bloggers of the time) that Taylor Swift was not “cool”. Her music wasn’t clever, it was trite. It was stuff for teenage girls, something they’d grow out of, Taylor a clean-cut role model to look up to for the time being.

But it’s 2023, and things have changed. Taylor Swift is on top of the world, and Ryan Adams’ tired interpretation of her work is largely forgotten, more of a pub trivia question than anything else.

Now Taylor is the authority on who’s who in music — by openly supporting smaller artists (well, smaller than her at least) like Phoebe Bridgers, Sabrina Carpenter, Gracie Abrams, and Ice Spice, she propels new faces to the fore. She doesn’t need to “side-write” their work to give her tick of approval.

That’s a real fuckin’ legacy to leave.

Taylor Swift’s new album 1989 (Taylor’s Version) is out now.

Eilish Gilligan is a Melbourne-based musician and writer. She’s on Twitter at @eilishgilligan.

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