Just over two weeks ago, Ryan Adams released his cover version of Taylor Swift’s 1989 record. As I noted on this blog prior to the release, I was delighted by even the idea of this project and spent quite a bit of time looking forward to the release due to my admiration of and interest in the work of both of these singer-songwriters. After two weeks spent listening to both of these records (one of them is playing as I type this actually), I would like to discuss the two in this post as they provide an interesting case for reflecting on the social aspects of music.
Before turning to observations about the two, however, I must begin by noting that I was a little nervous about using this example on the blog when I first learned of the cover project. The reason for such nerves arose from the fact that while I enjoy and appreciate much of Swift’s work, referring to myself as a huge fan of Ryan Adams would be a dramatic understatement. For example, an entire wall in my home is devoted to nothing but Adams’ album art, I own everything he has ever released (officially and bootlegged) including hundreds of concert recordings, and I have paid to see him in concert over a dozen times in my life. I have also spent hours upon hours learning how to play many of his songs. In comparison, I have not seen Swift live yet (I intend to) and I had only purchased one of her albums before the news broke about 1989 (Fearless). To put it mildly, I walked into this experience with a base of knowledge and interest leaning heavily toward Adams’ work.
Aware of the above while also seeking to compare the two releases as fairly as possible, I decided the best approach I could take (and the most fun honestly) was to purchase the two albums at the same time. While I had heard a couple of the Swift songs around since the record was released and a couple of the Adams’ versions of Swift’s songs online, I thought it best to approach both albums together since that would allow me to look at them both at the same time. To this end, I purchased both records two weeks ago, and I have spent the past two weeks listening to them in tandem in two ways. First, I would play one version and then play the other version back to back to hear both types (I reversed the order regularly). Second, I created a playlist that integrated the two (i.e., track one from Swift, track one from Adams, etc, etc) to listen to the two versions as one collection and hear the different versions of each song side by side. I also followed the multitude of media discussion and comparison between the two records during this time, and compared these opinions to my own reactions to the works (simply Google the two names together for a multitude of examples).
In the process of such comparison, I noticed a handful of things that speak to Symbolic Interactionist analyses of music as well as the ways music may become a medium for broader social conversations and experiences. I would thus like to use this space to outline these observations. To this end, here are three observations (I came up with about 10) about 1989 that may be useful for Interactionists interested in music to consider in their work.
Inequalities: A foundational element of interactionist analysis involves the ways inequalities become embedded in and reproduced by the meanings deployed by social beings. The emergence of Adams’ cover project provides an interesting example of such a process in relation to gender inequalities. Media coverage surrounding the release often suggested that Adams’ work somehow granted legitimacy to Swift’s work. The argument rested upon the notion that indie music (an often male dominated genre) was somehow more valuable than pop music (an often female dominated genre), which reflects patterns of gender inequality embedded in our contemporary society. It appears that such reviews forgot that (a) Swift has quite a few multi-million selling, critically acclaimed, and other-artist-praised works under her belt already and thus does (or should) not need anyone else to claim legitimacy as a successful artist, and (b) Adams himself kept asserting the Swift is one of the greatest songwriters he has ever seen, and in no way felt her work needed any improvement for recognition. Alongside many other details I could offer, it appears the reviews lost sight of anything other than that Swift is feminine in a female dominated genre whereas Adams is masculine in a male dominated genre.
This gender bias becomes even more obvious when we note at least one MAJOR record that the reviewers never compared Adams’ 1989 too (that I have seen). We saw comparisons to the Smiths, Springsteen, and other male artists or bands over the years, but the version Adams’ offered just as vividly recalls Taylor Swift from a couple of years ago. Take the album she released called Red, and you have a deeply emotional and at times humorous record that (aside from a couple tracks, 22 for example) is the exact same style of heartbreak, guitar driven, singer-songwriter depth that Adams turned 1989 into this year. Reviewers (if they wanted to look to female stars) could have noted that Adams’ 1989 offers a striking resemblance (and celebration of I would say) what might have happened if Swift had done 1989 the way she did Red or Fearless instead of shifting genres (i.e., the same type of shift Adams did years ago from the Americana of Gold to the harder sounds of Rock n Roll), and further recalls other talented female singer songwriters in its style and execution (see, for example, Neko Case’s latest record and Jenny Lewis’ record that Adams’ c0-produced – there are many more examples including but not limited to work by Natalie Prass and (if we want a classic going back a couple decades who had mainstream (pop) success like some of the male artists noted) Melissa Etheridge). Rather than noting these influences (which Adams himself has noted at times concerning this and other recordings in his career), reviewers created a distinction based on gender to suggest Adams’ was offering a more authentic or legitimate form of art.
These patterns in the interpretation of musical releases by mainstream and online critics suggest possible research avenues for understanding music in relation to social inequalities. How do critics respond in ways that prop up dominant systems of social status and devalue minority contributions to the wider culture? How do other so called pop records get reviewed in relation to other so called indie, rock, or otherwise mostly male genres in the mainstream? These are important questions that could shed much light on the role of music in the ongoing meaning making embedded within inequitable social relations.
Emotions: Another longstanding component of Interactionist analyses of social life concerns that role of emotions in creating and explaining social phenomena. As noted in a recent SI article by Janelle Lynn Wilson, a powerful component of emotional experience exists in the form of nostalgia. When we find a connection that recalls the past, grants meaning to the present, and / or anticipates a desired future, we are experiencing nostalgia. Although not often the source of systematic study, music can be a powerful mechanism for triggering nostalgia and other powerful emotional reactions (see, for example, DeNora’s recent book on Music-in-Action for examples or check out the review of this work in SI).
1989 offers at least two examples of the power of nostalgia at work in music. First, the record itself is (admittedly via Swift) an act of nostalgia wherein Swift sought to (and I would argue did so impressively) capture the feeling of music in the late 1980’s. I will be the first to admit that upon first listen I automatically thought of (and smiled) Rhythm Nation, Like a Prayer and many other late 1980’s records I enjoyed as a kid. I remember the first time I heard Swift’s “Wildest Dreams” I almost automatically started humming the Bangles “Eternal Flame” and wondering when the last time I heard that record was. Considering that Ryan Adams has long been noted for being drawn to and obsessed with 80’s music, I was only halfway through Swift’s 1989 when his desire to cover this record made perfect sense to me in terms of nostalgia and emotional connections to hit songs from the past.
Another aspect of the exercise where nostalgia plays an interesting role concerns Adams’ version of 1989. More than a few Taylor Swift fans I spoke with noted, as suggested above, “it sounds like old Taylor,” and I actually bought my copy of Red because many of them told me that if I liked Adams’ 1989 I would love Red (they were right). For these fans, as suggested above, Adams’ captured what used to be a Taylor Swift album before 1989 and allowed them to relive “old Taylor” alongside new Taylor on their stereos and / or phones. One can simply look to the popularity of classic covers (i.e., when newer versions of songs appear and are embraced by multiple generations) and reunion concerns for other examples of the ways people often react when they are reminded of the “old” versions of artists they like who have shifted their styles over the course of a career.
These observations suggest nostalgia might, as Wilson suggests, a powerful social force in need of more systematic analysis and scrutiny. They further suggest some ways examinations of music could provide a lever for furthering such analysis and scrutiny. What role might nostalgia play in our embrace or rejection of a given musical offering? What role might nostalgia play in the success or failure of new records and musical styles? What might people’s interest in this or that musical offering tell us about how they recall the past, interpret the present, and / or anticipate the future?
Subcultures: Another longstanding interest among Interactionists – and even within the study of music – concerns the existence and boundaries of subcultures. Similar to observations concerning genres in previous posts on this blog, researchers often note the fluidity and nuance in subcultural boundaries and what counts in terms of style, substance, and value for different groups. As is likely the case with many other records based on existing Interactionist studies of subcultures (see here, here, and here for examples), 1989 provides an example of such variation. Within the mainstream, Swift’s 1989 was a smash hit upon release, garnered significant attention across genres, and was an incredible success by every conceivable measure. Within other musical subcultures, however, it barely made a dent in the conversation. Within some indie subcultures and within groups following Adams and other Americana or alternative country acts, however, Adams’ 1989 generated tremendous buzz.
When looking through postings in various online communities, these distinctions provided a fascinating demonstration of subcultural boundary making. In many of the Adams’ forums and communities, for example, people expressed concern that Adams was going pop, losing touch, or otherwise making a mistake. At the same time, there were people in these communities expressing significant excitement about the project, and looking forward to a new Adams record whatever it contained. At the same time, if one looked over at fan forums for Swift there were many people with no clue who Adams was, many who found it insulting that someone was covering Swift’s work, and many others who were sure it would be a disaster. At the same time, there were people posting in these communities who were incredibly excited about the release, who hoped Adams would join Swift in concert, and who suggested Swift could launch Adams’ career beyond the indie shadows. In both cases, in fact, there were some of the same people in both communities who were (like myself) somewhat familiar with and interested in both artists, and (like myself) looked forward to seeing what this integration of Swift and Adams abilities could produce.
These variations remind me of many other sources of debate and consideration in subcultures concerning styles, values, and other signifying devices of community membership. How do subcultures react in other cases where unexpected cultural artifacts find voice within their communities? How are the boundaries of a subcultural style or taste redefined or guarded in the face of new materials and offerings? What happens when people exist with two or more subcultures that assert different tastes and styles as the most authentic or important? These are simply a few questions I began considering as I watched the reactions to the 1989 records in both Swift and Adams related forums.
These are simply a few of the observations I noted while listening to both 1989 records. As one can likely tell from all of the above, I personally think they are both masterpieces – Swift wrote and recorded an amazing album with depth, sincerity, and powerful songs that has not surprisingly captivated many people, and Adams re-envisioned Swift’s creations in ways that captured other elements of 1980’s music while also utilizing some of the techniques of some of today’s most talented female singer songwriters (“old Taylor” included). As others have noted, I would be incredibly happy to see Swift now do an Adams record in her own way or to see another act with immeasurable creative talent and their own style (maybe Beyonce, Alicia Keys, or Pearl Jam for some examples) do an interpretation of Swift and / or Adams’ music as well. In any case, what strikes me is the way an event like this (i.e., two artists creating two versions of a successful record at different times) reveals interesting relationships between music and society that could facilitate some fascinating lines of research and reflection.