Today, Ryan Adams released his highly anticipated 1989 cover album, a folksy classic-rock take on Taylor Swift’s entire bestselling 2014 release. Swift’s music and public persona have riled up both fans and haters in part for their gender politics: her defense of the confessional break-up tune; her send-up of aspirational femininity in “Blank Space”; her apparent espousal of “girl-on-girl” sexism. Those gender politics are amplified in a new way when her songs are done up by a dude.
In fact, Adams chose Bruce Springsteen, America’s champion of heady, high-octane manliness, as his muse, and it shows. With acoustic strumming and throaty vocals awash with reverb, Adams’ covers bring a driving, melancholy masculinity to the album.
He also upends the record’s self-possessed effervescence. Adams’ interpretation of “Shake it Off” is a direct descendant of Springsteen’s “I’m on Fire,” recasting Swift’s earnest pep talk on unconditional self-worth as a jaded muttering under his breath. Swift’s 1989 imagines a ready audience of girlfriends and party pals chatting about the excruciating pain and beauty of young love; even Adams’ most upbeat renditions play like defeatist self-talk. When she’s burned or busted, Swift gets on with an irreverent flip of her hair; Adams lets his flop in front of his eyes and broods. As Slate’s Willa Paskin points out, it’s as if one of Swift’s mopey, much-maligned exes turned around and wrote a comeback album of his own.
It’s an effective tribute to the album that made the biggest splash of 2014; his take on her songs underlines their infectious versatility even as it dampens their spirit. But Adams fell victim to one of the most aggravating traps of song covers: rigid heterosexuality. Adams finds ways around Swift’s pronouns and other indications of gender, sometimes cleverly—in “Style,” Adams swaps a Sonic Youth reference for Swift’s nod to James Dean: “You got that James Dean daydream look in your eye” becomes “You got that Daydream Nation look in your eye.” Elsewhere, he switches in “she” for “he” or subs himself in for the male character in Swift’s songs, which can come across as lazy or condescending, depending on the listener’s mood. Singers and musicians very often play songs that don’t come from personal experience (Bob Marley did not, so far as we know, actually shoot the sheriff), but when it comes to love-interest characters, gender difference seems immutable. Maybe Adams is taking more notes from the Boss, whose cover of Lorde’s “Royals” included the modified phrase “king bee,” even though there is no such natural thing as a king bee.
Cover songs have the wonderful potential to bring new life to songs, subvert their messages, or add deeper color, and some musicians—Tori Amos, for one—have swapped gender pronouns in their covers to make a political point. But when covers hold faithfully to other lyrics and elements of song structure while subbing every he for a she, they pull a no homo, making the song’s (and the artist’s) heterosexuality its main point.
Though indie-music heads have begun to give pop music more cred in recent years, and Swift has won over an audience far broader than the teen-girl demographic she was once assigned, the early buzz around Adams’ release suggests that his interpretation will be more heartily lauded by Serious Musicians than hers. The music industry has a history of dismissing the musical contributions of women, people of color, and purveyors of certain music genres (notably pop and rap—often the domains of women and people of color, wouldn’t you know) until they’re covered by a more palatable artist. On “We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together,” Swift fingered her ex for retreating into himself "with some indie record that's much cooler than mine." Today, Adams delivered it.