After the New York Times published a report alleging Ryan Adams’ long history of emotional abuse, manipulation and the harassment of at least seven women — including sexually explicit communication with a minor (charges that Adams has denied) — a co-worker pointed out a lyric that Adams had changed when he covered Taylor Swift’s “Style” for his reimagining of her album 1989 in 2015:
“You’ve got that good girl faith thing, ass so tight,” he sang, sexualizing Swift’s provocation and subbing “ass” for “skirt.” (At the time of the song’s release, listeners debated whether or not Adams sang the word “ass” or “it’s, and it remains unclear to many.)
“We should have known,” my coworker remarked.
When I read my co-worker’s message, I paused. I reviewed Adams’ 1989 — why didn’t I remember that lyric?
In 2015, less than a year, it turns out, after Adams allegedly texted a 16-year-old girl with whom he had been engaging in sexual communications — “if people knew they would say I was like R Kelley [sic] lol” — I gave Adams’ version of 1989 a 3.5 star review for Rolling Stone.
Not only did I review the album, but I zeroed in on the lyrical changes Adams had made to that very song, “Style.” Only I hadn’t heard Adams’ overt sexualizing; rather, I had heard it, but it hadn’t registered with me enough to remember a few short years later.
Instead, I focused on his change to Swift’s description of a “James Dean daydream look” to a reference to the Sonic Youth album Daydream Nation.
Namedropping a Sonic Youth album in a cover of a Taylor Swift song was catnip for white male music critics. In my review, I described Adams’ “Style” as a “flirtfest.”
Being a fan of Adams always involved a certain degree of cognitive dissonance: his reckless bad boy persona had long become part of his mythology, and rumors of his questionable character had circulated.
In the days since the New York Times published their report on Adams, the question remains: How can we dismantle the structures that have enabled Adams to pass off his real-world transgressions as fictionalized art for so long?
If I could have ignored that line in “Style,” what else might I have ignored?
Much like with Louis CK, R. Kelly and Woody Allen, it’s now easy to see how Adams used his art as a sort of staging ground for the power-wielding abuses and transgressions in his personal life. The singer’s finely-tuned performance of emotional neediness was part and parcel with the pattern of manipulation and alleged emotional abuse he had been engaging in for the better part of his adulthood. “A more insidious strain of destructive, misogynistic masculinity, not burying their emotions but wielding them as weapons of domination and control,” as Anna Leszkiewicz put it last week in her incisive essay. “This masculinity is narcissism disguised as vulnerability and emotional honesty.”
For years, fans and critics bought the trap wholesale, praising Adams’ songwriting for its emotional intensity and dark vulnerability. “Hedonism as a display of authenticity,” writes Amanda Petrusich of the type of music journalism mythology that elevated a figure like Adams for so long. “Its language still hinges around vaguely mystical ideas about art-making as a kind of bloodletting.” In a review of his 2017 album Prisoner, I did just that, describing Adams as a “master chronicler of the endless shapes and colors of romantic pain.”
In his music, Adams often weaponized that openness and even vulnerability as an instrument of control. “Nobody Girl,” off 2001’s Gold, is an almost boastful portrayal of gaslighting, with the narrator spending much of the song trying to convince a woman to second-guess her tough decision to leave.
“Say you follow your heart/Well, honey you’re just being lost,” Adams sings, “You could follow your gut/But how much would it cost?” In the chorus, Adams renders her powerless while offering his version of an abuser’s catchphrase: “they don’t know you anyway.”
“You’re nobody girl. You’re nobody girl,” he tells her, before stripping the woman of her very personhood, : “You’re a nobody girl.”
Adams “is obsessive about control,” as tour manager Abbey Simmons wrote last week on Twitter, in an illustrative anecdote she shared about a time the singer lashed out at her for what he (incorrectly) perceived to be a minor workplace infraction. “It’s different sides of the same toxic coin.”
The singer has long built up a reputation for unhinged behavior throughout the course of his career: storming offstage if an audience member shouted something he didn’t like; blocking anyone on Twitter that made a joke about the singer or said something disagreeable; lashing out at critics who reviewed his work negatively.
In Adams’ songs — so many of them structured in the command form, as begging pleas — he established control by projecting his needs and vulnerability onto his subjects: “Come Pick Me Up;” “Call Me on Your Way Back Home;” “Stay With Me;” “Come Home;” “Save Me;” “Please Do Not Let Me Go;” “Gonna Make You Love Me;” “Excuse Me While I Break My Own Heart Tonight.”
To reconsider Adams’ music at this moment is to acknowledge the central fallacy in treating his songs as purely fictional or distinct from his real-life wrongdoings. Part of Adams’ “genius,” it had always seemed, was how he managed for more than 20 years to conjure and create seemingly endless scenarios and premises for his raw emotional self-exposure. To think that so much of his actual recklessness served as direct, literal fuel for his songs not only makes his work feel a whole lot less impressive, it also stains it with depravity and darkness, calling into question how many real-world victims ended up as supporting villains in his first-person tales of scorn and mistreatment.
Last week, New Pornographers singer A.C. Newman explained how he ended up a “character” in Adams’ Gold track “Harder Now That It’s Over,” after he told the singer-songwriter to stop mistreating Adams’ ex-girlfriend. “When I threw that drink in that guy’s face/It was just to piss you off,” Adams sang in 2001.
“Didn’t like that I told him not to be a dick,” Newman wrote, “so he went and bought a drink to throw on me.”
A year earlier, on his most-lauded opus, Heartbreaker, Adams told first-person tales of scorned ex-lovers who dealt with breakups with a mix of denial and harassment: “But you love me and I love you,” he sings on “Call Me on Your Way Back Home,” before threatening his ex with the ultimate consequence of her decision to walk away: “I just wanna die without you.”
The New York Times reported last week that when Adams’ ex-fiancée Megan Butterworth left the singer last year, he allegedly threatened her with suicide. According to the Times, he also repeatedly threatened suicide during his brief relationship with singer-songwriter Phoebe Bridgers when she did not promptly reply to his communications.
In 2014, two years before divorcing Mandy Moore, Adams released “I Just Might,” letting the song’s threatening subtext go unspoken: “Don’t wanna lose control,” he sang. “Baby, I just might.”
I was always most drawn to those songs that clearly expressed such utter dejection — “Dear Chicago,” “Hard Way to Fall,” “Come Pick Me Up” — songs that dressed themselves in a type of abject self-pity so absolute that they could feel like balms, a way to validate any traces of those feelings I may have had myself. In 2011, in a review of an Adams concert, I described those songs of his as a “type of solipsism that isn’t a choice.” That Adams ever made anyone believe in such a harmful, deceitful premise was his most insidious gift as an artist.
Adams’ music rarely lent itself toward casual fandom: “I’ve really used a lot of his music to shape my understanding of love and heartbreak,” a friend told me recently. “It’s so scary to realize now that the motivation behind so many of the songs, or at least the understanding of emotional responsibility that led to those songs, is so horrible.”
On another song from 2014, “Am I Safe,” he spends a full chorus asking that very question: “Am I safe?” repeating the words incessantly.
Adams has spent his entire musical career performing his emotional instability, asking fans, critics and admirers some version of that question: Am I safe?
In doing so, he convinced many of us — despite several decades of mythos surrounding his untrustworthiness — to care deeply and relentlessly about the answer to that question. So much so, that some never bothered to ask the question about anyone else.
Editor’s Note: This story has been updated to reflect the confusion and debate over the lyrics of Adams’ adaptation of Taylor Swift’s original song.