Separating the Art from the Artist

Yesterday, the New York Times dropped an explosive piece chronicling seven women’s reports of Ryan Adams’s years of manipulation and abuse. As of today, there are at least four more women who have gone on record corroborating the story. The overwhelming response from fans and other industry members is a general tone of “disappointed but not surprised.” Adams is notorious for his erratic and off-putting antics throughout the duration of his career, and his more recent social media use has sent up red flags for even his most die-hard fans.

As “Me, Too” revelations have begun throughout the film, TV, comedy, and entertainment industry, it hasn’t been difficult for me, an extremely progressive millennial certainly a product of cancel- and call-out culture, to throw away the work of the likes of Louis CK, Kevin Spacey, and Aziz Ansari. These artists produced work that affected me and I enjoyed but that enjoyment didn’t feel more relevant than the harm caused by these men and their abhorrent actions and subsequent non-apologies.

Ryan Adams hit closer to home. I heard his music for the first time at age fifteen and quickly became obsessed. Before I could drive, I was traveling to his concerts all over the US. I saw him six times between 2005–2008, purchased all the memorabilia I could afford, collected every live, rare, and unreleased recording, and followed his blog that he referred to as Foggy, chronicling his feelings, relationships, and travels during the Cardinals’ touring hay day. Looking back at Foggy, the alarm bells should have rung ten years ago, but I was a child and had no idea what he was doing was odd. This was a tortured artist, a fragile soul — who could expect him to act normally?

Fifteen years later, I’ve seen Adams over eleven times. My sometimes obsessive love for his music has ebbed and flowed over the years, but had a bit of a revitalization when his latest album was released. I joined an online forum of Ryan Adams fans who held daily discussions about his music, but who also closely scrutinized his personal life, conjecturing about what songs could mean and who they were targeting.

Not that he was at all cryptic — Adams fans frequently compared him to Trump in his late-night Tweeting and Instagram posting and live-streaming. He attacked people including Father John Misty, Albert Hammond Jr. and his father, his ex-wife and ex-girlfriends, and his ex-bandmates. He wrote vitriolic social media posts and then deleted them hours later. Fans noted that Ryan had a lot of exes in his life — many relationships both professional and personal seemed to go nowhere or turn sour. He announced plans for a collaboration with Liz Phair that suddenly disappeared into thin air (literally hours after writing my first draft Phair tweeted that “My experience was nowhere near as personally involving, but yes the record ended and the similarities are upsetting.”) He went through bandmates like socks. Something was off, but no one exactly connected the dots. There were suspicions and speculation on the fans’ end, and Instagram posts such as the one NYT mentioned where Adams tagged his ex-fiancee’s mother, had many fans wondering why his management company didn’t step in and take away his social media access.

In late 2017, with approximately 100 other women, friends and I started a women’s Facebook group as a place to discuss music, Ryan Adams, and make friends in order to escape the sexism and mansplaining relevant in other co-ed fan communities. Several months ago, we discussed the abusive nature of his online tantrums and several of us agreed that it was enough to make it difficult to separate the art from the artist. Many of us largely stopped listening to Adams, although it was difficult to avoid him altogether. I can’t go through my closet without seeing a piece of merchandise, listen to a song by my favorite singer without remembering that I found them through him; or drive my car without noticing the bumper sticker bearing the Cardinals’ logo. Nevermind the fact that belonging to an online community founded on his fandom meant engaging daily with people I consider friends who continued posting photos, music, and articles all about him.

Before the news broke yesterday, I asked this fan community to avoid shaming others’ for their decision not to or to separate the art from the artist. Things had been rapidly escalating, as podcasts detailed the discomfort he caused women and he hurled threats at his fans that he would cancel his upcoming European tour if all planned shows didn’t sell out. I crafted an announcement stressing that this group was meant more for connecting and supporting other women rather than uncritically worshipping a musician. Due to Adams’ threatening tweets at the New York Times earlier in the morning, we were anticipating some bad news in the coming days, but the article was a huge bomb drop. No one knew how bad the news was. Personally, the angry, caustic, spew I had already witnessed online was more than enough for me to completely cancel him — but the reports of him grooming and preying upon a child? Nothing could prepare me for how sickened I felt and feel.

I was sad yesterday, for several hours. My friends and I consoled each other — so many women all over the world struggling with the fact that the same person whose music was such a comfort for many, was made by an alleged abuser who exhibited the same behavior that caused many people’s’ need for comforting. What a loss to the world that this vile alleged predator stifled the dreams and ambition of all these women; not to mention the identical behavior of various other industry leaders who unmistakably wield their power the same way and have gotten away with it for decades.

I understand my friends who are heartbroken, hurt, and grieving. My sadness gave way to anger quite quickly but Adams’ music and presence has a way of entrenching everyone into his personal life- whether it’s in real life or through his music. His linguistic talents that have brought him esteem as a songwriter are also useful to manipulate and coerce. His recent onslaught of social media rants prepared many of us to begin distancing ourselves emotionally, and this was the final nail in the coffin for those unsure whether or not to continue supporting him, buying his limited-edition vinyls in every color of the rainbow, planning entire vacations around his concerts, reading his books and investing countless hours in worrying about his health.

What I don’t understand is the people in my community who are willfully choosing to ignore the fact that the New York Times has reviewed text messages, screenshots, and testimonies from several individuals; and that this still isn’t enough evidence to prove that this man preyed on a child; that he manipulated, threatened, and made many women feel unsafe? What is there to gain by defending him? He isn’t going to be grateful to you. He is famous for being particularly rude to his fans, in fact. You can’t blame mental illness on decades of predatory behavior. When you defend Ryan Adams you’re defending a person who likened himself to R. Kelly. He fucking knew. HE IS A PREDATOR.

Today’s social climate is different than it was 40 years ago. There’s no excuse, obviously, for the likes of David Bowie, Jerry Lee Lewis, and Steven Tyler. To me, however, there is a certain distance from those artists. I didn’t follow them for half of my life. I don’t discuss them every single day. I can disentangle Led Zeppelin’s music from Jimmy Page’s actions because I know relatively nothing about Jimmy Page. I wasn’t around at the peak of their active touring, and I am willing to assume that Jimmy Page didn’t have an open diary where he shared all his deepest thoughts in the world with his fans. I can appreciate Hemingway’s work while acknowledging its problematic roots. The difference is, we fucking know better now.

My friends are torn as to whether or not they’ll continue supporting him. I’m not. I’d much rather support the women he’s hurt over the years. This isn’t a ground-breaking opinion, of course, and I respect my friends who are able to compartmentalize. I can’t respect any fan who will continue to love him as a person, particularly because, well, you don’t know him. I am too tired to continue trying to get people to understand that abusing women and children is wrong. As a reminder, women have nothing to gain from coming forward about sexual abuse. I implore my friends to reserve their concern and sadness for the victims, not the abuser.

Adams’s work has always been deeply autobiographical. His art is the artist. He is excruciatingly transparent about who his songs or entire albums are about. As his fans, we felt we were clever for being able to glean clues about his personal life, but now it dawns on me that this was carefully constructed by Adams. The lyrics echo his behavior — he’s lonely and none of it his fault. He showers promises and praise, hypnotizes with his lovely, lyrical words, interpolates you, the listener, and then ultimately lets you down. To me, the magic is gone and the wizard has been revealed for who he truly is.

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