Every morning I go to a café to have a cup and read the paper and listen to my neighbors chat. Typically they talk about real estate and politics, but this morning I overheard one of them discussing the singer Ryan Adams, who was outed in the New York Times for using his status as a recording artist to lure younger women artists into sexual situations, and then dump them if and when they didn’t put out.
The conversation was a travesty from the start, because to begin with, the couple who were having the conversation were at cross purposes. The man thought she was talking about Bryan Adams, and when she clarified whom she meant, he shrugged it off dismissively with a, “Never heard of him.”
He tossed off the accusations, too, particularly the one that he’d sexted with a 14 year old girl.
Woman: “But it’s disgusting!”
Guy, shrugging: “But…did he even know she was 14?”
And I couldn’t help it, I rolled my eyes. In actuality, I was surprised that the woman — who couldn’t name a single song by Ryan Adams — had read the article at all. But the man’s defensive reaction was way more in line with popular (male) thought, as I’ve seen it roll by on twitter and Facebook in the last couple of days. I think he would have been more interested if it HAD been Bryan Adams, whose music he’d heard of. But he still would have shrugged it off. Because, after all…isn’t that what rock stars DO?
To be honest, it is. I know, because I used to work in close proximity to them, as a music journalist, and nothing that I read in the Times about Ryan Adams’ behavior contradicted anything I knew about that world, where the power dynamic between men and women is invariably totally skewed. And yet, the revelation was disturbing to many. Young women trying to break in to music and older men dangling opportunities at them to do so is absolutely business as usual. The only thing that the Adams story should really be telling us is that the reality of that dynamic is nothing like A Star Is Born. It’s much more dirty and self-serving.
What’s also different about the Ryan Adams case is, simply, social media. Unlike my day, the stupid dude put it all in texts, thus giving us the salutatory mental image a 44 year old man sending dic pics to a 14 year old. (“He had pet names for her body parts,” the Times, which has seen the 3000 plus texts they exchanged, tells us.). Also, we are now living in the #metoo moment, and as embarrassing as it is to admit you’ve been played by a guy — an embarrassment has always been a large part of the mechanism of repression — we are finally living in an era when women like Mandy Moore and Phoebe Bridgers are putting their pride aside and outing the bastards for their crappy behavior. True, their accusations will garner nothing from men like the guy at the café except an outward version of “’twas ever thus,” and the not-so-secret thought, “I’d do it too if I could,” but I think, eventually, there will be consequences.
One consequence has to do with posterity. Revelations about any artist inevitably morph ones feelings about their work, and Adams songwriting just isn’t brilliant enough to get a pass. A few years ago, he released a version of Taylor Swift’s record 1989, re-recorded, track by track, in entirety, that received almost universally positive reviews. At the time, he told Rolling Stone, “It wasn’t like I wanted to change them because they needed changing…But I knew that if I sang them from my perspective and in my voice, they would transform.’”
Adams never portrayed himself as anything less than a true fan, and Swift herself said she liked his versions, but today, rather than seeming like a sincere homage, the whole project seems a lot more icky. Given what we know of his mentality from the Times — “music,” his ex-wife said, “was a point of control for him” — using a woman’s labor to gain attention for himself is clearly pretty standard, and now his intentionality has become loud and sonic. Rather than working to uncover something that wasn’t there (like Kathy McCarty’s version of Daniel Johnston’s songs “Dead Dog’s Eyeball,” for example), it’s hard not to hear 1989 as a compulsively competitive need to one-up a woman songwriter, as well as to piggyback on her success. Or maybe…to date her?
In the past 24 hours, I’ve heard people say the story about Ryan Adams and his poor treatment of women (and a little girl) is a non-story, and others who say that the private behavior of artists shouldn’t affect our view of their work, otherwise we’d have to dismiss the work of Chuck Berry, Jerry Lee Lewis, and many others. But I disagree. We live in a capitalist society and one of the few ways we have to change people’s attitudes is in the marketplace. Ryan Adams has lost at least one potential listener — the woman in that cafe couple — and is therefore, one can only hope, a cautionary tale to other douchebags in the business.
I think it will be, too. Once, about twenty five years ago, I experienced some shitty sexist behavior on the part of a rising rock guy in a tent backstage at Lollapalooza. I see that he’s playing in my town at a very tiny club in a few weeks, and you know who won’t be in the audience? Me. Me, and the thousands of other women whom he no doubt did similar shit to in the halcyon days of grunge. When that guy, now in his 50s and struggling with his career, looks out at the empty audience, he probably won’t realize he’s being kicked on the way back down. But that’s what karma gets you.