Discover more from Nigel Writes a Blog
I still listen to Ryan Adams
He was a leader of the aughts melancholy loner aesthetic. Turns out that's great for art, but not such a good thing in itself.
One post I’ve been meaning to write for a while now is on the subject of Ryan Adams — the mid-aughts country alt-rocker who served as the poster boy for sensitive, tortured white guy angst until, well.. he didn’t. For better or worse (and yes, the half-caveats and sheepish confessional tone still seems somehow necessary, I think), I was a fan of Ryan Adams in the aughts. And in the 2010s. I was a big fan. But to cut to the very crude bottom line, Me Too caught up with Adams, he was “canceled,” and now he’s no more, and those of us who were fans are left asking — well, shit. What now?
Not subscribed yet? Enter your email address to get updates! I promise there’s no spam!
First, some personal background: The first Ryan Adams album I ever really got into is still my favorite. It was his third album, Demolition, and it came out in the fall of 2002 (twenty years ago exactly as of tomorrow, in fact). I had graduated college just four months earlier. I was working my first real, adult job as a high school math teacher in a small rural Missouri town. I had a half-hour commute in my car each morning, and when I wasn’t listening to NPR, Demolition was the soundtrack to my First Adult Commute to my First Adult Job. It’s an album about loss and sadness and the end of relationships, of course. But it’s also about the end of summer. It’s about needing to move on and accept change.It resonated with me in a big, messy, emotional way that I’m not sure is even possible once you’ve moved beyond your 20s.
I held that job for two years, and in 2004 I moved to St. Louis and started law school. In law school, I had two more Ryan Adams albums that I really connected with and that I consider a major part of the soundtrack to those tortured, angsty, grad student years in my 20s — the double-album Cold Roses (2005), and the follow-up that also come out that year, Jacksonville City Nights. One of the nice things about being a Ryan Adams fan during this period was that there was never a shortage of new music to listen to. He put out an album in 2003, one in 2004, three in 2005, and one in 2007. Yes, that’s a lot of music and it all starts to run together after a while, but it was all very much of a piece with where I was in my life, and I loved it. Ryan Adams was the soundtrack for being in your 20s or early 30s, male, white, sensitive and unsure of yourself, melancholy and anguished and uncertain about your future — it was the musical equivalent of Benjamin in The Graduate. Or a Jonathan Franzen novel (or this Keith Gessen novel with the world’s cringiest title), or any movie from the 90s with Ethan Hawke. I remember at one point when I was a summer associate at a firm in Kansas City, one of the women who worked there was bemoaning the fact that her husband (also a lawyer) was also big into Ryan Adams, and she just vented to me, “What is it with guys in law school — why do they all love Ryan Adams?!!”. So yeah. Like a crisp fall day, where the sky is gray and overcast and everything feels just a little precious and vulnerable, Ryan Adams was my jam.
The thing is, though — all of this is very toxic. Or it at least runs the risk of being toxic. It’s arty and it feels good and it’s very “I get to play like I’m suffering and experiencing this great, big, painful beautiful thing we call LIFE!” — but you’re really just sitting in a coffee shop, brooding because it looks cool and enjoying the fact that you feel cute in your flannel and thick framed glasses. Songs about breakups and heartache and how no one “understands” you are really just whiney sob stories about how life isn’t how you want it to be. I’m not an ARTIST. I’m not connecting with some deeper truth about what it means to be in my 30s. I like alt-country music, sure, but as an identity, this brooding singer-songwriter thing is indulgent. And smug.
And what’s more — white dudes in their 20s or 30s do not have a monopoly on this vibe! If you like melancholy alt-country music about your feelings and how painful they are, Phoebe Bridgers is right there. So is Jenny Lewis or Kathleen Edwardsor even Tracy Chapman (though some of her music gets a little too depressing, even for my taste).
But in any event, Ryan Adams sort of had the market cornered on what it meant to be a sensitive sad boi during this time. And it turns out that he also embodied a great deal of the toxicity that went along with this aesthetic. Adams released a series of well-reviewed albums in the 2010s,including a live album from Carnegie Hall that held a place of honor in any self-respecting hipster’s vinyl collection. But in 2019, the New York Times reported that, well..
In interviews, seven women and more than a dozen associates described a pattern of manipulative behavior in which Adams dangled career opportunities while simultaneously pursuing female artists for sex. In some cases, they said, he would turn domineering and vengeful, jerking away his offers of support when spurned, and subjecting women to emotional and verbal abuse, and harassment in texts and on social media. The accounts have been corroborated by family members or friends who were present at the time, as well as by correspondence from Adams reviewed by The New York Times.
It turns out that Adams was kind of a huge asshole, particularly to lesser-known female artists, and he used his position in the music industry to manipulate women, take advantage of them, and try to sleep with them. Among the women who spoke on the record about this was Phoebe Bridgers, who actually wrote one of her early hits, Motion Sickness, about Adams. Adams’s ex-wife, Mandy Moore, also went on record describing his toxic behavior. And to top it all off, the Times also reported that the FBI had opened an investigation into Adams’s explicit communications with an underage fan. Nothing ever came of that investigation, but it was reported on and it was definitely not great.
That all happened in early 2019, and since then, the music industry has dropped Adams like a hot rock. He “apologized” (sort of) some months later, but it was one of these terrible celebrity grievance apologies that amounted to “I’m sorry everybody believes these horrible lies about me and you all should just forgive me and let me get on with my life.” He’s continued to put out music — having put out one album in 2020, one in 2021, and three so far in 2022.But no one has paid any attention. None of these albums were reviewed in the Times or NPR (or anywhere else that I can find). Pitchfork hasn’t written a single album review for anything he’s done since the 2019 story broke. He’s going back on tour this fall, but that hasn’t generated any real press or attention, either.
It doesn’t help that many of the songs he’s actually written since all this happened have been pretty yikes. The first album he released following the scandal was Wednesdays, and the lead track was a song called I’m Sorry and I Love You:
I remember you before you hated me
Before you traded me for someone new
I remember you tall and flattering
Walking next to me under the moon
If I could hold your hand, maybe you'd understand
How blue that I am
If I could see your face, maybe it could erase
The lies with the truth
If you could look into my eyes past the question marks
Besides, I'm sorry and I love you
I'm sorry and I love you
Like.. to say these lyrics are indulgent doesn’t even begin to describe. It’s the writings of a megalomaniac. The point isn’t that he fucked up or that he hurt people, it’s that he’s sad about it and there are lies being said about him. And if the woman he’s writing to would just accept that he loves her, it would be fine! Isn’t that all that matters?! I feel so bad for saying this, because I really did like/identify with Ryan Adams’s music once upon a time, but — this is abusive, toxic behavior of the worst kind. It’s honestly creepy — and not just in a “Blurred Lines” omg-I-can’t-believe-we-ever-thought-that-was-okay sorta way.
All of which is to say, Ryan Adams was well and truly canceled, and his music career has taken a serious (and probably permanent) hit. This makes me sad. Not because he was treated unfairly, exactly. I mean — yes, on some level, he was a shitty, manipulative, asshole rock’n’roll guy, and he’s not the first person like that and he won’t be the last. James Taylor acted a hundred times worse than Adams ever did, and his only punishment was possibly being obliquely referenced in a Carly Simon lyric. There’s an argument to be made that Ryan Adams was singled out and caught up in some form of Me Too overreach, I guess. He’s not Bill Cosby or R. Kelly or Harvey Weinstein, and there weren’t criminal charges brought against him for any of this. So maybe he deserves the chance at a redemption arc. Maybe a superfan could be righteously on his side for that reason.
But the thing is .. it’s also okay if that redemption never comes. Ryan Adams doesn’t seem particularly contrite about any of this, but even if he was — there isn’t any “right” he has to be a famous rock star in good standing with the general public. He’s not owed anything by Pitchfork or NPR or the New York Times or any of the other outlets who choose not to devote any of their resources to covering him. If the aesthetic that he embodied in his music is now out of fashion and we now feel as a culture that that vibe is more troublesome than it is endearing, well.. that’s life.
Mostly, I’m just sad that the music that meant so much to me during the years of my 20s and 30s now is revealed to have this toxic undercurrent. I still listen to those albums when I’m really in the mood for it. Or when I want to just be reminded of that particular time in my life and what I was feeling. But I do so now while being reminded that the source material is still problematic. The toxic backdrop was always there from the beginning, of course. Like.. Adams didn’t just become a terrible person in 2019 because the Times reported on it. And for sure — the whole loner melancholy sad boi aesthetic absolutely has a brooding, indulgent undertone that’s very, very bad. That Adams turned out to be an unapologetic asshole isn’t exactly surprising, in the long run. But I guess that’s the lesson we all learned here. Brooding loner dudes are arty, but also kinda not great. Being in touch with your feelings is a good thing, but try to be a better person than that. It’s important.
Anyway. I still like and occasionally listen to Ryan Adams’s music. I like it while fully appreciating that the identity that goes along with that music is complicated and bad. It’s a cautionary tale about what it means to be too self-absorbed and too convinced of the primacy of one’s own sad, melancholy feelings. Which, honestly, is a useful thing to keep in mind. This life is big and messy and painful and maybe even unfair when we fuck up. But so be it. Our job is to make peace and move on.
If I were to recommend two songs in particular on this album, they’d be Nuclear (track 1), and Dear Chicago (track 9).
Kathleen Edwards is truly one of my favorite singer-songwriters, and she doesn’t get nearly enough press or attention, imho. My favorite fact about her is that after her messy divorce and the tour for her third album, Voyageur, she was so burnt out that she abandoned music entirely, moved back to Ottawa and opened a coffeeshop called Quitters. Thankfully, she eventually worked through her angst and returned to music in 2020 with her fourth album, Total Freedom. It’s great. She’s great.
Adams was married to Mandy Moore fro 2009 to 2016, and when they divorced he put out a break-up album that was actually just a complete song-for-song remake of Taylor Swift’s 1989. I’m just going to go ahead and admit that even today I much prefer the Ryan Adams version of this album.
Seriously, he’s put out so much music this year. Most of it is really forgettable. His fourth album of 2022, called Devolver, is a free digital download. It’s not even being released on a major label, so I didn’t count it.