Up until a week or so ago, Ryan Adams made most of his headlines by scoring Grammy wins, covering Taylor Swift albums, getting into silly feuds, or being a bit of a diva (See: That breakdown over a heckler at The Ryman early in his career). But all that changed with last week’s New York Times’ expose “Ryan Adams Dangled Success. Women Say They Paid a Price.”
The piece, the first real reverberation of the #MeToo movement in the music industry, laid out in unflinching detail how Ryan Adams had allegedly tried to use his stature to pressure aspiring female musicians into sex; stifled the career of his then-wife Mandy Moore; and most damningly, sent explicit messages with an underage fan (a claim that is now being investigated by the FBI). Obviously, the revelations from the Times’ report raise serious questions about Adams’ actions, and makes clear he has left a trail of victimized women in the wake of his career. The women brave enough to speak out, and the ones who haven’t yet decided to make their stories know, are the victims here.
The shockwaves are already being felt, as the April release for Adams’ new album Big Colors has been indefinitely shelved (the record was supposed to be the first of three in 2019, though it’s likely those will also be either canceled or indefinitely delayed) at least until the FBI inquiry can be completed. He also had a full tour slate coming together for the year, kicking off with several dates in Europe. It’s unclear if that will be affected at this point, though even if not, it stands to reason an eventual U.S. leg could be altered or canceled.
Looking to recent history, the #MeToo movement to this point has seen Hollywood largely cut ties with those accused of sexual misconduct over the past year or two, but Adams serves as a test case of sorts for the music business. Unlike the movie industry, even if labels were to drop Adams, he could still (theoretically) continue releasing music independently. The overhead to produce an album is obviously a bit different from a blockbuster film, and an artist can manage their distribution online themselves. The real question is — will anyone actually buy his records now? Will anyone show up to see him play? In the short term, Adams’ singles have already taken a hit on Triple A radio, quietly falling off the charts. It’s obviously too early to know if that’s a permanent trend, or simply a response to the Times’ report.
As fans process Adams’ clear character deficiencies and wrongdoings, it can lead to a crisis of conscious and faith all its own. Sure, most fans had probably gleaned that Adams could be a bit of a jerk, but it just played into his tortured artist mystique for the past couple decades. The allegations laid out in the Times report went far beyond that, though. Obviously. To the point that many fans might want to hang up the headphones altogether on Adams’ output. So what do you do with that shelf of records? The closet full of tour T-shirts? The hard drive full of demos and deep cuts? How do you reconcile the artist from the art? And should you even try? There are no easy answers.
I’ve been a fan of Adams since Heartbreaker and Gold in the early aughts, and his music has been a stalwart of the soundtrack to my adult life. I became a fan in high school, and remained one through college and beyond. I’ve seen him live anytime he’s made his way to my part of the country, and over the years I’ve accumulated his entire catalog on digital and most of his releases on vinyl. I even spent the time and money to track down the relatively hard to find vinyl release of Rock ’N Roll, and racked up a half dozen or so of his 7-inch releases in the years since he started putting them out on his boutique label at Pax-Am. When I first saw the New York Times story break, all I saw was Ryan Adams’ name, and assumed it was a story about his new album.
My stomach dropped once I actually read the headline. It dropped a whole lot further once I finished reading the full report. I couldn’t help but glance at Adams’ Live at Carnegie Hall box set open on my record shelf across the room. I haven’t listened to any of Adams’ music since the report was published (though it did inadvertently lead me to discover the insanely talented Phoebe Bridgers, whose song “Motion Sickness,” written about her time with Adams, takes on far more biting gravity in the wake of these allegations). I’m not sure when, or if, I will turn to Adams’ music again. It’s hard to reconcile that songs you’ve loved for years come from someone who allegedly made jokes about being like R. Kelly while texting with an underage fan who was being coerced into sending explicit messages from a man claiming to be her mentor. Do his actions change the albums upon albums of songs he wrote while doing that? Maybe not, but they absolutely color the perception of the man who wrote them. It goes far beyond a troubled soul making music — he’s seemingly a troubled man who hurt women, and needs help.
For fans who are able to reconcile the man from the music, the situation still brings up deeper ethical questions. Is continuing to support Adams’ output in the wake of these allegations simply feeding into the circumstances that gave him this power and authority over these women in the first place? Is simply continuing to enjoy his music only empowering Adams to continue these actions? Again, there are no easy answers.
It’s a personal question every fan will have to ask themselves in the coming days, weeks and months. Can you still listen to “Oh My Sweet Carolina,” or “Gimme Something Good,” and not be reminded of the damage Adams has wrought over the past few decades? The aspiring talents who, after being coerced by Adams, decided to stop making music at all? Though he’s already issued a half-hearted apology, if Adams does make a sincere effort toward making amends with these victims, could that eventually change things? Everyone deserves a chance at redemption, yes, but not everyone deserves to sell records — especially when there are plenty of talented musicians (i.e. the aforementioned Phoebe Bridgers) out there who haven’t tried to creep on their collaborators.
As for me? I’ll probably leave Ryan Adams’ records on the back shelf, because it just doesn’t feel right, knowing what we all know now. Instead, I’ll give some younger artists my time and money in the meantime. Here’s hoping Adams gets the help he needs and tries to make things right moving forward — or at least as right as he can at this point. There’s no doubt he’s talented, but no amount of talent is worth the human toll his career has seemingly taken on those around him.
#MeToo has come to rock ’n roll, and it’s up to all of us to figure out exactly what that looks like.