Poptimism Won 2015, Who Won ‘1989’?

Ryan Adams, Taylor Swift, and ‘Peak Poptimism’

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For those who don’t obsessively peruse music blogs, “poptimism” is a strain of music criticism that celebrates top-40 pop music and the mega-stars that bring the hits to life. Music magazines, websites, and publications such as Pitchfork and SPIN rose to prominence through their celebration of punk, indie, underground rap, and other genres far from the mainstream, dissing the vapidity of chart-topping hits along the way. But over time, pop has overcome its stigma. “Poptimism” has thoroughly permeated the ends of the blogosphere, to the point that praise for the likes of Taylor Swift, Beyoncé, and Carly Rae Jepsen has become the modus operandi of most music criticism (see the links on each name for examples). The fact that Pitchfork bestowed its #1 song of 2013 to “Hold On, We’re Going Home” by Drake, perhaps today’s biggest pop juggernaut, would have been unheard of a few years ago. It’s no longer an embarrassing display of naiveté to love “Call Me Maybe” or “Teenage Dream” — it’s a sign that you’re an impartial judge.

With the release of Ryan Adams’s cover of Taylor Swift’s behemoth of an album, 1989, we have officially reached “peak poptimism.” We are now in a society where there is no such thing as a guilty pleasure. If someone like Ryan Adams had covered a Kelly Clarkson album ten years ago, I guarantee it would have been a completely ironic exercise. The culture was just not one where the critically acclaimed underground mixed with the pop stars. But today, in an age where poptimism reigns supreme, Adams can talk about 1989 in an interview and say, with total honesty: “These songs are incredible. You break them down from what they are to this raw element, and they’re just super powerful and they can tear you up.”

Screen Shot 2015-09-25 at 9.14.46 AMSwift is an expert at putting her finger on the pulse and finding out what direction the collective culture is heading. For as much as she lyrically rebuffs those who think someone else’s “indie record is much cooler than [hers]”, she’s very much interested in capitalizing on the new, hip trend before it peaks. She’s a lot like Drake in this respect, who is also always on the lookout for the new artist, new sound, new song that is sure to rise in popularity (it’s probably not a coincidence that Taylor Swift and Drake are also two of the most gigantically popular and critically acclaimed artists we have today). Swift saw what Lorde was doing, what HAIM and Chvrches were doing, and fully embraced the recent popularity of 80’s-inspired synth pop on 1989. It’s especially apparent on “Out of the Woods” and “I Wish You Would,” the latter of which is unquestionably influenced by her best friends in HAIM. Another style on the rise is the wistful, dreamy, almost psychedelic sighing of Lana Del Rey, which Swift channels beautifully on “Wildest Dreams”. The result is one of the best (and best-selling) pop albums of the decade, chock-full of the catchiest hits imaginable.

Swift’s brilliant amalgam of all the current trends in pop is completely lost in Adams’s version. That’s kind of the point, of course. But Swift’s 1989 is a masterclass in pop, so any re-imagining of the album will, by default, lose the very quality that made the original so strong. But Adams’s re-imaginings are a pleasure to listen to — it’s fun to hear how he interpreted the songs and how they hit him emotionally and sonically. There was a Buzzfeed article that lampooned the laudatory hype surrounding Adams’s cover. I know the article is a joke, and I agree to a certain extent that the hype surrounding Adams’s release has reached somewhat annoying heights, taking the Internet by storm and inspiring think-pieces and praise from every institution you can think of. But the article is also satirically advancing an argument with which I fundamentally disagree: the notion that Adams’s release is not creative.

Sure, Adams didn’t write any of 1989‘s songs, but he still excels on two fronts: (1) he took the songs and reinterpreted them in a completely new and exciting way, with new styles, sounds, moods, tones, etc.; and (2) the reinterpretations sound REALLY GOOD! The songs have that amazing 80’s heartland rock sound, that jangly guitar, and those fervent reverb-heavy vocals that he championed on his previous, self-titled (and very good) album from last year. Creativity in music-making isn’t strictly reserved for songwriting. The fact that he could take the songs, strip them to their bare bones, and clothe them with completely different apparel, is an act of creativity in and of itself. Building on a basic framework of chord changes and lyrics, he transforms these larger-than-life (and brilliant) pop songs into Springsteen-style roots rock and adds inspired elements, like his beautiful string outro of “Out of the Woods.” But the debate over the album’s inherent creativity ultimately doesn’t matter to me: what matters is that the album sounds excellent. It’s something I find myself itching to listen to. That’s the reason why Adams’s version succeeds.

 
Now, after attempting to make the case that both versions are amazing, and that the existence of one doesn’t discredit the other, I am going to compare them track-by-track in sudden death matches to see which versions of each song are superior. Oops. One note before we start: my primary interest is comparing the sound of each version (whether it’s catchy, whether it effectively inhabits the sound framework it creates, etc.), since that is the defining characteristic that separates Swift’s and Adams’s takes. The lyrics are 98% the same, and the songwriting credit goes completely to Swift and her production team.
 
 
“WELCOME TO NEW YORK”

I always thought it odd that Swift opened her album with one of its weakest tracks. There’s not much propulsion or imagination. The Adams version is not my favorite either, but I like the little vocal harmonies he adds in the chorus.

Winner: Ryan Adams
 
 
“BLANK SPACE”

This is my personal favorite from Swift’s album. The production is snappy and compelling, and the lyrics incisively poke fun at her former reputation as a perpetually jealous ex-girlfriend. The whole song is incredible from beginning to end. Adams turns it into a quiet folk song, almost Iron & Wine-like. It’s very pretty, but doesn’t even come close to the heights of the original.

Winner: Taylor Swift

 
 
“STYLE”

I highly recommend watching Vox’s well-produced and insightful video below, which gets at the heart of why “Style” is such a killer song.

 
I personally think the chords in her chorus could be a little more dynamic, but that foreboding intro, with its “question-and-answer” format, is the epitome of cool. On Adams’s version, he takes advantage of the simple two-chord structure, which gives him ample room to record little guitar licks that make it interesting. And I love how he changes “James Dean daydream” to “Daydream Nation”.

Winner: Taylor Swift
 
 
“OUT OF THE WOODS”

The production on Swift’s version could have easily backed a Madonna song in 1984. We’ve heard these synths before, and they’re very effective here. Adams opens his version in stripped-down Neil Young mode — an acoustic guitar, a quiet, hovering vocal line, and very light harmonica. He gradually gets stronger, as more instruments are added and his voice gains confidence. By the second-half of the track, it’s a full-on power ballad. As I mentioned earlier here, the strings at the end accentuate the four-chord sequence, building to a very satisfying end.

Winner: Ryan Adams
 
 
“ALL YOU HAD TO DO WAS STAY”

The high point on Swift’s rendition is the bridge, when it goes “Let me remind you, this was what you wanted, oh-oh-OHOHOH.” It just soars. Adams takes it to the next level though. In interviews, Adams compared his version of the whole album to Bruce Springsteen and the Smiths. I think he came closest to emulating those two sounds on “All You Had to Do Was Stay.” The echoey, impassioned vocals, especially in the chorus, are as “Boss”-like as you can get, while the jangly guitar is a direct Smiths homage. The song just feels like a nighttime Camaro drive through the heartland, John Cougar Mellencamp blasting on the radio. It’s one of Adams’s best re-interpretations on the album.

Winner: Ryan Adams

 
 
“SHAKE IT OFF”

I think “Shake It Off” unfairly gets a bad rap. It’s certainly the most generic “any pop star could have recorded this” single in Swift’s catalog, and its release was the first sign of Swift’s push to strictly pop, but the production is nothing short of great. Max Martin, the wizard behind the sound of many of your favorite hits (“It’s Gonna Be Me” by N’Sync, “Teenage Dream” by Katy Perry, “Since U Been Gone” by Kelly Clarkson, and “Can’t Feel My Face” by the Weeknd, just to name a few), does amazing things with this track.

There are so many brilliant pieces: the marching band feel, with its drums, cymbals, and trombones, Swift’s tongue-wagging “haters gonna hate” descending melody, her echoing of herself on “dancing on my own” and “moves up as I go”…it’s endless. My very favorite part is at 1:06, at the beginning of the second verse when the drums cut out, leaving just the rhythmic trombone and Swift’s voice, leading into the re-introduction of the bass and drums, right when she sings “and that’s what they don’t seeeeee.” As for Adams I give him creative points for transforming a frenetic chart-topper into a pensive ballad, but for some inexplicable reason, his vocals stay on one note for the vast majority of the track. It’s a nice, chill mid-album break, but I prefer the production genius on the original.

Winner: Taylor Swift

 
 
“I WISH YOU WOULD”

As I mentioned earlier, this song is pretty much indistinguishable from a HAIM song (specifically “Forever”). Adams doesn’t do much here to make it special, so I give the slight edge to Taylor.

Winner: Taylor Swift
 
 
“BAD BLOOD”

This was the first full track we heard from Adams’s project, and for a good reason. It’s really strong — those chord changes sound great on an acoustic guitar, and the electric guitar adornments he adds are on point, particularly during the chorus. Plus the way he goes for it on the melody is simply amazing. But the petty catharsis of Swift’s version simply can’t be topped. You haven’t lived until you’ve blasted “Bad Blood” in the car after a run-in with your sworn enemy. (Or so I’m told; I still need to try it.) It’s just so vibrant. Oh and by the way, I love Kendrick Lamar, but I prefer the version without him. Sorry Kendrick.

Winner: Taylor Swift, but Adams’s version is pretty great
 
 
“WILDEST DREAMS”

“Wildest Dreams” never really made an impression on me before its recent release as a single and subsequent radio play. But now every time it comes on the radio, I pause to listen. The highlight here is Swift’s melody and the way she attacks that chorus. But Adams’s version is one of his best. The chords here are absolutely perfect for his guitar, the verses roll along at a great driving pace, and the last chorus, where the drums hold out and come in later is great.

Winner: Ryan Adams, but only barely

 
 
“HOW YOU GET THE GIRL”

When listening to Adams’s rendition, I wish he went big on the chorus. There’s so much potential for him to make it huge, like Swift does, and he squanders it. That’s actually one of the main weaknesses of many of his songs throughout the album: his reinterpretations of the melodies are often one-note and static. Listen to Swift’s version — she jumps up an octave for the bolded, capitalized portions here: “And that’s HOW IT works that’s how you GET THE girl, girl.” That’s what gives the chorus so much impact. Adams omits the octave-jumping, to the chorus’s detriment.

Winner: Taylor Swift
 
 
“THIS LOVE”

The acoustic opening is another throwback moment to Swift’s early career, but the multi-tracked vocals, synth bass, and heavy snare drum come in to bring us back to 80’s pop. The track sounds okay, but it’s not very interesting. Adams turns it into a piano ballad and injects it with some much-needed emotion and intensity, all while adorning it with some beautiful piano work, especially at the end.

Winner: Ryan Adams

 
 
“I KNOW PLACES”

Swift’s version reminds me of an early-2000’s Britney or Christina song. Adams makes the track sultry, adding an anchor of a bass line and some subtle, Latin-inspired percussive touches. It’s actually vaguely reminiscent of Maná, a rock band from Guadalajara, Mexico.

Winner: Ryan Adams
 
 
“CLEAN”

Both are mostly mediocre. They’re okay, but I wish the closers for the albums were stronger.

Winner: Tie
 
 
Final Verdict: On some of her lesser tracks, such as “This Love” and “All You Had to Do Was Stay,” Ryan Adams successfully instills them with a new purpose and gives them life. For the hits though, Taylor Swift’s versions are definitive, monumental, and impossible to beat, especially “Blank Space,” “Style,” and “Bad Blood.” In the end, both renditions of 1989 are welcome in my iTunes, and I look forward to listening to both for decades to come.

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