If you’ve been following recent happenings in the music world, it’s very likely that you heard about the different high-profile covers of the already-high-profile album 1989 by Taylor Swift. Here are some of my thoughts.
First, a quick recap for those who aren’t familiar with the situation: Taylor Swift releases 1989. It makes a lot of money and plants Swift firmly in the world of pop music by abandoning her early country stylings. A while later: Ryan Adams, an alternative singer-songwriter who has been around much longer than Swift, releases segments of covers of the songs from the album, leading up to the release of a track-by-track cover album of 1989. Adams presents the album as in the style of the Smiths and Bruce Springsteen. Enter Father John Misty, former member of Fleet Foxes and the reigning king of the super-hipsters. On his Soundcloud, Misty releases covers for two of the songs (“Blank Space” and “Welcome to New York”), specifically referencing Adams’ covers and not the original release. Oh, and these covers-of-covers are uncannily performed in the style of the Velvet Underground, forsaking most of the original melody while retaining the lyrics. These tracks have since been removed by Misty, purportedly by the request of the deceased and dream-bound Lou Reed.
There are articles upon articles that speak to whether or not any iterations of the 1989 tracks (including the originals) are actually good songs. I’m not looking to talk about that here, but I’m not going to let this particular pop-culture moment pass by without a little bit of discussion Instead, why don’t we take a look beneath the surface and see what this says about our culture.
The Appeal of Taylor Swift
Taylor Swift is music’s big thing right now. She’s finding a way to engage with her audience through genuineness and charm. It’s actually hard to dislike Swift the more research I do. She walks the line between poise and total awkward breakdown, and she makes it work. She’s willing to adjust and experiment in new areas with her musical work, and she’s made a pretty great stand for supporting artists. From the way she presents herself in the public, Swift seems like someone who would be pretty cool just to hang out with. Musically, I’m not a fan of pop or country, but I think that she can write a good melody and sing, it too. Her production and stylistic choices are crisp, even if they aren’t my preference.
However, there’s something about her lyrical choices that seems all fluff. Heartbreak seems feigned and overdone at this point, and there isn’t a lot of maturity in the pain that may or may not be real. This is very representative of her audience and of that audience until and a ways before 1989. Younger folks (myself included) are rarely the most discerning bunch. We do get into trouble often, and a lot of us don’t know how to handle it from there. Whether Swift remains in that rut with her fans or is merely tapping into it for business reasons is up for debate; but the fact that it sells so well shows that the attitudes on display represent the majority of our culture.
The Adoration of Ryan Adams
The general public – and Swift herself – received Adam’s cover album warmly. What sticks out the most about this release is that it is just as genuine as its original composer’s persona. Adams sincerely loved the album so much that he devoted time and energy to cover the whole thing. In interviews promoting the release, Adams has done nothing but gush about how he adores all of the songs.
The approach to the release is also interesting. The original 1989 has a somewhat cold pop gloss on the album. By recording warm acoustic interpretations to the songs, Adams adds a layer of visceral emotional appeal to the already angsty lyrics. This adds some more intellectual and emotive significance to the original experience, offering a take that’s perhaps of more substance. There is something to be said that Adams put so much effort into seeking out that substance and significance.
The Animosity of Father John Misty
The last layer of covers (at least as of this writing) comes from Seattle cynic Father John Misty. Josh Tillman has the most meticulously crafted persona that I have ever seen in any musician. Nothing that he produces can be taken at face value, and you can never assume that he is being sincere about anything. Everything he says drips with sarcasm an irony, much to the delight of the elitists lurking in your Internet. There is a lot of twistedness and duality to Josh Tillman’s act, and he has become a caricature of hipster culture and everything T-Swift isn’t. It can be hard to tell who he’s mocking when, though most of the articles I have read determine that he is applying his trademark vitriol to Adams’ cover album.
Perhaps Misty is calling Adams out on “unoriginality” and “laziness,” or maybe he’s attacking the claim of stylistic inspirations for his reinterpretations. Misty, out of the veiled hatred in his sarcasm, might even be attacking the very genuineness that has made both versions of the album a success. Whatever the purpose is in Misty’s actions – including the obscenely long retelling of his incredibly obtuse dream-reason for removing the tracks – the overall message and feeling of the release is a jaded worldview and too-cool-for-you scorn. He may be attempting to turn the whole thing on its head and take a jab at hipsters, but the attitude is still less than pure.
To summarize, we can see three culture segments represented here: the mainstreamers, the hipsters, and those in-between. The mainstreamers follow the masses and fall into old patterns with everyone else. Those in-between try to apply substance and significance to the crowd’s movement, but they end up guided by the same prevailing ideologies that direct the crowd. The hipsters think that by shunning everyone else they can end up in a place more enlightening, not realizing that their choices are just governed by the mass opinion (or they end up leading them nowhere).
As Christians, we’re not supposed to follow any of these roads; they’re really not individual roads anyway. They are related paths that together form a very wide one. We are called to take the narrow road, which ends up being contrary to all of these positions. Christians shouldn’t conform to the pattern of the world. We also should remember that we can’t apply significance to our existence. We are vaporous beings who can only be made ultimately substantial by our Creator. And lastly, if we set our focus on our Creator who has laid out a path to meaning for us, we won’t feel the need to be bitter or scornful. In the end, this is the only way to peace and joy and true substance: to accept the life that Jesus has for us and to follow his commands.