Ye and Ryan Adams: It's all sour and rotten

October 16, 2022

When I was 23 years old, I had a master’s degree, but had burned out in my first job in that field, and while trying to figure out my next steps, was living in my parents’ home and working part time at a radio station about 30 miles away. My regular shift ended in the thick of the afternoon rush hour, so my drive home could take two hours. It was a perfectly fine job, but the long drive meant I had too much time with my own thoughts. For the six months I had that job, I listened to the same CD almost every day on that nightmare commute home: Ryan Adams’s “Gold”.

I was well-acquainted with Adams’s discography to that point in 2006, and often described him as one of my five or six favorite musical artists, but I kept coming back to “Gold” because the first five tracks somehow fit my precise mood heading home from that job with the winter setting sun ahead of me. It’s not a perfect album — I always skipped “When the Stars Go Blue” and “Enemy Fire” — but even after I left that job, moved across the country, and started doing more fulfilling work, I could listen to “Firecracker” and feel the rush of hope for the future it gave me back then, or “La Cienega Just Smiled” and get a hit of the loneliness I felt driving solo at 12 miles per hour on the eight-lane freeway. For me, “Gold” evoked a moment, a place, and my stew of feelings at that time, in that place.

But I haven’t listened to any Adams music in several years, because it turns out he was a terrible person who ruined many women’s lives and, therefore, it’s hard to actually enjoy his work.

This is not a principled stand; unlike when I disentangled myself from football, I didn’t have to force myself to give up Ryan Adams fandom. It was actually very easy to simply stop listening to his music because now I can only hear his voice as that of a pathetic abusive asshole. It no longer inspires feelings of nostalgia, or romance, or awe that he nailed a particular emotion in song. It’s all sour and rotten, now.

I thought about Ryan Adams immediately when I saw that Ye (previously: Kanye West) had stirred up more controversy by tweeting that he would go “death con 3 On JEWISH PEOPLE”. For quite a while now, Ye has been a celebrity chaos agent, insinuating himself with reactionary and bigoted political figures, publicly embracing easily-debunked conspiracy theories, and generally displaying unstable behavior. This doesn’t seem to have caused that many people to re-evaluate their relationship with his catalog, which is among the most influential in popular music of the past two decades.

The writer Andrea Grimes published a piece last year about giving up fandom, vis a vis anxieties about “cancel culture”, that I think neatly explains my personal dynamic: Giving up on Adams is not about punishing him in any way, because I don’t have the power to do so, but about being the kind of person I wish to be. It’s not a consumer choice, but a self-respect choice. I don’t listen to Ryan Adams anymore because I wish to be the kind of person who, once aware that Adams did such terrible things and, apparently, did not seek to make amends as I hope someone in his position would, can no longer find joy in his music.

Obviously, there’s a continuum, and different deeds mean different forms of compartmentalization when it comes to the artists who have shaped American popular culture. I spoke to a party DJ a couple months ago who said he won’t play R. Kelly songs anymore, but that he’s made his peace with playing Michael Jackson songs, and no one has ever complained about those choices one way or the other. If you think Van Morrison is an anti-semitic loon, can you still enjoy “Astral Weeks”? Does “Heartless” lose its power now that Ye seems to be saying deeply problematic shit on television in the midst of a mental health crisis?

That’s up to you, but what I would leave you with is that as much as you might anticipate pain arising from breaking off your (likely one-way) relationship with a popular artist, would it be as painful as knowing that you are the type of person for whom, say, explicitly anti-semitic hate speech is not a dealbreaker for the relationship?

(Photo: "Ryan Adams - Birmingham Academy 25 September 2006" by 6tee-zeven. Used under CC BY 2.0 license.)