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Ask A Music Critic: Will You Ever Listen To Ryan Adams Again?

Welcome to another installment of Ask A Music Critic! And thanks to everyone who has sent me questions. Please keep them coming at steve.hyden@uproxx.com.

It’s fall, which means I’d typically be in peak Ryan Adams listening season. Unfortunately, given the recent allegations, I’ve forced myself to move away from listening to Adams at all. What are your rules for listening to musicians who’ve been accused of bad things? Is there a line you’ve drawn, and if so, what is it? — P.J. from Simsbury, Conn.

Before I answer this question, let me state several things for the record: First, I believe Adams’ accusers. I believe the women (including Phoebe Bridgers) who say they felt pressured into entering sexual relationships at the risk of professional punishment, and who were generally treated in an abusive, exploitive manner. And I believe the woman who said that Adams knowingly solicited explicit photos from her when she was underage.

Second, I don’t really have hard and fast “rules” in these situations. (Does anybody?) I’m hardly the sort of moral authority who would determine a “line” that should be universally followed by all fans of artists accused of despicable acts. This is real life, not bowling. I’m only going to describe my own feelings. You are free to feel however you want.

Third, I really don’t want to have some abstract “separate the artists from the art” conversation right now. I would rather talk about this in practical, everyday terms, which are less absolute and perfect but, in my mind, more human and relatable.

Now, here’s my answer regarding Ryan Adams: I haven’t wanted to listen to him. It’s not really a matter of should I listen to him — the idea of putting on a Ryan Adams album hasn’t seemed at all appealing to me. And I say that as a person who owns all of his records and has written about him often in the past. (More on that in a moment.) Perhaps it helps that Adams is, at heart, a pastiche artist, and therefore can be easily supplanted by the many people he has ripped off: Gram Parsons, The Grateful Dead, Neil Young, Tom Petty, The Smiths, U2, the Rolling Stones. While I count myself as a fan of Adams’ music, taking him out of my rotation has been relatively painless.

If you still want to listen to Ryan Adams, that’s your choice. I’m not here to judge anyone’s listening habits. (Especially if you own physical copies of his music — it’s not like each post-scandal spin is going to earn him any additional money.) But for me, I can’t listen to Ryan Adams now without thinking about him and the people that he hurt. And that wasn’t true before. Songs, at their best, don’t cause us to dwell on the people who made them. Songs are supposed to make us think about ourselves — our own lives, feelings, and memories.

Cold Roses used to be an album that evoked some of the best periods of my life — back in the spring of 2006, when I met my wife and we fell in love. When we got married two years later, we listened to Cold Roses a lot in the summer months leading up to the wedding. That music was magical to me, and it was woven into the fabric of my life. But now when I put on Cold Roses, I just think about the dumb jerk who wrote the songs, and how he was messing around with a young girl who looked up to him as a mentor, when he simply regarded her as a plaything. And I would rather not think about that. I don’t like having “40something rock star exploiting a teenager” thoughts in my head. So, I’m fine not playing Cold Roses. It’s not really a moral stand. It’s just no longer pleasurable for me.

It’s that simple. In a way, the decision was made for me. Ryan Adams, and Ryan Adams alone, ripped this music out of my life. Now, I’m not saying that should be your reaction. This is just my personal preference, and it’s an honest and, I think, natural response.

(There’s a side issue here about whether there are still enough Ryan Adams fans to make a comeback viable. Nearly two years after the allegations broke, this remains unclear. The fact that one of his accusers is a beloved singer-songwriter in her own right no doubt complicates his future. Lots of people who love Phoebe Bridgers are probably always going to despise Ryan Adams, with justification. I suspect that Adams will likely never regain the stature he once had, though he will surely be back in some capacity in the near-ish future.)

I can already anticipate the counter-argument to my personal preference. It will come from a guy on Twitter with 17 followers and a bio that simply reads, “Free Thinker.” This person will point out that musicians in the past — including icons that you and I love — also did terrible things, and that it is inconsistent to not listen to one artist because of past transgressions and give those other people a pass. While I am not forcing this person to feel as I do, he will be offended that anyone is supposedly “canceling” Ryan Adams, even on a personal, one-to-one level.

This is my reply: Of course I’m being inconsistent! Human beings are inherently inconsistent. You can’t program yourself to have feelings that always correspond precisely to your ideology, especially when it comes to art. Also, I am aware of all the bad things my heroes have done. And I don’t excuse them, even if I still listen to their music. But a lot of that stuff happened years or even decades before I was even born, which strikes me as quite different than news that breaks in the present, when we’re all adults who now have to respond to awful newspaper articles in real time.

As a critic, I’ve written nice things about Ryan Adams’ music, and while I think he has talent, I now regret the role I played in giving him a platform that he abused time and again. That’s why this is different for me than debating about what Led Zeppelin did or didn’t do on the road in 1973. Yes, it’s important that all unseemly details are included in the histories of our favorite bygone bands, so that the totality of how they impacted culture — positively and negatively — is accounted for. But I wasn’t around for that. I am, however, around for this. Therefore, it is more personal to me, and I’m still learning from it, as a fan and as a critic. Ultimately, I don’t want to enable this guy any longer. I love a lot of albums. I can afford to set Ryan Adams aside.

I recently irritated a punk-loving friend by describing the Talking Heads as “proggy.” He argued they come out of punk which is diametrically opposed to prog and that being clever/inventive isn’t the same thing. To my mind, they worked with Eno who is at least prog-adjacent, and I feel like they appeal to lots of people who find straight-ahead punk rock boring (i.e. classic rock fans, prog fans, even jam band fans). So I guess my question is, is there a line at which something becomes “prog”? Are there any other bands like Talking Heads who sort of blur that line? — Tina from South Bend, Ind.

Before I answer this question, Tina, I just want to thank you for annoying your punk-loving friend. Annoying punk-loving friends is a special pastime that I have enjoyed for many years, especially when it involves the implication that prog is kinda better and more interesting than punk.

It would probably be more accurate to describe Talking Heads as “post-punk,” which describes the wave of bands that arrived shortly after the advent of punk that took that movement’s spirit and applied it to a wider range of sounds and musical influences beyond just three-chord rock. But I think you’re on to something when you contextualize Talking Heads as prog, as post-punk is basically a more progressive version of punk rock. This is certainly true of Talking Heads, who moved well beyond their bedrock CBGB sound once they hooked up with Brian Eno. But it also applies to many of their contemporaries, who have their own proggy attributes, like Television (long guitar solos), Wire (odd time signatures and plenty of synths), and The Damned (lots of colorful on-stage costumes and an album produced by Pink Floyd’s Nick Mason).

I would even venture to say that nearly every great punk band has some prog in them. What is The Clash’s Sandinista! if not a proggy-punk statement on par with Tales From Topographic Oceans? You could say the same about Husker Du’s sprawling concept double-album Zen Arcade or The Minutemen’s endlessly innovative and musically complex Double Nickels On The Dime. Or even Green Day’s American Idiot, which is at least as dense as The Wall. If you love Black Flag, note that Henry Rollins loves King Crimson. Or that Greg Ginn is a notorious Deadhead.

I could go on but tell me: Has your friend’s head exploded yet?

Some artists covered here are Warner Music artists. Uproxx is an independent subsidiary of Warner Music Group.

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