After the string of abuse allegations against Ryan Adams were published by the New York Times I was one of the first fans to write my cancellation statement. As far as I was concerned we were done. I didn’t want to hear his music again. Life was too short to put any more of my personal energy into supporting his career.
Two and a half years later the reality of what ‘cancelled’ means as a music fan is actually way more complex than I ever imagined.
As a teenager I was the absolute queen of cancelling people – I vocally hated Woody Allen and Michael Jackson and insisted the allegations against them should be believed. I refused to see James Brown at a festival because of his history of attacking women. Some of my moral righteousness waned a little as I got older but after ‘Me Too’ happened I realised that my youthful convictions were important after all. Taking a stand against toxic abusers might be a way to change the future. Now was the time to confront the reality of our cultural heroes.
Of course I found out to my peril it’s so much easier to confidently cancel someone when you have no personal connection or emotional investment in their work. Cancelling music is not like cancelling a movie director or a TV show or even an actor. There is something deeper, more spiritual about the connection between fans and songs which makes this murky moral water so much more treacherous.
Truthfully, like so many Ryan Adams fans I wanted to wipe my hands of his mess but in reality it was quite difficult to truly stop caring. The fans had created this mythical debauched heartbreaker, a troubled troubadour who reflected our own fucked up lives. As we were setting fire to him, we were also setting fire to a part of ourselves.
Ever since the cancelling I have just felt extremely depressed about the whole situation. Despite my best intentions I would sometimes find myself scrolling through Ryan’s social media, trying to see how he was. I feared he would read my post. I worried he might hurt himself and it would be my fault. I forgave him. I even refollowed him at one point before quickly changing my mind. I watched some of his live-streams. His failures and flaws still felt relatable to me.
I knew if he ever played a show again in Scotland I would struggle with wanting to go. To hear him sing well that has been a beautiful, blessed thing in my life. His voice hadn’t changed. The songs were still the same. Could I separate the art from the artist after all?
I had stopped listening to his music for at least a year, probably more, deleting him from streaming sites and Last FM. But yet I couldn’t bring myself to get rid of my CD and vinyl collection. Well I reasoned that you don’t throw out the children after you get divorced – those songs belonged to me as much to him. Who knew if one day I might need them again.
So even though I knew I shouldn’t, I eventually listened to his album Wednesdays. One song drew my attention and I was shocked to read the lyrics to Birmingham:
I wasn’t written to be read and I am sleepless in this bed
In some broken down motel in Birmingham
Held her hand in Old Savannah, marigold print on her dress
Her hair was combed and parted like a beautiful princess
I didn’t see you at the altar, way back then you were so drunk
You were washed up on some hooker’s bed behind a shitty restaurant
Bought her pretty clothes and diamonds
Like I was born to be her man
We were more than commentary for a cheap headline grab
So when the wind blows in your window
‘Cause the storm don’t give a damn
Pray the window don’t break across the wrist of your writing hand
On stationery wet with tears of the people’s backs you stab
When you’re hiding like a robber with no one’s purse to grab
Remember me standing there holding out my hand
In a broken down motel in Birmingham
The target of the song was obviously Jason Isbell, written in response to ‘Chaos and Clothes’. That spat had been playing out long before the allegations. To me Isbell was an example of how to redeem yourself in music and life – he was someone who I believed in absolutely. He had been one of the first to distance himself from Ryan and these brutal lyrics suggested things were well beyond repair. But then I read that Lucinda Williams had stuck by Ryan, writing a song offering some sympathy. Jesse Malin dedicated ‘Brooklyn’ to him at a Glasgow show, got him on stage to play guitar at a show in LA. For them Ryan was a real life friend, not a singer you heard through a speaker or someone you discussed on the internet. All these conflicting perspectives were confusing to me. Was I wrong in giving up on him?
I know some fans just didn’t care about the allegations or didn’t believe them or had forgiven him. But it seemed to me that liking such an artist would suggest I was willing to overlook not only the abuse allegations but also the other bad behaviour that had been obvious for a long time – towards fans, the press, record labels, ex band mates, fellow musicians etc. Fucked up behaviour that in the past I had excused, identified with, maybe even kind of admired. But now to openly support such a person is to say you don’t believe or care about women. Adding to the toxic mix was the fact that now a whole bunch of right wing nutters were supporting Ryan just because they hated cancel culture. Even if ‘cancelling’ paradoxically drew attention to the wrong people, I saw it as a necessary evil to make a better society. Call them all out. Time’s up.
Yet despite my public disowning of him I read the recent interview with Ryan published by LA Mag with hope in my naive heart. Could this be the beginning of his redemption song? Unfortunately what I read was less journalism, more a puff piece pity party of the highest order. In the end the interview did nothing to help restore his wider public reputation.
After I finished reading it I realised I was still trapped in a toxic relationship cycle with this narcissist. Okay it was a very detached, distanced, fan version of what other women had gone through in real life but he had a grip of me all the same. Ryan was stood at my door complaining about how depressed he was, how he was going to be homeless, how he was going to hurt himself, how he was sorry, how he just wanted let back in again and I was cracking.
Truth is I don’t see any evidence of change. He continues to use the Internet in an unhealthy, attention seeking way. Acting like a victim when you are the perpetrator suggests there’s still a lot of work to do. Even if he didn’t mean to hurt people in the past he needs to accept responsibility for the fact that he did.
His behaviour was investigated by the police and not deemed a criminal offence. So he was no Phil Spector or Harvey Weinstein. And yet look at how both men were allowed to get away with shocking, appalling things for years. By calling people out for their behaviour we give them a chance to change before it’s too late. We make it clear we want them to do better for the next girlfriend, the next fan, the next band mate, the next generation of musicians who can learn the lesson.
And for all his whining Ryan Adams still has a career as a musician and that’s fine. He has released two albums since the cancelling and multiple merchandise stock is currently for sale. He will play live again to bigger crowds than most struggling independent musicians, I’m sure. Of course his career won’t be the same, that is the truth and what he’s upset about. He isn’t going to get the press coverage or the festival headlining slots he once did no matter how much he begs. To associate with him signals something negative now and he doesn’t have the widespread popularity to drown out the protests.
If he’s serious about doing better he can keep writing, releasing self-funded albums, playing the music for who wants to listen, never asking for more, doing some charity work and accepting, without complaint, the consequences of his actions.
Making amends, gaining redemption is not something you can do in one interview or PR statement. It’s the work of a whole life. I don’t know if he can apologise properly to the people he hurt, whether he is capable of sacrificing his ambitions, staying in the shadows doing the work without the need for fanfare or attention. I hope so. I really do.
If you want the flowers you have to get those seeds into the ground. Let’s hope the garden can grow again one day.
As for me, well I’m trying to walk away from the whole mess, for good this time. Consider this my renewed statement of intent.