It’s time to retire the myth of the tortured artist. It presupposes that art is a pain-based economy, that great work has to come from great suffering, when that’s not necessarily how it works. Yes, people have turned tragic experiences into vital art. But there are fans who hold up the history of great, brutal, cathartic art as proof that great art necessitates adversity. It’s peculiar thinking, since a grip of the greatest melodies in the history of pop music came to the artist in a dream, but you never see anyone clamoring to re-create those conditions by, say, sending songwriters off to a sensory-deprivation tank when it’s time to write a new album. Writer-director Dan Gilroy’s Netflix art-world horror flick Velvet Buzzsaw makes a running gag out of the tortured-artist myth as John Malkovich plays Piers, an art-world legend who hasn’t had a hit since the “full bloom” of his alcoholism. The sober Piers doesn’t register on the radars of the cool-chasing buyers and vengeful critics that populate the film, and as such, he misses the bloodbath that ensues. The lesson? Be true to yourself and hopefully everything else sorts itself out in the end.
There are music fans who still earnestly wish breakups and relapses on their favorite artists in hopes that the struggle sweetens new material. The logic is shortsighted and sadistic. It suggests that our favorite musicians exist to serve us, and that the people in their lives are merely catalysts for future song lyrics. It also requires everyone to behave honorably. When the artist mistreats their friends and loved ones, then, as a fan whose eyes light up when a new record follows a bad split or a tough time, you’re cheerleading not just the musician’s trek back from rock bottom, but all the terror they visited on the people adjacent to them in the process. I’ve been thinking a lot about what it means to be a fan of musicians considered to be conduits for bad feelings and whether I can continue to muster the trust required to believe in their goodness as a wave of allegations against alt-country vet Ryan Adams by former collaborators and love interests has become a wave of action by radio stations, industry peers, and federal investigators.
For a certain stripe of perma-sad rock guy, Ryan Adams was the patron saint of the breakup. His 1998 masterpiece Heartbreaker is a study of loss, change, and brokenness, of the lies we tell ourselves in the throes of suffering. Outside of the records, Adams held a nagging rep for being a terror that was chalked up for a long time to the quirks of a jerk, a party animal, and a perfectionist. But the stories coming out of many women who worked in Adams’s orbit aren’t stories about partying or perfectionism or whatever menace we excuse in the name of musical talent. They’re stories about lording influence over women with the expectation of sexual attention as reciprocity for studio time and industry favors. They’re stories about the abuse of power and the destruction of budding careers, stories about betrayal of the gift of music and the trust of people who came to an influential musician for mentorship and got something they didn’t sign up for.
Rock and roll hasn’t been very careful with women. The margins of rock history are lined with stories of abuse and stars having dodgy dealings with underage girls. They got away with it, while women in the industry have been treated like vessels and muses for men, or else like amateurs who need to be taught how to play their instruments. (Just last week, indie-rock singer-songwriter Japanese Breakfast shared a lengthy exchange from a male fan attempting to give her pointers on how she ought to have recorded parts of her excellent 2017 album Soft Sounds From Another Planet.) These conditions, coupled with Ryan Adams’s ownership of his own record label and studio space, made me somewhat certain that the man would coast through whatever revelations the year would bring. I was wrong.
The speed at which the forthcoming new album Big Colors was put on hold, and radio stations dropped Adams from rotation, and the FBI began to look into allegations that the artist knowingly exchanged messages of a sexual nature with a teenager, has been something of a surprise to me, because in spite of the gains from the #MeToo movement training a spotlight on the bad behavior of men in the entertainment industry, in some areas of music, it’s still possible to deny your accusations straight to the bank. (This has a lot to do with indie rock having been posited from day one as an alternative to the excesses of the mainstream and much more to do with the fact that the accusers this time have been prominent white women. Accusations levied against R. Kelly by young women of color dating back over 20 years are only just now having tangible effects on his career. Even when the industry responds, it’s not responding fairly.)
Ryan Adams doesn’t deserve to keep a reputation as a writer of tender songs about women if the real women who have passed through his life are telling another story. If the allegations Adams vehemently denies are true, the trouble he’s caused negates whatever comfort his music might have created. The more grisly experience we get with navigating music fandom as terrible news comes out about our favorite creators, the harder it gets to look away, to keep believing that the person we envisioned when we listened to the records is the same person making the records. I’m finding it hard to continue to extend blind trust in the goodness of people I used to maintain a great deal of respect for. What I really want to do is clam up and vanish the bad men from my line of sight, from my record collection. But that’s not good stewardship. I picked up a book by the activist, poet, and essayist Audre Lorde on her birthday the other day, and I’m thinking about something she said: “We can sit in our corners mute forever while our sisters and our selves are wasted,” she wrote in “The Transformation of Silence Into Language and Action,” “while our children are distorted and destroyed, while our earth is poisoned; we can sit in our safe corners mute as bottles, and we will still be no less afraid.” So let’s talk.