Music/Features

How men like Ryan Adams teach the music industry to silence women

On the myth of creative male genius and the erasure of women's work.

Credit: Getty Images
February 15, 2019

There are a lot of devastating moments in the recent New York Times article about Ryan Adams’ alleged sexual misconduct. A particularly stinging moment arrives when Ava—who met Adams online in 2013 when she was 14, and had a sexually explicit relationship with the singer, though she was still underage—discusses how she stopped pursuing music after her encounter with the musician. Adams, called a “mercurial creative genius” at the beginning of the article, lured her with the opportunity of music-making and success should she continue their working relationship. Running in tandem with their professional conversations were sexually explicit flirtations, pet names Adams selected for certain parts of Ava’s body, and his constant pleas to her to convince him that she was 18, and not the underage teenager that she was. Ava provides a brief but gut-wrenching response to how she dealt with his gross manipulation of power:

As their relationship waned, Adams returned to the possibility of recording together. But for Ava, the idea that she would be objectified or have to sleep with people to get ahead “just totally put me off to the whole idea” of being a musician, she said. She never played another gig.

Ryan Adams Dangled Success. Women Say They Paid a Price. New York Times. February 13, 2019

Often in conversations about abusive men in music—as if we’d all forgotten—a primary point is reinforced: there is a long, well-documented history of them acting this way. Potential misconduct, said so matter of fact it sounds cruel, is part of the package. Rock ‘n’ roll has always been a shorthand for sex, drugs, and provocation. Male musicians trade in artistry, sex and sex appeal as currency, fueling desire for their (often younger) female fans. Power hasn’t been part of that descriptor even though it is profoundly central: an idol male musicians constantly pay tribute to, and a bargaining chip women rarely receive. It’s difficult for the industry to have it’s own big #MeToo or #TimesUp moment when music has long accepted the rebellious and subversive bits; that the sharper edges of the people who populate it, whatever harm they may cause, is all part of the “act.” It’s a cliché so rotten and stuck to the bottom of our collective shoes we’ve been unable to scrape it off.

The canon of rock music is, yes, full to the brim with bad men, but that is a lazy excuse for the failure to identify and interrogate the issue at hand, of why we’ve failed to consider the relationship between abuse and power. Perhaps more importantly, why have we centered the conversation on abusive men, instead of shifting focus—and sympathy—to the women who have been lost to the canon. Think of the women who simply walked away from music altogether because they lacked the support to negotiate what behaviour they would, or would not, accept. Or the women who endured a vast spectrum of abuse because they felt it necessary to gain access. Their stories are a spectre hanging over our musical landscape, presenting alternative career trajectories of “what if” and “why.” When we raise those concerns a chilling conclusion emerges: How much has the history of culture and music lost because of the power men wield over the industry and the legacy of those that have refused to take accountability for it?

In 2014, Adams wrote to Ava: “I never see pics of you anymore.” Soon after, in quite possibly the most grim display of irony, “Adams expressed anxiety: ‘If people knew they would say I was like R Kelley [sic] lol,’ he wrote.” It is astonishing he felt free enough to hint that what he was doing was inherently wrong, and comfortable, too, to then joke about it! In Surviving R. Kelly, the six hour documentary largely focused on the stories of the women who were allegedly abused and raped by the singer, women often said that the singer promised to help with their singing careers. Many women Kelly sought out had truly incredible voices—like Azriel Clarly, who is still living with the singer Kelly—and wanted to pursue their careers seriously. The women who trusted Kelly for professional help soon learned that their success never could, or would, be his priority. Will voice’s like Clary’s ever match the career she might have had without his intervention?

Professional success, or his artistic merit as a “genius”, should never absolve any man from taking responsibility for an abuse of power.

Similarities between Kelly and Adams can only be drawn here on the basis of power and how they leveraged it as social and professional capital in the industry these women wanted to break into. It wasn’t simply strangers online for Adams either: he squashed the potential of his ex-wife and actress Mandy Moore’s singing career, who, we should all remember, gave us actual bops. He belittled her and said she wasn’t a real musician because she didn’t play an instrument. Moore also told the NYT, “His controlling behavior essentially did block my ability to make new connections in the industry during a very pivotal and potentially lucrative time — my entire mid-to-late 20s.” What would her career have looked like had Adams not propelled himself and his vision above her own?

It’s puzzling that in 2019, columnists and fans are still incredibly naive to the fact that their favourites may have done something harmful and insidious to another person. Like a columnist for The Telegraph, responding to the NYT article with a piece asking if we had been listening to Adams’ music properly at all. Neil McCormick asserts that because hints of Adams’ destructive, emotionally negligent behaviour is embedded into his music, we should have been more aware. It’s a sluggish “I told you so.” Adams is lauded as a creative and spectacular genius, which I personally have never understood. He’s collaborated with a few of my favourites (Laura Marling, for example) and still I’ve never particularly taken to him. His Taylor Swift 1989 cover album propelled him into a new realm of success, new relevance, and it felt enjoyable to listen then. But professional success, or his artistic merit as a “genius”, should never absolve any man from taking responsibility for an abuse of power, and the ways in which he ensured he got there.

A few days ago, I was asked several times on radio programs if the Grammy Awards this year were empowering to me. A few asked me this from the position of a critic, while some asked if I felt that as a woman. In truth, many people want to feel comforted by the notion people are trying; that amends are occurring in some way. While Neil Portnow last year said women should “step it up” in an industry historically dismissive of them, this year he flipped the script and programmed a ceremony with back-to-back performances and wins by women. It seemed to be just enough effort. But a single, symbolic showcase of extraordinary women is a poor antidote to a massive systemic problem. It’s difficult to feel empowerment when predatory behaviour looms large in the wings and in production rooms of studios—and now in direct messages on social media. There is an enormous crater that ought to be filled with the women who stopped performing or being in the industry at all because of abusive, manipulative behaviour. It is necessary for the industry to deal with that reality more urgently.

In pieces that expose how the industry has always functioned—abusive and badly—we will always read about the ways in which men have misused their privilege for personal and professional gain.

Men have always had power. Many men in my Twitter mentions have enthusiastically disagreed, but also reaffirmed a disheartening reality that those women “had it coming” or “they knew what they signed up for” and “women are the ultimate manipulators, not men.” Some men cannot see anyone beyond themselves or their talent. What men offer musically, for some reason, is so much more extraordinary than what women can. People outside of the industry still ardently believe these myths or absolute lies. And that makes it remarkably harder to have any sort of #MeToo-ish moment in music because so-called self-centeredness and “creative genius” are central in anyone’s argument. But power is power.

In pieces that expose how the industry has always functioned—abusive and badly—we will always read about the ways in which men have misused their privilege for personal and professional gain. To see that, you will always read about women sidelined in music’s history, often remembered for their contributions for speaking up, but at the expense of potentially losing everything. You will always be reading the pain women endure. It is frustrating and disheartening. What I want—what we should all want—is to read about women’s successes. I want women to win.

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