Hillary's Taylor Swift problem: What the fight over “authenticity” — in politics and in pop — is really about

Are scrappy individuals — like Ryan Adams and Bernie Sanders — inherently better than machine-backed players?

Annie Zaleski
September 24, 2015 3:00AM (UTC)

On the surface, Ryan Adams’ version of Taylor Swift’s “1989” is an easy target for a slew of common critical arguments: rock vs. pop, indie vs. mainstream, irony vs. sincerity, authentic vs. manufactured music, subversion vs. maintaining the status quo. Yet the two versions of the album aren’t really as diametrically opposed as they might seem, perhaps because Adams and Swift aren’t necessarily that far apart artistically. They’ve been friendly for years (and have even written some music together that remains unreleased), and both are on independent imprints distributed by major labels. Both musicians are also refreshingly enthusiastic about the bands and songs they like, even if it’s not necessarily cool—how many artists besides Adams would take a cover of Foreigner’s “I Want to Know What Love Is” so seriously and reverently?

That Adams’ “1989” isn’t an either/or proposition is something Jillian Mapes noted in a Vulture review of the album: "While big pop isn’t necessarily relegated to guilty-pleasure status anymore, rock and roll still has a historical monopoly on ‘realness.’ By taking the basic structure of Swift’s songs and dialing them way back in instrumentation and production, Adams is at once affirming these beliefs about musical authenticity and dismantling them: ‘These songs were here all along,’ he’s telling the pop haters, ‘and Taylor Swift wrote them.’ Mostly, he’s taking us back to a time when pop and rock could exist synonymously."


The last point is particularly salient, because in a time when people’s musical tastes are increasingly broad, the pop music machine continues to draw criticism and disdain. A recent Atlantic piece tied to a new book, “The Song Machine,” took a scornful tone toward the idea that it takes a village to put music together: “But can a performer be said to have any artistry if, as in the case of Rihanna, her label convenes week-long ‘writer camps,’ attended by dozens of producers and writers (but not necessarily Rihanna), to manufacture her next hit?” Never mind that in many circles this is otherwise known as a songwriting retreat—a gathering of talented performers hunkering down to pool their creative talent to spark inspiration in each other.

Indeed, the idea that musical collaboration is an artistic detriment is misguided. Liner notes geeks can rattle off plenty of notable names (including Desmond Child, Glen Ballard and Diane Warren) who helped mold a particular era’s pop landscape or worked with big rock bands on a crossover hit. This practice of songwriters massaging rock hits hasn’t abated, either—if anything, the dividing line between rock and pop has been (and still is) more slippery and porous than perhaps many like to admit. And musicians can (and many times do!) transform songs they didn’t write—after all, Cyndi Lauper made the Robert Hazard-penned “Girls Just Want to Have Fun” her own, while Elton John has worked with lyricist Bernie Taupin for decades. Neither John nor Lauper is necessarily seen as less influential—or less talented—because they’re expressing sentiments they didn’t personally write.

It’s also not as though pop (or rock) music suddenly became a genre overrun by outside songwriters or musicians for hire. There’s a long, rich history of collaboration—from the awe-inspiring Wrecking Crew session musicians who shaped the pop and rock charts in the ’60s and ’70s to the glitterbomb songwriting and productions of Stock Aitken Waterman in the ’80s and ’90s. Madonna's chameleonic sound is often due to her being inspired after working with different producers and musicians. Even Michael Jackson’s “Thriller,” perhaps one of the biggest pop albums of all time, was created using an enormous roster of talented people.


Artistic merit and commercial ambitions have a long tradition of collision, however. The members of Heart famously wrestled with this in the ’80s, when they were asked to bring in outside writers and cede some creative control after signing with Capitol Records. The band had major hits such as “Alone,” “These Dreams” and “What About Love,” and it ended up kickstarting their career again, but they struggled with what that meant for them as musicians. “You weren’t supposed to be anything other than a pop star, to not go deeper than that,” Ann Wilson told Rolling Stone in 2012. “It was really strange. It was suffocating, image-wise. What you could talk about in a song changed; if you were misunderstood, you were really misunderstood – taken literally. That’s why Nancy and I felt so stifled, yet that’s our biggest commercial success. But that’s the way s— goes when you sell millions of records but you’re dying inside.”

Women in the pop realm are particularly vulnerable to this kind of artistic devaluation. Swift herself received a taste of this nastiness after going full-blast Top 40 with “1989.” Despite her well-documented (and well-decorated) history as a country-pop performer who’s written plenty of her own hits, it was as if she suddenly turned into a puppet without an idea of her own. Perhaps it’s because her main collaborators on “1989” are the uber-pop scribes Max Martin and Shellback, two of the biggest names in Top 40. The funny thing is, both men served serious time in the rock trenches—the former in "Saturday Night Live’s" house band, the latter in a Swedish hardcore band. Had they kept up those pursuits—like another Swift collaborator, Jack Antonoff of the bands fun. and Bleachers—“1989” might have been perceived very differently.

In fact, had Swift herself made an entire record with Antonoff, the slant of the reception will no doubt also be quite different. What it seems to come down to is perception, particularly pertaining to the creative process: Someone tinkering with music by themselves in a bedroom, whether on a guitar or a laptop, or writing their own material is lauded; so is a band taking an us-against-the-world stance by making a record by themselves and maybe just a producer. Yet crafting a record in cooperation with more outside support is viewed with suspicion. It’s more respectable to have bootstrapped rather than be given a head start (or heavy support along the way). Creating something by yourself is somehow more honorable than soliciting help from others.


This mind-set parallels a rise in other pernicious cultural and societal stances: the way people on government benefits are looked down upon as lazy; that there’s still a stigma around getting help for mental illness; the increasing lack of empathy for the experiences or opinions of others. It also mirrors the divide on the political left often seen when talking about Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton. Both candidates have their merits and strengths: the former for his principled stances and fiery passion, the latter for her track record supporting women, families and health issues. Yet because he’s an underdog candidate trying to win against tough odds, his work is often perceived as more meaningful and admirable than hers, because Clinton possesses things such as familial and societal privilege, and endless financial resources.

But it’s an insult to Clinton to hold this background against her—and it’s an insult to creatives as well to insinuate that they’re just pawns in a paint-by-numbers game. In fact, the Atlantic piece was particularly off in its assertion that pop artists’ fan bases “would be stunned by the revelation that a handful of people, a crazily high percentage of them middle-aged Scandinavian men, write most of America’s pop hits. It is an open yet closely guarded secret, protected jealously by the labels and the performers themselves, whose identities are as carefully constructed as their songs and dances. The illusion of creative control is maintained by the fig leaf of a songwriting credit.” Many of these co-writers are hardly a secret—thanks, Wikipedia!—and viewing pop music so cynically is against both the effervescent spirit of the genre, and a denigration of the hard work that goes into pop craftsmanship.

Annie Zaleski

Annie Zaleski is a Cleveland-based journalist who writes regularly for The A.V. Club, and has also been published by Rolling Stone, Vulture, RBMA, Thrillist and Spin.

MORE FROM Annie Zaleski

Related Topics ------------------------------------------

Bernie Sanders Hillary Clinton Music Poptimism Ryan Adams Taylor Swift

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