“My Heart is Broken”: Our Wishy-Washy Thoughts on Ryan Adams

We’re guessing the jury is still out for most on whether singer-songwriter Ryan Adams deserves a second chance or not. Well, it’s still out for us, too. We’ve been a part of a core group of superfans for the past 13 years or so, and have been obsessed with reading every article that has been released and every comment that has been posted to the supergroup Facebook pages that we follow since the release of the New York Times exposé written about him in February 2019.  The article mostly detailed his manipulative behavior toward women, and outlined various verbal and emotional abuse accusations from musicians he had worked and/or had relationships with in the music industry, including Phoebe Bridgers, Courtney Jaye, and his ex-wife, Mandy Moore.

But, the most gut-wrenchingly unnerving part of the article focused on a 14-year-old fan and aspiring bass player named Ava (her middle name) who Adams was said to have engaged with online over a two-year period. Though he had apparently suspected she was underage, their exchanges, in which he promised to produce her music, were mostly sexual in nature, with him even being said to have exposed himself to her via Skype. An FBI investigation was opened following the release of the article, but no additional information about the case, corroborating or refuting the allegations, has been announced. However, other female musicians have also come forward, sharing their own horror stories surrounding Adams’ said abuse of industry power, in #MeToo fashion. Most of the stories have contended that Adams had promised these women some form of musical success in quid pro quo style. But, Adams has maintained (through his lawyer) that he was unaware that Ava was underage and that the other women were simply retaliating against him because of their own career failures.

For us superfans, and many others we’re sure, this has been a heartbreaking nightmare. In terms of other slightly similar cases that preceded the #MeToo movement, such as that of R. Kelly, who Adams was said to have compared himself to in some of the texts he exchanged with Ava, or Chris Brown, it was easy for us to side with the victims and make clear-cut decisions to write-off these artists and their careers. But, to be fair, the decisions were easily made because we were never actually fans of R. Kelly or Chris Brown’s music. With Adams, it has been a different story. Sometimes, it’s just really hard to be a fan.

As a disclaimer, this blog is not intended to defend a particular position on Adams’ situation. Instead, it is meant to be a reflection on the debate that has resonated within our heads for the past several months. Perhaps other superfans might relate. We have been writing about Adams since 2006 when we first began our column, “The Bells’ Toll on Rock ‘n’ Roll” for the University of La Verne Campus Times. Later, when we began writing for the Inland Empire Weekly (IE Weekly), we wrote one column aptly titled, “We Fucking Heart Ryan Adams,” in H-speak, a made-up language found on Adams’ long since updated website. Unfortunately, we can’t provide a link to that column, because the IE Weekly has been effectively defunct since 2014 and didn’t keep a good online archive that we know of or have been able to find, but we think you get the gist.

“It's harder now that it's over…”

While the New York Times exposé drove many superfan group members to start selling-off their hard-to-come-by Adams’ music and memorabilia collections (including rarities), others were quick to come to his defense. Upon reading said article and various follow-up pieces, we personally felt that the whole mess was a potential career-ender for Adams, as it seemed, and still seems, that it would be difficult for him to bounce back from any of the horrendous stories told by the women in the articles. If he did, or does, manage to bounce back, his career will always be tainted (how much, we’re not sure, because no one can predict the future – just look at Kobe Bryant, Kevin Spacey, Jeffrey Tambor, Matt Lauer, or Tiger Woods). We also felt like we had broken-up with one of our favorite musicians. We were, and still are, deeply disappointed by the news, to say the least, and, to this day, still don’t know what we should do with our super fandom and love for Adams’ music. In the six months since the now infamous article was released, we have been on a fan hiatus of sorts. We stopped listening to Adams’ music, stopped checking for updates on what became of his now canceled UK and Ireland tour, and stopped openly advertising our fandom. Our various framed concert posters have been removed from our walls, our t-shirt collections remain tucked away in our dresser drawers, and our records have stayed on their respective shelves. We even came across a hard to find Love is Hell import in a record store one day and didn’t purchase it. Normally such a find would be a score, but, on that day, we felt torn between the decision to purchase it or leave it, because of the disdainful feelings we had been harboring, and we ultimately left it, after admiring it and carefully returning it to its record crate.

Although Adams initially contested the claims via Twitter, badmouthing the New York Times and even posting a brief apology, he then disappeared from his social media accounts altogether, despite having built a reputation as an artist who frequently engaged with fans and critics alike, sharing opinions and random, silly thoughts. Lots of people have spoken on Adams’ behalf during his hiatus from the public eye, but he had yet to address much of the animosity spewing from pretty much every direction, including the superfan groups that we follow, until July 19th, when he resurfaced via his Instagram and Twitter accounts. That night, Adams posted a series of photos and videos to his official Instagram, including a snippet from “I’m Sorry and I Love You,” a track from Big Colors, which had been slated for release in April 2019, along with three other purported albums. Adams also posted another apology-like message – not an admittance of guilt, per se, but a letter to his existing fans and the general public, stating his plans to share the truth, or his version of it, anyway, soon (unless he already has, and that letter was it?). Since then, Adams has continued to post a series of song clips and to pay homage to a few of his favorite things (namely, his cats) but he has yet to take responsibility for his reported actions or to issue a statement sharing his truth, as promised.

“And everybody wants to see you fall…that's why they always love to get you high…”

To be clear, we believe women, and, sadly, don’t doubt that these women’s allegations are true, but, as superfans, we are still struggling with whether our loss of faith in Adams as a good person should also translate to a complete loss of faith in his music, or in him as a good (damn good, really) musician. We’re just not sure that being a total creep is a crime punishable by the loss of a whole career, but, of course, in some cases, this is definitely warranted, especially relating to the Ava allegations. Though, if we were to separate the art from the artist, or Adams’ personal life from his musical discography, which is one of the best any artist of our time has released in all of our years as music fans (25), we still couldn’t think of anyone else we would call one of the VOGs (voices of our generation). Then there’s the fact that we never really get to the know the musicians who make the music we fall in love with; we think we do, through the music lyrics we identify with and the small pieces of their lives that they share via social media and the music journalism world, but we never really do, and we never will.

Beyond these allegations, we don’t know who Adams is as a person, his frame of mind during the two-year period that he was said to have engaged with Ava online, or if he did or didn’t know her true age during this time, and we’re not sure if we should even care. But it turns out that we do, a lot.  Though, we know we definitely care about the music he makes, too. If we really think about it, it’s pretty pathetic that Adams is now just one more male musician from an undeniably long list of other male musicians who have allegedly mistreated women in some way or form throughout their careers. But, if we started discounting all of our favorite artists whose personal lives and decisions have countered our own, it’s highly plausible that we would have no, or very little, music to listen to at all. We’re still fans of many artists and bands that have been accused of or have actually been documented performing nefarious acts (Led Zeppelin, Michael Jackson, Elvis, James Brown, David Bowie, Aerosmith, and our list could go on and on, so please fill in the blank) but we’re pretty devastated that this list conceivably extends to Adams. While we don’t know the whole truth surrounding Ava, the other women who shared their stories in the New York Times article or those who came forward after its release, we do think that being a self-absorbed asshole is, indeed, as much of a part of the rock ‘n’ roll cliché as drug abuse, and we’re prone to thinking it’s somehow a part of the rock star model. You might say it’s intertwined with the “sex” aspect of the “sex, drugs, and rock ‘n’ roll cliché.” The behavior itself is cliché, we hate this cliché and all others, and we definitely don’t condone Adams’ reported behavior, but we also are usually the type of people (and fans, we guess) that believe that most people are worthy of second chances. We don’t know what to think in Adams’ case, though. In most of the reported stories, Adams was in and/or attempting to be in relationships (sometimes unwanted) with the women who accused him of wrongful behavior and was said to have used his position of power as an influential indie artist against them. He was even said to have prevented some of these women from further sharing their own musical talents with the world. Again, we believe these women, feel deeply for them, and certainly hope that those who were creatively stifled will decide to pursue music again in the future, because no man, famous or not, should be a determinant in whether they have successful careers. At the same time, however, we’re not sure if Adams’ voice should be silenced in exchange for theirs.

“But you will always be the same…”

So, as superfans, we have a few options:

  1. We can choose to stop supporting and listening to the music of any and all artists who have allegedly committed any wrongdoing against women, including Adams. In this dark scenario, we would choose to forget Adams and his music, as well as the music of any musician accused of misconduct, sexual or otherwise, so as not to be hypocritical fans. But, unfortunately for us, Adams’ personal actions don’t actually make him less of a musical genius (and the same goes for most musicians). We wish that they did, because it would be easier to label them as unworthy of our time. While we’ve been hesitant to share our thoughts on Adams over the last few months (even now, as we write this blog), we must share that we’ve felt angry that the musician we’ve loved since college and traveled long distances to see live so many times could possibly be guilty of making any (gasp) human mistakes. As superfans, we’re obviously guilty of putting Adams on a pedestal. But, again, we only really love his music and can’t claim to know the man personally at all. The impossible standards that we and other fans hold our musical heroes to are just that, impossible, and it’s often not a surprise when they fall from their high pedestals. Some artists have even argued that the media love to put them on these high pedestals, just to watch them fall.
  2. We can choose to carry-on as if nothing had ever happened to possibly change our minds about Adams, continuing our super fandom by separating the art from the artist, as mentioned earlier. In this scenario, we would simply shrug our shoulders over any accusations and negativity that came Adams’ way. We might also unfollow Adams on social media, so as not to get any glimpses into his personal life, holding fast to the notion that we love his music, not him as a person. Although it’s somewhat contrary to the idea of fandom, itself, and is a bit unrealistic in today’s social media heavy climate, this might be how other fans maintain their admiration. They don’t or choose not to believe any negative accusations, choose not to or don’t care enough to learn personal details about the artists they love, or, perhaps, feel so removed either way that nothing but the art itself matters.
  3. We can choose to simply forgive Adams for our own peace of mind(s). In this scenario, we would, at the very least, be open to giving him (as an artist) a second chance. Adams’ struggles with addiction, depression, and Meniere’s disease have been well-publicized throughout his career, and we can’t say that we haven’t worried about his personal well-being during the shitstorm that has rained down on his life over the last few months (for lack of a better phrase). As Adams mentioned in one of his return-to-Instagram posts a few weeks ago, he hasn’t had an easy life. Most musicians haven’t, and this is often what shapes their songs and the music we find ourselves relating to as fans. It’s just one of the reasons why many fans think they personally know the artists who make the music they love. Maybe Adams is guilty of being the misogynist asshole that many women who have actually known him have described him to be, and maybe he knowingly or unknowingly took advantage of his position of power on countless occasions, but this doesn’t mean that he is unworthy of a second chance (although, the Ava allegations are a different story). We personally think Adams should change his ways and now know that he’s not as perfect as we’ve always imagined him to be in our heads, but it’s difficult to blame him for failing to be the person of our hopes and dreams. We can’t help but think that our hopes as fans are all just a little too high. We sometimes wish that all male musicians were like our other loves, Bono and Eddie Vedder, but not all of them are meant for this level of fame, success, and political impact. While Adams is a critically acclaimed, Grammy-nominated artist, he is still considered an indie artist by most definitions of the word and has not reached Bono or Vedder status. Maybe the fact that his career may now and forever be tainted by his well-publicized reported past actions is punishment enough. It is hard to acknowledge, but if every male artist in the music industry was a perfect gentleman, we think music, in general, would be quite boring and that even female musicians would have little to write and sing about. So, maybe there’s still room for Adams to grow up, change for the better, and continue his professional career.

“What does it mean to be so sad…when someone you love is supposed to make you happy…”

At the same time, we’re not sure if the common mistreatment of women in the music industry will ever cease to be a thing if the men who stand accused of mistreating them aren’t held accountable or faced with real consequences for their actions. We don’t necessarily want Adams to be taken down by the #MeToo movement, even though it’s a movement we otherwise support, because it means saying goodbye to a world of potential. We’ve acknowledged that our hopes as superfans are too high, but we still have some. While we’re still on the fence of forgive or forget, we definitely need Adams to take some sort of action, holding himself accountable to the women who have come forward and somehow making amends, because we do think he has to pay his penance. We also think he should make a sizable donation to one of the many nonprofits working to end abuse against women, just for good measure, but, again, we know he’s not perfect and may not do what we hope. At the very least, though, we really hope Adams will share his version of the truth in a way that acknowledges the women he has been said to have victimized. He seems to have a lot of work to do personally, and though that is his business, and perhaps that of a therapist, we also hope that he sought the help he needed over his hiatus and that he’ll continue to do so, if necessary.

One of Adams’ return-to-Instagram posts said we should never give up on being a “part of solutions and healing,” and we believe that this is always true. However, we’re still not ready to take a stance on Adams post-New York Times exposé or to choose one of the aforementioned options for moving forward as fans or non-fans. We are willing to keep our ears and hearts open, even if they feel more than a bit scorned at the moment, because we feel there is a lot more to hear from him. So, we will continue to impatiently wait and see if Adams will issue a worthy apology or make any efforts to make amends. Until then, we will remain conservative fans, meaning that our posters, shirt collections, and records will stay in our closets and on our shelves. At this point, we’re not even sure that Adams will be able to unbreak these Heartbreaker fans’ hearts, but he can certainly try, because even though he might not be worthy of a second chance, we will always believe in giving them.