I’ve been a Ryan Adams fan for 15 years now, so I understood what he was up to when he recorded Taylor Swift’s 1989.
Two things to know, #1 – he’s clearly the “impulsive” brain type (I presume). Likely to be either obsessed with something or not care at all. #2 – His whole life (again I presume) is music. So when he’s done with a tour or recording, he’s gotta decompress. That means he listens to other artists’ albums. When one really moves him, he becomes obsessed with it. He breaks down the song himself, plays it, does it his own way so he can fully understand the song itself. Everyone freaking out over him recording 1989? Chill out. He did it just for him and if you like it great.
Now, I’d heard OF Taylor Swift, but did not really know anything she did except the unavoidable Shake It Off. I thought she was some American Idol type person who sings pop songs for girls, written and produced by someone else. When I heard Adams discuss 1989 on a podcast, I thought “Oh, Swift is legit? I should definitely check her out.”
Surrounded by 22-year olds at work, it was easy to track down someone with 1989 (literally eight feet from my desk). So for a full week, I’ve been listening to both 1989s in a zipper format, Swift then Adams, track by track. A lot. I understand why Adams was obsessed with it. It’s amazing. After the second track (which resonated just as “Come Pick Me Up” made me an Adams fan), I actually yelled from my office “Why didn’t someone tell me Taylor Swift was F’ing Incredible?” (someone called back “How could you not know? She’s won Grammy’s!” So, Milli Vanilli won Grammy’s! I replied).
But today, it hit me. I’ve been listening to Swift’s 1989 all wrong. Alternating Swift and Ryan Adams is a great idea. I’d just been using the wrong Adams album. Swift’s 1989 is actually the companion piece to Ryan Adams’ Gold (from 2001). They are telling two sides of the same story. 15 years apart (and obviously it must be a fiction story because she was like nine when Adams wrote Gold).
But my strange brain can create a narrative of how the night they met went down which turns both albums into a cohesive “he said/she said” piece that fits together. You know, assuming Taylor Swift has mastered not only song writing but manipulating time and space to align her life’s timeline with that of Ryan Adams’ life timeline. Here we go….
TRACK 1: INTRO TO THE STORY
Welcome To New York: This happened right after I got to New York…
New York, New York: This is why I just left New York…
This odd coincidence of New York tracks opening the two records is what sparked the very notion in my head. I thought: The way I feel ‘discovering’ this Swift album is the way I felt about Gold. I can’t get enough of it and every second I’m not listening to it feels like an opportunity lost. (pause) Weird how they both start with tracks about New York (DING!).
TRACK 2: MEET & HOOK UP
They meet at a bar one night, neither is looking for something serious (details later)
Firecracker: “Maybe be your baby tonight”
Blank Space: “You look like my next mistake”
TRACK 3: REPEAT
It was supposed to be a one-night thing, but they keep crossing paths. She really likes him, but he’s trying to be casual (and sees other girls). But when they do see each other, they’re like Penny Lane and Russell in Almost Famous. He realizes he’s fallen for her.
Answering Bell: “Did I trip? Cause I know I fell.”
Style: “baby what you heard is true, but I keep coming back to you” & “we come back every time”
TRACK 4: ON THE ROCKS
They dated, but the relationship doesn’t work. She wondered if they could get through their problems. He decided she was too immature. They ended it.
Out of the Woods: (Pretty overt. Clearly they weren’t out of the woods)
La Cienega Just Smiled: “How’d I end up feeling so bad / For such a little girl”
TRACK 5: RECONCILIATION? NO, A FIGHT
They talk about getting back together, but fight about it. She blames him, he says quit playing the victim.
All You Had To Do Was Stay: (again, really overt)
Rescue Blues: “Everybody knows you need the pain so much, lady. Well, keep in touch, baby. Just don’t charge me with your rescue blues”
TRACK 6: OH IT’S YOU. CAN WE TALK? NO.
They still cross paths. She goes to a club, he’s there with some girl. He wants to talk to her because he’d rather be with her. But she is in full rebound mode, ignores him and spends all her time on the dance floor. Even chases some other guys in front of him.
Somehow, Someday: “I wish we were still making plans but now there’s nothing to fix”
Shake It Off: “HEARTBREAKER’S gonnna break…. But I’m just gonna shake… “
What else would she call him in a song but the name of his previous solo album?
TRACK 7: THEY THINK ABOUT, BUT DON’T SEE EACH OTHER
No longer running into each other, they get nostalgic, and miss each other
I Wish You Would: (Not very subtle, this Taylor Swift) “I wish you would come back”
When The Stars Go Blue: “Where do you go when you’re lonely? Where do you go when you’re blue”
TRACK 8: GONE SEPARATE WAYS, BOTH KIND OF BITTER
Bad Blood: Swifty remains blatant with her lyrics.
Nobody Girl: And now it’s Adams’ turn to be blunt.
She’s had a few hits and is famous now. So he calls her to congratulate her and she’s dismissive. She feels he should have chased her to win her back after he saw her at the club back in Shake It Off. So in her mind, there’s Bad Blood between them.
He lashes out with Nobody Girl, a diss track which in hindsight sounds like the some of the direct criticisms that prompted Shake It Off. (“When the emptiness finds you, you find all the numbers you need / You say follow your heart, honey you’re just being lost”). He knew her before she got famous, so to him, she’s still a nobody.
It also includes including the lines “she shatters like broken glass” and “Have you been screening your smokes?” and “whispers in an all night bar.” Which mean nothing to you right now. But check this out, here’s where it all ties together:
TRACK 9: OTHER DATES REMIND THEM OF EACH OTHER
They both go on some first dates other people, but spend the whole time remembering each other.
Wildest Dreams: “nice dress, staring at the sun set, red lips and rosy cheeks.”
Slyvia Plathe: “Cigarette ashes in her drink” and “Maybe she’d take me to France… She’d ash on the carpets…”
These songs are call backs to Firecracker/Blank Space. All four tracks are about that first night together. Track 2 as it happens, Track 9 looking back (Nobody Girl and Clean reference it as well)
The full narrative goes like this:
Young Taylor Swift (red lips, rosy cheeks, nice dress) sees Ryan Adams (James Dean bad boy) across the bar. She just read about him in Rolling Stone, after releasing Heartbreaker (Blank Space: “New money, I can read you like a Magazine” Shake it Off: “Heartbreakers gonna break”).
She bums a cigarette just to talk to the “bad boy rock star” but she’s not a smoker, she just needed the icebreaker. So she’s faking it and her ashes go everywhere (Sylvia Plathe: “Cigarette Ashes In Her Drink” “She’ll ash on the floor”). She screened his call before Track 8 prompting Nobody Girl, so the line “Have you been screening your smokes?”makes sense now.
She’s a wannabe singer songwriter, he says sing one of your songs. She chokes and can’t. (Firecracker: “Broken Bluesy whisper, sing to me tonight”; Nobody Girl: “A whisper in an all night bar”). Because he’s a bad boy, he’s not supportive. Real music comes from pain, and she’s had none yet he explains as she’s had no life experience!
So she says “well let’s go on an adventure! Let’s get on a plane and go to Paris!” (Blank Space: “Grab your passport and my hand” and “Cherry lips, Crystal Skies”) where they can watch the sunset (Wildest Dreams). He thinks that’s a terrible idea. (Firecracker: “So when does the plane go down… I just wanna be your baby TONIGHT”).
But instead just end up at her place. She’s a little tipsy and drops the wine bottle as she’s pouring, breaking the wine glass and the bottle and soaking her dress. (Firecracker: “Breaks a glass of wine”; Nobody Girl: “She shatters like broken glass”; Swift will reference the dress was ruined in Clean).
So she immediately removes the dress right in front of him. Awkward split second before they start hooking up and move to the bedroom (Wildest Dreams: “His hands are in my hair, his clothes are in my room.”)
In Wildest Dreams, she’s on a date with someone else, and it sucks. So she’s thinking about that first night from Track 2. Her wildest dream is everything works out instead of the Bad Blood. She also thinks that “his voice is a familiar sound” because he’s released like six albums in six years and Letterman invites him on the show constantly. So she thinks about him, even though she’s on some date. Probably with a terrible dude who’s just some broken fellow celebrity (It should be obvious I have no idea who Swift has dated).
In Sylvia Plathe, he’s dating an older woman but envisioning Swift much later in her career, as if they’ve ended up together. Now that she’s eclipsed his success, instead of her trying to go to Paris that night using HIS Heartbreaker check, Swift is rich so “maybe she’ll take me to France.” She can DRINK now (Gin) instead of getting tipsy at a club and spilling wine, but she still ashes cigarettes any where she damned well pleases, because she’s Taylor freaking Swift. (I also have no idea who Sylvia Plathe is).
TRACK 10: THEY SOMEHOW RECONNECT
A little hostile at first. But they talk about it. Realize they both wanna try again.
Enemy Planes: “Learn how to change and Maybe I could stay”
How You Get The Girl: (Swifty lays it all out for him, word for word what she’s looking for)
TRACK 11: HE WINS HER BACK, BUT NO HAPPILY EVER AFTER
They are seemingly back together after he makes a romantic gesture like she outlined in Track 10. But the next morning, she notices he now has a drug habit. She wrestles with it for a second or two. It’s a total deal-breaker.
Gonna Make You Love Me More: Here’s the bad boy being a sappy romantic. And with drugs, I’m an even badder boy now than one you fell for! “Moonlight on the Beach, Sweet Amphetamines. Only Gonna Make You Love Me More”
This Love: “This love is good, this love is bad”
She’s momentarily conflicted. But quickly:
TRACK 12: ULTIMATUM & ARREST
I Know Places: She comes under fire in the press cause she’s miss squeaky clean and their relationship would make the papers. Everyone would talk. But she knows places where they could be together: After he’s out of rehab. Go to rehab or lose her because “Love’s a fragile little flame that can burn out.”
Wild Flowers: After dismissing the ultimatum, he goes on a bender. He doesn’t remember what the hell happened because he was so high and ends up getting arrested. I honestly have no idea what Wild Flowers is about. But he did tell a story on Live at Carnegie Hall, how during his “doing a lot of drugs in New York City phase,” he doesn’t remember writing Please Do Not Let Me Go and in hindsight, THAT TRACK would be perfect right here for the fictional narrative.
Also, this ultimatum fight gives both Track 5’s an extra layer. It’s difficult for them to write about the first breakup without mentioning the second.
All You Had To Do Was Stay is about both the first time they broke up, but also had he not run off on the bender we wouldn’t have gotten arrested. The second half of that track sounds way more final than the first half: “But not like this” and “you ended it.” Which he did after the second fight.
Rescue Blues sounds bitterly sarcastic in retrospect, as if he’s combining how she played the victim in the first breakup and her attempt to rescue him here. Again, first half/second half of the song changes, seemingly as they change fights: The rope gets thrown down to her when she’s in trouble (first fight), and then thrown up to her when she’s acting high and mighty (second fight). But even as she’s acting high and might trying to help him with drugs, he feels she’s still also trying to play the victim at the same time, so he sarcastically sings that everyone wants to get HER high.
TRACK 13 (and beyond): CLOSURE & AFTERMATH
Harder Now That It’s Over: He calls her after/from jail. When he never gets through to her, he realizes it’s completely over. And it’s harder now this time than it was the first time they broke up, “now that the cuffs are off.” The track ends with a ‘your call cannot be completed as dialed, please check the number and try again’ recording.
Clean: Because it was the drugs (She’s CLEAN, he is on drugs) and not anything within her control, she can move on easily. She is able to shed him faster than she shed that dress in front of him, which was ruined, by the way). End of album.
But he’s not done yet. He’s got the aftermath. He visits LA, rebounds with a hooker (Tina Toledo), decides to move to LA (Goodnight Hollywood Blvd “See you sometime”), starts seeing someone who steals pills from the doctor’s office she works in (Rosalie Come And Go). But still has things to work out on bonus tracks, drown his sorrows in booze, and starts to tell his story at the bar (The Bar Is a Beautiful Place), and while he is wistful about the whole thing he decides he has to let her go (Cannonball Days: “Better luck in the next life, cause you’re gonna need it dear”), because she’s still kinda crazy. And he still has residual baggage over it. Love Is Hell, he decides.
So that’s my weird brain weaving the two albums together with a mutual backstory. Playlist it up and see how it works when you listen. It’s completely insane, of course, revisionist history. This isn’t a “theory” that’s “true.” But adopting that insane premise creates quirky connections, and adds a subtext that is just plain fun. You get enjoyable “Ah ha!” moments when you put together the two albums and the crazy fictional backstory. Lines that you didn’t notice before suddenly jump out in a new way:
You’d never consider that Taylor Swift is making a reference to actual drugs in Blank Spaces, but with the the fictional backstory, the line “You can tell me if it’s over if the high was worth the pain” turns into clever foreshadowing on the album, and a very raw, honest and human element in songwriting, when capturing the totally optimistic spirit of the night they met in the song after the relationship had ended was absolutely impossible without some residual resentment creeping in.
Yes, I came out of a six-year blog retirement to tell you that Taylor Swift is genius who can manipulate time and space, out myself as a Swifty, and write a long insane theory that only two people may actually read, and only one of them has actually heard both records.