Who Do We Delete?
[written February 2019]
I hesitated in the middle of deleting my Ryan Adams catalogue the other day. My thumb paused over “The Shadowlands” -- not a hit like “Winding Wheel” but a popular track from a lesser-known EP. I had spent hours listening “The Shadowlands” on what can only be described as a “smoking and feeling” playlist my freshman year of college.
Holed up in my tiny single room on the 11th floor of the only all-female dormitory at McGill, I would turn out all the lights, light a candle, crank up my “smoking and feeling” playlist and cry. I had a pale-pink narguile with gold designs, and I would load it with mint-flavored tobacco and weed. As the music and smoke washed over me, I would let my heart open and the tears would fall without fail. While I was generally incredibly depressed and unhappy that year, I wouldn’t listen to “The Shadowlands” when I was sad but rather, when I wanted to be vulnerable. I would cry for the beauty of the crisp Montreal winter moon, at the depth of my desire to be loved, at my gratitude for knowing I was born to write. It was an essential ingredient in my safe space, a small womb of comfort where being by myself and completely in my feelings was okay.
To be totally honest, I had forgotten about “The Shadowlands and my smoking and feeling playlist of a decade ago.” Ryan Adams is/was not a central figure in my predominantly hip-hop and jazz-fueled musical library. Previous figures had caused me a lot more angst and pain when I read of their transgressions: Junot Diaz, Louis CK. When I read of the allegations against Adams in The New York Times, I had the now familiar sinking feeling of the #MeToo moment: another one bites the dust. When I read actress and talk show host Busy Phillipps’ tweet “Welp. Just deleted all of the Ryan Adams music I had in my library,” late one night, I was inspired to follow suit. It seemed like the least I could do. I mindlessly opened up my iTunes and started deleting.
Until I got to “The Shadowlands.”
Immediately I thought of all those hookah-filled nights in my freshman dorm room. I thought of how “The Shadowlands” made my eighteen-year-old heart exquisitely break.
“Maybe I’ll just save this one track,” I thought. “It’s special.” I continued deleting the rest of his albums, but still felt unsure. I remembered in The New York Times expose, a quote from musician Phoebe Bridgers. She wrote how friends and managers enabled Adams’ behavior. He was given the benefit of the doubt because he was a tortured genius.
My mind raced. I thought of all the women whose voices/art/books/films/inventions we will never experience because they suffered the same type of abusive manipulation, or worse. I thought of the mind-fuckery that Adams’ alleged behavior causes: the second-guessing, the lack of confidence. The paranoia. “Am I good enough, or does he just want to fuck me?” I knew first-hand this feeling all too well.
Every day it seems, we are confronted with the misdeeds and crimes of artists we have admired. Some figures are so cartoonishly evil as to be permanently set aside from our cultural admiration, people like R. Kelly, Harvey Weinstein, Bill Cosby. Yet no matter who the figure is, nor the crimes they have committed, one cannot escape a feeling of culpability. “Louie” profoundly influenced my writing and my imagination. The show broadened my definition of what a television show could be. I felt deeply connected on a personal level to Louis’ stand-up, that he spoke to me. And when his behavior of masturbating in front of and bullying female comics against their will became known, I felt nauseous at the thought of his inspiration having ignited something within me. If I could so profoundly connect with an artist who did such shitty things, what did that say about me?
There are still a few cultural figures whom I would truly be heartbroken by if it was revealed had committed sexual assault. However, I think at the end of the day, which artists’ music we choose to delete is a highly personal decision. As a devout hip-hop fan, I know the familiar and real arguments about the misogyny and violence espoused in rap music. On a case-by-case basis, I listen to Nas, or Fat Joe, and evaluate if their music is still worth the price of the pain they have caused to others. Is it an unfair and fucked-up calculation? Yes. Does it make sense that I can’t ever enjoy a Woody Allen movie again, but still think “Chinatown” by Roman Polanski is one of the best films ever made? Perhaps for you, the answer is “No.” It is each of our choices to make, to endorse and compromise with our dollars and attention and time which artists’ transgressions we can accept, and it is never going to be fair. I can’t tell any individual who they must trash, I can only advocate who for myself needs to go.
Despite the enjoyment I innocently derived from “The Shadowlands” at the time, I added it to the trashcan, along with the rest of Adams’ music. My memory and nostalgia is a small sacrifice on the altar of course correction. In the case of Adams, I want to make space for the female artists who were denied and shamed out of a place in the spotlight. I want to uplift women and queer artists and be moved by their melodies instead. Room on my “feeling” (I have since quit smoking) playlist has opened up. Perhaps one day I will be forced to do the same with some of my hip-hop heroes. Until then, I’m listening, and enjoying, as best I can. I’m open to recommendations.