The eyes of a robot glowed in a dim-lit room as needles bobbed across a mixing console in the Pax-Am studio. In the background of the shaky footage was something both familiar and oddly different. The voice was Ryan Adams. The bizarre studio fixtures were definitely Adams as well. But the lyrics weren’t—they were from Taylor Swift’s 1989. Adams was recording a cover of her entire album.
Since its release a month later, critics have struggled to come to a consensus on Adams’s version of 1989. Some have snarled that it’s pure self-aggrandizement. Others have praised Adams for reminding the world that Swift is still a preeminent lyricist. Then there were the inevitable reviews pitting Swift against Adams with a scorecard to determine whose album was better.
The 1989 albums present us with a fantastic illustration of the way the Bible functions among God’s people.The biggest looming question in everyone’s mind: Why? Irony? A fanboy moment? A bizarre experiment? Adams posted snippets of his studio sessions on Instagram each night. Midway through recording, among the menagerie of figurines crowding the studio shelf appeared two model DeLoreans in the original Back to the Future packaging. Whether a subtle hint or a source of inspiration, it seems that time travel was exactly what Ryan Adams had on his mind when sizing up 1989. Taylor Swift was giving him an opportunity to revisit his own past.
In his novel 10:04, Ben Lerner writes, “There is an intimacy of parallel gazes I feel when we stand before a canvas or walk across a bridge” (233). The book is named for the time on the clock tower that jolted Marty McFly and his DeLorean back to the future. For Lerner, time travel is not so much about sci-fi technology as it is about sharing “parallel gazes.” The way to transcend context and time is to look at something together, which is precisely what Adams has done in his cover of 1989. Contextually, these songs are a part of Swift’s hopeful future in a bright new city. For Adams, these stories are a part of a rocky past in a city that broke his heart. Joining Swift in gazing at New York is his way of hopping into that DeLorean. Perhaps revisiting his past can renew him when he gets back to the future.
The album opens with a rush of nostalgia. Adams’s past beckons: “Welcome to New York—it’s been waiting for you.” His voice affects the same scratchy vocals of his early Whiskeytown days. In “Blank Space,” he remembers how New York City promised to make him the next big thing. Looking back, he recognizes how he’s become like the city he grew to resent. He’s the one who’s “got a long list of ex-lovers who will tell you [he’s] insane.”
Adams relives the strut of an arrogant young artist courting a fawning music industry in “Style.” He remembers the uncertainty that soon materialized in frustrating recording contracts and unpredictable concert performances in “Out of the Woods.” In “Stay,” he recalls his crash and burn—abandoned by the city he loved, drinking away his misery. The drum beats as he mournfully hollers without reply, “All you had to do was stay!”
“Shake It Off” is the unconvincing pep-talk Adams has given himself hundreds of times throughout his career: “The players gonna play, the haters gonna hate. I’m just gonna shake, shake it off . . .” Ironically, Adams realizes just how incapable he was in his youth of shaking off the bad press, the critical reviews, the breakups he endured.
Reliving the regrets of his past, Adams mourns the dozens of times “I shoulda never hung up that phone like I did.” “Bad Blood” is an homage to the reputation for violent outbursts he developed while in New York. He admonishes his younger self, “Did you think it all through? All these things will catch up to you.” Pleading with the lost loves of his past—the city of New York, ex-girlfriends, fans—he asks that they forget the harsh edges of his youth: “Say you’ll remember me . . . in your wildest dreams.” He wonders if he is a victim of his own demise, pondering the effects of making a career out of heartache. He has it down to an art: hook up, break up, wallow in sorrow, write a song. “That’s how it works, that’s how you get the girl,” he modestly whispers.
He realizes all the violence he did to others in the past, opining, “When you’re young, you run . . . when you’re young, you run. But you come back to what you need.” He’s rediscovered a soft place in his heart for a past—the city of New York—that was full of highs and lows. Closing the album fittingly with “Clean,” he’s arrived back to the future. No longer self-medicating with alcohol, he has renewed affection for his story—filled with failures, frustrations, and heartache though it may be. He has come to terms with who he was and who he has become as a result of New York.
One critic derided Adams’s 1989, complaining the album was “ultimately hollow because it’s nothing but context.” But that is its beauty. On a cover album, all that can be changed is what surrounds the words. The lyrics maintain the parallel gazes of Swift and Adams. The music, the vocals, and the artist’s own past provide Adams the ability to shape the meaning of those lyrics in his own context.
Swift’s 1989 is catchy and fierce. The thumping dance beat drives the narrative forward with a sense of determination and hope. Samples and influences from different 1980s pop hits give the album a sense of revival and renewal. She chuckles at her critics; she growls at her exes. A few slow tracks allow her to reveal some emotional ache. Overall, it’s clear that Swift looks at New York and sees a future filled with opportunity. The strength of her confidence shines through her clear voice, her delivery, and the crisp, infectious tracks that contextualize her lyrics.
Adams’s 1989 is forlorn and wistful. Taking inspiration from the eighties as well, his album feels like a throwback under the influences of Springsteen, Sonic Youth, and the Smiths. The stories of 1989 are set into Adams’s past as he writes the lyrics into his own context. As Lerner remarks in his novel, “Everything . . . was as it had been, only different” (21). Adams and Swift gaze at the same stories, but their contexts and perspectives are different. When Adams sees New York, he sees a tumultuous past he must come to accept.
Context changes the way we hear and experience the stories of 1989. In October of last year when Adams began listening to 1989, it wasn’t the pop sound he identified with, it was the stories: “I could tell where she was at when she made it. I could feel that.” He posted shortly after the release of his album, “It’s the SONGS that matter. The stories. The love.” He saw in her lyrics pieces of his own story. That’s how 1989 became his DeLorean.
The 1989 albums present us with a fantastic illustration of the way the Bible functions among God’s people. The Bible, too, is filled with shared stories. It is a grand narrative that draws our parallel gazes as we marvel at the beautiful significance of salvation history. It is a story that shapes how we interpret our personal realities. The narratives of the Bible are like the DeLorean, transporting us to our collective past, to discover renewed significance. Ultimately, it is a place where we find our one crucified and risen Savior.
When we come back to the future, back to our respective contexts, the overarching narrative of the Gospel shape the way we see our present lives. The words of Scripture take on new significance in our personal experiences and contexts. After all, it is not God’s intention to use the Bible to homogenize his people. The book of Revelation shows us a complete yet diverse crowd unified by a common story. We are a people still contextualized by our backgrounds, experiences, and personhoods. We are a people from every tribe, tongue, and nation. But we are also a people sharing parallel gazes at the Lamb who sits on the throne. Like the DeLorean, like 1989, the Scriptures give us the ability to revisit the past, to see how it shapes us in the present, and to gather hope for renewal in the future. The Bible provides the context to make everything in our lives the same, only completely different.