I want to talk about an apparently important issue facing our divided nation: whether it’s okay to change the gender markers in a cover version of a song.
I’m a little late to the rush and crush of judgement unleashed upon Ryan Adams’ album covering the entirety of Taylor Swift’s hit album 1989. This is a project the internet loved, because it is fun to talk about, and I loved, because I am a huge fan of both people as well as covers of pop songs. Given the pre-release attention it got, it was a foregone conclusion that there would be a proportionate swell of snarky reviews of the final product. Among them was Slate’s XX weighing in that “Adams fell victim to one of the most aggravating traps of song covers: rigid heterosexuality.” Writer Christina Cauterucci claims, in essence, that it’s aggressively heteronormative to switch the genders in covers of songs. She makes the point that narrators can be either gender, and some sophisticated songwriters have gone this route, like Natalie Merchant, and even Miley Cyrus did it in her excellent Saturday Night Live performance of “50 Ways to Leave Your Lover.”
That’s super cool and forward thinking and I couldn’t be more into gay rights, but I don’t think changing the lyrics around to suit your own life makes you a homophobe.
I think Taylor Swift would be the first to agree that song lyrics are deeply personal, whether you wrote them or are just singing them. I do some covers myself (if you must know), and sometimes I switch the gender, sometimes I don’t. When I sing Sugar Ray’s “Every Morning” (you’re welcome for reminding you of that ’90s gem), I switch it to, “Every morning there’s a halo hanging from the corner of my boyfriend’s four-post bed.” Why? I like how the word “boyfriend” sounds slightly better than I like how “girlfriend” sounds. I started doing this song around the time I started dating my partner, so it makes me think of him. (Only vaguely, since the song is about cheating.) It helps me bring him into my mind and connect with the lyrics better. I do “Faith” and don’t switch the “lover-boy rule” to “lover-girl rule” because, well, that’s awkward. I do George Michael’s “Heal the Pain” and keep the “he” who “must have really hurt you.” I figure I could be into a person of either gender who is into people of either gender there. What I’m saying is this is a personal and at least vaguely artistic choice.
I think it’s okay, even effective, for Ryan Adams to do this. I like how the gender switches often cast him in Swift’s songs as the exact kind of dude those songs are pining for/targeting/obsessing over. He is kind-of a (much older) version of that guy, at least as he casts himself in his own songs and his public persona. And if it connects him a little more deeply to the lyrics, or even just makes them a little more his own, I think that’s okay. One of my favorite switches he does goes beyond gender markers: In “Style,” he switches, “You’ve got that James Dean daydream look in your eye, and I’ve got that red-lip, classic thing that you like,” to, “You’ve got that Daydream Nation look in your eye, and I’ve got that pent-up-love thing that you like.” (Sonic Youth reference alert!) He’s just “making it his own,” as they like to say on singing-contest shows.
The politics aren’t crucial here. This sort of argument is just a step away from a trolly piece I read when Beyoncé’s secret album dropped that complained that she hadn’t included gay people somehow in her deeply personal album. (This was also on Slate, second only to Salon in comment-baiting pieces that read almost like liberal parodies.) As a heterosexual person writing a lot about her marriage to a man, it’s hard to imagine how she would do this, short of a blatant anthem about partying with gay friends or something. Which is obviously not what she was moved to write.
Language is important, and pop culture can be a great way to move political thought forward. But not every piece of writing or culture is required to be inclusive of all experiences. In fact, the best writing is so specific that it can’t be. That’s why we need more diverse voices in culture, not requirements that all cis, straight people include all experiences in their work.