Looking at it now, it all seems so simple: Taylor Swift and guitar music were built to fall apart, then fall back together. For 1989, she left behind all the trappings of singer/songwriter seriousness—her stringed instrument, her claim to writing entire albums on her own, deep heartbreak as emotional muse—that had made her the pop star dads could support along with their daughters. So it was probably inevitable that a dad-rocker would reverse-engineer the sparkling, synthetic results. Which is not to say that Ryan Adams’s 1989 sounds like Swift’s early albums. Only that, unlike its source material, it sounds like something few people would describe as a guilty pleasure.
This fact alone, in an ideal world, should be enough to neutralize the snobberies that created the idea of “guilty pleasures”: the notion that musical worthiness depends on authorship, or that songs pieced together by computers are fraudulent, or that Max Martin is the devil. Ryan Adams’s 1989 by traditional standards sounds like “real music” while the original sounds “fake,” but how real can it be when it’s all material written by Taylor Swift and the same folks who created Britney Spears’s career? Adams says he connected emotionally to Swift’s original album and decided to cover it during a period of loneliness, post-breakup, over the holidays; his versions have, according to social-media testimony, sent people into tears. Isn’t that enough evidence to show that music made “by committee,” performed by someone who didn’t write it, is art?