The Ryan Adams revelations are all too familiar. Time’s up for the tortured male genius myth

Published in The Independent February 15, 2019

“To anyone I have ever hurt, however unintentionally, I apologise deeply and unreservedly.” So tweeted Ryan Adams when The New York Times article on the singer-songwriter’s alleged sexual misconduct and manipulative behaviour towards women was published this week. His forthcoming album has been pulled; he’s reportedly being investigated by the FBI over the allegations that he exchanged explicit messages with an underage girl.

But that tweet is not a real apology. It’s a #MeToo apology. It’s the sort of not-really-real apology, coached in “if”s and “never meant to”s that we’ve got very used to hearing. A public way for the accused to sugar-coat the denials that will inevitably accompany it, a way to imply they’re terribly misunderstood. “Unintentionally”.

There’s knowing, and there’s knowing though, isn’t there. And I just don’t buy that Adams, or many of the others accused in #MeToo, didn’t know what they were up to, really.

Throughout the article Adams refutes, via his lawyers, the allegations against him. But at least seven women came forward for it, having recognised a pattern of behaviour: Adams, it is alleged, offered to help advance the musical careers of young women while also pursuing them for sex; if rejected, he would rescind his support, “subjecting women to emotional and verbal abuse, and harassment in texts and on social media”.

Some of the details may shock: his messaging a teenager makes for extremely queasy reading. “If people knew they would say I was like R Kelley lol,” does not suggest Adams was unaware of his actions, even if he insists he didn’t know she was underage.

But really, the depressing thing about this story is how unshocking it is. The reaction from many in the music industry and beyond has been a weary sigh of recognition. Music has been slow to have its #MeToo moment – perhaps because these kinds of screwed-up power dynamics are so common. But word gets around. There are whispers about repeat offenders. It’s not hard evidence of course, but as in the case of Harvey Weinstein or Kevin Spacey, the lack of surprise itself surely speaks volumes.

And this story was essentially already out there, if we’d wanted to listen. Adams’s former wife, the actress and singer Mandy Moore, has not released any music since they married in 2009, and alleges that his “controlling behaviour” blocked her ability to work in the industry. Actor and model Jaime King, tweeting her support, pointed out “Mandy revealed this truth a while ago – it should have been heard LOUD & CLEAR”. Last year on Instagram Moore announced her return to recording thusly: “I’m not scared anymore. No more excuses. No more allowing someone’s else [sic] insecurities to dictate my relationship to music and singing.”

Another woman speaking out is Phoebe Bridgers, who had a fling with Adams after he pursued her; she was 20, he was 40. Her damning song “Motion Sickness”, released in 2017, was about Adams, and her comments in an interview with The Daily Telegraph revealed the way Adams courted her as an artist but then moved things into a sexual relationship.

But there’s knowing, and there’s knowing for us too, isn’t there? And for a long time we’ve been happy to know and not know – especially when it comes to rock stars. Because there is a boring, limping, but persistent narrative that bad behaviour is part of the tortured male genius package.

This has long applied to the old-fashioned excesses of rock gods – “boys will be boys” but with added coke and groupies. But it also apparently excuses the behaviour of the modern, supposedly sensitive beta male, as Anna Leszkiewicz explores in the New Statesman. They turn their troubled souls inside out so that, perversely, they may become a kind of protective armour against accusations of s***ty behaviour.

The tide is now turning – I have to believe that – and yet reactions in some quarters are just so incredibly depressing. There is still a sense that a half apology and a bit of time out is enough – and then genius must be allowed to rise again.

Neil McCormick, music critic for The Daily Telegraph, not only downgraded Adams’s behaviour to “general creepiness” in an article but also thought it relevant to ask “do we really expect our artists to be paragons? Because, if we do, we are not just going to be very disappointed, we are going to be stuck with a lot of mediocre art.”

This is a pretty commonly held opinion, still, I think. But what’s actually being implied here? That the sort of behaviour Adams has allegedly engaged in – “general creepiness” – in some way fosters and feeds song writing? And that if “general creepiness” does produce great art, it is somehow worth the suffering it causes? Really?

Actually, I feel more hopeful than that. Because if we do ask our artists to be better human beings, we might wind up with more of them, and more art. One of the most upsetting things about the Adams article – and the Weinstein revelations, and many other #MeToo stories – is how many women have stopped being creative because of all this. Women who aren’t willing to “play the game” haven’t got the career breaks. Others have lost confidence in themselves and their work, both having been muddied by sleazy men. It is, after all, devastatingly wounding to think someone is interested in your work, and then to realise they’re really interested in your body.

So how about this: rather than mourning all the brilliant, troubled men we’d lose from music if they were required to keep it in their pants, let’s feel cheerful about all the women whose voices might finally be heard.

Where next?