SONGWRITERS’ CORNER: How Ryan Adams is Making Me Rethink My Rock Collection
Sara Stewart, CNN | In indie music circles, there had long been whispers about Ryan Adams being a jerk. Living in Chicago’s rock hotbed neighborhood of Wicker Park in the 1990s, I certainly heard them. Still, how tragic to see the rumors confirmed and amplified in the New York Times story Wednesday about the “Heartbreaker” musician, who has denied them but also apologized.
The part about his allegedly sexting a 14-year-old girl particularly gave me the shivers.
From rock’s early days, when Jerry Lee Lewis married his 13-year old cousin, to John Lennon crooning about wife-beating on the Beatles’ “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band,” right up to the Adams story, there is a certain nauseating through-line in many of the bands and singers generally considered the best in the business. It makes me wonder how there has not, yet, been a more widespread #MeToo reckoning in the wider world of rock ‘n’ roll, which, since its inception, has been glaringly open about its disdain for, and love of abusing, women.
I say this with a heavy heart and no small amount of confusion, having been a fan of both the genre and its groupie culture since my own teen years. As a film critic, I’ve made my peace with the once-beloved films I need to leave behind (John Hughes’ date-rapey and racist “Sixteen Candles” being a prime example), but as a music fan I have yet to weed through my old favorite albums and decide who’s too creepy to listen to anymore.
The first to go should probably be Guns N’ Roses, one of the primo hard-rock bands of the late 1980s and 1990s. Their first album, “Appetite for Destruction,” was in heavy rotation on my playlist in high school and long after, despite its appalling original cover art (which depicts a female rape victim and a demonic robot perpetrator standing over her) and horrendously misogynist lyrics.
How to explain the disconnect of having been, generally, a self-aware young woman and also rocking out to “It’s So Easy,” which features lyrics like “Turn around, bitch, I got a use for you / Besides, you ain’t got nothing better to do / And I’m bored”?
I am hardly alone in this; it’s the top-selling US debut album of all time. (In what is perhaps not such a coincidence, in March of 1994, singer Axl Rose’s then-wife filed charges against him, alleging physical and emotional abuse). At the time, Rose did not respond to requests for comment; she later sued Rose for mental and physical abuse and the suit was reportedly settled out of court.
Aerosmith was another favorite; I’m from Massachusetts, so this was sort of a requirement (one of the band’s nicknames is “the Bad Boys from Boston”). One of their biggest hits? “Walk This Way,” whose lyrics include: “Schoolgirl sweetie with a classy kinda sexy / little skirt’s climbin’ way up her knee.” As a schoolgirl myself, I managed to wrangle my way backstage at one of their concerts, wearing my own sexy little skirt. Upon actually meeting the band members, I remember feeling oh-so-clearly that I wanted nothing more than to go home, which, thankfully, I could and did (and, to be clear, nothing untoward was ever suggested by any of them).
But this was still the message you heard from your favorite rockers, over and over, as a girl: That girls and women were supposed to be candy for the dudes, who were the ones who made the music.
Let’s take a quick look at some other telling songs, from cheese-metal to classics, that so many of us heard and blindly accepted:
Motley Crue, “Saints of Los Angeles:” “Red line tripping on a land mine, sipping at the Troubadour / Girls passed out naked in the back lounge, everybody’s gonna score / She’s all jacked up, she’s down on her luck / You want it, you need it, the devils gonna feed it.”
The Beatles, “Run for Your Life:” “I’d rather see you dead, little girl / Than to be with another man … Catch you with another man / That’s the end little girl.”
Winger, “Seventeen:” “She’s only seventeen / Daddy says she’s too young, but she’s old enough for me.”
The Beastie Boys, “Girls:” “Girls, to do the dishes / Girls, to clean up my room / Girls, to do the laundry / Girls, and in the bathroom / Girls, that’s all I really want is girls.”
Ray Charles, “I’ve Got a Woman:” “She’s there to love me / Both day and night / Never grumbles or fusses / Always treats me right / Never runnin’ in the streets / Leavin’ me alone / She knows a woman’s place / Is right there, now, in her home.”
Over the decades I soaked up these lyrics while also devouring countless “c–k-rock” music bios, feasting on the hedonistic anecdotes of The Doors (“No One Here Gets Out Alive”) and Led Zeppelin (“Hammer of the Gods”), Tyler, Slash from Guns N’ Roses, Tommy Lee from Motley Crue. I own a copy of “I’m With the Band,” Pamela Des Barres’ starry-eyed memoir of being rock’s most celebrated groupie.
There’s an undeniably vicarious fun in hearing about what it’s like to sleep with the most celebrated men in rock. But there was also a scary, predatory undertone even in Des Barres’ generally cheery tales. One of her peers, Lori Mattix/Maddox, was 15 (possibly younger) when she says she lost her virginity to David Bowie and as a teenager dated Jimmy Page of Led Zeppelin, among others. In a recent interview with the Guardian, she looked back on those days with a different take: “I don’t think underage girls should sleep with guys. I wouldn’t want this for anybody’s daughter. My perspective is changing as I get older and more cynical.”
It is also key to note that this has always been a one-way street, gender-wise. Count, if you can, the number of crazy, debauched FEMALE rock stars out there. The brash Courtney Love is still sort of alone in that field, and she’s been reviled nonstop (largely by male Nirvana fans) for 30-plus years for her efforts.
Imagine how many women, like Adams’ alleged victims, wanted to get in the rock game and gave up because they were told they didn’t belong there? Even Adams’ former wife, Mandy Moore, who was already a hit singer when she met Adams, describes to the Times how being with him silenced her as a musician.
Could rock be, or have been, less sexist if there had been more women encouraged to take the stage instead of standing below it, waiting to be winked at? Maybe, if we’re able to re-evaluate some of the “greats” with clearer eyes, we’ll have more of a chance to find out.
Sara Stewart is a film writer at the New York Post who divides her time between the city and western Pennsylvania, where her husband is a professor at Indiana University of Pennsylvania. The views expressed here are solely hers. View more opinion articles on CNN.