In February 2019, seven women accused Ryan Adams of sexual misconduct.
These women—among them indie musician Phoebe Bridgers, his ex-wife Mandy Moore, and a 16-year-old who went by the pseudonym Ava—accused Adams of leveraging his musical influence and power in order to take advantage of them, promising them success in exchange for romantic or sexual favors, and rescinding opportunities if they refused.
Six months later, Adams has crawled out of his hole with a public apology, which he posted as an Instagram caption.
Always the Hero: The Male Apology as a Refurbishment of Patriarchal Norms
Adams had months to write this apology, and he knew it would wind up in the public eye. Despite this, frankly, the apology reads like a statement scribbled on the Notes app by a teary-eyed dude outside a bar at 4 AM, watching the woman he just harassed sail away in an Uber and thinking only of his own loneliness and self-indulgent guilt. For the most part, the apology expresses a total lack of concern with self-improvement. It revolves around its writer's fragile ego, viewing the thoughts and feelings of others as minor planets at best, space rubble at worst.
The problems begin with the first sentence. "I have a lot to say," he writes. "Because the truth matters. It's what matters most."
Right off the bat, this reveals that Adams is intent on contradicting the women who he mistreated, on writing off their accusations and focusing the attention back on himself and his struggle. In short, he needs to stay the hero of his own story.
The problems continue with the almost unintelligible sentence, "All the beauty in a life cannot be reduced to rubble for confusion, ignoring truths that destroy all the good in us." While this convoluted statement may be incomprehensible to mere mortals, Adams seems to be implying that his own work is "the beauty" that cannot be destroyed. Then, having just said that the "truth" matters most, he now seems to say that the "truth" will destroy the good in us (whatever that means).
From start to finish, Adams' apology is about drawing attention to himself. It's also about gaslighting the women he mistreated by lumping their accusations and experiences into a statement like "this madness and misunderstanding." This makes it seem like these women's anger is what created discord and pain, as if there was harmony before—as if his actions weren't the source of the whole thing.
The Plight of the Sad Boy: When Does Trauma Excuse Cruelty?
In the next part of the apology, Adams writes, "I didn't have an easy life," then goes on to describe some of the tragedies he's experienced. He also states that he makes music for people who have gone through painful experiences. This aspect of the apology actually contains the most promising seeds of redemption, as for once, Adams seems to be thinking about somebody other than himself.
However, mostly, this section of the apology is about Adams asking for forgiveness because of the struggles he's been through—as if trauma excuses abuse, as if there aren't millions of people who have suffered profoundly yet never view their pain as permission to take advantage of others.
This isn't the first time Adams has used this trick; Phoebe Bridgers said Adams used to threaten suicide if she didn't reply to his texts immediately.
Phoebe Bridgers - Motion Sickness (Official Video) www.youtube.com
While people of any gender can be abusive, Adams' leverage of his own trauma has a gendered component, as female emotional labor and women's tacit acceptance of men's destructiveness are both central tenets in the holy book of the male/female binary. In the cloisters of the gendered world, women's work involves tending to life's software—to children, to cleaning, and to the emotional detritus left behind by their men—whereas men deal in hardware, in aggression, money, and relentless pursuit of accumulation. From men who hit women and then blame it on their own abusive fathers to people like Adams who threaten suicide if their girlfriends don't act like compliant automatons, this has resulted in an age-old pattern.
The cycle takes different forms. If the 20th century was dominated by adoration for the "bad boy"—always on the run (never there to take care of the babies he left behind) and with wounds in need of tending—perhaps the 21st century has become the era of the "sad boy." To be a "sad boy" in the modern sense is not just to be sad—it's using angst as a get-out-of-jail-free card that permits one to take advantage of others.
This archetype has found a natural home in the indie world, which has always been a largely white and male-run space. In an essay about the latent mysogyny in the lyrics of dream-pop group Cigarettes After Sex, John Shakespear writes, "Instead of the phallocentric polygamy often sold in mainstream pop and hip-hop, the indie male gaze tends towards myopia and obsession, selling a vision of monogamy oriented around the man's existential salvation from a fucked-up world that doesn't get him (or his weird music)." These words could easily summarize Ryan Adams' entire career. "In [frontman Greg] Gonzalez's seductive songs—as in so many songs written by men—love, sex, and possession blur together," continues Shakespear. "Not the messy specificities of human love but the archetypal image of self-satisfied pleasure."
This self-serving desire for redemption forms the void at the heart of Ryan Adams' apology, and it stems from the sickness that's plaguing the indie rock world and that causes so many men to feel they have the right to take what they want from women. It's a soul-sucking greed that can seem incomprehensible to those on the receiving end of it—but for those in its sway, it's as ordinary as air. It's embedded in the white male psyche—and, in some ways, of the American psyche, built around the individualistic pursuit of dreams at any and all costs. It also comprises the marrow of capitalism, which is built around the assumption that everyone has the right to limitless power and wealth, and which discourages the spread of kindness, or compassion, or aid without compensation.
Conveniently, this individualistic mentality also permits men—and many people in positions of power—to excuse their own faults and to never try to change. Adams' essay exemplifies this mentality, showing that he really seems to want to keep things exactly as they were. He wants to write sad music and embrace his flaws, even if his flaws include a propensity for flirting with teenage girls. And he wants everybody, even the very women he hurt, to forgive him and to make room for his brokenness.
It's important to note that critiques of "sad boys" often overlap with stigmas that perpetuate toxic masculinity. Adams, for his part, shouldn't be maligned as a purely evil character, especially not for being honest about his own emotions.
Perhaps he should be given the benefit of the doubt; perhaps he has grown. Maybe he does, in his words, "Believe women." That statement, crammed in with the rest of the apology like a silver bow on top of a pile of dirt, reads like a trite, tired attempt to appeal to the public—but admittedly, that's a jaded take. Maybe Adams will actually speak out in support of the women he hurt. We'll see what happens when he says his piece.
It's easy to feel jaded nowadays, though, when most likely, Adams' "truth" will involve refuting the claims of the women he hurt. Most likely, Adams will continue to cling to his own innocence at all costs, while validating women's pain in the vaguest of senses. He'll ask for forgiveness, then continue to sin.
God Complexes, Consent, and Aziz Ansari: When An Apology is Not Enough
Nothing could be more indicative of the fact that Adams' apology is for him and only him than the fact that it was posted as a caption—to a picture of him. The photo portrays Adams as a microphone-wielding Christ figure, submerged in shadow but haloed in light.
Interestingly, the whole caption is essentially a plug for his career, which he apparently deserves regardless of how many other careers he stymied with his own careless actions. "I want to be a part of that healing," he writes, promisingly—but he follows that by stating, "To go play and have some great shows and put out these badass records." This just isn't enough.
Adams' apology calls to mind another apology released only a few weeks ago, by a man who is perhaps less worthy of criticism than Adams, but deserves scrutiny all the same—Aziz Ansari. In his Netflix special Right Now, Ansari apologizes for how uncomfortable he made a woman named "Grace" feel one night they were together. The most powerful part of the whole special didn't have anything to do with Ansari, or his redemption or personal journey; it was the fact that his story presents an ongoing opportunity for men to reevaluate their own behavior.
In a review of the special, the writer Dan Kahan smartly used his own confusion about Ansari's guilt as an opportunity to consult women about their thoughts and feelings, and this led to important revelations. "Grace's story brought to light a deep rift in the way men and women are socially conditioned to communicate, especially in sexual scenarios," he writes. "Men are taught to be aggressive. Women are taught to be demure and non-confrontational. This means that in uncomfortable sexual situations, a lot of women will respond physically through subtle physical cues to avoid making a scene, instead of shouting 'NO' or outright leaving––and a lot of men aren't conditioned to pick up on those cues."
In short, Ansari's story is worth returning to because of the lessons it can teach. These lessons, admittedly, aren't necessarily best communicated in the form of hateful rants against all males; instead, they may be most effective as conversations about consent, which could actually reduce the "madness and the misunderstanding" that is defining our times. Still, these conversations cannot happen if women's voices are not uplifted and utilized.
If men like Ansari and Adams genuinely want redemption, they can't just apologize and talk about how the whole thing has changed their perspective. They should listen to women and learn that there are existent power dynamics, especially when an age gap or fame are involved, and these dynamics are always present in intimate situations. They should realize that unless a partner requests otherwise, they should ask for consent every single time. They should learn to exercise restraint and compassion for other people, in addition to themselves. They should realize that exchanging self-centered fixation on one's own flaws for a resolution to actively try to treat other people better is typically the best medicine for guilt, and suffering at large.
This isn't only relevant to men. We could all be more careful about how we treat each other, more attentive to others' needs and to subliminal or systemic biases that might be at work, be it racism, sexism, or otherwise.
Nobody deserves eternal damnation for a crime they didn't mean to commit. Certainly, rapists should feel the pain of lifelong guilt, but men who commit grey-area abuses need to focus on learning and being better, while respecting and uplifting the people they hurt. Usually, this doesn't mean apologizing. Instead, it means sitting back and—for once—shutting up and listening.