How Ryan Adams (of All People) Became an Internet Visionary
This article originally appeared in the February 2007 issue of Spin.
If you put a nickel in the bank every time the word prolific appeared in print before Ryan Adams’ name, you’ll have saved enough by next year to buy a Ferrari Enzo that’s been dipped in beluga caviar and bedazzled with pink sapphires. And if Adams released all the songs he’d written while your funds accrued, making them available for 99 cents each, you still wouldn’t have enough money to download them all.
Now, there are probably many complex reasons why Adams—who put out no fewer than three albums in 2005, including the stellar jam-bandy double disc Cold Roses—releases so much work. I won’t pretend to psychoanalyze his motives, though I believe the simple answer he gave on his website: “I like to play music when I’m not busy playing music.” But last December, when he posted 13 very funny novelty albums on his homepage—attributed to such alter egos as chill rapper DJ Reggie, screamo outfit WereWolph, and bratty punkers the Shit—I wondered if the move was a direct response to folks who’d complained about his unpruned output on Stereogum a few months earlier. “I have learned how to use a cool thing on my computer which basically allows me now to never ever stop recording music ever,” Adams wrote on ryas-adams.com, “Which is going to be great news for all my adoring fans.” To wit: You think I’ve recorded too much? Wait until you hear my 113,236,857th record, an ode to every idea I’ve had since lunch.
The funny thing is, Adams probably has more in common with those who read Stereogum than he thinks. His faux hip-hop and punk tracks like “Awww Shit, Look Who Got a Web Site” and “1-800-WWW-COM” just underscore the speed of the hype machine he’s bucking. Accelerated technology breeds accelerated culture, and in a blogosphere obsessed with newness (breaking unheard bands, leaking forthcoming albums first), Adams’ hyperproductivity seems like a smart move—or at least knowing wink. If there’s one thing DJ Reggie tracks such as “Unicorns (Prob. Don’t Exist)” can teach you—besides that the fact that unicorns probably don’t exist—it’s that pumping out a new song every hour might be the only way to keep up in this Band of the Day age. Every time you hear a new Ryan Adams song, an angel updates his blog.
Strangely, the biggest complaint people have posted about Adams is the same arguments out-of-touch pundits once used about the Internet: There’s too much information out there, and not enough of it has been edited. It’s surprising that the same people who celebrate the Web for breaking down mainstream media’s cultural gatekeeping now want something very old-fashioned: a new filter to tell them which of this stuff is any good.
Sure, Ryan Adams could never whittle his career down to a greatest hits collection. But the best thing about him—and about the blogs that write about him—is that there’s no pressure to package things for a large audience. Their appeal is that they inspire loyalty from a relatively small group of devotees. Online, the sheer availability of self-expression is already turning mass culture into a conglomeration of niches, and Adams—who has recorded a Jacksonville country album, a Midwestern bar-rock album, a Smiths-inspired brooder album, a backpacker rap album, a Deadhead noodles album—is a niche rocker for our times. You want a hip-hop song about the history of the pyramids? He’s written several of them. And maybe that’s what it means to really connect with an artist: feeling as if he wrote something specifically for you.
These days, it takes almost as much effort to be a Ryan Adams fan as it does to be Ryan Adams. And I suspect that’s the way Adams wants it. He’s created an environment that leaves no room to surf through the latest, hottest MySpace bands: Listening to all of his music takes time. Time to ponder the political feasibility of WereWolph’s “dead People Unite and Take Over.” Time to understand the subtle differences between the Shit singles “Drinking Hard,” “I Drink Too Much,” “Drunk as Hell Again,” “Drunk and in Jail for Arson,” and “Passed Out in AA—Fuck.” Time to figure out if the Shit’s “When Pants Become Toilets” could be turned into a Fox TV show. On that December day when Adams issued the first 11 albums, I spent eight hours listening to all of them, trading e-mails with friends about the genius of WereWolph’s “Throw Up on the Moon,” debating with coworkers about whether DJ Reggie’s backing tracks could pass for Neptunes beats, laughing when Adams cracked up on DJ Reggie’s “Blanky Night Time Friend.” Some people may think there are more important things to do with one’s afternoon—say, breathing or eating. But I haven’t spent that many hours with one musician since I was 16 (which, coincidentally, happens to be the last time I was too stoned to figure out how to eject a CD). And if Adams continues on this path, I look forward to spending another 1,274,123,657,586 days just like that.