A boy I’ll call Chris was giving me a ride home and asked me if I minded stopping at his house first.
“Okay,” I said, not really knowing what that meant. He was a high school senior and I was a sophomore, both of us newly tall. I stood in the kitchen, waiting. The house was big and empty, with the kind of quiet you can find in the suburbs. Picking me up by my armpits like I was a kid, he sat me on the island, stepping in to kiss me. When I let him, he led me up to his bedroom, turning on his boxy PC to play mood music, acoustic and slow.
“What is this?” I said, rocking my forehead against his.
“Do you like it?” he said. He ran his hand down my arm and lifted my hand to his chest. “I can make you a mix if you want.”
“Yeah?” I said. “I’d like that.”
The next day, he walked over from the senior section of the cafeteria and wordlessly dropped a plastic CD case at my table. “For Anna <3 Chris.”
“What was that?” my friend asked.
“Nothing. We’re friends, I guess.”
My teenage love language was mix CDs, burned with music illegally downloaded on Limewire and graffitied in permanent marker with other people's names, the mix claimed as their own creative property. Natalie’s Summer Jamz, Lindsey’s Baby-Making Playlist. But my favorites were the ones made by guys I was seeing. Not my boyfriends, because none of them were. We would hook up in a way that always surprised me, a sudden kiss during a ride home or on the way to a quick errand that never manifested. In retrospect, I’m sure they were architects of the moments I fell into unwittingly. In the long exhale after, they’d say, “Is it cool if we keep this between us?” I’d always agree. I wanted it to be cool.
They’d say, “Is it cool if we keep this between us?” I’d always agree. I wanted it to be cool.
I was a late bloomer, painfully skinny with sharp elbows, awkward and uncomfortable in my uneven skin. Any sort of romantic attention was new to me. I didn’t know what was normal. Maybe everyone was sneaking around, and I just didn’t know because it was always a sexy clandestine affair. It made sense to me that relationships were held so close to the chest. We were always hushed, the rustle of fabric amplified against the silence of empty houses or playgrounds at night. There was no one to hear us, but we whispered anyway. Intimacy was almost silent, so maybe relationships were, too.
Chris’s mixes were my initiation into indie music. Rilo Kiley, the Weepies, the New Pornographers — bands that weren’t underground but that hadn’t yet cracked the mainstream enough to hit me, a decidedly uncool non–music scene person. And his first mix was my introduction to Ryan Adams. It was the last song on the disc, the cover of Oasis’s “Wonderwall” that earned him a Grammy nomination. This was the favorite song of the guy who brings his guitar to parties, so much so that it became a meme, suddenly transformed and stripped down to an understated, desperate plea. I played it on repeat, imagining Chris in his room after I left, comforter still ruffled, selecting each song carefully, adding and deleting, meticulously rearranging to strike the right tone and flow. The last song must be a culmination of all of the themes before it, a message to me.
There are many things that I would like to say to you but I don’t know how.
I downloaded as much of Adams’ catalog as I could off the internet and bought Heartbreaker on CD. The album cover shows him in profile, eyes half closed, a cigarette propped in his mouth toward the ceiling, his left hand resting on his chest. He was the archetype for the drug-drawn older guy who never got enough sleep that I was magnetized to for years. He wrote songs about my dream city, New York, and small-town life in the Southeast, about devastating love and hollowing addiction, all things that I was orbiting around at a distance, things that he had encountered fully. I binged on “When the Stars Go Blue” and “Wild Flowers.” I played “Come Pick Me Up” for my mom, wanting her to really hear it and hear me, her moody withdrawn girlchild throwing her a line and hoping it would catch.
“There’s a lot of cursing in this song,” she said. I shut it off.
I was and remain a person who feels things deeply. Books and music let me peek into the internal lives of others and see that they are just as tangled and cloudy as mine. Ryan Adams convinced me that men had feelings. I knew my dad and brothers loved me, but they didn’t express anguish, conflict, or even joy in a way that reflected what I felt. Adams’ songs told me that guys were capable of the same complexities of emotion that I was, the same heartache and deep fear of loss. They had depths beyond what I could see from their suddenly broad-shouldered exteriors. By putting Adams on the mix, I thought that Chris had really seen me, too. He understood me, in ways that maybe even my mother didn’t.
Adams’ songs told me that guys were capable of the same complexities of emotion that I was, the same heartache and deep fear of loss.
I listened to all the mixes guys made me on repeat, getting into their favorite musicians to try to understand how they were feeling. I listened to music I identified with to make me feel less alone. I wanted to know what reverberated through their chests the way my favorite songs filled mine. If their mixes made me feel seen, I could work backward through their favorite artists to see them, to uncover what they weren’t saying in cars at night. I excavated album after album to still the dissonance between their words and their actions.
Chris made me two more mixes. When we ended things, I had “Touch, Feel, and Lose” on repeat for days. Cry, cry, cry. I played Adams’ music when I needed to grieve alone, sobs big and loud in the car, when I knew I was having an outsized emotional reaction but needed to let it out anyway, and at any time my heart broke even the slightest bit — through all the rites of passage that blister and callus your heart in preparation for adulthood.
On Wednesday, the New York Times published an article detailing allegations against Ryan Adams in which multiple women describe how he told them he would help them be successful musicians, pursued them sexually, and then retaliated against them, personally and professionally, if he was rejected. Adams was allegedly psychologically abusive to his ex-wife, the undeniably talented actor and musician Mandy Moore, vengeful toward folk-rock musician Phoebe Bridgers, predatory toward singer-songwriter Courtney Jaye, and, most disturbingly, exploitative of a teenage fan who was only 14 when Adams first contacted her online. (Adams has apologized on Twitter, but also insisted that some details in Times story were inaccurate and that he “would never have inappropriate interactions” with someone he thought was underage.)
This overall trajectory is so familiar that it’s nauseating — bringing on “emotional motion sickness” as Bridgers calls it in her song “Motion Sickness,” which she’s said is about Adams. It is a disturbing template we’ve seen across creative professions, from allegations against Harvey Weinstein in Hollywood to Sherman Alexie in the literary world. Established successful man finds a creative spark in the body of a young woman, aims to exploit both, becomes vengeful when spurned. Careers are stunted, if not extinguished entirely. Exposing the behavior may taint the work of the male artist — even then, only maybe — but the loss of art never produced by victims of their behavior is unquantifiable.
Just because someone is sensitive doesn’t mean they care about you.
As a woman and a feminist, I’m obviously disgusted by his behavior. I devoured Adams’s music because he described feelings I was having but couldn’t articulate, against a melody that told me he was saturated with every word, too. To know that he was not only holding a professional path forward hostage in exchange for sexual attention but also doing so to a girl even younger than I was, when I first heard his music, feels like a personal betrayal of my young self. “I was really alone,” she told the New York Times, “and he was really friendly and cool.” Every song feels contaminated.
I learned the hard way that any man who wants a woman, especially a teenage girl, to keep their relationship secret fears consequences more than he values privacy — that he is overall a bad dude with a small dose of shame in an endless well of rationalization and self-righteousness. That painful lesson is reflected in every woman’s story in that Times article, and echoes in every man who lashes out at a woman for not giving him unfettered access to her art or her body, and then paints his own loss as the most tragic.
Adams’ music showed me in my adolescence that men could care, that they could be simultaneously hard rockers and sensitive souls. I thought that sensitivity extended outward and encompassed not only how the world affected him but also how he affected the world. But this news alters what he taught me in high school, reinforcing something I learned from tending the gardens of sad men: Just because someone is sensitive doesn’t mean they care about you.
High school ended, and no one made me any more mix CDs. Adams and most of the other artists on the mixes started reaching millions of listeners through soundtracks for The O.C. or Grey’s Anatomy. I dated people who would hold my hand in public and they sent me songs I might like via YouTube links. I learned after graduating that Chris had made three or four 80-minute playlists and made copies for every girl he took to his bedroom after school. I wonder if they all felt as special as I did. ●
Anna Held is a writer based in San Francisco.