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This Is Her: The Lost Past and Hopeful Future of Mandy Moore

In light of dark revelations about ex-husband Ryan Adams, the pop singer turned TV star has become a symbol of why some women in the music industry aren’t taken seriously. That could change now.

Mandy Moore signing into a micrphone Getty Images/Ringer illustration

Last week, in The New York Times, several women recounted experiences of musician Ryan Adams being emotionally manipulative and abusing his power. (One of them, Ava, says Adams sent explicit messages to her when she was underage, and their correspondence is now being investigated by the FBI.) One of the women who went on the record was the 34-year-old actress and singer Mandy Moore, who was married to Adams from 2009 until 2016. “Music was a point of control for him,” Moore told the Times, saying that Adams strung her along with promises to record her next album but never followed through. “His controlling behavior essentially did block my ability to make new connections in the industry during a very pivotal and potentially lucrative time—my entire mid-to-late 20s,” she said. Although Moore’s acting career has been flourishing since she was cast on the hit NBC drama This Is Us, she has not released an album since 2009.

Like so many of the stories that have surfaced in the wake of the #MeToo movement, the Adams allegations suggest a shadow world of art that might have been made had a powerful man not intimidated creative women into self-doubt and silence. Ava said that her experience with Adams “just totally put [her] off to the whole idea” of making music, assuming this type of predatory behavior was par for the course. Another woman, the singer-songwriter Courtney Jaye, said Adams offered to produce a record for her, but in the end she just found herself warding off his advances. “Something changed in me that year,” Jaye said. “It made me just not want to make music.”

Moore, too, felt that Adams silenced her musical output. There are certainly cynics out there who would probably not consider it any great loss that the world has been deprived of Mandy Moore albums, given that she is still best known for her 1999 bubblegum single “Candy.” But theirs is the sort of logic that keeps a man like Adams feeling somehow culturally superior to a woman who, all told, has sold millions more records than he has.

Amanda Leigh Moore grew up in Orlando, that turn-of-the-millennium mecca for glossy teen pop. As a child she was a self-described “dorky theater kid” who would scour the local paper for youth casting calls. She did a couple commercials, worked the precocious-kid-sings-the–National Anthem circuit, and eventually booked studio time with a few local songwriters. It was there that she was “discovered” by a “part-time talent scout”/FedEx guy Victor Cade. As he recalled in a 2000 Washington Post interview, “It’s that model look, which I recognized when I first saw her. I thought, ‘This girl is going to be beautiful when she grows, and she is growing fast.’”

He got her a meeting with his acquaintance Dave McPherson, an Epic Records executive who had previously signed the Backstreet Boys. In that Post article, McPherson echoed Cade’s sentiment: “She really had a look of a 30-year-old person in her eyes, even though she was 13,” he said. “She just blossomed during the recording process [of her debut album So Real] into this stunning 5-foot-10 model woman that looked like she just walked out of the pages of Vogue magazine.” A man, unfortunately, can dream.

Several albums later in 2003, when she was a wizened industry veteran of 19, Moore described her side of the experience to Spin. “[The record company] was like, ‘Here are your songs,’” she said. “I was like, ‘Hi, I’m 14. I’ll do anything.’ Those albums are why I’m here today, but goddamn, I should give a refund to anyone who bought my first record.”

In the early 2000s, people used to rattle their names off like a gaggle of siblings, almost always in the same order, “Britney, Christina, Jessica, Mandy.” They arrived on the scene in roughly that chronology, and in a descending arc of notoriety, longevity, and success. Mandy Moore was definitely the most wholesome of the bunch, perhaps because she was the youngest. But while Britney Spears’s songs beckoned with a knowing sexuality, Moore’s seemed genuinely innocent. Lines that her peers would have spun into double entendres stayed, in Moore’s delivery, comfortingly surface-level. Either that or they just didn’t make much sense: “Candy” was a fine confection as long as you didn’t think about it too hard. Who misses someone like candy? A diabetic?

In an odd way, the most original statement Moore made as a musician was putting out a covers record. In 2003, as a low-risk final obligation of her Epic contract, the label let her assemble a collection of songs she’d like to re-record. Her choices, for a 19-year-old pop star in the year of “Crazy in Love,” were so astoundingly uncool that there is something admirable about it: John Hiatt’s “Have a Little Faith in Me,” Cat Stevens’s “Moonshadow,” Carole King’s “I Feel the Earth Move.” There were even a few rarities that bordered on hip, if only for their obscurity (XTC’s “Senses Working Overtime,” Joan Armatrading’s “Drop the Pilot”). Few of the tracks on Coverage approached the originals, but there was a palpably sweet exuberance to the sound of Moore singing the songs she liked. In its own backwards way, Coverage was Mandy Moore’s version of rebellion.

Moore started dating Adams when she was 23 and he was 33. They were often considered a celebrity odd couple because, as the conventional wisdom went, she was an ex-pop star and he was an indie musician with artistic integrity. In 2012, Spin put them on a list of “Rock’s Unlikeliest Couples,” alongside Chad Kroeger and Avril Lavigne and Billy Corgan and Tila Tequila.

Adams made a name for himself as the leader of the twangy cult-favorite band Whiskeytown and eventually a prolific solo artist. His outspoken antics gave him a reputation as the enfant terrible of alt-country, a label he performatively abhorred. “There’s this wrong idea about me being identified with things that are Southern or country,” he reflected in a long 2014 BuzzFeed profile. “I do not fucking like country music and I don’t own any of it. I watched Hee-Haw as a kid with my grandmother, I only like country music as an irony. I liked it when I would get drunk.” He added, “I can’t be proud or embarrassed of what I did in Whiskeytown because I was so young. I really was not a fully developed human being.” Ryan Adams was in Whiskeytown between the ages of 20 and 26.

That BuzzFeed profile describes Adams at 13, the same age Moore was when she was “discovered” in that Orlando recording studio by men dreaming of what she would look like after puberty. “His hyperactive imagination was fueled by a passion for reading—first comic books and then, by 13, the sex and surrealism of Henry Miller. He flashed promise as a visual artist early on—for a while it seemed like that might be his professional path. He would write and illustrate his own disquietingly strange short stories. His grandparents indulged and encouraged both his creativity and eccentricity.” Recalling this period of his life, Adams remarked with characteristic bravado, “I taught myself drums; it took no time. I taught myself to play guitar; it took no time. I could play bass right away.”

This dichotomy of two 13-year-olds coming of age reminded me of a line from author Emma Cline’s 2016 novel The Girls: “All that time I had spent readying myself, the articles that taught me life was really just a waiting room until someone noticed you—the boys had spent that time becoming themselves.”

In an October cover story for Glamour, Moore described her marriage to Adams as “unhealthy” and reflected, “I didn’t choose the right person.” In a rebuttal of this accusation that just ended up looking like confirmation of everything Moore was saying, Adams tweeted, “She didn’t like the Melvins or BladeRunner. Doomed from the start… If only I could remember the start lol.” He also took the occasion to call Moore “the spiritual equivalent of a soggy piece of cardboard” and suggested that he didn’t even remember their wedding, because he had been too high on painkillers. “When someone told me we got married I thought they were joking,” he wrote in a tweet he later deleted. A few days later, he apologized, but also clarified, “I was trying to be funny.”

It was clear what he was up to, though: He was calling her basic. He was belittling her worldview. He was suggesting that all the listicles and internet comments that had viewed their marriage as “unlikely” had been right all along: Ryan Adams was a cool guy with taste and cultural capital; Mandy Moore was a former teen star who didn’t even know who the Melvins were. I remember reading these tweets and feeling particularly rankled by them, because they employed such a familiar and subtly toxic means by which some men ridicule women. I had a flashback to a time in college when a guy had told me with patronizing awe, “You’re the only girl I’ve ever met who likes Blade Runner.” Men like Adams have a way of wielding taste as a totem of power, one they can easily sharpen into a weapon if the woman dares reject them.

“He would always tell me, ‘You’re not a real musician, because you don’t play an instrument,’” Moore said in the Times exposé. This was the quote several female friends repeated back to me this weekend, shaking their heads in sad recognition. There is a whole gendered system of power, norms, and expectations that gets a guitar or a Melvins record into the hands of 13-year-old Ryan Adams more easily than 13-year-old Mandy Moore’s. There is a whole system that has already misled 13-year-old Moore, or at least the adults around her, to believe on some level that her greatest currency is not what she thinks or makes or likes—it’s the way she looks. (It is, for what it’s worth, also the same system that prompted the industry to respond more swiftly to the accusations against Adams than those against R. Kelly.) It allows Ryan Adams to call himself at 25 “not a fully developed human being” while taking advantage of women much younger than that—women who, by any measure, have likely had to grow up much more quickly than he ever did.

Moore speaking out about this time in her life feels like further assertion of her maturity. More than perhaps any of the other teen-pop artists of her time, Moore seems comfortable in her 30s. Her Instagram makes you want to drink a glass of rosé with her, whether or not you even like rosé. She has grown into her gawkiness and become confident in her pathway traveling down the middle of the road. She does not pretend for one second that her favorite Beatle is anyone but Paul. She is the sort of person who spontaneously says “good gracious” on WTF With Marc Maron. That she has stayed this way feels like a strange and small assertion of selfhood in an industry intent on grinding that down.

Moore’s episode of WTF went up on Monday, and although it was taped several weeks ago, before the New York Times article was published, she still got her point across. After dancing around the particulars, she finally described her marriage to Adams as a prolonged state of codependency. “I was living my life for him,” she said. “I had no sense of self. I was imperceptible, I was so small in my own world.”

As she tells it, her emotional life and her career got back on track not long after they divorced. (Last year, she married Taylor Goldsmith of the folk-pop band Dawes.) For years she had been attached to projects that went nowhere, pilots that weren’t picked up, and then, six months after she and Adams split, she booked This Is Us. When the show goes on hiatus this spring and summer, Moore has said she plans to make some music. In 2014, speaking of the album she hoped to make with Adams, she promised it would be the most “dangerous” and “raw” music she’d ever released. May it be exponentially more so when she makes it without him.