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31 October 2022

Has pop reached peak Jack Antonoff?

From the music of Taylor Swift to Lorde, the producer’s sound is inescapable – and too much of even a delicious thing gets sickening.

By Daisy Jones

In a video that went viral last week, Caleb Gamman, a video producer, guesses every song that Jack Antonoff produced and co-wrote on the new Taylor Swift album, Midnights, within seconds. No – milliseconds. When it gets to “Midnight Rain” Gamman hears Antonoff’s fingerprints on the track when it’s barely begun. 

Later, in an interview with Vice, Gamman said that he could recognise the Antonoff sound immediately from factors such as “vocal clarity”, “the same drum samples”, “digital harmony” and “breathy vocals”. “There’s elements that I like,” he said. “But then when they’re all together, there’s something about it that’s slightly dissonant and just a little bit off-putting.” 

You might think that Gamman is a one-off music nerd. How could someone possibly recognise one artist’s sound within milliseconds? Besides, Swift and Antonoff are long-time collaborators, having worked together for the best part of a decade on multiple award-winning albums (1989, Reputation, Lover, Folklore, Evermore). It doesn’t take a genius to assume that most of Midnights would continue that winning combination.

But listen a little closer to your favourite pop songs and the Antonoff sound is indeed hard to escape. Listen to the breathy, blue-tinged sentimentalism of Swift’s “You’re On Your Own, Kid” – don’t you think it could have appeared on Lorde’s Melodrama, which Antonoff co-produced? What about the quiet euphoria of “Maroon” – isn’t it reminiscent of Troye Sivan, who Antonoff worked with on Blue Neighbourhood? Or the muted drums on “Midnight Rain” – haven’t you heard them throughout St Vincent’s Masseduction, also co-produced by Antonoff?

I am not saying that Antonoff is solely responsible for the sheer expanse of these artist’s sounds, nor that these artists are vessels for Antonoff’s creativity. Musicians like Swift, Lorde, St Vincent, Lana Del Rey, Troye Sivan, Kevin Abstract, Sia and Florence and the Machine are creative forces in their own right, with their own musical stamp, and were successful for years before collaborating with Antonoff. But it’s hard to deny that in the past five years or so the Antonoff sound has crept deep into the pop landscape. Where it was once here and there, now it’s everywhere. It’s inescapable.

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What’s weirder, still, is that Antonoff, now 38, seemed to appear out of nowhere. One moment he was just a member of the band Fun (you might remember their 2012 song “We Are Young”, which had some awful lyrics, such as “My friends are in the bathroom getting higher than the Empire State”). The next he was working with Taylor Swift on 1989, winning Grammy awards and being snapped up by many of the biggest pop and rock stars for some of their most critically acclaimed work to date. In the space of a decade he went from being Lena Dunham’s then-boyfriend to being a globally renowned megaproducer.

Unlike Gamman, I am a fan of the Antonoff sound. I didn’t listen to Swift before 1989, and Melodrama is one of my favourite albums of the last decade. Lana Del Rey and Antonoff made Norman Fucking Rockwell! – an iconic, experimental, delicious vista of drama. If such a thing is possible, Antonoff managed to make Lana sound even more like Lana. He makes Lorde sound even more like Lorde. And while Gamman identifies many of Antonoff’s technical hallmarks, he doesn’t note the emotional ones: the vivid colours that Antonoff injects into tracks, the swirling sentimentality, the tonal storytelling, the glittering flare and heart-stirring chord progressions. 

But even a fan like me can listen to Midnights and realise we might have reached a tipping point. Hearing Antonoff so often is a bit like eating the same chocolate bar everyday. Delicious at first, then boring, then stomach-churning. There needs to be room for other sounds within contemporary pop music. If Rihanna, for example, turned around and released an Antonoff-produced album, I would stand up, open my window and scream.

If you were to switch on MTV in the late 1990s you’d hear the slick, colourful and formulaic pop hooks of the Swedish producer Max Martin everywhere. The Backstreet Boys, Britney Spears, NSYNC… so much of what sounds like the 1990s and 2000s is really just Martin: maximalist, cookie-cutter earworms. And while Antonoff might not yet be as prolific as Martin, who is 51, looking at today’s album charts it is clear that contemporary pop is similarly dominated by one man.

For what it’s worth, artists clearly love working with Antonoff – and not just because he can pump out a hit. Like all good producers, he appears to have an ability to recognise natural magic and coax it to the forefront. “There’s craft and there’s magic,” Antonoff told the New Yorker this year. “I’ve got craft out the ass, but all that really matters is finding those rare magic moments.” It’s a skill that artists appreciate. “Jack is special,” Del Rey told the New Yorker journalist. “His chords are so classic that I could sing anything to them.”

But pop music can’t stay the same forever. Styles build, they peak and they trough, or evolve, and there will come a point where the Antonoff sound – those breathy vocals, those sentimental synth lines, that understated but dramatic tonal shimmer – becomes painful to the ears. Maybe that time is right about now. Even Martin – who has produced more number ones than anyone else, other than George Martin, the Beatles’ producer (the former has produced 23, the latter 30) – loosened his grip on the charts as listeners wanted something less formulaic, more experimental, less expected.

Until then, the reign of Antonoff remains heavily upon us. And like the rest of the world, I too will be streaming Midnights until I’m sick of it.

[See also: The Spiceworld generation]

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