Why Taylor Swift’s ‘Midnights’ Sounds So Familiar

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It’s her; she’s the problem, Taylor Swift confesses on her new hit “Anti-Hero.” Yet listeners who have issues with her tenth original studio album, Midnights, are blaming someone else: Jack Antonoff, who co-wrote 12 of its 13 songs and co-produced all of them. Ever since the alternative rocker got his big break into pop production with Swift’s 2014 song “Out of the Woods,” he has become a go-to collaborator for titans including Lorde, Lana Del Rey, and Diana Ross. But Midnights is Antonoff and Swift’s first album-length team-up. His guileless, bespectacled face features in her latest music video. And he is the center of the main controversy surrounding her new album: Is it any good?

Selling better in its first week than any album in the past seven years, and receiving its share of upbeat reviews, Midnights is plainly a success for Swift. Yet both fans and haters have had to reckon with the fact that although the best Swift albums have evolved her sound, this one takes a U-turn. Midnights’ moody synth pop recalls the Fifty Shades of Grey soundtrack that defined the zeitgeist of 2015. Its melodies and rhythms resemble earlier moments in Swift’s catalog—and Antonoff’s—to a distracting degree, making the project feel a bit redundant. The most fawning, fannish reviews address this issue by politely nicking the producer (“Antonoff’s extensive credits mean he has a hard time preventing musical ideas from bleeding into each other,” says BuzzFeed). Other takes simply call for Antonoff to go to prison.

For a behind-the-scenes collaborator to be so central to a pop album’s reception is, in a way, refreshing. Mass-market art is always collaborative, and too often, superstars such as Swift get portrayed as solo auteurs or puppets for a shadowy corporation. Really, often, they are more like team leaders. But the Antonoff backlash doesn’t get that right, either. The discussion around Midnights amplifies shaky assumptions about the ever-mysterious creative process, downplays the factors that have made Antonoff a key force in recent music, and risks doing something that Swift would hate: ascribing her authorship to a man.

The term producer can refer to a whole range of activities. Some producers mostly just capture the sound of artists playing their own music in the studio. Some, by contrast, are like one-person bands who whip up accompaniment for a vocalist. Some producers are beatmakers who deliver their contributions by email. Some are tyrants who use the singer as a mere ingredient for their own creation (and, in many cases historically, exploit or abuse the singer in the process). And some are therapists-slash-craftspeople, coaxing an artist to pour out their soul and then helping shape the results.

By all accounts, Antonoff falls into that last category. Cutting against the domineering archetype set by Phil Spector, he is known as a listener and a technician who’s especially good at working with women. (“I write a full octave above where I sing … There’s just a lot of melodic DNA that works better for women than men,” he told Pitchfork in 2017.) A 2022 New Yorker profile depicted Antonoff’s speciality for turning hanging out into an art form: Casual banter in the studio leads to deeper conversations, which bleed into jam sessions, which coalesce into tracks. The supposed point is to make musicians sound more like themselves. “Who is this person, and what is the absolute most right-to-the-bone way of expressing them?” Antonoff said when I interviewed him in 2019. “How do you cut all the bullshit out?”

Yet Antonoff also has a recognizable sound. His affection for the 1980s—both the karaoke-ready rock of Bon Jovi and the campy roboticism of Depeche Mode—comes through in vintage gear he uses, and in his penchant for putting bold, reverberating vocals at the center of the mix. As a songwriter, he breaks with tight-and-tidy Max Martin types: The melodies in Antonoff songs take rambling, careening shapes, recognizing hip-hop’s insight that syncopated speaking can be as catchy as tuneful singing. Close listeners can point to other tics and tricks. Caleb Gamman, a video producer who went viral for snarking on Midnights’ production, told Vice that Antonoff’s signatures include “detuned oscillators,” “‘Christian music’ harmonies,” and “digital tinkly stuff.”

Still, Antonoff’s track record is hardly a story of homogeneity. Just compare two classic albums he almost entirely produced and co-wrote: Lana Del Rey’s Norman Fucking Rockwell! in 2019 and Lorde’s Melodrama in 2017. Del Rey’s album channeled Baby Boomer rock into a 21st-century masterpiece that included cozy piano ballads and a nearly 10-minute showcase for Antonoff’s guitar playing. The vibe of the album was intricate and shaggy, like some warm, fine-woven blanket. Melodrama, by contrast, was a futuristic cityscape rendered in synth pop: hard beats, gushing keyboards, exclamatory whispers. Though hugely different, the albums both contain some of the best pop songs of the past decade. They demonstrate that Antonoff’s value is not so much a particular sound but an ear for reconciling punchiness and personality.

His work with Swift demonstrates this same variability. Some of their best songs together—“Out of the Woods,” “Cruel Summer,” “Getaway Car”—are stereotypical Antonoff, blowing the aesthetic of a New Jersey video-game arcade to arena scale. But then you have a track such as “Lover,” a dusky rock ballad from 2019 whose replay value comes in part from subtle shadings of acoustic reverb. During her lockdown-era creative burst, Swift turned to the indie rocker Aaron Dessner for a more contemplative set of songs. Antonoff’s smattering of contributions to Folklore and Evermore both fit in and stood out: “August,” “Mirrorball,” and “Gold Rush” rank among her greatest, and most distinctive, tracks ever.

Ascribing any song’s quality to its producer, however, is dicey—especially when it comes to Taylor Swift, an adept guitarist, piano player, singer, and songwriter who’s generally one of the most willful, self-directed celebrities in pop history. Starting with her 2006 self-titled debut, she has written or co-written every original song she has put out. She has co-produced most of her albums as well. Still, she sometimes faces the sexist perception that she is a mere vessel for men. Last year, the Blur singer Damon Albarn questioned her artistic autonomy in an interview. Swift and her collaborators responded with ferocious corrections. “I’ve never met Damon Albarn and he’s never been to my studio,” Antonoff tweeted, “but apparently he knows more than the rest of us about all those songs Taylor writes and brings in.” (Albarn apologized.)

So any evaluation of Midnights should start from the proposition that it sounds how it sounds because that’s how Swift wanted it to. Stacked harmonies, voice-of-God vocals, digital tinkling stuff—these Antonoff-ian tropes are what she likes right now. Surely she hasn’t been tricked into making a repetitious album: She has the knowhow to hear that “Snow on the Beach” rewrites “Gold Rush” and that “Vigilante Shit” apes what Lorde did on “Royals” a decade ago. Her intention may be as simple as first-thought-best-thought immediacy (the album came together when she and Antonoff were left alone while their partners were both shooting a movie). Or maybe, as some fans think, she is acting like a self-referential, postmodern novelist by purposefully recycling songs to fit Midnights’ theme of reevaluating memories.

For what it’s worth, after about a week of listening, the album’s own distinct sound world is emerging. I’m loving the way that the oozing and panning noises of “Midnight Rain” conjure a feeling of suspended time. I’m hung up on the twisty storytelling and last-dance wistfulness of “Question …?” And I’m appreciating that the album’s echoing production invites you into the cave-like interiority of one woman’s psyche. The album’s limitations—lyrics that baffle rather than evoke, songs that coast on one musical idea—continue to frustrate too. Many fans had hoped she’d build on the direction hinted at in tracks such as “August” and “All Too Well (10 Minute Version),” turning in a confessional rock epic of refinement and ambition. But she can still make that album. She can still make it with Antonoff, if she so chooses.

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