Four of 2017’s best albums were co-written and produced by pop’s veiled hero, Jack Antonoff, the man paradoxically behind odes of female liberation and songs of empowerment. His work with Lorde, St Vincent and Taylor Swift has evidenced grand change in each artists’ musical sound, dissected and highlighted through Antonoff’s nostalgic, evocative pop production.
The first of his projects in 2017, however, was Antonoff’s own personal record, Bleachers’ Gone Now, an album that demonstrates the musician and producer’s unabashed ambition. Gone Now is stately, fragmentary, and unflinching, shaping a world around his songs just as his life is moulded by his music. He insists on indulging in every pleasure in the roaring singles ‘Don’t Take the Money’ and ‘I Miss Those Days’, and yet even the album’s quieter moments brim with intertextuality. ‘Goodmorning’ has recurring reprises throughout the record and collaborators Carly Rae Jepsen, Julia Michaels and Lorde sing backing vocals. We infer a sense of the album’s narrative and yet the quiet admission of defeat on the final song, ‘Foreign Girls’, denotes Gone Now as a kind of vanity record, an attempt at creating something big and masterful but not yet complete.
It is his project with Lorde, however, released the very same month as Gone Now, that affirms a shared ingenuity between the songwriters. Melodrama is a reflection of what it means to be a young woman in the shape of a humid pop record, shameless in its self-indulgence. Antonoff’s production perfectly mirrors Lorde’s intimate lyricism, with small touches occurring when most needed: the unobtrusive guitar strums of ‘The Louvre,’ work when contrasted to the post-chorus’s ambient cracklings, and the trap drums oppose the title track’s orchestral pining. Pop melodies are infused with arrangements of misshapen beats and distorted sounds that creep under the skin. They operate on personal and universal levels, perfectly capturing the unparalleled joy of self-awakening and the testing of personal limits as reflected in the sultry summer world that Lorde and Antonoff create: luxurious, audacious, and melodramatic.
The first two albums released in 2017 with Antonoff’s involvement detail summer obsession, intoxicating claustrophobia and nostalgia unrivalled by the present. But Antonoff’s philosophy shifts in the two albums released in the later part of the year – St Vincent’s Masseducation and Taylor Swift’s Reputation expose bitter, rancorous realities after the sweet summer haze of teenage optimism has waned. St Vincent, otherwise known as Annie Clark, and Swift are two figures who have elicited divisive views from audiences, the former due to her unapologetic presence as a female guitarist in a homogenous male domain, and the latter due to her numerous feuds and romantic controversies.
They both exploit these conflicting philosophies through their unexpectedly celebratory records, as the dangerous female archetypes they are assumed to conform to become figures to embrace. Swift becomes the once exaggerated character from her 2014 music video, ‘Blank Space’, no longer a desperate and long-suffering female caricature, but a villainous, paradoxical woman. She is at once heartbreaker and heartbroken, perpetrator and victim, the girl next door, the business woman, the snake. The album induces a new appreciation for Swift’s adaptability, as the sensual siren of ‘Don’t Blame Me’ and the infatuated girl of ‘Gorgeous’ share the same space.
The album is not, as assumed, simply a vengeful defence of Swift’s mistakes, and there are moments of optimism. While Swift’s best love songs have been founded in moments of fantasy (2010’s ‘Mine’ and ‘Enchanted’), the level of specificity and delight found in everyday things (“spilling wine in the bathtub, building blanket forts”) is deliciously and unabashedly present. Reputation could even be the most personal album in Swift’s repertoire, disguised behind discordant, bruising instrumentals and vocal modification. The breathy, gasping tones of ‘Dress’, the synthesised monotony on ‘King of my Heart’, and uncomfortable borderline rapping on ‘End Game’ fail to disguise Swift’s tumultuous, dizzying, and personal lyrics. Despite her reputation, this is quite possibly Taylor Swift’s first album about love.
St Vincent’s Masseducation, however, tears into loneliness. While the shimmering pop production on Reputation allows listeners to unknowingly dance to aching, throbbing lyrics of hurt, the antagonistic production on Masseducation cannot be ignored. Clark addresses her listeners through gritted teeth, producing a guttural voice with startling candor: “I am alone like you”. Clark truly embraces the dangerous female archetype in a way that Swift only jokingly assumes. The guitars shudder instead of echo, wincing at the harsh brutality of Clark’s loneliness. In the album’s first single, ‘New York’, she speaks in the present and yet talks about the past, echoing an exhaustion at the sexual personalities she’s given and roles that she must play.
It is here that Antonoff’s production is key, as Masseducation is ultimately a pop album, or at least redefining the roles ascribed to female pop singers in 2017. “Sugarboy” exemplifies this through its synthesised production, unblemished vocals, the call-and-response refrain, and the Swiftian, even Carly Rae Jepsen-inspired line, “got a crush on tragedy”. These classic pop tropes are inverted, played at a pace too fast, a beat too soon, feverishly weird and intrinsically fanatical. Clark and Antonoff explore the characters of pop, a theme amplified by the album’s visual aesthetic – the bold colours and robotic music videos play out as a strange futuristic utopia, sedated with pills, alive with lifeless forms and choreographed to perfection. Creating something genuine within this ridiculous landscape seems impossible, and yet Clark and Antonoff achieve this, not through mockery, but by breaching the limits of generic convention.
There is perhaps no other producer working with such high-profile women in pop music, helping to expose their various vulnerabilities, romances and agonies in the same way. Despite this, the achievements of these female artists should never be wholly ascribed to Antonoff. In an age of music preaching female empowerment, all too often it is men behind the scenes, selling a dangerous capitalist feminism to eager young audiences.
But these albums do not show Antonoff orchestrating the success of his collaborators – ingenious lyricism is unmistakably found within the artists themselves. Antonoff contributed to the writing of four of Masseducation’s songs in contrast to Annie Clark’s thirteen credits, and he only co-wrote two of the eleven songs Lorde penned on ‘Melodrama.’ Whatever can be said about Taylor Swift, her role as a business woman in control of her own career can never be doubted. Lorde and Julia Michaels even receive writing credits on Bleachers’ Gone Now, creating true collaborating relationships between these musicians.
Antonoff does not define or validate the artists’ creation, but gives them a technical platform to operate outside of generic convention. Melodrama, Masseducation and Reputation are uncompromising, dazzling displays of artistry, demonstrative of real talent, real sincerity, and real compassion, as the artists turn these stories into technicolour memoirs that will reverberate for years to come. By investigating the boundaries of modern pop music in 2017, Antonoff and his collaborators somehow come to define it.