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Taylor Swift and Jack Antonoff Have Reached Their Limit

Both artists have worked on every single album Swift has released since 2014, and their latest batch of songs on ‘The Tortured Poets Department’ finds their collaborative well completely drained

Taylor Swift and Jack Antonoff

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Of all the unpredictable creative exchanges Jack Antonoff has experienced, only one has been digitally immortalized forever — and it was the one. During sessions for Taylor Swift’s 2017 album, Reputation, there was a moment where she was so charged from the magic in the room that she literally screamed — as fans saw in a video she captured on her phone.

Antonoff had been staggering his way through the epic bridge on “Getaway Car.” “I’m in a getaway car, and I’m losing my … something,” the artist-producer offered. The pair were in his home studio in Brooklyn, inching closer to the climax of Swift’s high-speed exit from the wreckage of a relationship that never stood a chance. “I’m in a getaway car, you’re in the motel bar,” she countered. In the next 10 seconds, they nailed it: “I’m in a getaway car/I left you in a motel bar/Put the money in a bag and I stole the keys/That was the last time you ever saw me.”

Off-camera, Antonoff has shared dozens of these moments with Swift over the past decade. Since 2013, the pair have appeared as some combination of co-producers and/or co-writers on 88 songs. That number is up by 16 since last week’s release of The Tortured Poets Department, Swift’s 11th studio album. Antonoff has now appeared on each of the musician’s last 11 releases, counting her ongoing album-rerecording process that retroactively slots the producer into records she made before they ever knew each other via previously unreleased vault tracks. They often speak of their process with a sense of protected, kinetic energy that only the two of them truly understand. But their new batch of songs together are the latest indication that the Swiftonoff collaboration has run its course. Their pairing no longer sounds as good — or even as comprehensible — as it must feel in the studio while they’re making them.

Antonoff’s creative process usually consists of some version of him stumbling his way toward a breakthrough. “You set out to do something, and if you do exactly what you set out to do, then the magic probably didn’t happen,” he told Billboard in 2021, a year that saw him appear on releases with Swift, St. Vincent, Lorde, Clairo, and his own band Bleachers. “It happens in every song, or else it would be like, ‘Yep, that’s the song. It’s well-recorded. But where’s that fucking thing that makes me want to fly out of my seat and play it for everybody?’” The experience of listening to The Tortured Poets Department poses the same question, one that was left similarly unanswered on Swift’s last Antonoff-produced album, 2022’s Midnights. Where is that thing?

That feeling doesn’t always have to manifest in a form of pop as grandiose and alluring as Lover’s late-blooming hit “Cruel Summer,” or the late-night dramatics of 1989’s “Out of the Woods.” It can just as effectively take the shape of Folklore’s balmy “August” and the swelling “My Tears Ricochet.” With the exception of a few songs, like Red (Taylor Version)’s “All Too Well (10 Minute Version)” and Fearless (Taylor Version)’s “Mr. Perfectly Fine,” Swift’s drawn-out rerecording process is, in some ways, a reminder of how much raw emotion she used to regularly inject into her music. Across the new versions of the old albums, Swift often sings with a certain weathered fatigue, disconnected from the feeling with which she first performed them.

Midnights and The Tortured Poets Department both fall into this same numb rhythm. The former is filled with self-referential callbacks, like “Snow on the Beach” running on the same melodic line as the Antonoff-produced Folklore deep cut “Illicit Affairs.” The Tortured Poets Department, a 31-song anthology on which Antonoff shaped 16 songs, hovers in a homogenized comfort zone of hollowed-out percussion and piano chord progressions that never reach the peak they’re building toward. In their sonic monotony, these records also sound like new versions of old albums. At a certain point, it begins to feel as though Swift and Antonoff are simply going through the motions while running in place.

Maybe they’re doing so to make a point. One of the most prominent themes on The Tortured Poets Department details the ways in which Swift has found herself trapped in the gilded prison of pop stardom, where nothing she does is ever enough, right, or received without criticism. Antonoff seems to be tired of it, too. Last month, he reportedly shut down an interview with the Netherlands news outlet NRC for asking whether he worked on The Tortured Poets Department. In 2014, he told Rolling Stone: “Just having her songs on my hard drive makes me feel like I have Russian secrets or something. It’s terrifying.”

Antonoff has often spoken about the music industry’s pop machine with a particular type of disdain. He resents big suits in boardrooms that keep the gates shut for the real artists, as opposed to those who are more easily molded into their money-making vision. In many ways, he’s indebted to Swift for helping him over that gate with “Out of the Woods,” a record he sees as having been the ultimate producer co-sign. “Right at the moment when I was expecting some heavy was going to come in and do the production, she was like, ‘Can’t wait for this to come out,’” Antonoff told Rolling Stone in 2021. “Overnight, you’re allowed to produce records, and it filled me with joy and fucking resentment because it’s a reminder of why I keep myself extremely separate from the business.” There’s a certain naïveté in believing it’s possible to be both separate from the business and a main character in the Taylor Swift Universe.

It runs parallel to the “Cerulean Monologue” Meryl Streep delivers as Miranda Priestly in The Devil Wears Prada — her scathing: “Oh, OK. I see. You think this has nothing to do with you.” In the past half-decade, Antonoff’s pool of collaborators has included Lana Del Rey, the 1975, Florence + the Machine, the Chicks, FKA Twigs, Kevin Abstract, Carly Rae Jepsen, and others. He has been nominated for Producer of the Year, Non-Classical, at the Grammy Awards for five consecutive years, and he’s won at each of the past three ceremonies. He’s worked, in some capacity, on every single album Swift has released since 2014. His sound has become so measurable that one listener, Caleb Gamman, has been able to identify which songs on Midnights and The Tortured Poets Department were Antonoff creations with near-perfect accuracy after only playing a few seconds of each song.

“The goal isn’t to ‘do your thing’ on someone else’s music — the goal is to make the best, most alive version of this vision,” Antonoff told Billboard. It’s unclear whether he doesn’t think that he’s doing his thing on other artist’s music because he doesn’t think that he has a thing, or because the tightknit friendships he’s built with his collaborators completely blur those lines.

Over Midnights and The Tortured Poets Department, Swift — perhaps unconsciously — adopts Antonoff’s melodic cadence, this sprawling delivery that runs on like manic thoughts chasing a breakthrough, so tunnel-visioned that there’s no time to go back and edit them down. At what point does that stop being an Antonoff thing and start simply being a Swift thing? In 2021, Antonoff’s collaborator Lorde expressed annoyance about this kind of question. “I haven’t made a Jack Antonoff record,” she told The New York Times about their Melodrama follow-up Solar Power. “I’ve made a Lorde record, and he’s helped me make it and very much deferred to me on production and arrangement. Jack would agree with this. To give him that amount of credit is frankly insulting.”

It’s true that the failure to credit and center non-male producers is one of pop music’s most glaring pitfalls, and Swift, like Lorde, is almost always co-producing her music with Antonoff. But giving proper acknowledgments to the women he works with doesn’t default him to the position of a silent, omnipresent force bearing no responsibility for the final product of what he’s putting his name on. There’s no push without the pull. But neither Antonoff nor Swift seem to be pushing the other in any meaningful direction anymore. She’s spiraling, and he’s stagnant, and their creative lives are intertwined in many ways with their personal ones. Especially at this particular moment of Swift sinking in her own overwhelming presence, it might just be easier to continue this way. But the music will likely continue to suffer.

If Midnights was a record that required familiarity with Swift’s sonic history, then The Tortured Poets Department requires masterful knowledge of the who, what, when, why, and how of the past 15 years of her life. It must streamline the process for Antonoff to have already been there for all of its new developments. On the title track, Swift name-drops him for the first time, singing: “But you told Lucy you’d kill yourself if I ever leave/And I had said that to Jack about you, so I felt seen.” This group-chat-message-dump approach leaves nothing but a cluttered narrative backstory and nebulous production where the experience of being able to listen and — at the very least — enjoy a great melodic arrangement should be.

Swift recorded four studio albums with country producer Nathan Chapman, from Taylor Swift (2006) through Red (2012) before she eventually started to outgrow him on 1989 (2014). Christopher Rowe has been re-creating most of Chapman’s entries in her discography for the Taylor Version rerecordings. His absence — especially on Speak Now, which wrapped her solo songwriting in a lush sonic blanket — doesn’t go unnoticed. In her expansion into pure pop, Swift worked more frequently with Max Martin and Shellback. But she also found a curious creative connection with Imogen Heap on “Clean” as the deep cut’s sole writers and producers. Very briefly, Jeff Bhasker and Greg Kurstin also make appearances on Swift records, while Lover brought Post Malone collaborators Frank Dukes and Louis Bell into the mix, too.

Bell’s appearance on The Tortured Poets Department’s “Fortnight” stemmed from Swift’s admiration for Malone’s music, though the collaboration spends little to no time exploring anything outside of the Swiftonoff bubble. The album’s non-Antonoff songs are helmed by Aaron Dessner, who first appeared alongside Swift on Folklore and more extensively on its sister album Evermore. There’s a bounce to his production that creates an air of immediacy and presence around Swift’s performance. She sounds engaged and in motion on those records. She once sounded like that with Antonoff, too. That isn’t to say the solution to her current sonic rut is more Dessner, lest that pairing also burns itself out. But if there’s a feeling to go chasing after, it’s that one.

Successful producer-artist pairings have yielded some of pop music’s most defining releases. Michael Jackson and Quincy Jones. Brandy and Darkchild. Justin Timberlake and Timbaland. Max Martin and Ariana Grande. More recently, Olivia Rodrigo and Dan Nigro found a near-perfect rhythm, not unlike Finneas and Billie Eilish. Some of these artists took years off in between their collaborations to experiment with other producers and sonic approaches. Some pushed their partnership to its limit, while others haven’t yet reached one. A few never hit a ceiling, and some lack the awareness to recognize when they already have.

What would an Antonoff-produced Swift record sound like after they’ve spent two or three complete album cycles completely outside of each other’s musical orbit? What if, during that off-season, Swift settled in to create a record entirely written and produced on her own? It wouldn’t be so bad if it took a couple of years away to really get it right. It sounds like everyone involved could use some distance.

From Rolling Stone US