content warning: mentions of sexual assault
What do Lorde, Taylor Swift and Lana Del Rey all have in common? Other than being the pillars of pop? Why, Jack Antonoff of course.
Antonoff boldly began his career in the band ‘fun’, cementing his musical presence with the chart-topping song, ‘We Are Young’, before splitting off to make Bleachers, an 80s-inspired band. Over the past decade, the producer and singer-songwriter has managed to carve himself into the pop music lexicon. Now, he is slowly becoming a household name associated with some of the biggest female artists of our time. In fact, that is what makes Antonoff such a perplexing figure: he continuously works solely with female artists, a creative choice by Antonoff himself. In a Guardian article, Antonoff stated, “I’ve always been extremely drawn to female artists who are being brutally honest”.
Antonoff’s music is a turbulent array of sounds that go from a euphonious high to a crashing low. It is reflective, intoxicating and deeply personal—qualities Antonoff believes can be perfectly achieved through the naturally higher octave of female voices. Marred by the death of his sister when he was fourteen, Jack Antonoff stands out for the depth and emotion he gives to pop music, a genre that is oftentimes simply dismissed as shallow radio play. This intensity is notably echoed in ‘Liability’ by Lorde, who croons lyrics like "the only love I haven’t screwed up” and “they say, you’re a little much for me” with croaky despondency. It is a terrifyingly relatable song and a staple in every teenager’s heartbreak playlist. It seems like this formula works well for Antonoff, who has since gone on to win multiple Grammys, the most recent being for his work on Taylor Swift’s folklore, which won Album of the Year. Some other musicians he has notably collaborated with in the past year include St. Vincent for her album Daddy’s Home and Lana Del Rey for Chemtrails Over the Country Club.
However, his continuous success only serves to highlight the fundamental flaws of the music industry. Strife with sexual misconduct and misogyny, the Hollywood-infused fantasy of music-making is more often than not a destructive imbalance of power between male producers and young female musicians. Pop music itself has relied on the objectification and sexualisation of women in order to generate attention, leading to an incredibly toxic and abusive environment for many singers. In 2014, singer Kesha claimed that Dr. Luke, the executive producer behind some of her biggest songs, had physically and sexually assaulted her. Due to contractual obligations, and after a judge decided not to terminate the contract, Kesha was forced to continue working with Dr. Luke. Similarly, Taylor Swift has been in a fight for rights to her music against ex-manager Scooter Braun. In retaliation, Swift decided to re-record her past albums—and is doing so with Antonoff. In an industry rampant with excessive manipulation, Jack Antonoff appears like an oddly shaped beacon of hope, a “cure for Dr. Luke”, as The Ringer boldly claims.
Yet, even as Antonoff’s name saturates music charts, there is a problematic lack of people of colour in his production discography. His name is credited to only Kevin Abstract and FKA Twigs among a superfluous list of white artists. Having Jack Antonoff spearheading modern-day pop, but disregarding POC musicians, continues a cycle of inequality in a genre that is already dominated by white musicians.
Unsurprisingly, his collaboration with female artists has also spurred multiple theories that suggest romantic relationships with them. This view, a breeding ground for gossip, tends to socially devalue the music created from this collaboration by rooting itself within heteronormative constructs. It is perhaps more constructive to assess why the music industry is so heavily dominated by male producers, usurping the ability for female-led directives to flourish within the music business.
Nevertheless, it is this revolutionary musical process—or perhaps simply his respect for the artists he works with—that allows these women to reclaim their autonomy and make music that delves into personal trauma, heartbreak and individual uncertainties with fascinating clarity and breadth. Clairo’s ‘Bambi’, off her latest album Sling, is a song that supposedly exposes the music industry for its overt control.
However, the success of albums such as Melodrama and folklore is not indebted to Antonoff. Though his production serves to meticulously refine these albums sonically and thematically, it is the female artists leading these records that catapult their music to the forefront. Lorde herself has expressed frustration at the tendency for fans to define her synonymously with Antonoff and the other musicians he works with. In regards to her newest album Solar Power, Lorde said in a New York Times article, “I haven’t made a Jack Antonoff record… I’ve made a Lorde record and he’s helped me make it.”
Nevertheless, Antonoff’s success proves that such innovative collaboration can happen despite the sexism and overabundance of male producers within the industry. Successful music can be created through genuine partnership and emotional vulnerability between two people, a transformative development for a genre that is constantly redefining itself. When artist and producer share an intimate space, the artist can produce exceptionally raw content without the antagonising fear of suppression. And after all, without Melodrama, where would we be today?