Taylor Swift is the pop star who launched a thousand ships (and at least half of them are gay): the songwriter-chanteuse whose every social media post fans pore over like they’re trying to break the Zodiac Killer’s cipher. Today, Taylor Swift released her latest album, Midnights, to the collective ecstasy of everyone I’ve ever met.
“It's her most 'mature' sounding album in part because it is so consistent,” my editor feverishly typed into Slack, even though, lowkey, nobody asked. I’d sent him a video of a person plowing through the tracklist and immediately identifying Jack Antonoff’s fingerprints all over the record. It was made by Caleb Gamman, a video producer who hails from New Zealand, showed off his ear as he blind-identified every Antonoff-produced song on Midnights, usually in just a few seconds. Watch below and try not to let your jaw hit the floor:
My editor had a slick response to the critique that this musical cohesion is a bad thing. “This boring production style is a good way to showcase lyrics because it puts her voice front and center.” I’m paraphrasing, but… uh, thanks! So, who’s right?
It’s true that most of the production on Midnights was helmed by none other than Jack Antonoff, who basically credits Swift with kickstarting his career as a producer in the first place. It’s the eighth album they’ve worked on together, but not everyone is a fan. In fact, one man—the very hater in the video above, which went viral soon after Midnights dropped—told VICE he has a negative physical reaction to Antonoff’s signature sounds, one that’s sharpened into a sort of sixth sense.
“My musical background is high school music, and that’s where it stopped… so I have no right,” Gamman said to me on a Zoom call, laughing. And yet: “When that music comes on, my heart rate gets elevated. I'm like, There's something about this that I’m not liking. I can intellectualize it, but really it’s just like, Oh no, that’s Jack.”
Upon closer inspection, Antonoff’s sound can be reduced to a few factors—factors that Gamman’s fine with in piecemeal in the work of other producers like Francis and the Lights, A.G. Cook, or Calvin Harris. He broke down the Antonoff sound like this:
- Vocal clarity
- The same drum samples
- Stereo separation/expansion
- Detuned oscillators
- Breathy vocals
- Busy instrumentation except in the vocal range
- Smooth electronic bass
- Pitched drums
- “He'll low-pass anything”
- Digital harmony/vibrato
- A really clean vocoder
- "Christian music" harmonies
- Digital tinkly stuff
“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.”
Gamman said he discovered the sonic pattern that informed his viral video around four years ago, when more and more artists he was a fan of began working with Antonoff in rapid succession. “I was a big fan of Carly Rae Jepsen and early Taylor Swift, sort of around 1989; Kevin Abstract, St. Vincent, some of Lana Del Rey's more early stuff, like Ultraviolence. Then, all of those artists went on to work with Jack Antonoff, and I couldn't stand any of those albums.” The more he works with high-profile musicians, the more his sound gets worked into songs that people love. “It spirals,” he said, a little mournfully.
Personally, I’m inclined to agree with my editor that Antonoff’s production is a decent way to showcase an artist’s lyrical ability. It’s like a pop-rock-dance-rap hybrid that doesn’t really fall under one genre or another, making it probably the least offensive formulation for the largest number of listeners. To my deeply untrained ear, it’s a musical wallpaper situation: When it’s really loud, I might find it grating, but otherwise it kind of just blends into the background, making it easy to pop an Antonoff-produced track onto a playlist without radically shifting the aural mood.
Plus, there’s obviously something swirling through public opinion when it comes to Antonoff himself. The man spent years dating Scarlett Johansson and Lena Dunham when he was, at most, the guy from fun. He elicits gushing quotes from the artists he works with, like Swift, who described him as “an absolute joy” in a 2017 profile of him for the New York Times, adding that “His excitement and exuberance about writing songs is contagious. That’s why everyone loves him.” Lana Del Rey touched on an accessible quality in his music that lets it be whatever an artist wants: “His chords are so classic that I could sing anything to them,” she told the New Yorker earlier this year.
None of that matters to Gamman, who said his beef with Antonoff is strictly sonic—he has nothing against the man himself. There are even a select few works from the producer that he finds palatable. “Norman Fucking Rockwell was OK,” he told me. And then, later, over Twitter DM, he added that, “I once heard ‘Foreign Girls’ on a broken speaker system and I thought it was great, then I listened to it with the left channel working and it has this insane sax line running through the whole thing… I think the Spotify mix at least, if you only use the right headphone it’s a nice minimal song. But then, that left channel is pure Jack.” Which, on Midnights, means the production is just non-distracting “digital tinkly stuff”—aka, a perfectly chosen backdrop for the lyrics that Taylor Swift’s fans came to freak out about in the first place.
Katie Way is a senior staff writer at VICE. Follow her on Twitter.