Forget Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon, the connectivity game people should be playing is Six Degrees of Jack Antonoff. Whether that’s his family (his elder sister is fashion designer Rachel Antonoff), his endless range of musical collaborators (an ever-growing list that includes the likes of Bruce Springsteen, Taylor Swift, and Yoko Ono), or even his high school prom date (actress Scarlett Johansson), the New Jersey native appears to have links to everyone and everything. Having just picked up his second consecutive Best Producer (Non-Classical) award at the Grammys, it is difficult to ignore his influence. And although his omnipresence may drive some people insane, there is no denying his talent and ability to make a great album.
Each of Swift’s albums since 1989 has featured Antonoff’s production
Although moderate success was found with the band Steel Train, Antonoff first broke into the mainstream as the guitarist of the band fun. Their second album, Some Nights (2012) — featuring the smash hit ‘We Are Young’ — achieved considerable success and a host of awards, including two Grammys. However, the band’s members had all moved on to different projects by 2015, sparking an ‘indefinite hiatus’.
Antonoff had kept himself busy in the meantime, however. Although he’d picked up a number of co-writing credits for the likes of Carly Rae Jepsen and Sara Bareilles, it wasn’t until Antonoff met Taylor Swift that he was able to begin establishing himself as a producer. This first result was ‘Sweeter Than Fiction’ (2013), a bubblegum-infused track that bridges the gap between Red (2012) and 1989 (2014). And although the track is perhaps one of the most overlooked in Swift’s discography, it is arguably one of the most important due to what it spawned. Each of Swift’s albums since 1989 has featured Antonoff’s production, an eight-album streak that shows no signs of being broken any time soon. This seems abundantly clear with the release of Midnights (2022), which involved Antonoff on all 13 of the standard edition’s tracks.
Melodrama is often cited as one of the defining records of the late 2010s
While his early workings with Swift gave evidence that he could produce for others, Antonoff had also struck out on his own with the establishment of his solo project Bleachers. Featuring tracks such as ‘I Wanna Get Better’ and ‘Rollercoaster’, Bleachers’ debut album Strange Desire (2014) was another success. He followed this up with Terrible Thrills, Vol. 2 the following year, enlisting a range of female musicians to vocalise the songs of Strange Desire. While these vary from close-to-faithful covers to wildly different reinterpretations, the key thing this compilation achieves is to reinforce Antonoff’s collaborative side. Antonoff has continued to release music with Bleachers, although this has generally attracted less attention than his production work with other artists.
It was not long before artists (other than Swift, that is) began lining up to work with Antonoff. New Zealand singer Lorde enlisted Antonoff on her second album, Melodrama (2017). A resounding critical success, Melodrama is often cited as one of the defining records of the late 2010s, and it is difficult to deny Antonoff’s hand in her evolution. Similar words can be said with regard to his work with Lana Del Rey on Norman F**king Rockwell! (2019), another album often cited as the artist’s magnum opus.
Both albums have a nasty habit of blurring together
Indie-rock icon St. Vincent got involved too, working with Antonoff to shift towards a glossy, synth-pop-influenced sound on MASSEDUCTION (2017). And while MASSEDUCTION is arguably too centre-field for some fans of her older albums, I regard it as a brilliantly tremendous shift in the sound of an ever-eclectic artist, the ideal starting point of her discography, and the precursor to ‘Cruel Summer’ (Swift, 2019) — not to mention a success from almost any other metric.
It’s not just the studio that has embodied Antonoff’s collaborative spirit. In support of The Ally Coalition — an organisation in support of LGBTQ youths he founded with Rachel — he has put on a yearly talent show. With participant artists ranging from previous collaborators (Del Rey) to the unfamiliar (Hayley Williams), Antonoff’s network has only continued to grow.
While the likes of Melodrama and Rockwell! were revolutionary projects that pushed the boundaries of pop music, this cannot be said for their follow-ups. Lorde’s Solar Power and Del Rey’s Chemtrails Over The Country Club (both 2021) both received lukewarm receptions, opinions that are not entirely unwarranted. Both albums have a nasty habit of blurring together in a way that fails to sufficiently engage the listener. This is, ironically, the opposite of what makes albums like Melodrama or MASSEDUCTION so successful, with those album tracks able to walk that fine line between cohesion and maintaining distinct musical identities.
It is also incorrect to automatically blame Antonoff as a scapegoat
In 2021, Antonoff also got on board for Clairo’s sophomore album, Sling. While her debut Immunity (2019) is a delightful bedroom-pop experience, Sling is, frankly speaking, incredibly boring. There’s very little to distinguish many of the tracks and it often feels like Antonoff has simply forgotten to bring the album to life the way he has so frequently in the past.
Some fans are eager to blame Antonoff, suggesting that his production style is overbearing and dulls the edges of the artist. But to do so is to imply that the artist lacks agency over her own work — something that may be true for others, but has always been denied by Antonoff’s collaborators. Lorde specifically was keen to reject those claims, saying “I haven’t made a Jack Antonoff record. I’ve made a Lorde record and he’s helped me make it and very much deferred to me on production and arrangement.” For better or worse, the creative choices made in Solar Power, Chemtrails, or Midnights, are almost always because the artist has specifically requested that Antonoff do things in a certain way. In all cases, it is at least because the artist has approved those techniques. And while it may be difficult to accept that your favourite artist has simply made an album you don’t like, it is also incorrect to automatically blame Antonoff as a scapegoat.
If the above critics are to be taken to heart, Antonoff had lost his creative spark. Yet this is undoubtedly regained with his work on Florence + The Machine’s Dance Fever (2022). Dance Fever is a fantastic progression of the trajectory set forth by High As Hope (2018, not produced by Antonoff) and Antonoff adds a refreshing sense of cathartic energy to the album, yet praise of Dance Fever is rarely attributed towards him. This is perhaps fair, but it is equally unfair to place the onus on him when the output is not as well-received.
Maybe Antonoff’s at his best when working in bursts — after all, he did only produce approximately half of Dance Fever, sharing production duties with Dave Bayley (Glass Animals.) And his contributions towards The 1975’s Being Funny in A Foreign Language (2022), which he co-produced, have been reasonably well-received. Meanwhile, his star-studded Minions: The Rise Of Gru soundtrack, which he did have primary control over, had the potential to soar but often faltered instead. From the other perspective, his occasional forays into segments of Carly Rae Jepsen’s albums (Antonoff was not involved with 2022’s The Loneliest Time) have always been welcome. Could this be characterised as overexposure drawing the ire of listeners? Perhaps.
Alternatively, it might simply be that he hasn’t really done anything wrong. Fan circles – especially those of artists with fanbases as avid as Swift’s or Del Rey’s — are remarkably fickle and are eager to latch onto a target. Some seem intent on criticising his every move. But I have no doubt that there’ll continue to be incredible music being released — with Jack Antonoff’s name listed in the production credits.
Evidence of this has in fact already been seen through the pre-release singles off of Del Rey’s upcoming album Did you know that there’s a tunnel under Ocean Blvd. After taking a leave of absence from Blue Banisters (2021), Antonoff returns to production duties on Del Rey’s ninth studio album. This is set to feature one of the year’s best songs so far, ‘A&W’, a half trip-hop, a half folk number which lasts seven minutes and brings together all the best aspects of her earlier discography. Antonoff had earlier stated on Instagram that ‘A&W’ was his favourite song to have ever created with Del Rey. And having been proved right with his perception of the track, there’s no telling what else he may contribute to in the future, whether that’s from the remainder of Ocean Blvd or another album, as he inevitably will do.