Sunday, June 13, 2021

Big Production Thing

When I checked the Latest News feed on Pitchfork a couple of days ago, something I'm prone to do after breakfast most days, I spotted a couple of welcome items of interest. Two artists, whose work I've enjoyed in the past, have new albums coming out. That's always exciting to hear.

It's been a while since Lorde's last album, even longer than I would have guessed. According to Pitchfork her last "piece of original music" was back in 2017. That makes it sound as though she's done some covers at some point since but if so I have no idea what they might have been.

Clairo's last album came out only a couple of years ago in 2019. Also her first album. Also her only album. She's released a few songs since then, though, I'm pretty sure of that.

 As I read the two articles I noticed a familiar name. Both Lorde's upcoming "Solar Power" and Clairo's "Sling" are co-produced by the singers themselves in partnership with Jack Antonoff. Antonoff produced Lorde's previous collection, "Melodrama", which he also co-wrote. He doesn't seem to have anything to do with Clairo's debut, "Immunity", but Clairo herself sings backup on the eponymous single from Solar Power, on which Antonoff also plays both guitar and drums. 

Neither Taylor Swift nor Lana del Rey feature on either of them but it's probably only a matter of time. He co-wrote and co-produced some of both Swift's "1989" and "Reputation" and did the same for much of Lana's 2019 masterpiece "Norman Fucking Rockwell" (aka one of the best albums I have ever heard and will ever hear). He then went on to do it again with the very-nearly as wonderful follow-up, "Chemtrails Over The Country Club" earlier this year. He's listed on the production credits for the upcoming Blue Banisters but the three tracks trailed so far were produced by others.

It's almost as though there's some kind of Antonoff Universe in the making. Which there kind of is. In an interview he gave to the New York Times last year (to which I'm not going to link because you have to make an account with the paper even to access the limited number of free articles they allow) he said he planned in future only to make albums with friends.

All of this made me wonder. 

Some of the music I've enjoyed the most in the last five years comes from the people I've named so far. When I stop and think, all of it has a certain sound or perhaps a soundscape. Listen to the Jack Antonoff produced version of "Blouse" above and compare it to Clairo's acoustic take on Jimmy Fallon. The difference is a hint but no more. 


None of the records above could possibly have been made by the same person. They're all far too original and individual for that. But their sound could have been made by the same people. It has been, sometimes.

Producers are a real wildcard in popular music. I've been ocean deep in pop for fifty years and I still couldn't say with certainty what it is that a producer does. It's one of those roles that defines itself almost by the way it's done rather than what it is. Movie director, that's another. Game developer, too, when you reach the status of a Chris Roberts or a Brad McQuaid.

Music, movies, games - all of these are collective enterprises and unravelling individual responsibilites in a collective is a chancy proposition, made harder for pop music because it doesn't have the language for it, never having developed the fancy set of theories cinema did. There's no mirror in pop for auteur theory, at least not as far I know. 

In fact, in pop music references to the role have frequently come freighted with nuance. The language used brings to mind manipulation and malfeasance. "Svengali" has often been the term of choice, even when the work is deemed worthwhile. Joe Meek, Phil Spector, George Martin, Brian Wilson, Guy Stevens, John Cale, Brian Eno... most of the superstar producers who come immediately to mind are difficult, even dangerous propositions. Well, maybe not George...

Jack Antonoff seems more benign than brooding. Positively cuddly, he is. He sounds friendly and affable and looks the part, too. I'd trust him. I do trust him.

Why wouldn't I? He's had some significant part in some of the best music I've ever heard. He also, with his sister Rachel (my favorite name, for what it's worth), co-founded the excellent and much-needed Ally Coalition, whose work is essential and ongoing. He seems like one of the good guys, alright.

No, I have no problem with Jack. Entirely the reverse. I need to thank him not just for adding to my general sum of happiness with his work but also for making me re-assess the properties of ownership, something I probably needed to do. 

It's good to learn it's neither necessary nor appropriate for the listener to unravel each thread of a collaboration to be able to enjoy what they're hearing. I can safely leave that to someone else. Because you know someone will always want to. It just doesn't have to be me.

Pop music has always been a collaborative process, of course it has, and often a troubled one. I'm not thinking of the more nebulous issue of influence and appropriation. That's a whole other hornet's nest. I'm talking about more formal arrangements, credits on the label, money in the bank, that labyrinth of rights where improper assignment leads to fallings out, fist fights and the law courts.

There have been times when songs came so thick and fast it was okay to give them away. The heady sixties rush led Lennon/McCartney and Jagger/Richards to hand off minor classics to lesser contemporaries glad to run with them, all the way to the top of the charts. Only ever the also-rans, songs they had no use for, tracks that wouldn't make the cut for the next LP. No sense giving away the farm.

As the industry matured, tales circulated: mistakes made, fortunes lost. Being generous with credit went out of fashion for a while. Songwriters became even more cagey about credit. Ask Morrissey or maybe just read the seventy or so pages he devotes to it in his autobiography.

It may be like that still in some quarters but elsewhere things have changed. I'm not going to question why. Technology gets a lot of credit. Social media. Cultural drift. However it happened, collaboration for many seems to come more naturally now. Remixes, collectives, collabs, everyone does them, is in them, promotes them. Pop music as one big family and no-one thinks it's weird.

It's never been easier to make music and who makes it with whom matters less than it ever has and also more. Geography, style, attitude, age, mix and match an make your statements or sidestep as you like. Creatively everything has changed. Money still matters so those credits always count but when it comes to creative ownership the lines aren't just blurred, they're mostly rubbed away. Sometimes that just makes a mess, sometimes it's chalk in the rain, everything runs together and it all just works.  

You can see the ripples spreading. Lorde on her secret beach, Lana's Chemtrails album cover, Billie Eilish's sleepover party, all that messaging, it's not hard to read. You could blink and think it was the sixties, some days, when musicians led the culture and people folowed. I thought those days of influence were over but everything comes back, doesn't it?

Is it just the sign of these times, though? Our Pandemic Years. Maybe. There is that. Take things away from people, let them feel what they've lost. They'll want it back and they'll value it more. There's something else, though. If it was just the fractiousness, the fretting for freedoms, the furious need to shake loose, then the work wouldn't be this wonderful this often. Would it?

Maybe it would. How should I know? Don't look at me. I still don't really know just what it is a producer does. I don't know who's responsible for what I'm hearing. 

All I know is, whoever's doing it, I'd just like them not to stop.


  1. This is a nice post. For a bit there I felt popular music was getting really hollow, but in the past few years it's really turned around. The beauty, the style, the substance. The joy.

    And as far as I know, a producer takes the sound and works it into a song. But then again I'm also not 100% sure, but I'm glad they're doing it.

    1. A few years ago I was having conversations with people about how the cultural impact of popular music was fading and its preeminent position was already over. I really thought it was an irreversible shift. I'm very glad to find out how wrong that was.


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