As an artist whose identity is defined around mining personal heartbreak for lyrical effect, Taylor Swift’s authenticity is distinctly tied to authorship. So when Swift transitioned from the solo-authored Speak Now—she’s the sole author of every song on the album—to the more collaborative Red, it raised questions about her authorship, questions that were pre-emptively answered by the careful mediation evidenced in this pre-release interview.
Here Swift seeks to protect her image as a country singer-songwriter, emphasizing that the poppy first single—“We Are Never Getting Back Together”—is not representative of the entire album, but instead just one part of a patchwork quilt (of which she is the quilter). She particularly singles out pop producers Max Martin and Shellback for their contribution to “I Knew You Were Trouble,” but she also positions herself as the song’s key author, bringing them a chorus and requesting a certain sound that Martin and Shellback then delivered. Martin and Shellback are not the only collaborators on Red, but they’re the only ones that need such careful managing: Liz Rose (“All Too Well”) worked with Swift early in her career, Dan Wilson (“Treacherous”) won a Grammy with the Dixie Chicks, and Gary Lightbody and Ed Sheeran each appear on the songs they collaborated on (thus allowing Swift to merge her authenticity with theirs). Martin and Shellback, meanwhile, are corporate songsmiths associated with the “manufacturing” of pop success for artists—in Martin’s case—like Britney Spears, Katy Perry, and Kelly Clarkson.
Musically, this created tension: The Washington Post writes that “Swift’s appeal depends on at least a veneer of authenticity, and Martin does her no favors in this department.” For Swift, however, any loss of musical authenticity—which she frames as experimentation, eliding the commercial imperatives behind the move— is offset by her continued authorship, origin stories that she can reveal in interviews and which fans can use to separate Martin’s contributions from her lyrics.
My question is this: why has similar co-authorship been withheld from Swift’s other producers? While pop music has largely accepted producers as authors, Swift’s definition of authorship seems to be limited to lyrics and melody, minimizing the contribution of someone like long-time producer Nathan Chapman. While big name collaborations like Martin required Swift to compromise her authorship, it’s possible there is an agreement with other producers that her singer-songwriter authenticity is more important than their contributions.