She Knew They Were Trouble: Assertive Authorship in the Max Martin Era

Curator's Note

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.


The way that pop is composed has almost always been something of a conundrum in a post-rock era of popular music. Swift's assertions early in her career that she claim authenticity and autonomy as she rejected her RCA development deal is the stuff of legends and has marked her throughout her career. Yet pop has always been extremely collaborative and the move to branch out into movie soundtracks, experiment with the likes of Dr. Luke, play with James Taylor, etc, has clearly opened her up. That she pronounces her status as an "author" and labels this experimentation allows her room to retreat if and when the pop thing fizzles. The reason for this is genre oriented: Country music is a lifetime commitment that is multigenerational and is very forgiving when it comes to crossover attempts. Artists like Dolly Parton, Garth Brooks, Kris Kristofferson, you name it, can play with other genres, be in movies and the like but if they play their cards right they can come home to the country. Of course, what's different is this "authenticity" item you smartly highlight. Most C&W artists collaborate or sing songs penned by others. So what is different, I think, is that unlike the pop stars you mention above is that Swift must continually be viewed as her own woman, someone who is not "manufactured" as you so rightly hint. There's a lot more to say and I will gnaw on this for a while, so thanks.

As always, Myles, you bring wisdom. Excellent post. And as always, I had a bunch of questions to ask you, but then I re-read the piece and realized you answered them already. What's interesting is how this singer-songwriter authenticity doesn't necessarily transfer to the live shows. I went to a Speak Now tour performance when it came to town, and it was... an experience, to say the least. There was a dance interlude and quite a bit of mashup (at the end of "Back to December," she dives into Timbaland's "Apologize"; while playing "Fearless" on ukulele under a white tree, she mixed in Jason Mraz's "I'm Yours"). It was undeniably Taylor Swift but I'd never really considered it in terms of authorship before.

Thanks, Cameron. I'm wondering if we can't tie that into her sing-along performances at the Grammys. I was rewatching a few of the performances earlier tonight, and I felt the same way I felt at the time: she was singing along to the same things I was singing along to, as someone who has spent much of the last year listening to Top 40 with some consistency. For the Grammys, those moments—they were obsessed with that front row, who were on their feet dancing to the point where I thought there had to be another non-skin related memo that didn't get leaked—are a way to create a proximity to celebrity. But for Swift, it's also a space where she can cultivate her own proximity to her fans by suggesting that she's also someone who is listening to pop music, obsessed with the same artists that they might also be obsessed with. It's also a point of identification that Swift can cultivate in different ways depending on the situation: she can mix in "I'm Yours" at one tour stop, and bring Jason Mraz out to perform it with her at another, with the former performance suggesting a simple young woman who loves a catchy song and the latter suggesting a famous young woman with famous friends. In both cases, however, she takes ownership of the moment by being the one to welcome someone else into her world. For me, authorship in a concert environment takes on a different form of creative license: while the show might remain carefully staged and choreographed, it's also intimate and freeing. Moments of authorial rupture are also moments of spontaneity (at least if you don't read setlists from other shows on the tour), authentic in a different way.

A very thoughtful and smart post, Myles. I have two things that I want to "gnaw on" (cheers, Tim) for a bit here: (1) Does the question of authorship ultimately depend on a misguided notion of audience/generic expectations? In other words, does Swift explicitly call out Martin and Shellback for their co-authorship in order to remind her country fans that she's part of a long tradition of C&W collaboration and encourage her pop fans that she's working with the best hitmakers working? Seems like this might be a move calculated to please everybody at the same time, but ultimately depends on a very narrow view of what "pop" and "C&W" are (and what "pop" and "C&W" fans expect). (2) Is this a(nother) recognition of the power of the hitmaker-as-queenmaker? See this article and the fact that names like Max Martin, Dr. Luke, etc. have increasing (and, importantly, visible) power in the popscape?

Thanks, Anthony. To your first point, and to speak to Tim's comment above, Taylor is certainly laying out groundwork to keep from being labeled a pop artist while nonetheless seeking to leverage crossover appeal. I'll be interested to see what happens at the Grammys next year—although "Never Ever..." was eligible this year (and nominated for Record of the Year), I'm curious how songs like "I Knew Your Were Trouble" get categorized. Swift has competed in pop categories before: "You Belong With Me" was categorized as a pop song when nominated for Record/Song of the Year in 2010. But I'm wondering if competing in both country and pop could be considered more problematic now that Martin is part of the equation (whereas before it was an early experiment in her songwriting career, and not such a concerted effort to cross over). While sending different singles to country/pop radio is a way for her to appease both audiences in the short term, the Grammys' generic delineation—arbitrary as it can sometimes be, especially if we were to start breaking down the Alternative/Rock distinction—becomes a marker of genre in very specific ways. If Swift is there to represent Red, what part of the quilt is she going to show? If this year was Swift showcasing her theatrical, poppy side with "Never Ever," will we get the stripped down "All Too Well" to reconnect her with her country roots next year? (And yes, I know you didn't specifically ask about the Grammys, but they're clearly on my ind, and I think there's a key space where those narrow views of genre can be reinforced or reinscribed). To your second point, yes—I will admit that having a music critic for a sibling made me more aware of Martin than most would have been in his earlier years of work, but he's becoming more recognizable. Heck, even the existence of Wikipedia is a huge part of being able to identify a producer's work, similar to how IMDB allows us to connect the work of an actor or director to other projects. But I would still suggest that the vast majority of people who hear "Never Ever..." on the radio wouldn't see his fingerprints in ways that would dramatically alter the popscape (at least at the point of reception).

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