When Olivia Rodrigo released the production credits behind her latest song Deja Vu this week, it confirmed what the pop music industry already knew: Jack Antonoff is a certified hitmaker.
The producer and songwriter's name, which featured among the credits, may not be recognisable to the casual listener, but his impact on radio and streaming services has been immense.
Over the past five years, the US multi-instrumentalist has helped craft albums by the likes of Taylor Swift (Reputation and Folklore), Lorde (Melodrama), Lana Del Rey (Chemtrails over the Country Club) and Pink (Beautiful Trauma).
Simply put, the man has been all over the airwaves, crafting some of the most evocative pieces of pop sung by dynamic female artists.
But, who is he and how did he find this Midas touch?
Writing with feeling
What sets Antonoff's work apart from his peers is its edge.
While manifesting sonically through interesting chords and arrangements such as in Pink’s Better Life and All Loved Up by Amy Shark, his hook-laden compositions are not designed to be pure earworms.
Take Taylor Swift’s 2016 hit Out of the Woods, for example, in which Antonoff weighs down the repetitive and catchy chorus with frenzied and percussive synth lines and experimental vocal samples.
It’s a move that transforms the track from a sun-kissed radio banger to something more dramatic and existential.
The approach hearkens back to his beginnings as lead singer of Steel Train, an indie rock group renowned for melding 1980s-style synth-pop with the psychedelia of 1970s rock.
It was the former style that landed him his first taste of success.
After joining the band Fun, Antonoff co-wrote the group's biggest hit, 2011's We Are Young.
Featuring singer Janelle Monae, the track was hailed for its expansive production. Once again, the synth and percussion were more powerful than the average pop song of the time, recalling the bombast of Queen.
We Are Young won the 2013 Grammy Award for Song of the Year and set the band on the path to stardom. Antonoff was horrified.
“I remember immediately – immediately – feeling like, ‘I don’t want to play We Are Young when I’m 35,’” he told The New York Times in 2017, when he was 32. Fun has been on hiatus since 2012.
He was not perturbed by the success and fame, but he felt the song was too impersonal. As that interview revealed, Antonoff loves the exuberance of pop music, but is against the notion it purely serves as a form of escapism.
Songs of love and loss
That creative search for meaning partly stems from personal trauma.
When he was just 18, Antonoff watched his sister, five years his junior, succumb to cancer.
Finding ways to express that sense of loss, amid his maximalist approach to songwriting, has been his driving force ever since.
"My whole career has been revisiting that through a different lens,” he told online music publication Pitchfork in 2017. “How do I talk about loss in these big songs that sound like a person blasting out of Jersey on a rocket ship?"
It’s a question he rephrases and poses to potential collaborators upon their first meeting.
In The New York Times interview, he explained how songwriting sessions often begin with him asking the artist: “What’s the worst thing that’s ever happened to you?”
It’s a question designed to provoke a conversation, often spilling over to become the subject matter forming his best and biggest collaborations.
That tension between love and loss, intimacy and bombast, celebrating life and acknowledging loss, has been explored musically and lyrically in Look What You Made Me Do and my tears ricochet with Swift (2017 and 2020 respectively), Liability with Lorde in 2017 and the fiery Gas Lighter by The Chicks in 2020.
Working with women
These are the kind of heavy and nuanced subjects Antonoff believes are best delivered through the female voice.
Working almost exclusively with female artists has been more of a creative choice, he told Pitchfork.
Citing his musical heroes as dynamic singers such as Kate Bush, not to mention growing up with two sisters, he often wrote songs with a female voice in mind.
"All emotions aside, I write a full octave above where I sing," he said. "There’s just a lot of melodic DNA that works better for women than men. And most of my favourite artists are women."
Antonoff also said the testosterone-driven atmosphere of the entertainment industry was not conducive to his craft.
“I don’t want to categorise something that’s more specifically female, but I will say that, in my experience, the women that I’ve worked with have been more interested in talking about what’s gone wrong in our lives, quietly putting it to a piano, and then eventually making it into this big thing.”
It’s also a description fitting of a skyrocketing career that shows pop music can be made with purpose.