Taylor Swift Ghostwriting Hits as “Nils Sjoberg” Is a Genius Jab at Sexist Critics
If you follow the tabloids, you might not know what to think of Taylor Swift, the person. Is she a crazed, boy-obsessed serial monogamist or a heartless, career-obsessed professional who uses men for songwriting material? Did she cheat on Calvin Harris or has her relationship with Tom Hiddleston been staged to advance their careers? I’ll leave these questions to the Kremlinologists who’ve learned to decode the paparazzi photos and subtweets and gossip pages, but it seems pretty normal for a 26-year-old to date someone new every year or two rather than settle down. That’s what I did in my late teens and early 20s, and I never had to write a (No. 1) song to respond to overwhelming backlash.
If you follow Swift’s music, it’s a little easier to know what to think of Taylor Swift, the songwriter. This week, in the latest story to light up the tabloids, Swift has quietly delivered a masterful—not to mention hilarious—response to those who still question her ability to write her own hits.
Here’s the gist. Early Wednesday morning, TMZ reported that “according to sources connected with Taylor,” her breakup with Calvin Harris arose from the recording of Harris’ “This Is What You Came For,” featuring Rihanna. TMZ’s scoop: Swift secretly wrote the song.
During their relationship, Taylor wrote the song, sat down at a piano and did a demo into her iPhone. She sent it to Calvin, who loved it. They both went into a studio and did a full demo with Taylor on vocals and Calvin doing the beat.
They both knew the song would be a hit, but Taylor wrote it for Calvin and both agreed it was a bad idea to let the world know they collaborated as a couple … it would overshadow the song.
So Taylor, who kept the publishing rights, used the pseudonym Nils Sjoberg on the credits.
The first fissure in the relationship reportedly came during an interview. When Ryan Seacrest asked the two if they would ever collaborate, Harris responded, “You know we haven’t even spoken about it. I can’t see it happening, though.” According to TMZ, “Taylor was hurt and felt Calvin took it too far. … It was a quick downward spiral from that point.”
TMZ’s request for confirmation from Swift’s representatives was met with silence. Around noon, though, some confirmation came from Harris himself, in the form of a tweetstorm that complimented Swift’s work on the song while seeming to blame her for the leak.
“I wrote the music, produced the song, arranged it and cut the vocals though. And initially she wanted it kept secret, hence the pseudonym.” — Calvin Harris (@CalvinHarris) July 13, 2016
“Hurtful to me at this point that her and her team would go so far out of their way to try and make ME look bad at this stage though 🤔”- Calvin Harris (@CalvinHarris) July 13, 2016
“I figure if you’re happy in your new relationship you should focus on that instead of trying to tear your ex bf down for something to do.” — Calvin Harris (@CalvinHarris) July 13, 2016
“I know you’re off tour and you need someone new to try and bury like Katy ETC but I’m not that guy, sorry. I won’t allow it.”
— Calvin Harris (@CalvinHarris) July 13, 2016
“Please focus on the positive aspects of YOUR life because you’ve earned a great one.”
— Calvin Harris (@CalvinHarris) July 13, 2016
“God bless everyone have a beautiful day.”
— Calvin Harris (@CalvinHarris) July 13, 2016
It remains unclear who, exactly, leaked the story, though TMZ says “the squad” started talking because “they’re sick of Calvin trashing Taylor and feel he should be thanking her for quietly giving him a smash hit.” Breakups are messy, and they’re even messier when you combine them with tabloid gossip and sniping on Twitter. (So far Swift’s Twitter has remained silent—perhaps she learned a lesson about why it’s often better to resolve these things with a phone call instead of wounded tweets.)
While it’s unclear who will win this tabloid war, Swift has delivered a major blow in another battle: the one between her and the worst of her critics. Secretly writing a hit under the alias “Nils Sjoberg” is one of her all-time slyest jabs, and her funniest musical clapback since “Blank Space.”
For years, Swift—like many female musicians—has been rightly furious over the fact that many men in the industry and the press won’t give her credit for writing her own songs. Here’s how she put it in an interview with Time in 2014:
My friend Ed [Sheeran], no one questions whether he writes everything. In the beginning, I liked to think that we were all on the same playing field. And then it became pretty obvious to me that when you have people sort of questioning the validity of a female songwriter. … It’s a little discouraging that females have to work so much harder to prove that they do their own things.
And here’s how she elaborated on that point later that year in an interview with Billboard:
If someone has studied my catalog and still doesn’t think I’m behind it, there’s nothing I can do for that person. They may have to deal with their own sexist issues, because if I were a guy and you were to look at my catalog and my lyrics, you would not wonder if I was the person behind it.
Though Swift spent many of her interviews around the release of 1989 speaking out about against this kind of sexism—and though she made a point of showing that she could write a whole mega-selling album (one of her best) by herself—the narrative that shadowy men are the real creative force behind her hitmaking has persisted. Before, people pointed to the Nashville songwriters who collaborated with her on her early albums, figuring they “puppeteered” her success. Lately, people have insisted that the man behind the curtain is Swedish songwriter Max Martin.
This dumb, tired narrative took off around the release of 1989, which she touted as her crossover into mainstream pop and her first album-length collaboration with the record-breaking Swedish songster. A 2014 Daily Beast article headlined “Taylor Swift’s Secret Music Man” revealed the supposedly shocking fact that many pop hits are written or co-written by the “lurking” Martin, where he is joined “in the songwriting shadows” by such other “hidden” collaborators as … Sia and Pharrell. The next publication that claimed to expose this “open yet closely guarded secret” was the Atlantic, whose article “Hit Charade: Meet the bald Norwegians and other unknowns who actually create the songs that top the charts” has been shared more than 75,000 times. Never mind that Martin is always credited by name in Swift’s album booklets, and that Swift speaks openly about their collaborations in magazine profiles and at performances. She even spoke about the Swede on the album itself. On 1989’s “voice memo” bonus tracks, Swift breaks down how her collaborations with Martin and others came together, even going so far as to play the demos and recordings of the two sharing ideas in the studio. Even so, the Atlantic suggests that this dirty secret would leave Swift’s “impressionable young fans” with their fragile hearts shattered.
Now, it turns out the real secret Scandinavian hitmaker is … Taylor Swift. And this time the ghostwriter’s identity really was a secret. In fact, Swift’s songwriting codename is so Swedish that actual Swedes are being mistaken for her:
Moreover, this was all confirmed by the one person who has the greatest incentive to deny it: Swift’s feuding ex-boyfriend. (To his credit, Harris was big enough to compliment her songwriting chops.) And according to TMZ, Swift reportedly kept the publishing rights, meaning that as the song has become Harris’ biggest-ever Billboard hit as a lead artist, Swift stays profiting, even as she could prevent him from performing the song. (While Harris allegedly exercised this same right over a collaboration with one of his previous exes, Rita Ora, Swift apparently doesn’t plan to do the same.) In the words of another woman who has had her talent questioned (and who has found her own ways to prove herself in front of critics), the best revenge is your paper.
The Obamas aren’t the only ones who have offered Miranda unprompted creative advice—it seems that everyone has an idea for what kind of musical Miranda should write after Hamilton. When Miranda guested on BuzzFeed’s Another Round podcast, hosts Tracy Clayton and Heben Nigatu brainstormed a musical about Jeb Bush’s failed presidential campaign to be called Jeb! An Uncomfortable Musical. Just this week, the Atlantic’s Jeffrey Goldberg wrote an essay assuming “ that Miranda will soon be writing Obama: The Musical” and offering “a free idea” for a song that adapts a foreign policy monologue that Secretary of State John Kerry once ad-libbed.
Obviously, lots of Hamilfans’ ideas for Miranda are jokes, like Another Round’s Jeb! and even Obama’s suggestion for a musical about Congressional obstructionism. But others are not.
The fact that people are so excited to brainstorm other political or historical subjects for a hip-hop musical is, of course, a testament to Miranda’s skill as a storyteller and songwriter. It is ultimately a compliment to Hamilton that so many fans are eager to see what Miranda will do next. And yet—obviously—Miranda does not need help dreaming up a new musical. He will write a new musical when he’s good and inspired to write a new musical, not because some random person tweets a name of a historical figure or movement at him. If Michelle Obama wants to watch a musical about the Middle East, her best bet is probably to write it herself.
“My earliest conversations with Lin really revolved around language,” Chernow told me. Miranda viewed Hamilton’s life as a “classic hip-hop narrative”: He was like a rapper who used the power of words to lift his way out of poverty and obscurity and into fame. Miranda “saw Hamilton’s rise as inseparable from his command of language,” Chernow said. Hamilton, the “bastard orphan” immigrant from St. Croix, rose to power on the strength of his words, but his verbal ingenuity was a double-edged sword that also precipitated his downfall.
While Chernow did not initially appreciate how the idiom of hip-hop could be a vehicle for Hamilton’s story, Miranda set about educating him as he had done for Sondheim. Chernow learned two things right away. First, “with hip-hop, you can pack an enormous amount of information into the lyrics,” he said. And second, hip-hop’s reliance on rhyme, both rhymed endings and internal rhymes, allows for all manner of wordplay to delight audiences. Chernow realized that what Miranda was constructing was no less than a return to the verse dramas of an earlier age, when people would “sit all evening listening to rhymed couplets and quatrains,” immersed in the pleasure of language.
Chernow recalls Miranda sitting on the couch, snapping his fingers and performing the first fruits of his labor, a rap he called “The Hamilton Mixtape,” which with a few changes would become the opening number of the show. “It was the most extraordinary thing I had ever heard,” Chernow said. “He was creating a unique idiom that was a blend of standard 18th-century speech and 21st-century slang.”
Chernow was struck immediately by the heightened language in the first stanza introducing Hamilton’s story: “by providence, impoverished, in squalor.” And then the second stanza takes a turn for the colloquial, with the “ten-dollar founding father without a father, who got a lot farther by working a lot harder.” “It’s delightful how the language keeps shifting back and forth,” Chernow remarked.
When Miranda unveiled “The Hamilton Mixtape” at the White House Poetry Jam in 2009, he put Hamilton’s linguistic derring-do front and center. “I think he embodies the word’s ability to make a difference,” he said by way of introduction. Of course, Miranda’s own words would prove equally captivating.
Seller hoped that Hamilton could serve as a linguistic bridge to reach a diverse audience of young people. “It’s a marvelous barrier breaker, because the language of the play gives us the information we want and need,” he said, adding that it gives students a foundation that allows them to go back to primary sources without being intimidated by antiquated verbiage.
In the lead-up to the first student matinee last month, I got to spend time with teachers and students at Brooklyn’s Fort Hamilton High School, one of the 12 participating schools. (And no, they weren’t selected simply because of their Hamiltonian name.) Using the Gilder Lehrman curriculum, students had come up with performance pieces based on historical figures, fusing linguistic styles on the model of Hamilton but applying their own idiosyncratic stamp.
One Advanced Placement U.S. History student, Hannah Almontaser, delivered a rap as King George III with Kanye-like swagger. Three of her classmates added a dose of Beyoncé to their “Women Formation,” in which they portrayed Abigail Adams, the black poet Phillis Wheatley, and Hamilton’s wife, Eliza, as proto-feminists.*
At the matinee, 160 students from Fort Hamilton joined with more than 1,000 others from around the city, and the excitement was palpable. Chernow was in attendance and got something of the rock-star treatment from students who asked him to sign their programs, T-shirts, and Hamiltomes.
Afterward, Chernow marveled at how enthusiastically the students engaged with the show and its language. “It was absolutely fascinating to watch what the students responded to,” he said, especially the humor, the romance, and of course the rap battles. The wordiness was hardly an impediment, he noted. “It’s a very sophisticated and erudite show, but I felt they were picking up everything. It didn’t go over the heads.” A vital link had been forged through the power of language: Words can indeed make a difference.
Yeah, the whole show depended upon him. There’s one moment in episode 2, where he’s talking to the mirror. I was on set watching him. I thought, “This is just phenomenal.” It’s just watching someone go through this range of emotions in 10 seconds. When you put it together on TV, because you’re editing, it almost takes away some of the brilliance, because people instantly think this is a collage of different takes, but it was one take. He did it all in one fluid mass, and I wish I could have taken over the audience and said, “There’s no editing, there’s no trickery. It’s him. He’s brilliant.
I hope he gets everything he deserves. I’d love to do more for him. I just don’t know whether Danny going on would be right for him. The BBC would love to do it …
Slate sometimes likes to assert her dominance. If she hates
you and doesn’t need to maintain a relationship, she’ll just tell you off
and/or punch you. But if you’re supposed to be friends or at least not-enemies?
Why not fluff Blackwall’s beard the wrong way just to be like ‘Bro. I’m here
and you can’t do anything about it’? Or if Solas is trying to
prove he’s smarter than you, why not slobber on him? (It proves his point, but shuts him up.) She must have been hanging
out with my soldier Finn too much, ‘cause drooling wasn’t something she came up
with… GURL, WHERE DID YOU LEARN THAT? YOU PUT THAT ELF DOWN AND THINK ABOUT
WHAT YOU’VE DONE. >8I;;
As for the smash hit Hamilton, about the life and trials of Alexander Hamilton in the early years of the republic, there are a handful of swear words—a few shits and a few fucks. For a show of this length and topicality, the profanity feels appropriately sparing. When the show will be made available to tens of thousands of high schoolers next year, the language will not be altered. Considering the acceptance of erstwhile foul language and sexual connotations, Hamilton would most likely be rated PG-13 today. Whether in song or in dialogue, the recent musical theater, as well as nonmusicals, is rife with swearing. Billy Elliot, Jersey Boys, Motown: The Musical, the revival of Pippin, If/Then, and Spring Awakening—all highly regarded shows—are just a few examples. And, although it was not a musical, I cannot leave off without mentioning a play that went as far as giving its title one that could not be printed in most newspaper reviews: The Motherfucker With the Hat.