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Male producers are not the secret sauce in female music

| Thursday, October 8, 2020

Mary O'Reilly | The Observer

We need to change how we talk about celebrity male producers in regard to female artists. It’s fun to listen to celebrity male producers like Jack Antonoff and Mark Ronson talk about the creative process behind some of the greatest pop records of the last decade. Mark Ronson’s stories are one of my favorite parts of Instagram, and talking about Jack Antonoff’s unique touch for production can make it feel like we have an inside look at the process. At some point, though, we need to take a step back and evaluate why we lift them up as men when most of their work involves talented female artists. 

Antonoff, who has produced albums for Saint Vincent, Christina Perry, Lorde, P!nk, Taylor Swift, SIA and the Chicks, has said in countless interviews that the music he wants to make is simply in a woman’s voice. Ronson has taken a similar position when talking about his work with Amy Winehouse, Camilla Cabello, Miley Cyrus, King Princess and Lady Gaga, saying he also prefers to work with female talent.

Both of these producers have been praised by their collaborators for creating an atmosphere in which they feel heard and creatively free. The press likes to highlight this point, making Ronson and Antonoff seem like the “nice boys of music” following years of abuse by other producers within the music industry. 

Both Antonoff and Ronson are musicians in their own right, making the appearence of their names in liner notes particularly noticeable; maybe that is where their names should stay. They don’t need to appear in music videos, “SNL” performances, stadium shows and interviews. Due to the widely accepted narrative surrounding women in art, one that limits them to merely the position of the muse, they need to be pushed forward in their own narrative.

This is only possible by making male producers less visible — not more. Maybe it is a lot to ask them to step back, but their careers were built by powerful female voices. Ronson got his start producing Amy Winehouse’s album “Back to Black” and Antonoff’s fame was instigated by Sara Bareilles’ track “Brave.” They have already benefited from their relationships with these women; they do not need to also piggyback on their press and fame. 

When a team of artists work on a song, the question of who did what is sure to follow. The rise of the celebrity producer has only given further validity to the picking apart of the creative ownership of music. This process when applied to female artists creates a strong implication that the genius of Taylor Swift, Lady Gaga, Lorde and Lana Del Ray, among others, lies not in them but rather the man behind the glass.

Ronson and Antonoff are constantly redirecting attention back to the artist, gushing about their female colleagues’ genius before telling stories about how their suggestions made the songs what they are. This may seem harmless at first glance, but journalists and fans too often write off the praise as boring and choose instead to talk about what the artist didn’t do, instead of what she did. 

In an interview with The Hollywood Reporter, Ronson said, “Sometimes it’s not fair that I just go along for a ride on their tragic life experiences.”

It is clear that for both Ronson and Antonoff, the recording and creative experience is a pure relationship and never manipulative. How this experience is perceived from the outside is what casts a shadow. 

When talking about Antonoff’s role in Lorde’s “Melodrama,” fans and members of the press somehow simultaneously displayed him as Lorde’s muse and the genius behind it, leaving little room for Lorde herself. The Abbey Road Institute claimed that Antonoff is “bringing brutal honesty back to pop.” It isn’t his honesty to bring. The stories he helps to tell belong to women. Facilitating a place to be honest and being honest aren’t the same thing. I imagine Antonoff would be the first to tell you that. 

These men are talented and have signature styles: Antonoff has his full choruses and large ‘80s riffs, while Ronson made a name with DJ-esque production and creative use of instruments. The two men have helped to define the last decade of pop, but the only reason I can identify these attributes as theirs is because they have told me about it in interviews and liner notes. I can’t pick out what parts of a Talking Heads album are Brian Eno’s and what bits belong to David Byrne. It is simply the music. Why do Ronson and Antonoff feel the need to claim segments of female work when the precedent is to fade in the background? 

If the explicit narrative offered — that the women Antonoff and Ronson work with are the real geniuses — is the widely accepted one and the subtextual narrative — that the female artists need a male genius in order to make good music — is imagined, then why aren’t there more female producers?

Antonoff’s and Ronson’s success comes from empowering women within the role of performer. It would make sense to also expand this sort of empowerment into production, creating more spaces where women feel comfortable being honest.  No woman has ever won a Grammy for best production on a nonclassical album, and no woman has been nominated for an album that wasn’t her own. It is only through ending the narrative that female genius comes from male producers that we can empower more female producers, something the music industry is desperate for.  

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