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.
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 megaselling 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.
Read more in Slate:
It’s Not Just Björk: Women Are Tired of Not Getting Credit for Their Own Music