The Marginalization of Taylor Swift Producer Nathan Chapman

In November of 1994, then President Bill Clinton and his Democrat Party suffered a historic and debilitating defeat to Republicans in the mid-term elections that would later be known as The Republican Revolution. Led by Newt Gingrich, Republicans picked up 54 seats in the House of Representatives and 8 in the Senate, gaining solid control of both houses of Congress in an election that was seen as a wholesale rebuke of Bill Clinton and his policies.

George Stephanopoulos

Bill Clinton, reeling from the election, did something unprecedented to recover politically. Behind the back of his long-time aids, most importantly his Communication’s Director and Senior Adviser George Stephanopoulos who’d been with Clinton since his early days in Arkansas, Clinton hired a Republican pollster named Dick Morris to secretly regain his political footing. Clinton was initially so embarrassed of hiring Dick Morris, he had a code name, “Charlie,” and while the rest of Clinton’s staff worked on writing Clinton’s 1995 State of the Union speech in the conventional manner after the big midterm defeat, Clinton himself was hiding out with Dick Morris in the residential portion of the White House writing the speech that he would ultimately deliver.

Dick Morris was the mastermind of “triangulation,” which was a way to appeal to as many voters as possible while giving little regard to political ideology. It was all about winning. Soon Dick became one of Clinton’s chief advisers, and was Clinton’s campaign manager for the election in 1996. According to George Stephanopoulos, over the first nine months of 1995, nobody had more power over the President than Dick Morris. Stephanopoulos also said he “despised” Dick Morris. Despite Stephanopoulos being considered one of the key figures behind Bill Clinton’s success, he was marginalized in the Administration by Morris. In 1996, Stephanopoulos quit the Clinton White House.

If there was a parallel in the music world, about the only difference between what George Stephanopoulos was to Bill Clinton, and what producer Nathan Chapman was to Taylor Swift is that when Nathan Chapman began to be pushed aside, Taylor Swift wasn’t in the midst of defeat, she was riding an overwhelming wave of financial and industry success.

Taylor Swift and Nathan Chapman

Nathan Chapman is a session musician, songwriter, and record producer. If you wanted to point to one individual behind the sonic success of Taylor Swift, it would be him. The first record Chapman ever produced was Taylor Swift’s first, self-titled release in 2006. Swift picked Chapman because he produced her first demos when Swift was only 14. He believed in her when nobody else did. Since then Chapman has been the primary producer on every one of Swift’s albums. He also plays much of the music that makes it onto Taylor Swift records: drums, acoustic and electric guitars, piano and keyboards and synthesizers. Nathan has won 2 Grammy’s, a CMA, and ACM Award as Taylor’s producer, and been nominated for several more. If you hear a Taylor Swift song, you’re hearing just as much of Nathan Chapman as you are Taylor Swift….except to when it comes to Taylor’s last album Red.

Despite the partnership of Nathan Chapman and Taylor Swift creating arguably the most successful modern country artist, with sales beating every other country star and winning Taylor two CMA Entertainer of the Year awards, apparently this was not enough to appease Taylor’s label owner, Scott Borchetta. During the recording process of the Red album, Scott Borchetta inserted himself into the production—something he’d previously prided himself in staying out of aside from his role as an executive. Borchetta suggested that Taylor Swift needed help beyond Nathan Chapman.

“I said, ‘You know, this song isn’t working yet.’ They both looked at me (Swift and Nathan Chapman) with a blank stare. “The chorus isn’t elevating like it needs to. Where you’re wanting to take the song, it’s not going there. It needs a Max Martin type of lift.””¦ At that point Borchetta called Martin. Both Borchetta and Swift agree that it was a turning point for “Red”.

It was the Dick Morris moment in Taylor Swift’s career. Borchetta, feeling that Taylor’s success could even be greater than her already world-beating status, reached out to two Swedish producers from the pop world—Max Martin and Shellback—renown for cutting mega hits that appeal to the widest possible audience for bands like the Backstreet Boys and ‘N Sync. They were the parallel in the music world to Dick Morris and the “triangulation” theorem.

Max Martin.
Max Martin.

Max Martin and Shellback were not just brought in as producers, but co-writers for Taylor Swift’s songs. Though the partnership only resulted in three tracks for the album Red, it included the album’s two biggest singles by far, “We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together,” and “I Knew You Were Trouble.” The Max Martin/Shellback material made up three of the album’s first four singles, while many of Swift’s original Red songs that she penned solo stayed shelved.

“I see myself as kind of this girl who writes songs in her bedroom,” Taylor recently told the Associated Press. “You can kind of dress it up all you want…but I’m always going to be a girl who writes songs in her bedroom in my own personal perception of myself.” 

This type of simplicity in approach was what built tremendous loyalty among Taylor Swift’s fans. She wasn’t an artist on a pedestal. She was real; someone they could relate to. But the Max Martin/Shellback material was completely counter-intuitive to Taylor’s “writing songs in her bedroom” image, both in style and approach. The songs also pushed the boundaries of what music sold as “country” sounded like, with “We Are Never…” being a decidedly bubblegum pop song, and “I Knew You Were Trouble” featuring a dubstep beat.

Taylor Swift also told the AP about her next album, “It’s too early to tell who are going to be my predominant collaborators, but I do know that my absolute dream collaborators were Shellback and Max Martin on the last project.” By all accounts, Max Martin and Shellback came into the album-making process near the end of Red, when Scott Borchetta was not hearing the type of radio singles he wanted. With Swift’s next album, Max Martin/Shellback collaborations, or rough equivalents from other well-known pop producers could be the predominant direction of the material, with most of the vestiges of the adolescent Swift as songwriter and co-producer falling away.

Meanwhile Nathan Chapman must be wondering what else could he have done. It is very likely he will still be involved in Swift’s album making process for her new record in some capacity, but his role as the man behind Taylor Swift’s sound, and her initial success through making music that was simple, yet substantive, appear to be over. Just like George Stephanopoulos, Nathan Chapman has been left in a lurch when the thirst for wide appeal overruns principle.

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