Taylor Swift as Nils Sjoberg: Welcome to the Machine
The revelation that Taylor ghostwrote for former beau Calvin Harris marks a critical step in her pop evolution
As always, the teen conspiracy theorists were right. Today we learned that “This Is What You Came For,” Calvin Harris’ latest lukewarm pop smash with prior collaborative muse Rihanna, was in fact written in part with his ex-girlfriend, fellow worldwide headliner Taylor Swift. The song was even laid down with Swift as the original vocalist, before fear of the track refracting the couple’s off-studio relationship led Harris to re-record it with RiRi. As seamy as some of the details appear — and TMZ claims that Harris’ denial in April that he and Swift would ever collaborate led to their eventual breakup — the item that really sticks from this story is Taylor’s choice of nom de plume: Nils Sjoberg, which anagrams to “ringless job,” if you want to read way too much into that.
Is it surprising that an artist who’s been signed to a label called Big Machine since she was of cotillion age is now taking her place among the Top 40 scientists in ceaseless pursuit of building a catchier mouse trap? Not exactly, though it’s still a tiny bit stunning to see one of the most visible and successful pop stars of our lifetime playing Girl Incognito in the extended credits for her one-time significant other’s latest chartbuster. Taylor writing on pop megahits is certainly nothing new — she’s had co-writes on every major single of her career, and wrote the entirety of 2010’s Speak Now on her lonesome. Until now, though, she’d always been part of the finished product as well, not just one of the workers tightening the screws.
Of course, Taylor’s had no shortage of tutelage from the best in the business in this respect. She’s worked extensively on her two most recent albums with proven string-pullers like Shellback, Greg Kurstin, Jeff Bhasker, and of course the grand puppetmaster of all popular music, Max Martin. The use of “Nils Sjoberg” as her alias reads as Taylor’s sly-ish allusion to the Swedish-dominated nature of contemporary pop, knowing that there would be no more convincing way for her to slip into the song’s shadows than through a difficult-to-pronounce Scandinavian name that American eyes would gloss over in Wikipedia credits. (Of course, now the pseudonym will have the exact opposite effect as intended, reaching Client 9-levels of instant infamy, and it’s undoubtedly going to be included in Taylor-related punchlines for the rest of her career.)
But the mini-scandal over all of the personal implications of this saga overshadows a much more basic point: Who would’ve ever guessed that Taylor Swift had anything to do with this boring-ass Calvin Harris song? Even at her absolute blandest, Taylor has never written a lyric this innocuous for herself. There’s a little bit of her third-person, oh-my-God-who-is-she wonderment (“Lightning strikes every time she moves”), and shades of the Hays Code-approved sexual intrigue of 1989’s smokier tracks (“We say nothing more than we need / I say ‘your place’ when we leave”). But there’s a total absence of borderline-uncomfortable moments where Taylor shows her cards by leaning into a lyrical turn a little too strongly — think “the blame is on me” becoming “the joke is on me” on “I Knew You Were Trouble,” or the bizarre “Band-Aids don’t fix bullet holes” image from the “Bad Blood” bridge — and without those, “This Is What You Came For” is almost entirely indistinguishable as her handiwork.
In itself, though, that’s a critical step in Taylor Swift’s musical evolution. She’s long teased an eventual receding from the spotlight — “The Lucky One,” off of 2012’s Red, openly yearned for life as a recluse — and it seems all too logical that when Taylor invariably hits her boiling point on paparazzi tracking her every beach vacation and Twitter users grading her choice of romantic partners like a never-ending game show she can’t win, she’ll retreat to the lab and write songs for the next generation of Top 40 tabloid fixtures. Intentionally or not, Nils Sjoberg and “This Is What You Came For” symbolize Taylor’s opening foray into a pop world without her at the center, and if it wasn’t for some meddling kids, she might’ve gotten away with it: Calvin and Rihanna’s song is a top-five hit, and she has the power to stop her ex from ever performing it again if she wants to. Taylor Swift was born from the Big Machine, and now she is an essential part of its circuitry.