Jack Antonoff is Pop Music's Biggest Fan
Lucy Weltner looks at Jack Antonoff's weird and wonderful relationship with pop.
For the last month, I’ve been swimming in the work of Jack Antonoff. I’ve listened to the albums of fun., Bleachers, and almost everything Antonoff's produced or co-wrote. I’ve read the interviews, watched the Tiny Desk concert, and perused long think-pieces for inspiration. I've come away with an appreciation of Antonoff's maddeningly effective songwriting formula; a long list of pop artists that Antonoff seems inspired by; and the sneaking feeling that Antonoff's sought after mostly because of his ability to appreciate and understand other people's music. Jack Antonoff's a pretty good solo artist, but I've come to appreciate him most as pop music's biggest fan.
Part I: Me, You and Lesley Grooving
In my first year of college, I saw writer and illustrator Lynda Barry speak. One of her anecdotes has always stuck with me. She talked about listening to the song “You and Me Endlessly Grooving” as a kid in her parents’ car. At the time, she misheard the lyrics as “you and me and Lesley grooving.” The addition of “Lesley” gave the song a mysterious power. The line “you and me endlessly grooving” doesn’t provide any specifics; the song could describe any two people having fun together. In contrast, the line “you and me and Lesley” – at least for me – evokes a more specific image, of a couple driving and laughing with a chatty friend. It casually introduces a mystery: Who is Lesley? The song’s chill, tranquil music suggests that Lesley’s a natural part of the scene, but why? Is she a friend from college, or work? A third wheel? Part of a threesome?
Most of Antonoff’s best songs have some kind of “me and you and Lesley grooving” moment. On “Dream of Mickey Mantle,” the opener to Bleachers' album Gone Now, Antonoff says, “Kim’s video closed and a war goes on and on/And all the hope I had when I was young, I hope I wasn’t wrong.” Like the “Lesley” line, it sets up a mystery: why is a video store so important to Antonoff? (Important enough he implicitly compares the closure of the store to a war?) The reference hints at a deep, painful story related to Kim’s video, a specific loss underlying the big pop chorus. Antonoff doesn’t need to explain exactly what that story is to make the song feel meaningful; it’s enough for me to know that there IS a story.
Even Antonoff’s most arena-friendly hits have “Lesley” moments. While most Americans who listen to the radio know the anthemic chorus of fun.'s “We Are Young,” Antonoff sets the stage with an intriguing, specific story that initially seems like it has nothing to do with the chorus:
“Give me a second, I need to get my story straight
My friends are in the bathroom, getting higher than the Empire State
My lover, she's waiting for me, just across the bar
My seat’s been taken by some sunglasses, asking bout a scar
I know I gave it to you months ago, I know you’re trying to forget it”
Antonoff includes so many odd images that each line feels weighted down with meaning. (When Antonoff sings the fourth line, I can’t help but imagine a giant, talking pair of sunglasses.) As usual, I’m filled with questions: why did the protagonist give his lover a scar? Who’s asking about it? Why isn’t he getting high with his friends? Is this a song about domestic violence? Before I can linger on the scene, the rousing, ramshackle chorus sweeps in. The suddenness of the transition feels purposeful. Just as the protagonist drinks and parties to forget about a bad situation, the chorus loudly distracts from the more disturbing content in the verses. “We Are Young” isn’t a perfect song – it’s a little clumsy, with a few jarring transitions – but there’s at least the suggestion of a story underlying the generalized “YOLO” sentiment of the chorus.
Antonoff’s writing constantly switches between specific and anthemic. On my favourite lines on “I Wanna Get Better,” Antanoff refers to "the love" the same way he might refer to God, as something universally known that needs no introduction:
“While my friends were getting high and chasing girls down parkway lines
I was losing my mind cause the love, the love, the love, the love, the love”
In two lines, Antonoff’s writing shifts from straightforward (“getting high and chasing girls down parkway lines”) to vague and symbolic (“the love, the love, the love”). After mentioning a few more cryptic details, Antonoff belts out the big, anthemic chorus everyone can relate to: “I didn’t know I was lonely ‘til I saw your face/I wanna get better, better, better.” Antanoff's big pop choruses – the more rousing, the better – make the specific, cryptic details feel like part of a grand human narrative about love and loss.
Fortunately, Antonoff’s an expert at building powerful, echoing hooks. My favourite might be the chorus of “Reckless Love,” powered by bright synths, textured, intimate guitar passes, and echoing drums that remind me of Phil Collins’ “In The Air Tonight.” It’s a song about sacrificing your time, energy and good sense in order to love someone self-destructive, someone who will never be healthy enough to love you back. On a song like this, you’d expect huge, soaring vocals, but Antonoff’s deep voice sounds measured and resigned as if he’s observing a doomed relationship instead of part of one. The instrumentation captures the feeling of being both hopelessly stuck inside a situation and outside looking in. The pretty picked guitar passages – placed at the front of the mix, so you can hear the scratching – bring listeners close. The echoing effects – which make Antonoff sound like a giant speaking from the bottom of a dark cavern – make the singer sound remote and inaccessible. The huge, sad depth of the chorus reminds me of watching a televised disaster you know will someday be history.
Part II: The God of Pop Music
While I dedicated the first part of this piece to what makes Jack Antonoff unique, I now want to talk about what makes most of his songs sound so familiar. As someone who grew up with the music Jack Antonoff takes inspiration from – soft rock from the '80s and '90s, 2000s indie, Dido, Phil Collins and REM – I must confess: most of Jack Antonoff’s songs sound like Popular Music to me. Not like any particular type of popular music, but like the incarnation of popular music itself. If there was a god of popular music, I imagine that He would make music that sounds like Bleachers.
To illustrate my point, here’s a sample of notes I wrote down while listening to the Bleachers’ albums Gone Now and Strange Desire:
• "Reckless Love" is very '80s. Reminds me of New Order, Phil Collins/Genesis, and what Arcade Fire did on their last album.
• “Who I Want You to Love” sounds SO MUCH LIKE EARLY REM. It’s beautiful
• Mickey Mantle sounds like The Killers - Run for Cover
• Rollercoaster is a lost song from Taylor Swift’s 1989 era. Even the cadence of his speech kinda sounds like Taylor’s. (I wrote this before I knew Antonoff was involved in the production of 1989)
• On "Goodmorning", Antonoff seems like he’s taking inspiration from Vampire Weekend. The production also sounds inspired by Bon Iver - 22 a million
You get the idea – most Jack Antonoff songs sound like a mixture of '80s pop and 2000s alternative.
While Antonoff isn’t a groundbreaking innovator, he is a skilled songwriter who finds compelling ways to present familiar musical ideas. Antonoff packages the most appealing sounds of the '80s and 2000s into tightly written songs that develop quickly and move deftly from one section to the next (after listening to every fun. and Bleachers album, I know that every Antonoff song will build to a catchy hook within the first minute).
On one hand, I intuitively enjoy most of Antonoff's solo efforts; the aesthetic feels warm and familiar, the writing’s compelling, and the hooks are difficult to resist. But after repeated exposure, Antonoff’s approach to songwriting can start to feel limiting. What’s effectively cathartic on one song gets exhausting after 5 or 6. Most songs on the Bleachers album Gone Now are anchored by loud, compressed, synth or piano lines and accented by bright, jazzy horns. Every song builds to an echoing, spacious chorus. The album’s so committed to specific sounds and songwriting tricks that it starts to feel like one very long song, or the soundtrack of a musical that keeps returning to the same riffs and themes.
While I appreciate the lyricism and instrumentals, Bleachers songs – as a group – affect me mostly through the composition, the movement, the build and swell. I feel vulnerable when Antonoff speaks quietly over the verse, increasingly excited as the music builds, cathartic when the chorus breaks. Antonoff’s a good enough songwriter that I’m taken in by the dramatic movement of songs even when the production’s overblown and the lyrics don’t make sense. I’m not feeling emotional because of Antonoff's unique lyricism or instrumentals; I'm feeling emotional because I'm listening to an extremely well-constructed pop song. The instrumental could sound cheap and over-compressed, the lyrics could make no sense, and I'd still feel moved. As someone who usually drills down into the details of lyrics and instrumentation, looking for specific messages and themes, it was an unsettling feeling. After my fourth or fifth listen to Gone Now, I found myself thinking: I'm not listening to Jack Antonoff, a specific mortal. I'm listening to the God of pop, who brings me all the emotions of pop music: sincerity, vulnerability, and big, grandiose catharsis.
Part III: Portrait of the Artist as a Big Fan
When Antonoff brings his songwriting skills to artists with more unique visions, great albums get made. Antonoff co-wrote and produced several huge pop albums in the past couple of years – including Lorde’s Melodrama, Taylor Swift’s Lover, and Lana Del Rey’s Norman Fucking Rockwell. On each album, Antonoff’s writing and production channels and intensifies the artist’s style rather than watering it down. Antonoff understands each artist’s distinctive appeal – what Taylor Swift fans love about Taylor Swift, and Lana Del Rey fans love about Lana Del Rey – and how to communicate that appeal to outsiders and critics through detailed lyricism and tight pop songwriting.
Take Lana Del Rey’s album, Norman Fucking Rockwell, which Jack Antonoff co-wrote with Lana Del Rey. On many of Lana’s early albums, her sad girl persona felt vague and stylized, more like a bunch of references the well-known archetypes (ie passive girls who like bad boys) than a fully fleshed-out personality. Norman Fucking Rockwell takes the concepts that have always defined Lana’s persona – old fashioned romanticism, a sense of melancholy, and the idea that people who are feminine and passive can also be resilient and strong – and channels them into detailed and realistic stories. Antonoff’s composition also helps Lana’s personality shine through. Lana’s usual sad, retro aesthetic is still present on Norman Fucking Rockwell; most songs still showcase Lana’s slow, honeyed voice against lavish pianos and strings. However, while many songs on Lana’s previous albums remain at the same slow tempo and intensity throughout most of their runtime, the songs on Norman Fucking Rockwell move and build and swell. There are undeniable hooks on here, but they’re more subtle and sultry versions of Antonoff’s usual big choruses. They’re Jack Antonoff hooks, Lana Del Rey style.
When I read interviews and think pieces about Antonoff, what I noticed most is his openness to any and all music. In interviews, he admits he gets emotional when pop songs talk about finding true love or escaping a small town. He's sincerely moved by music from both Titus Andronicus and Robyn (in one interview, he discusses crying to Robyn's "Dancing On My Own"). It helps that he can get sincerely emotional at the drop of a hat. When Antonoff performs, he seems to will himself into a more vulnerable state – his voice gets lower and rougher, he slumps down, he occasionally tears up. At times, he reminded me of an inspiring politician moved by their own speech. At this point in his career, I don't think Antonoff is a visionary or a creative genius. But he is a wonderful fan: someone who will defend pop music, who understands what makes pop musicians great, and will work to communicate his love to the world. When Lana Del Rey or Taylor Swift or St Vincent collaborate with Antonoff, I imagine he comes in ready to be moved by the music, reflexively open to each artist's creative vision. As someone who writes about, listens to and obsesses over music, that's something I respect.