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Jack Antonoff is an industry guy. You know him even if you don’t think you do. Check under the hood of any pop album released in the last few years and there’s a decent chance that Antonoff’s fingerprints are in there somewhere. Antonoff has produced for some of the bigger names in pop (Taylor Swift, Sia, Zayn) but he has also consistently worked with artists from the indie world such as Troye Sivan, St. Lucia, and How To Dress Well. His influence and style is far reaching, currently dominating the Billboard charts as well as shaping the musical realm outside the sphere of pop. Antonoff’s own music, and work as a producer, has always split the difference between two worlds. It is somehow pop but not, somehow indie but not. Whatever he is doing it is working. This year alone Antonoff has not only released an album under the name Bleachers but he has worked with Lorde, Banks, St. Vincent, P!nk, Carly Rae Jepsen, The Killers, and Swift. He’s become one of the core go to guys in the music industry, a name that seems to be constantly thrown around whenever a pop artist starts recording. You know him even if you don’t think you do.
Jack Antonoff’s breakout moment came when his band Fun released ‘We Are Young’ in 2012. I didn’t understand ‘We Are Young’ when it first came out. It didn’t sound like pop music to me. It was catchy, it was anthemic, but the chorus wasn’t right. The song builds as it should but the chorus doesn’t break into a propulsive sprint. Instead it slows down and becomes heavy and loud. The majority of pop songs as typically crafted to soundtrack a night out, whether it’s the moment you’re pre-gaming or you’re hitting the dance floor. ‘We Are Young’ isn’t for that. It’s for the end of the night, when you’re linking arms with your friends in some destroyed place and drunkenly belting out the lyrics of some song that you only kind of know. It’s a different kind of pop song to the norm. I didn’t think it would be a number one hit. And I was hella wrong.
Not only was ‘We Are Young’ a hit but it was a big hit. Following an appearance in both Glee, and a commercial that aired during the Superbowl, ‘We Are Young’ was quickly propelled to the top of the charts where it spent six weeks as America’s number one song. Fun later went on not only to win Song Of The Year at the Grammys but also took the title for Best New Artist, a success that Fun failed to fully capitalise on as they quickly disbanded. But as the chief creative voice behind the group, Antonoff’s career was really only just beginning as a producer and as a songwriter. The sound that he broke out with ‘We Are Young’ was an anomaly in 2012 but over the years it has gradually become what pop sounds like. It’s the norm. And Antonoff is the architect.
This evolution was not immediate. It took time. It took Taylor Swift. Following ‘We Are Young’, Antonoff was certainly an in-demand collaborator but his biggest hit in the year following this was the great Sara Bareilles track ‘Brave’. What catapulted the Antonoff sound to true pop dominance was Swift’s adoption of it. They were a good match. Swift made her name on tightly structured, emotive pop sounds with a country edge. Antonoff doesn’t get enough credit as an artist who is willing to experiment with his sound but there is undeniably a clear formula to a lot of what he does. His music seems crafted to soundtrack a John Hughes film that doesn’t exist, all neon-soaked 1980’s nostalgia full of driving drums and shimmering synths with big shout-along choruses. Antonoff’s tight songwriting matches well with Swift’s and their talents for crafting emotionally evocative anthems perfectly compliments each other on song’s like ‘Out of the Woods’, a piece of music that is almost distastefully unsubtle. But it works.
Despite a proven track record, Antonoff is a somewhat divisive figure. It’s easy to see why. There’s nothing inherently wrong with his 80’s revivalism, but it clashes horribly in an increasingly forward thinking culture. He’s a talented if somewhat unimaginative songwriter whose lack of invention is always going to be judged harshly in a time when Migos are going number one with tracks like ‘Bad and Boujee’. A lot of the judgement that goes his way is superficial (Antonoff is a dorky dresser who dates walking think-piece magnet Lena Dunham, he also looks an awful lot like Rick Moranis) but there is some substance to it. He is a factory. Tapping him as a collaborator will not produce something revolutionary or new. When a idiosyncratic artist like Lorde or Grimes gets in the studio with Antonoff, it usually is received with hostility – a creative choice that is feared will bury a talented artist under Antonoff’s shtick. Consider this process Swiftification; the transformation of an esteemed artist into an uncool pop monolith. That’s what Antonoff represents.
The only problem with this narrative is that it isn’t true. Antonoff certainly has a formula and it’s not subtle but it’s also remarkably flexible. Compare him to Max Martin, a man whose written 22 chart topping singles during his career. Martin approaches songwriting as a science. Listen to a handful of the songs that he’s written in his career and what will strike you is how consistent the equation is. Martin is a great songwriter with an approach that has worked for over twenty years. What Martin doesn’t do is write to the strengths or the idiosyncrasies of the musicians he’s working with. Generally speaking, a song written by Max Martin can be sung by anyone. When Justin Timberlake, once the most forward thinking pop star in the world, desperately needed a hit following some creative stumbles he turned to Martin and came out with ‘Can’t Stop The Feeling!’, a desperately catchy single which abandoned everything interesting about Timberlake. That’s what Martin does. And he does it well.
Jack Antonoff isn’t Martin. He’s different and his career in 2017 has demonstrated how. He’s isn’t really a hit-maker. He had one last year with the Swift / Zayn collaboration ‘I Don’t Want To Live Forever’ but, as with all things Swift, that song would be a hit no matter what. And Antonoff, though possessing a distinctive style, isn’t as homogeneous as Martin. He’s much more of a collaborator, someone who certainly has a consistent style but is also skilled at bringing the best out of the artists he’s working with. Martin’s songs are engineered to get you moving, Antonoff’s songs are primarily focused on feeling. This difference means that Antonoff can adjust much more to the artist with whom he’s working. He’s a part of their process and not vice versa. Antonoff’s hand can be felt in Lorde’s Melodrama but it is an album that is undeniably hers, as well as being, with all apologies to Kendrick Lamar, the year’s best.
The same can also be said in regard to his work with St. Vincent. Jack Antonoff’s influence on ‘New York’ and ‘Los Ageless’, the two singles that have been released so far from her latest album, is clear but not overwhelming. What Antonoff offers St. Vincent is not just a pop sound, but a more emotionally evocative form of pop songwriting, one which is a less cerebral and distinctive but no less effective than what she has done before. Honestly, one of my more controversial opinions is that I do not like the indie darling that is St. Vincent. Her music, for me, has always been tasteful but unexceptional, something that lacked real passion or human feeling behind all that self-conscious performance. But her two latest songs really work and register in a way that her music never has before. Let me be clear in saying that Antonoff shouldn’t get the credit for this. St. Vincent is obviously an exceptionally talented musician and this music is entirely in her voice. What Antonoff did do was help get her there. That, in and of itself, is an exceptional skill.
Antonoff’s strong foothold in the industry has come as a result of his ability to work well with others but he is also an artist perfectly suited to this moment in time. Antonoff isn’t being tapped by these musicians to write hits. They want him for his ability to craft a distinctive and consistent aesthetic, an attribute that is vital to the modern world of stardom. It’s branding. Superstardom is still possible but an increasingly unattainable status, a reality that has birthed the increasing market of indie-pop of which ‘We Are Young’ was an early example. There is a large demand out there for the type of music that Antonoff excels at and artists have increasingly been turning to him to meet that demand. It’s here where Antonoff’s future lies and why such a variety of artists are suddenly so hungry to work with him. Antonoff is here to stay. Expect to be hearing a lot more from him.