Like ‘Minions’, Jack Antonoff is unmissable
For a guy who got his first big break with a song called “We are young“, Jack Antonoff of course seems obsessed with early music.
At last month’s Bonnaroo Festival in Tennessee, Antonoff – a former guitarist for the pop-rock trio fun., whose exultant (if a bit cringe-worthy) smash of youth in 2012 topped Billboard’s Hot 100 for six weeks en route to winning song of the year at the Grammy Awards – summoned a group of musician pals for an all-star tribute to his 1984 birth year.
Last week, he performed at the Kia Forum in Inglewood with his current band, Bleachers, who stopped channeling Bruce Springsteen’s age-old thoughts about girls and New Jersey only to cover Tom Waits’ “Jersey Girl.”
Days after that broadcast, the latest “Minions” movie landed in theaters with an Antonoff-assembled soundtrack of newly recorded indelible ’70s hits by artists like thundercat, Kali Uchis, St. Vincent, HIS and Caroline Polachek. ‘The Rise of Gru’, as the animated film is called, set a 4th of July box office record, which almost certainly means millions more students have now heard ‘Fly Like an Eagle’ than the previous weekend.
It’s no wonder Antonoff, 38, continues to rummage through used bins: early music is big business these days, with so-called catalog material accounting for 70% of what’s been played the last year on services such as Spotify and Apple Music, according to MRC. Data. Thanks in large part to TikTok, vintage tracks like Fleetwood Mac’s “Dreams” and Matthew Wilder’s “Break My Stride” have hit the streaming charts; Kate Bush’s “Running Up That Hill (A Deal with God)” sits at No. 6 on the Hot 100, ahead of Beyoncé’s new single, after charting prominently on Netflix’s “Stranger Things.”
Indeed, “The Rise of Gru” isn’t the only Hollywood blockbuster this summer with a soundtrack of familiar melodies. For his glowing take on the life of Elvis Presley, Baz Luhrmann enlisted Doja Cat, Eminem, Kacey Musgraves, and Stevie Nicks, among others, to punch up Presley’s music, while “Top Gun: Maverick ‘recycles'” Danger Zone” by Kenny Loggins to accompany an almost shot-for-shot recreation of the original “Top Gun” opening sequence.
Still, Antonoff’s retro inclinations made him a major player shaping the sound of modern pop. More than Bleachers – a moderately successful alt-rock radio act headlining an arena for the first time at The Forum – what he’s best known for is producing and writing for superstars such as Taylor Swift and Lorde and acclaimed critic favorites such as Lana Del Rey, Clairo and St. Vincent. When the Chicks reunited a few years ago (minus the “Dixie”), the groundbreaking country trio hired Antonoff to oversee their comeback; when Olivia Rodrigo revised the credits of her “Sour” album to acknowledge some crucial inspirations (and perhaps to avoid a copyright lawsuit or two), Antonoff’s name was among those added. At the April Grammys, he was named Producer of the Year — one of four Grammys he’s won, as well as a fun two, for his behind-the-scenes studio work.
Antonoff’s touch – his ability to mix the classic and the avant-garde, the cult and the mass, the intimate and the anthem – proved to be in tune with the times enough for him to start to attract older musicians eager to connect with the fans of the millennial and gen Z artists who idolize them: Diana Ross and Earth, Wind & Fire’s Verdine White both appear on the “Rise of Gru”, while Springsteen himself makes an appearance on Bleachers’ third LP, 2021’s “Take the Sadness Out of Saturday Night,” which failed to top No. 27 on the Billboard 200 but earned Bleachers a last-minute booking on “Saturday Night Live” in January after Roddy Ricch was bailed out due to exposure to COVID.
So what exactly does Antonoff do? In interviews, he regularly describes his approach to production as an act of emotional availability – establishing a safe environment for artists to express themselves, then responding in a way that encourages them to go further than they otherwise would. . Whatever arrangement he helps to conceive depends entirely in his narrative on where the artist has taken him. “Production is not someone with the coolest snare sound,” he told The Times in 2019. “Production is the idea.”
It’s a deliberate throwback to a more collaborative and exploratory time before hitmakers like Max Martin and the Neptunes provided pop stars and rappers with near-finished tracks awaiting a big-name vocal performance; it’s also, in the wake of sexual abuse allegations against the once powerful Dr. Luke, a shrewd assurance of his respect for women in the workplace. (Jack Antonoff: the original gentleminion.) He seemed so inescapable last year that a slight backlash began to form among listeners who felt he had overplayed his hand as a female ally – at least until to him running again as the right of Florence Welch. henchman on Florence + the Machine’s well-received “Dance Fever”.
Yet this framing downplays Antonoff’s reliance on a variety of sonic characteristics: booming drums, airy synths, snaking guitar lines, reverb-soaked vocals, each rooted in a life of obsessive listening and tinkering with instruments. and software. That you can detect her fingerprints throughout the songs of “Minions” – even in cuts as distinct as Phoebe Bridgers’ seductive take on the Carpenters”Farewell to love“and the swagger of Brockhampton crosses”Hollywood Swingerby Kool & the Gang — is an indication of the finesse with which he has refined his palette of textures. Maybe too finely: For Bleachers’ interpretation of John Lennon”Instant Karma!“Antonoff made the foolish choice to forgo the late Alan White’s signature drum fill.
Antonoff, an occasional tabloid presence thanks to his relationships with actresses Lena Dunham and Margaret Qualley, isn’t alone in his flair for the slightly denaturing sounds familiar to any music fan. Smart, young artists curious about the history of pop and rock – your Haims and Vampire Weekends and Lady Gagas – sought out other writer-producers such as Ariel Rechtshaid, Rostam, Blake Mills and Kevin Parker of Tame Impala , the latter of which teamed up with Ross and Antonoff for a standout original, “Turn Up the Sunshine,” for “The Rise of Gru.”
Taken together, these guys’ efforts reflect a time when creative instinct has become inseparable from curatorial instinct – where the only way to say something honest about your life is to acknowledge that your every experience has been shaped by those who lived and then sang about them before you.
“I miss Long Beach and I miss you, baby / I miss dancing with you the most,” Del Rey purrs in “The Greatest,” a majestic piano ballad she and Antonoff co-wrote for 2019, richly allusive ( and infinitely memorable) “Norman F—Rockwell! “I miss the bar where the Beach Boys would go / Dennis’ last stop before ‘Kokomo’.”
What sets Antonoff apart, who started playing in punk bands in his native New Jersey before getting into fun, is his willingness to forget he knows it all. In front of Bleachers at the Forum, he started the show in proudly nerdy media studies mode, mumbling the band’s “91,” about watching the Gulf War on TV, in front of a glittering box; within about 15 minutes, he pretended to decide that the sweater he had worn on stage had been a bad move.
“Not at all, I play this song in a cardigan,” he said, ripping it off (with his Coke bottle goggles) to reveal a sleeveless T-shirt, his bandmates spinning the monstrous and chiming “How dare you want more” behind him. It’s not that the songs about heartbreak and ambition were charting new thematic territory, it’s certainly not that the “Born to Run” glockenspiel licks were doing something you’ve never heard .
But the emotional energy felt incredibly pure as he and the rest of the Bleachers made their way to a sweet spot where you couldn’t tell the difference between a screeching guitar and a screeching saxophone. He wasn’t exactly lost in the music, but he didn’t seem to want to find his way back.