Like ‘Minions,’ Jack Antonoff is inescapable

For a man who got his first big break with a song called “We Are Young,” Jack Antonoff certainly seems fixated on early music.

At last month’s Bonnaroo Festival in Tennessee, Antonoff — former guitarist for pop-rock trio fun. — whose jubilant (if slightly terrified) 2012 song about youth was six weeks on his way to winning song of the year topping Billboard’s Hot 100 was Grammy Awards – gathering a few musician friends for an all-star tribute to his birth year, 1984.

Last week he played at Inglewood’s Kia Forum with his current group, the Bleachers, who stopped channeling Bruce Springsteen’s time-honored thoughts on girls and New Jersey to cover Tom Waits’ “Jersey Girl.”

A few days after that show, the latest Minions movie hit theaters, with an Antonoff-compiled soundtrack of indelible ’70s hits re-recorded by the likes of Thundercat, Kali Uchis, St. Vincent, HER and Caroline Polachek . “The Rise of Gru,” as the animated film is called, set a box office record on July 4th, which almost certainly means millions more elementary school students have heard “Fly Like an Eagle” now than they did the previous weekend.

No wonder Antonoff, 38, keeps rummaging through used bins: early music is big business these days, with so-called catalog material accounting for 70% of what was streamed on services like Spotify and Apple Music last year, according to MRC data. Thanks in large part to TikTok, vintage songs like Fleetwood Mac’s “Dreams” and Matthew Wilder’s “Break My Stride” have burst onto the streaming charts; Kate Bush’s “Running Up That Hill (A Deal with God)” peaked at #6 on the Hot 100, ahead of Beyoncé’s new single after starring on Netflix’s “Stranger Things.”

In fact, The Rise of Gru isn’t the only Hollywood blockbuster this summer with a soundtrack of familiar tunes. For his sizzling take on the life of Elvis Presley, Baz Luhrmann recruited Doja Cat, Eminem, Kacey Musgraves and Stevie Nicks, among others, to spice up Presley’s music, while “Top Gun: Maverick” recycles Kenny Loggins’ “Danger Zone” to accompany an almost shot -for-shot recreation of the original Top Gun opening sequence.

But Antonoff’s retro leanings have actually made him a major player in shaping the sound of modern pop. More than Bleachers — a moderately successful alternative rock radio act making its debut at The Forum headlining an arena — he’s best known for his production and songwriting for superstars like Taylor Swift and Lorde and acclaimed critics’ favorites known as Lana Del Rey, Clairo and St. Vincent. When the Chicks got back together a few years ago (minus the “Dixie”), the seminal country trio hired Antonoff to oversee their return; When Olivia Rodrigo revised the credits for her album Sour to acknowledge some key inspirations (and perhaps stave off a copyright lawsuit or two), Antonoff’s name was among the names added. At the Grammys ceremony in April, he was named Producer of the Year – one of four Grammys he has won, along with fun’s two. for his studio work behind the scenes.

Antonoff’s touch — his ability to meld classic and modern, cult and mass, intimacy and anthem — has proven sufficiently contemporary that he’s begun to attract older musicians eager to mingle with fans of the millennial and gen -Z artists they adore: Wind & Fire’s Diana Ross and Earth, Verdine White both appear on the Rise of Gru soundtrack, while Springsteen himself makes a cameo appearance on Bleachers’ third LP, Take the Sadness Out of Saturday Night” of 2021, no higher than No . 27 on the Billboard 200, but that earned Bleachers a last-minute booking on Saturday Night Live in January after Roddy Ricch dropped out due to COVID exposure.

So what exactly does Antonoff do? In interviews, he regularly describes his approach to production as an act of emotional availability – creating a safe environment for artists to express themselves in, and then responding in a way that encourages them to go further than they otherwise could. In his narrative, which arrangement he helps to shape depends entirely on where the artist has taken him. “Production isn’t someone with the coolest snare sound,” he told The Times in 2019. “Production is that idea.”

It’s a willful throwback to a more collaborative, exploratory age, before hitmakers like Max Martin and the Neptunes provided pop stars and rappers with near-completed tracks awaiting a celebratory vocal performance; it is also, after the sexual abuse allegations against the once powerful Dr. Luke, a wise reassurance of his respect for women in the workplace. (Jack Antonoff: the original Gentleminion.) Last year he seemed so inescapable that a slight backlash formed among listeners who felt he had overdone his hand as a female ally — at least until he was cast as Florence Welchs again right hand appeared. Handmann on Florence + the Machine’s well-received Dance Fever.

Two men and a woman on the red carpet at the Grammy Awards

Aaron Dessner, Taylor Swift and Jack Antonoff at the 63rd Annual Grammy Awards on March 14, 2021.

(Jay L Clendenin/Los Angeles Times)

Still, this setting downplays Antonoff’s reliance on a variety of sonic trademarks: pounding drums, airy synths, squirming guitar lines, reverberant vocals, all rooted in a life of obsessive listening and tinkering with instruments and software. That his fingerprints can be seen all over the songs from “Minions” – even in cuts as disparate as Phoebe Bridgers’ winning version of the Carpenters’ “Goodbye to Love” and Brockhampton’s boastful run through Kool & the Gang’s “Hollywood Swinging” – it is an indication of how finely he has refined his textural palette. Maybe to Fine: For Bleacher’s rendition of John Lennon’s “Instant Karma!” Antonoff made the crazy decision to forego the late Alan White’s legendary drum fill.

Antonoff, who has an occasional tabloid presence thanks to his relationships with actresses Lena Dunham and Margaret Qualley, isn’t alone in his flair for slightly denaturing sounds familiar to any music fan. Smart, young acts curious about the history of pop and rock — their Haims and Vampire Weekends and Lady Gagas — have sought out other writers and producers like Ariel Rechtshaid, Rostam, Blake Mills and Kevin Parker of Tame Impala, the last ones together with Ross and Antonoff for an outstanding original, “Turn Up the Sunshine”, for “The Rise of Gru”.

Taken together, these guys’ efforts reflect an era when the creative instinct has grown inseparable from the curatorial—when the only way to say anything honest about your life is to acknowledge that each of your experiences has been shaped by those who they have experienced chanting about it before you did.

“I miss Long Beach and I miss you baby / I miss dancing with you the most,” purrs Del Rey in “The Greatest,” a stately piano ballad she and Antonoff record together for the allusive (and endlessly memorable) album ) “Norman F – Rockwell!” “I miss the bar where the Beach Boys would go / Dennis’ last stop before ‘Kokomo’.”

What sets Antonoff apart, who grew up in punk bands in his native New Jersey before he broke through with fun, is his eagerness to forget he knows it all. Fronting the Bleachers on The Forum, he kicked off the show in a proudly nerdy media study mode, muttering the band’s “91” about the Gulf War on TV in front of a flickering box; Within about 15 minutes, he pretended to decide that the sweater he wore on stage was a bad move.

“No way am I playing that song in a cardigan,” he said as he ripped it off (along with his Coke glasses) to reveal a sleeveless T-shirt while his bandmates chanted the monstrous and chiming “How Dare You Want More.” behind him. And that’s where Antonoff, perhaps the most unlikely rock star since Weezer’s Rivers Cuomo, managed something of an escape into the fantasy his music has in store. It’s not that the songs about grief and ambition have broken new ground thematically; It’s definitely not like the Born to Run chime licks did anything you’ve never heard of.

But the emotional energy felt incredibly pure as he and the rest of Bleachers worked their way to a sweet spot where you couldn’t tell the difference between a guitar smashing and a sax smashing. He wasn’t exactly immersed in the music, but he didn’t seem to want to find his way back. Like ‘Minions,’ Jack Antonoff is inescapable

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