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Believing, deeply, in the power of pop

Believing, deeply, in the power of pop


NYT Syndicate

The first time Jack Antonoff hit it big ” more than a decade after he began touring as a teenager in crowded vans that often arrived at empty rooms ” he walked away.
The band Fun. had started as a side project for Antonoff, a chronic multitasker. But by 2012, after placements in 'Glee' and a Super Bowl ad sent the group's song We Are Young into the stratosphere, Antonoff found himself experiencing"truly inhumane, goofy, 'Almost Famous'-level" success, he recalled. Suddenly a platinum-selling act, Fun. toured arenas around the world and won Grammys for song of the year and best new artist. Then the band declined to make another album.
"I remember immediately ” feeling like, 'I don't want to play We Are Young when I'm 35,'" Antonoff said."'I don't want to be defined by this.'"
But his aversion wasn't to stardom, or even the burden of a megahit, which he still openly chases as a go-to producer and songwriter for those on the pop A-list, like Lorde and Taylor Swift. The problem was that Fun. was merely something Antonoff was a part of, he explained recently at his home studio in New York; he needed the music he made to be a part of him.
Borne of that borderline self-sabotaging earnestness was the band Bleachers, an intensely personal project that Antonoff, 33, has put at the centre of his life ever since; 'Gone Now' is his second album under that moniker, and it furthers his maximalist approach to anthemic, life-affirming pop-rock about loss and just how taxing it is to be a decent human being.
At the same time, instead of becoming a more insular musician, Antonoff has broken out as one of the most in-demand architects of modern hits ” an insider's outsider who has used his punk essence and idiosyncratic approach to forge a distinct lane of his own. He proved himself with smashes like Sara Bareilles' Brave and Swift's Out of the Woods and I Don't Wanna Live Forever (with Zayn Malik), and helped to usher in a strain of €s pop revivalism. In the process, he has gone from industry curio to known quantity and artist's favourite, especially among female musicians.
"Sometimes he sits at the piano and we both just start ad-libbing and the song seems to create itself," Swift said in an email, citing Antonoff's musical versatility."His excitement and exuberance about writing songs is contagious." She added:"He's an absolute joy. That's why everyone loves him. I personally wouldn't trust someone who didn't."
"The heart and soul of pop is newness, excitement, innovation," said Antonoff, a spirited, zealous talker who rarely stops fidgeting."The music industry is built on chasing that ambulance ” 'someone did it, let's go that way.' I don't want to be a part of that. I want to be away from it."
A true believer in the purpose, weight and potential of music and fandom ” even, or especially, at the mainstream level ” Antonoff has built Bleachers as a bottomless text that rewards the obsessive, completist mentality he had toward bands like the Beatles and Green Day as a child growing up in suburban New Jersey.
Stuffed with allusions and Easter eggs for close listeners, Bleachers' songs are"supposed to sound like a person going crazy in a room alone ” that's what it is," said Antonoff, who is consistently self-deprecating about his pileup of neuroses.
But while the first Bleachers release, Strange Desire, was more like a stream-of-consciousness diary, written in hotel rooms while Antonoff was on the Fun. roller coaster, Gone Now ”"a giant apology to everyone who knows me" ” pulls from his past while imagining a future with less baggage.
"There's only so much you can carry with you," Antonoff said."How do you move on as the person that you've worked your whole life to be and also leave space to create something else in there?"
Building on the success of shout-along songs like I Wanna Get Better, which was a hit on alternative radio, Bleachers' new music proudly sounds like New Jersey, which is to say like highways and late-night diners and, of course, Bruce Springsteen (especially Everybody Lost Somebody, with its sticky saxophone riff). Antonoff borrows liberally from his touchstones, dipping into different decades ” from the Zombies to Electric Light Orchestra to Fine Young Cannibals ” for a collage of parts that sound, by design, straight out of a John Hughes film.
Ostensibly a one-man band, Bleachers is also a group effort that revolves around Antonoff's reputation as a collaborator without boundaries. Gone Now is packed with guests both predictable and not ” with background vocals from Lorde, Jepsen and Dunham and additional production by Greg Kurstin (Adele), Sounwave (Kendrick Lamar), Nineteen85 (Drake) and Organized Noize (Outkast).
It's a combination of plain ambition and a commitment to a bespoke quality that links Antonoff's work for himself and others.
"He wanted to be the biggest and the coolest," Tyler Childs, Antonoff's manager, recalled of the period after We Are Young, when pop doors were just starting to open. Childs credits Antonoff with"moving the radio toward him," with songs that have a personal touch ” and pretty much never a carefree attitude ” but do not sacrifice any bigness in sound.
Antonoff knows he is"straddling a lot of fences," merging an indie ethos and megastar associations. But"the whole goal is impact," he said."I love connected culture. You can say forget it," he continued, using stronger language,"and go into your corner of the sandbox, or you can try to make a difference" on a wide scale.