Nearly two centuries into the history of recorded sound, there is still no neat place for the producer in the mythology of pop music. He — as an ideal type, he is nearly always a he — is both a major and a minor character. He is at once a visionary creator and a bland executor of technical procedures, a name brand with star power and an anonymous functionary. He is the resourceful fifth Beatle coming to the aid of the heroes, and he is a villain, a representative of stifling, label-mandated homogeneity. He is an oracle: the market speaks through him. He is a minor god with a Promethean ability to bring new sounds into the world. He is often an abuser.
In the history of pop, the producer’s place is clearer. A producer serves as a shorthand for the dominant sound of a whole era: George Martin and Eddie Kramer for the “studio as a musical instrument” experiments of the late ’60s; Quincy Jones for the clinically precise grooves of ’70s and ’80s R&B; Glen Ballard for the drum-machine-and-acoustic-guitar mallscapes of ’90s adult alternative; Babyface for the smooth textures of that decade’s R&B; Max Martin for the Eurodance sheen of 2000s teen pop. Each of these sounds is curiously detachable from the music itself, and certainly from the artists who make it. In fact, you could say that the producer first arose as a significant figure in the pop world as a response to a need for a ready-made, portable sound. Phil Spector described his early-’60s maximalist production style as a result of a quest for “a sound so strong that if the material was not the greatest, the sound would carry the record.” Thrown-together girl groups and scrappy R&B outfits would come into Spector’s studio, and the maestro would turn their musical dribblings into something he once appropriately called “Wagnerian.” Instrumental tracks rerecorded on top of one another until they resembled less music than pure force, voices bathed in an all-consuming reverb — the “Wall of Sound.”
This sound, like any other, expresses a whole mode of musical production: the studio as a factory, bringing specialized labor together with technical power to produce interchangeable song widgets at maximum speed. You can read the economic history of pop back through the succession of epochal producers. Mutt Lange’s immaculate production on Def Leppard’s Hysteria (1987) sounds like money — the massive amounts of it that the consolidating major labels raked in on the strength of MTV hype and global distribution networks in that mythically excessive decade. In hip-hop, the producer evolved from the figure of the DJ to become an autonomous, entrepreneurial master of all trades, from engineering to songwriting and arranging. The European pop megaproducers like Stargate, who work in small groups on a case-by-case basis for labels in search of a guaranteed hit, resemble nothing so much as that other entrepreneurial figure, the consultant. The producer is an economic persona.
It could be said that we are living through soundless — which is to say zeitgeistless — times. Our pop stars have a curiously anonymous quality, as if they are singing from behind the disturbing animal masks on The Masked Singer, already alienated from their own music. Streaming platforms have melted down the old genre system, where each style of music could lay claim to a discrete audience segment, into a tepid, A.I.-aggregated soup. “We’re not in the music space,” Spotify’s chief executive announced several years ago; “we’re in the moment space.” This statement encapsulates how the streaming giant sees itself: as a dispenser of a quasi-therapeutic soundtrack for mood enhancement and regulation. This is a vision of music not as art or even as commodity, but as something like audio furniture. Mood is the object; sound is beside the point.
If there were a producer who fully belonged to this moment, he would need to be something like a non-brand brand, paradoxically recognizable for his ability to produce stylishly forgettable content. In the preferred euphemistic terms of the ruling class, he would be less an innovator than a curator: a bricoleur of cultural tidbits, endowed with impeccable taste in kitsch and the classics alike. His persona would be humble or sincere or exuberant in a muted sort of way, like someone shouting as he recedes down a hallway. He would be impossibly versatile: a wearer of all hats, capable of working in seemingly any style. He would be wildly successful by the standards of commerce — views, streams, dollars — and by those of professional tastemaking — glowing reviews from critics, fawning profiles by journalists. Ubiquitous and ignorable, critically acclaimed and terminally unhip, memeable but unshakably serious, such a figure would fully express the essence of a seemingly essenceless moment.
Unless you practice a monk-like indifference to the pop charts or have been stuck in a college radio station’s basement studio for the past decade and a half, you have heard Jack Antonoff’s music. He is the sonic architect, as the phrase goes, behind the tasteful synth washes of Taylor Swift’s Midnights, the soft-rock narcotism of Lana Del Rey’s Norman Fucking Rockwell!, and the lite ’70s pastiche of the Minions: Rise of Gru soundtrack, whose centerpiece is an unlikely collaboration between Diana Ross and psych-pop slacker Tame Impala. He has produced hip-hop and country records, helped orchestrate several mid-career pivots and at least one comeback, and sprinkled a dusting of scratchy, laid-back guitar over a seemingly endless series of songs. For these efforts, he has taken home the past two consecutive Grammys for producer of the year — an honor he surely deserves, if for no other reason than his sheer ubiquity. Antonoff hasn’t taken over the landscape of contemporary pop so much as diffused across it, leaving behind a faintly perceptible vapor of understated good taste.
The talking heads have hailed Antonoff as a figure of epochal significance. Some commentators claim that he has “revolutionized pop,” while others argue that he has, as the clickbait-y title of one video essay puts it, “RUINED pop.” Either way, the critical consensus is that over the past eight years or so, Antonoff has reshaped pop music, or a significant portion of it, in his own image. And yet it is strangely hard to catch a clear glimpse of that image itself. There is something about Antonoff’s production that is at once instantaneously identifiable and frustratingly anonymous. Vapor does not photograph especially well. In 2020, when he was already several years into his pop reign, Vulture published a listicle that promised to identify “6 key elements of the Jack Antonoff sound,” all of which — “poppy, percussive acoustic guitars,” “grand string flourishes,” “big ‘80s synths,” “bigger choruses,” “intimate songwriting,” and “just a woman with a guitar or piano” — could of course be attributed to any number of producers. The following year, Pitchfork took something like the opposite approach, branding him the avatar of a nebulous phenomenon called “Tasteful Pop.” Get too close to Antonoff, and his sound vanishes into a series of unremarkable elements; zoom out too far, and it evanesces into generality.
Before he was producer to the stars, Antonoff, like so many other white male millennial musicians, was a guy with a guitar in a pop-punk band. As a teen in New Jersey, he recorded and toured with a ragtag outfit called Outline. Nothing much distinguishes Outline from the glut of post-Blink-182 acts that emerged in the early 2000s, especially on the East Coast. But if you do the auditory equivalent of a squint, you can hear a bit of Springsteenian grandiosity peeking through the humble DIY production. “Can you keep her heart warm,” goes a scream-sung line in one song, “when you want it all?” In a way, despite their shallowness, the “6 key elements” betray a fundamental, almost metaphysical principle in the Antonoff universe: the basic dialectic between the big and the small, the “grand” and the “intimate.” Small town, big dreams; an effort to recreate a stadium sound on a garage budget. More than a decade later, Antonoff did something like the inverse when he had his entire childhood bedroom excised from his parents’ house and transported on tour with him, providing fans with a kind of mobile interactive art installation cum Instagram photo op.
The rest of the Jack legend is well known by now, but its high points are worth rehearsing. After a stint fronting Steel Train, a band more or less devoid of any musical identity, Antonoff got his big break not as a producer, but as the guitarist for the quintessentially 2010s pop-rock band Fun. What initially appeared to be a vehicle for singer Nate Ruess became a chart-dominating juggernaut with the 2012 album Some Nights. There, Fun. worked with producer Jeff Bhasker to create the ultimate pop compromise-formation: a record of theatrical indie pop polished to a chrome sheen and set to beats that wouldn’t be out of place on a latter-day Jay-Z album. From Some Nights, one song in particular reached escape velocity. “We Are Young” sounds like the band took apart Grizzly Bear’s pastoral “Two Weeks” and reassembled it as a weapons-grade power ballad, setting its plink-plink piano figure to crushing drums and buoying it with a keening vocal. Backed up by a tragically underutilized Janelle Monáe, Ruess sings of rock bottom (“The angels never arrived”) and reconciliation (that earworm chorus, “So let’s set the world on fire / We can burn brighter / Than the sun”). It is a self-pitying anthem, or an anthem that through sheer determination transmutes self-pity into an apocalyptic force, both world-destroying and redemptive.
It is also, to put it bluntly, good content. “We Are Young” achieved its 10× platinum status in no small part through shrewd media placements. Thanks to the label Fueled By Ramen’s slow-burn marketing campaign, it was conscripted to sell cars and tacos during the Super Bowl, to blare on one of The Sims’s in-game radio stations — sung, naturally, in their gibberish language — and, in perhaps the biggest coup of all, to issue from the diaphragms of the relentlessly peppy teenagers on Glee. For the showrunners and ad execs, the song’s latent darkness, and the slightly unearned quality of the salvation it strains for, mattered less than its sheer dramatic immensity. Bhasker has attributed the song’s success in part to this quality. As he put it in an interview, Gen Z and younger millennials “don’t have a lot to look forward to, so their music is kind of numb and repressed.” But “We Are Young,” he explained, “is very emotive and has an ultimate air of hopefulness even among the sadness.” In the midst of a fog of repression and minimalism, here was a song, in the words of MTV, that “gets unapologetically big.” Big choruses, big drama, big business: here was one vision of a newly bright future for indie rock.
The big future “We Are Young” seemed to announce never really arrived. Or at least not at the scale that Fun.’s boosters may have expected. “We Are Young” sold over 6.8 million units. Since 2011, the year it was released as a single, few songs have been able to match that number. In 2023, it seems unlikely that any song ever will again. Notably, 2011 was also the year Spotify launched in the U.S. Two years later, the industry changed its standards to allow streams to count toward gold, platinum, and other certifications. It was a canny acknowledgement that the hits of the future would largely be rented or consumed for free, subsidized by advertising, not sold. As streaming’s portion of overall music revenue sharply increased over the 2010s, artists took a proportionately steep pay cut. For most of the pop-rock groups that followed in Fun.’s footsteps, huge shoutalong choruses would bring in small change at best. While the likes of Neon Trees and Grouplove warbled on, the music industry contracted. Touring revenues declined as venues and rent-seeking ticket companies cut further into artists’ margins. On the broadest scale, what had been a “talent” industry with at least a nominal commitment to investing in artists over the long term transformed into a “content” industry, where artists are left to fight it out in a brutally competitive influencer economy while investment firms buy and sell their catalogs like so many financial instruments.
Antonoff’s career took off in the thick of these sweeping changes. Fun. would fold soon after its initial wave of success. Ruess wanted a solo career; Antonoff was perhaps willing to keep going, but already he had amassed a trove of songs that were pulling him in a different stylistic direction. These songs would make up the first record by Bleachers, Antonoff’s own solo project. Strange Desire (2014), which Antonoff coproduced along with several industry veterans, is loud, vulnerable, and studious in its cultivation of something like an ’80s vibe. It is immediately apparent that, unlike Ruess, Antonoff is no great singer. He compensates slightly, but not totally, by running his voice through aggressive distortion and assembling murky stacks of overdubs. Nor does he have much of a knack for melody. For someone vaunted as a master of the hook, Antonoff writes some curiously forgettable songs. Numbers like “Wild Heart” and “I Wanna Get Better” come on strong with a barrage of twinkling synths and squalls of gated reverb, but they linger in a kind of harmonic limbo, looping back on themselves as if they are afraid or unable to truly soar. When the noise stops, what you remember is not the music, but the sensation of force.
With Bleachers, Antonoff hit on what would become one of his default modes. Strange Desire and the records that followed it deal in a kind of anonymous retro maximalism. They proceed by stripping not only ’80s arena rock but also 2000s indie rock — the yelping vocals of a Modest Mouse, the “surfy” guitars of a Real Estate — for only their most melodramatic parts. It is like Springsteen’s Tunnel of Love on a histrionic sugar high — or like cutting into what you thought was Tunnel of Love, expecting to find a substantive work of pop craftsmanship and introspection, only to find cake. Unlike the Fun. records, Strange Desire deals in a strangely hollow maximalism. You might call it, as many critics have, “cinematic” pop. In other words: pop made to serve as a soundtrack. And at the center of the swirl of sound that often doesn’t register as music so much as undifferentiated yearning, there is an empty space for you, the main character. Appropriately enough, Antonoff’s fans often describe his music as a kind of catharsis machine; a soundtrack to which you can, in the words of one YouTube commenter, “drive and cry and vent and go trough every emotion humanly possible.” It is as if Antonoff discovered that the only way to keep pop-rock viable in conditions increasingly hostile to its survival was to reduce it down to a mechanism for delivering a concentrated shot of big feelings.
This hollow, cinematic bigness would animate much of Antonoff’s production work. After getting his foot in the door with “Out of the Woods,” a brooding and tuneless stutter of a song on Taylor Swift’s otherwise masterful 1989, Antonoff quickly became a first-call producer and songwriting partner for women artists walking the increasingly thin line between “indie” and Top 40 pop. First with Lorde’s fittingly titled Melodrama, then with Swift’s infamous stumble Reputation, in parallel with a series of cloying singles by the likes of Carly Rae Jepsen and Sara Bareilles — whose Jack-cowritten tune “Brave” comes off as “We Are Young” by way of Disney’s “Let it Go” — Antonoff established a distinctive yet elusive sound whose hallmarks are less musical than emotional. Verses ratchet up sweatily to choruses rather than building organically or shading into them. Choruses are strenuous; the unbearable longing they often convey registers as nothing other than the indomitable drive to become a hit. “Baby, baby / I feel crazy,” Zayn and Swift pant on Antonoff’s Fifty Shades soundtrack tune “I Don’t Wanna Live Forever,” nearly collapsing under the sticky surplus of emotion, before lurching into what must be the squeakiest chorus in modern pop history. It is the perfect accompaniment for a film about, among other things, the power of pain to make us feel something, anything.
For a producer who deals in broad strokes and dramatic textures, Antonoff sees himself as a curiously small, pitiful creature. On the role of the producer — and of the songwriter; the two tend to shade together for him — he has said: “It’s a position of power, but this is work where there is no power — songwriting is the most powerless, saddest, sit-there-and-pray-it’s-going-to-come-to-you experience.” In part because the press keeps inviting him to do so, Antonoff defines himself against the archetype of the writer-producer as Svengali, whose current avatar is the disgraced but still materially uncanceled Dr. Luke. These unsavory figures are the pop world’s uber-rich predator class, accruing wealth and recognition while treating women artists in particular as interchangeable and disposable bearers of their hit-children. When Antonoff, on the other hand, works with artists, by his account “there’s no power struggles, no ‘I got the fucking answer, I have these hits so I’m the shit.’” Of course, there are producers who style themselves differently, whether as spiritual gurus (see Rick Rubin’s recent book The Creative Act: A Way of Being, a work of pop-Zen which is to D.T. Suzuki roughly what Bleachers is to Springsteen) or business moguls (see pre-Nazi-era Kanye). These, too, are paths that Antonoff eschews.
More than anything, Antonoff seems to view the role of the producer as a therapeutic one. In an interview with Pitchfork, he declared, “When I work with other people, I’m always trying to find out: Where can we go even further? What can we do here that is for the people putting a microscope on it? In the second verse, can you fire out a few lines about something that happened to you when you were 9?” Like Jacques Lacan’s ideal analyst, he aspires to commit partial ego-suicide and become a sort of blank screen; like a TV caricature of a therapist, he probes and excavates for hidden past traumas. A songwriting session with Jack apparently starts with the question, “What’s the worst thing that’s ever happened to you?” And yet writing and producing, for Antonoff, are less methods for working through these trauma nuggets than they are ways of endlessly repeating a symptom. He has said that his own music is a way of “revisiting” two originary traumas: his sister’s death and, more obscurely, the inferiority complex he feels about being from New Jersey. One can detect something of this stuck repetition in his music. A Jack song always seems to take place in a sort of ambiently traumatic limbo where reconciliation is right around the corner, if not just out of reach. “Are we out of the woods yet? Are we out of the woods yet?” Swift whisper-sings in one song; “I wanna get better,” Antonoff yelps in another. The average Antonoff song is an unwitting pop reenactment of the final lines of Waiting for Godot — “‘Well, shall we go?’ ‘Yes, let’s go.’ (They do not move.)” — updated for the age of the trauma plot.
While Jack was establishing himself as the go-to producer for this sort of widescreen pop drama, the sounds of the radio were changing. A DIY, self-produced ethic was emerging among young artists, with the likes of Billie Eilish and PinkPantheress taking the whispery sounds of bedroom-recorded SoundCloud mixtapes to the pop charts. Lil Nas X’s 2018 country-rap single “Old Town Road” was emblematic of this turning point: low-budget, post-genre, hovering in a no-man’s-land between irony and sincerity. It is hard not to hear the smallness of “Old Town Road,” whose bargain-basement beat Lil Nas X purchased online for $30, as an imposition, a symptom of the contraction of the music industry and the accelerating upward redistribution of its profits. If you can’t go big, do it yourself and go small. Or, seen differently, it was a shrewd adaptation to the hostile new environment. The hallmarks of the new smallness — in the case of “Old Town Road,” extreme brevity; in the case of Eilish’s breakout hit “Ocean Eyes,” a soundscapey dreaminess that eases the music into the background of your attention — are the exact characteristics that streaming platforms reward artists for. Shorter songs accumulate plays more quickly, and Spotify’s “mood” playlists heavily favor songs with an ambient, Muzak-adjacent quality. Here was quite another vision of music as a form of therapy.
In the bluntest terms, the DIY minimalist song is an agile song. It is a born-digital object optimized for frictionless circulation — the ability to function as audio furniture for viral videos, fit in on a variety of algorithmically curated playlists, play unobtrusively in what passes for public space in contemporary American life, generating revenue along the way. If music was transfigured into a commodity at the mythic dawn of capitalism, today it has gone through an additional transformation into content, a slippery term that media scholar Kate Eichhorn defines as “something that circulates for the sake of circulation” and accrues more value the more it circulates. The more thoroughly music is subsumed as content, the more tenuous its status as a commodity appears: sales dwindle, payments crater, and music becomes either a loss leader for all-consuming megacorporations that can afford to effectively give it away, or else a speculative investment for private equity. (One alternative route to financial solvency for musicians is a corporatized version of a patron economy, where the artist becomes a direct service provider to the fans through platforms like Patreon. Tellingly, this route requires artists to create content of an even more debased sort: update videos, fan requests, personalized greetings.) The wider shift in production has changed the way we consume music, too. In the age of streaming, music is not so much commodified as commoditized: in the eyes of the consumer, it appears less as a field of choices distinguished by genre or artist and more as a generic, undifferentiated mass of interchangeable products. Ask the average non-stan sixteen-year-old to name the artists behind the songs they listened to last week, and you are likely to be met with a shrug.
The new minimalism was largely the province of hip-hop, folk, and synth-pop acts. It was not immediately clear what place, if any, the tired signifiers of indie rock might have in its downsized universe. It fell to Antonoff to find a way to stage a rapprochement. Over the past several years, he has developed an intricate, sepia-toned minimalism, as if to establish a kind of dialectical counterweight to the sheen of Strange Desire and its successors. (Perhaps he borrowed this vision from Aaron Dessner, his collaborator on Taylor Swift’s chart-dominating folklore.) On albums like Sling, Antonoff envelops Clairo’s wispy vocals in a warm haze of strings and often jarringly funky electric guitar. The cavernous reverb effects of the Bleachers records, which often seemed to serve as a cipher for the songs’ missing depth, have largely fallen away, and we are left with stacks of dry double-tracked vocals that sound like they are whispering directly into your ear. Lorde’s Solar Power came in for a similarly dry treatment, to less successful effect. While Antonoff’s collaborations with artists like Sia and Fifth Harmony are shot through with the delayed-release emptiness of a sugar crash, Solar Power resonates with the immediately obvious emptiness of an apartment subjected to the KonMari method. Apart from the nearness of Lorde’s voice, there is simply next to nothing there.
While Antonoff’s maximalist mode turns the pop song into a catharsis machine, his minimalist mode transforms it into an apparatus for producing intimacy. Creaky guitars with choked-off strings, dissonant doodles of analog synth, breathy vocals beamed straight to your cochlear nerve: in an Antonoff production, these elements blur together into a general sensation of closeness and vulnerability. Rather than leaving a space open for you to insert yourself into the drama, as in the busy arrangements on an album like Reputation, the Antonoff songs on folklore sidle up to you and address you directly. In both cases, Antonoff’s indie rock stylistics read like defensive wards against the creep of content. This isn’t just set dressing, the scratchy guitars and distorted vocals scream; this is real music infused with real feelings. And yet they are also gestures of a deeper acquiescence to the pull of content — as if it were something one could resist, anyway. Jack’s maximalist productions strain so hard for emotional impact that they suspend their status as individual songs and reach the listener as bits of cinematic soundtrack: “a fitting soundrack [sic] to any John Hughes flick,” as one critic said of Strange Desire when it first came out, echoing the consensus. Or if not part of a film soundtrack, as part of the generic soundtrack of your life — in other words, according to the logic of the mood playlist, a tool to enhance or modulate your emotional state. It is much the same with his minimalist productions. In their struggle to convey a sensation of physical closeness, these records approach the status of that other infamous streaming genre, the ASMR video. It is perhaps not a coincidence that listeners have reported visceral somatic reactions, often negative, to Antonoff productions. Rather than recognizing it for its stylistic hallmarks, you simply know it when you feel it.
These two modes, of course, are ideal types. Antonoff often mixes them, to mixed effects. On The Chicks’s unforgivably titled comeback record, Gaslighter, he can’t seem to decide how much he wants to preserve the intimacy of the band’s acoustic instrumentation and how much he wants to run it through his cinematic-pop filter, with all its simultaneously magnifying and blurring effects. The result ends up sounding like a cross between Sara Bareilles’s inspiration-pop (see “Julianna Calm Down,” featuring yet another retread of the “We Are Young” piano plinks) and the forced grooves of not-yet-Antonoff-affiliated artist Meghan Trainor (see “Texas Man”). Not all compromises pay off. Then again, the indisputable crown jewel of Antonoff’s musical career, Lana Del Rey’s Norman Fucking Rockwell!, finds Jack striking a precisely calibrated balance between his two modes. Voice and piano stand alone — then the dramatic swells of strings, and the reverberating choir of backing vocals. Antonoff mostly stays out of the way of Lana’s songwriting, with only a few missteps (the cheesy drum machine on “Fuck it I Love You”) and many small marvels of craft (the subtle tape saturation on Lana’s voice in the “Mariners Apartment Complex” bridge).
Then there is “Venice Bitch.” It is the one piece of music Antonoff has had a hand in that is downright numinous, with that hypnotic guitar figure pulsing away as the song dissolves into a six-minute vibe collage. The production is suffused with that signature, unshakeable Jack emptiness. But “Venice Bitch” works in large part because Lana embraces the emptiness and uses it to deliberate effect, rather than trying to fill it up with overheated emoting. It is no wonder that Jack has made a cottage industry out of replicating “Venice Bitch.” The song hovers over records like Solar Power and Being Funny in a Foreign Language, the Antonoff collaboration with last-pop-rock-band-standing The 1975, like either a benevolent spirit guide or a demanding ideal ego, something to be emulated but never matched. Jack’s most sustained foray into hip-hop, Brockhampton member Kevin Abstract’s ARIZONA BABY, is more or less ten tracks of “Venice Bitch” (plus one Antonoff-free song). Antonoff has gone on the record saying that when Fun. first hit it big, he “immediately” had the thought that “I don’t want to play ‘We Are Young’ when I’m 35.” He may have gotten this wish, but the monkey’s paw curled. Today, at 39, he will most likely be playing one version or another of “Venice Bitch” for years to come.
The producer is at bottom an allegorical figure. “Jack Antonoff” refers as much to a set of historical processes as it does to a bespectacled guy making beats in his Brooklyn apartment. Call it Antonoffication: the process of the dispersion of the aesthetics of indie rock out from a distinct subcultural enclave and into a general ether that suffuses and unites the major genres of today’s Top 40 pop music. Which is to say, the complex process of cultural mediation through which all pop music today has become a little bit indie rock. In the 2000s, a fierce debate raged among music critics between proponents of “rockism,” those committed to enclave principles of taste and a rigorously policed standard of authenticity, and of “poptimism,” those who resisted the idea that some musical genres were worthy of serious critical attention and others were not. Today such terms, along with the divide between high and low culture on which they were premised, feel almost foreign. Increasingly, where once there were musical subcultures with their own standards of taste, under the regime of streaming there is now a free-floating tastefulness, a pop version of what Lee Konstantinou calls “mass high culture.” Songs like Harry Styles’s “As It Was,” with its tasteful a-ha-by-way-of-The-Postal-Service synths, feel Antonoffified despite Jack’s having had nothing to do with them. It seems unbelievable that Antonoff has not yet produced a full album for Phoebe Bridgers, a candidate for his sepia-minimalist treatment if there ever was one. (Though she did in fact turn in a dutiful cover of the Carpenters’ proto-power ballad “Goodbye to Love” for Jack’s Minions soundtrack, where the fuzz guitar solo that redeemed the original’s schlock has been inexplicably replaced with an understated wash of horns.)
To put the point at another level of abstraction, Antonoffication is the process by which indie rock has adapted to the streaming era: not by doubling down on its status as “high” in opposition to a mass-cultural “low,” but by dispersing into the digital ether and infusing nearly every other genre. Along the way, without meaning to, Antonoff has given us perhaps the most fitting allegory for the status of music under the regime of streaming. In the hands of streaming platforms, the pop song as a form is impossibly big: capacious, spreadable through every vestige of space public or private, an always-on cinematic soundtrack to every moment everywhere for everyone. But it is also strangely small: not only because it is just one in a sea of interchangeable millions, but also because it is increasingly indistinguishable from any other content delivery device, any other configuration of mood-provoking elements. Even its relation to the hard shell of the commodity form seems to be eroding. While normally we might expect such a decoupling of art from its commodity status to release the artwork from some of the demands of the market, leaving it slightly more free to go its own way, just the opposite seems to have happened in the world of streaming music. At the extreme point, the pop song abjures any dream of artistic autonomy and shrinks down to a mechanism for delivering bursts of raw sensation — a scream of anguish, goosebumps on your neck, a whisper in your ear.
Antonoff’s hollow maximalism is the empty bigness, the simultaneously brash and ignorable ubiquity, of pop music itself in the age of streaming. And his whispery minimalism is the sound of nothing less than the enforced modesty of pop music itself, its retreat from style into pure sensation. Even if you manage never to listen to anything he has worked on, the truth remains: we are living in Antonoff’s world. Maybe we are not so much trapped in here with him as he is trapped in here with us, beating at the walls, wanting to get better.
Mitch Therieau is a writer and PhD candidate at Stanford.