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The Thinking Fan’s Pop Star

Jack Antonoff — the man behind Bleachers and a cowriter for Lorde and Taylor Swift — has remade Top 40 in his jubilant, slightly neurotic image. His new album is no exception.

(Getty Images/Ringer illustration)
(Getty Images/Ringer illustration)

Jack Antonoff is a man of sly contradictions and warring neuroses. For example, he will spend this summer singing a new song with the chorus, “Sometimes I hate that you know me so well” while touring with a trailer-hauled painstaking recreation of his childhood bedroom. That’s childhood in the millennial sense. His accompanying manifesto begins thus:

Antonoff grew up in New Jersey; he first rose to prominence as part of fun., the theater-kid-hedonism pop trio whose 2012 album Some Nights, anchored by the commencement-worthy smash “We Are Young,” made them superstars. It also gave them something to go on indefinite hiatus from. “I remember immediately — immediately — feeling like, ‘I don’t want to play ‘We Are Young’ when I’m 35,’” Antonoff told The New York Times last week.

He is 33 now, and already promoting Gone Now, the second proper album from his post-fun. solo project, Bleachers. “Hate That You Know Me” is the best song on it, a ramshackle riot of drum machines and wistful hairbrush-as-microphone jubilance, mining the same ’80s-dance-party-for-one vibe as latter-day Carly Rae Jepsen or Paramore. It is “I Wanna Dance With Somebody” when you can’t sing nearly as well as Whitney Houston, plus there’s nobody to dance with; it pulls off the neat trick of allowing Antonoff to chase pop stardom in the midst of running from it.

He wrote that song with Julia Michaels, one of the hottest young songwriters in pop music, an honorific that applies to Antonoff, too: He also cowrote big hits for Sara Bareilles (“Brave”), Taylor Swift (“Out of the Woods”), and Lorde (“Green Light,” still the best song of 2017, don’t @ me), the latter two of which he also coproduced. His style, roughly speaking, is Ungodly Enormous Intimacy, deeply personal and wildly inspirational anthems that suggest pop behemoths dragging painstaking recreations of their childhood bedrooms behind them in little trailers. He likes fight songs that are tougher, and stranger, and far more oddly appealing than “Fight Song.” He is offering brave young pop stars another way forward, hijacking the good parts of the ’80s (the rough-hewn neon buoyancy) while excising the lousy parts of the 2010s (the mindless EDM autopilot hiccuping). Through his alliances with Swift and Lorde, he’s enabling much of the most idiosyncratic pop on the radio right now.

Bleachers won’t reach anywhere near the prominence of most of his collaborators, but that only allows Antonoff to revel in his most personal quirks. His childhood-bedroom fixation actually began during the campaign behind the first Bleachers record, 2014’s Strange Desire, when he invited a Billboard writer out to Jersey for a guided tour: the commemorative baseballs and Star Wars figurines, the Beatles and punk and hardcore posters. That album’s modestly rowdy hit, “I Wanna Get Better,” was a cheerful pep-rally-as-therapy-session, a packed-house intervention for the unathletic loner cowering underneath those titular bleachers. But exorcism-as-ecstasy pop like this requires escalation. Pushing farther outward and inward. Mining his deepest traumas (most prominently, the loss of his 13-year-old sister to brain cancer when he was in high school) for the fuel that powers Gone Now’s universal odes to grief and despair and triumphant rebirth. Per the bedroom-trailer manifesto:

It’s an album about saying goodbye when you can’t say goodbye, about feeling both painfully small and ungodly huge. Antonoff is now both a pop-star-whisperer and a pop-star refugee, chasing the same dragon his old band so theatrically fled. His past is the key to his future. “Hey, I know I was lost / But I miss those days,” goes another shout-along mini-supernova chorus on Gone Now. “I was la-la-la-la-la-la lost / But I miss those days.”

I am dead serious about “Green Light.” It’s so great.

Antonoff produced Lorde’s imminent second album, Melodrama, whose early singles suggest an intent to transform her bathroom mirror into a Times Square jumbotron. The songs are dance music for endearingly awkward dancers, and piercing lamentations on the price of fame that only add to her singular myth — and also possibly her fame. Antonoff makes a ton of sense in this context, cast in the video as Guy Playing Rave Piano in the Bathroom.

It is a minor travesty that “Green Light” is already likely out of the 2017 Song of Summer race — I will do it at karaoke at some point, and it will be so awesome it makes the news — but both public and professional consensus is that the song’s just a little too weird. Specifically, pop-songwriter god Max Martin personally informed Lorde that the “melodic math” of “Green Light” is off, resulting in a case of “incorrect songwriting.” Which she took as a compliment, or at least it “wasn’t an insult — just a statement of fact.” The whiplash key change, slow-arriving drums, and helium-starburst backing vocals are all designed to throw you off balance and keep you there.

Antonoff, in his production/cowriter guise, usually isn’t chasing weirdness for weirdness’ sake: Swift’s “Out of the Woods” and Sara Bareilles’s “Brave” are fairly straightforward, and gargantuan, and inescapable. With Bleachers, there’s a bit more of that “incorrect songwriting” and general eccentricity — chattering background voices, dinky keyboard curlicues, jarring choruses that rattle and thrill like 50-year-old roller coasters — but it always comes off as pure, uncut pop, perhaps because he’s often working with the same radio-beloved people. In 2015, he put out Terrible Thrills, Vol. 2, a full-length remix of Strange Desire, each track altered by a female star: Bareilles, Jepsen, fellow pop-star-whisperer Sia, former tourmate Charli XCX, Dixie Chicks leader Natalie Maines, R&B striver Tinashe, etc. No Lorde and no Taylor, but you can hear them clearly on it anyway, the sound of a quirky tinkerer calmly pulling everyone into his orbit, until it no longer really sounds quirky at all.

His new album’s first single is the jazzercise yelp-fest “Don’t Take the Money”; the video is directed by his longtime girlfriend Lena Dunham, and I suppose their enduring union is another way of framing all this: a very 21st-century New York City sort of monied neurosis. When he gets especially jittery, Antonoff has something of LCD Soundsystem’s James Murphy in him, hip but pleasantly off-kilter, party-oriented but decidedly indoorsy, traipsing confusedly about Brooklyn, staggering in the sunlight.

What’s even more confusing is that at his quietest and softest — ”She puts on a black dress / I clean my glasses and phone,” begins the relatively mellow and sweet “Nothing Is U” — Antonoff can sound a little like Bruce Springsteen at his quietest and softest. Parts of Gone Now can come to resemble an alternate-universe pastel Nebraska, its protagonists watching John Hughes movies on their phones all the way to Atlantic City. (Scoff all you like, but there’s something very familiar about the way Antonoff nimbly mumbles his way through a line like, “That’s why I’m up in my room tonight whistlin’ wind out my teeth ’cause somebody didn’t fix ’em nice.”) This is a minimalist-pop album from a maximalist-pop guy, wildly off-kilter but way closer to the Top 40’s current center than it, or he, appears.

The point of the bedroom-trailer stunt is that you’re supposed to sit in it and listen to Gone Now. For at least some fans, it has proved awfully effective: “This was the most creative environment i’ve been in,” one tweeted afterward. “In 3 minutes, i felt the heart and soul of every bleachers song.” This is just about as literal as you can get, in terms of the bedroom-to-stadium transition that Antonoff has witnessed now from every point on the spectrum, and not in the usual order. It’s hard to say what he wants from this album, given that he already has plenty of the things it could conceivably give him: fame, money, the affinity of even bigger pop stars, etc. What’s mostly left for him is catharsis and connection, and the message here seems to be that even more so than all that other stuff, with those two things especially, you can never get enough, no matter how visible you make yourself, or how completely you hide.