In A World of Cynics, Jack Antonoff Makes Sincerity Matter
The band Bleachers is performing tracks from their latest album, Gone Now, at NPR’s Tiny Desk concert, and frontman Jack Antonoff is dressed in black mom jeans and a thin, short-sleeved collared shirt with faint pink vertical stripes. He wears a white baseball cap with a green bill over dark, curly hair and sports round-rimmed black glasses.
But he doesn’t really sing the lyrics during the verses. He delivers them more like they’re a spoken-word poem. He gesticulates with his hands, emphasizing the words, at times reflexively touching his cap or even yanking up his pants. When he closes his eyes, it looks like he’s conducting an invisible orchestra.
There is nothing smooth or polished about this performance. Watching him, I feel like I am witnessing an acquaintance do stand-up for the first time. He’s too earnest. He’s trying too hard. It’s almost painful to watch.
Only Jack Antonoff could make being an indie rock star look so desperately uncool.
But here’s the thing: Antonoff is the real deal. He might be better known as the frontman of Bleachers, former guitarist of Fun. or co-writer and producer for Taylor Swift, Pink, Lorde, St. Vincent and Carly Rae Jepsen, but to me he will always be the patron saint of pop sincerity. In an age of bullshit, he is the beacon of hope this world needs.
But how is that possible? In a world of cynics, how can someone score success just by being, well, pure of heart?
I am Jack’s childhood bedroom
For his latest album, Antonoff took his past on tour with him.
I mean this literally. He literally transformed his childhood bedroom into a traveling trailer that went with him on tour so that fans could listen to his new album in the space that inspired it.
At first, I was like, this is some privileged, Millennial hipster bullshit.
But then I heard him talking about why he decided to turn his bedroom into a portable art installation. Antonoff is constantly exploring the theme of moving on and letting go of the past. What better way to explore moving on than trying to take it all with you? What better way to hold on to the past than to give it all away?
I am Jack’s before and after
There’s an arresting verse from Antonoff’s Steel Train days that goes, “When I was eighteen, everything was alive / Then the planes hit the towers / Then she died, then he died.”
It’s impossible to talk about Antonoff without talking about his sister, Sarah. She died of brain cancer when he was 18 and she was 13.
Jack doesn’t shy away from intimacy with his audience. He invites us in.
9/11 happened. Then his sister died of cancer. Then his cousin died in Iraq.
A constant theme in his work is this idea of before and after: there’s before his sister died, and there is after; before tragedy struck, and after. And in the same way, each of us has this before and after in our own lives.
It could be our parents’ divorce or an abusive relationship. It doesn’t matter what changed our before to our after. What matters is the constant attempt to get back to the before.
You know what gets me, though? Antonoff has been writing about his sister and the pain of losing her ever since she died. And he’s still doing it 15 years later.
Jack Antonoff is no overnight pop sensation. He’s been touring since he was 16 and writing songs since middle school. He played and sang in the band Steel Train for years with moderate success, only hitting the big time after his next band, Fun., released the hit single “We are Young.” Throughout his career as songwriter, he’s held that tension between letting go and holding on; between moving forward into the future and acknowledging the weight of the past.
In 2015, Antonoff released an EP with three versions of the same song, “Like a River Runs.” In the lyrics, he writes:
When I fall asleep I can see your face
What I lost in you I will not replace
And I could run away, I could let them down
And I know you're gone but still
I will remember your light
On the B-side is a track called “Dreams Aren’t Random,” a 15-minute recording of Antonoff talking to a therapist about his dreams. He talks about a specific dream he has where his sister is still alive and “there’s this vague feeling that everything is okay.” If you have a sister and you want to feel like your heart is being ripped out of your chest and then crushed by a six-and-a-half-ton elephant, definitely listen to this track (but not at work because then you will be crying at work and things could get really awkward and you might have to make something up about being severely allergic to office supplies, not that I have personal experience with that).
I am Jack’s just like what
I would suggest consuming every Jack Antonoff podcast interview you can get your hands on because he is a fantastic interviewee. However, my favorite Antonoff moment is probably when he goes off on a rant about the Chainsmokers song “I Want Something Just Like This.”
“Whenever I hear that song, in my head, I go, ‘Just like what?! […] Just tell me what you want, please! It’s like being in a bad relationship. It’s like when you’re with someone that you can’t communicate [with]—that’s when the fucking radio drives me crazy, it’s like, communicate with me! I don’t have to love your production, I don’t have to love your drum sounds, but fucking tell me something.”
BRB, I’m gonna go embroider “Fucking tell me something” onto a throw pillow.
There is an immediacy to Antonoff’s songwriting, a specificity of detail that sometimes reads as stream-of-consciousness, like in the song “I Miss Those Days,” where he writes, “Some things, I'm not here, I don't get dressed / And I cursed my bedroom but I left it all alone / 'Cause all this time I'm runaway, runaway, runaway, runaway, gone.”
During an interview on the podcast Song Exploder, he talks about writing this song and feeling like the lyrics were too sincere to say out loud.
Of course, all of Antonoff’s songs are too sincere to say out loud, from his first hit single “I Wanna Get Better” where the titular line is repeated over and over again, to the chorus of “I Miss Those Days” which is simply “Hey, I know I was lost, but I miss those days.” Try saying either of these lines with a straight face to the person next to you. Try to do it sincerely, without smirking or letting your voice crack. Go ahead. I’ll wait.
I am Jack’s blues in the verse, gospel in the chorus
Antonoff often cites Bruce Springsteen as the source of this maxim: Blues in the verse, gospel in the chorus. He means, put the personal in the verses and the universal in the chorus. You can get as specific and gnarly as you want in the verses and make an entire meal out of your own personal story, but make sure to bring it back to something everyone can relate to.
In an interview with Zane Lowe of Beats 1, Antonoff says, “What do people really want? They want honesty, right? […] Essentially I’m going out there and I’m saying watch me play, listen to my records, pay money for my show, pay money to hear my music—fuck money, pay emotions to hear all this stuff. That’s a big thing to ask people. You can’t get on that stage without knowing that you’re essentially asking that. So if you’re going to ask that, then you better at least fucking give heart and soul.”
Listening to Antonoff and his music makes me want to pay the price, to sacrifice, to give of myself, to try to be as honest as possible about how I feel and what I think.
In Antonoff’s performance on NPR’s Tiny Desk Concert series, he does exactly that, and it’s so hard to look away, despite how painfully awkward his sincerity can feel. Even in a series known for its stripped down versions of hit songs, he stands out as remarkably and terrifyingly vulnerable.
Jack doesn’t shy away from intimacy with his audience. He invites us in.
During the song “Everybody Lost Somebody,” I can see the moment in the chorus when Antonoff is saying, everyone here lost somebody. Everyone in this room lost somebody. I can see the recognition in his smile on the word “everybody” and I can feel that pull, that movement from the specific and individual to the universal.
I could totally see him playing this song at the supermarket or at the mall, watching the shoppers go by, like, “Hey! You are not alone. I know you lost somebody too.” It’s not just him. It’s not just me or you. It’s everyone.
I am Jack’s sincerity of heart
It seems like sincerity in general might be having a cultural moment.
Exhibit A: the Mr. Rogers biopic starring Tom Hanks that’s been all the buzz recently.
Have you, as an adult, gone back and watched an episode of Mister Rogers' Neighborhood? It’s absolutely brutal. You feel like Mr. Rogers is speaking directly into your soul, because he is. Every single day, Mr. Rogers puts on his cardigan and changes his shoes. And every single day, he tells you that “you make everyday special, just by being you.” And every single day, he means every single word he says. That is some special kind of grace.
Jack Antonoff and Mr. Rogers have a lot in common. They both mean every single word they say.
It would be easy to say that listening to the music of Bleachers makes me want to be more sincere. But there’s more to it.
Listening to Antonoff and his music makes me want to pay the price, to sacrifice, to give of myself, to try to be as honest as possible about how I feel and what I think. I want to give of myself, freely. I want to make it worth the words on the page, the cost of the reader’s attention and focus. Writing this, I see for the first time that reading and listening and paying attention has its own cost, its own price to be paid.
When I'm writing, I feel like I'm on the edge of grace, about to tip over into something transcendent. For me, writing is holy ground.
Therefore, I will not make something that does not cost me everything. Or, as Antonoff puts it in the Beats 1 interview, “I clearly fucking give a shit, so why would I pretend that I don’t?”