Indie

Ask A Music Critic: Is Jack Antonoff Overrated?

Welcome to another installment of Ask A Music Critic! And thanks to everyone who has sent me questions. Please keep them coming at steve.hyden@uproxx.com.

Look, here’s the deal. I love Carly Rae. I love Lana. I love Taylor. And dammit, I even bought Bleachers tickets the day they dropped for the upcoming tour. But I cannot help but wonder: Is Jack Antonoff actually a genius, or is he a repetitive producer and just an average songwriter? — Jesse from Washington D.C.

I am fascinated by the fact that even you, a person who clearly seems to enjoy the extended Antonoff-iverse, is having these doubts about the ubiquitous musician, songwriter, and producer. By the way, your list of pop-star nation states that have collaborated with Jack is incomplete. You could have also mentioned St. Vincent (whose recent LP Daddy’s Home was made with Antonoff) and Lorde, who re-emerged last week after a four-year lay-off with a new single co-produced and co-written with the chunky glasses enthusiast.

That a person who bought tickets to an upcoming Bleachers tour is questioning his genius speaks to how prevalent this guy has been in pop for the past several years. Whether he’s overrated is debatable; whether he’s overexposed is self-evident. Even the stans might be a little sick of him by now.

I’m an Antonoff agnostic myself, so my answer to the “is he a genius?” question is also self-evident. But I would never suggest that he’s merely an “average” songwriter. The guy obviously has talent, and he appears to be a natural-born collaborator. But is he a “repetitive producer”? I suspect you already know my answer to that one.

Even casual pop listeners likely know the Antonoff formula by now — he takes a familiar sound or even a whole song from a beloved touchstone of ’80s and ’90s pop and replicates it to the point where the difference between “homage” and “derivative” becomes difficult to discern. And then he pumps up the energy, bombast, and melodrama to the point where you feel like a grouch if you’re not instantly charmed by the “fun” confection he’s helped to create.

You can hear this formula once again in Lorde’s new single “Solar Power,” a would-be anthem that aggressively stakes out “song of the summer” status while borrowing liberally from Primal Scream’s early ’90s alt-rock classic “Loaded.” In a way, it’s not Antonoff’s fault that his style now feels a little tired, given that so many pop stars keep calling on his assistance. After all, you can’t blame a guy for doing what he does over and over again when he keeps getting offered millions to do exactly that. Also, to be fair, the underwhelming “Solar Power” can’t be entirely (or even mostly) blamed on Antonoff. He also helped to make “Green Light,” the electrifying opening single from Lorde’s previous album, 2017’s Melodrama. Ultimately, the pleasant but kind of meh “Solar Power” is on Ella Yelich-O’Connor.

But I’m beginning to wonder if part of Antonoff’s appeal for all those superstars is that he’s a bit of an empty vessel artistically. For all of his deftness as a synthesizer of past pop trends, I don’t know that there is anything musically that is uniquely his, in the way that you can instantly recognize the work of prior pop auteurs like the Neptunes or Timbaland. Antonoff certainly knows how to put together hits, but the personality on those records comes entirely from the frontline artists. Even as he’s become a brand name, he’s posed no threat as far as overshadowing his famous patrons. He’s a skilled, and relatively charisma-free, craftsman. (Which explains why Bleachers seems anonymous and nondescript compared with the blockbusters he’s produced for others. No offense to you before you catch that show!)

I am completely unfamiliar with the term “choogle,” which I have heard often brought up on your pod. How would you define this genre? I was going through your “Best of 2021 So Far” list and found myself really enjoying the self-titled Silver Synthetic album, which you describes as choogle. It reminds me of like… Real Estate and the chiller King Gizzard records? Where should I start with this genre? What are some of the “canonical” choogle albums? — Kevin in San Diego

I do indeed talk a lot about choogle on Indiecast, especially at this time of the year. Summer truly is peak choogle season. But what exactly am I talking about anyway?

The term “choogle” is most associated with John Fogerty, who wrote the immortal “Keep On Chooglin'” for Credence Clearwater Revival for 1969’s Bayou Country. On the same album, Fogerty also sings about “chooglin’ on down to New Orleans” in the hit “Born On The Bayou.” In this context, “choogle” evokes a certain attitude or swagger that is easier to recognize than describe. (It’s like porn — you know choogle when you see it.) But in musical terms, a good choogle exists at the midpoint between a ballad and a rocker. It’s faster and funkier than a slow song, but it also has a certain laid-back feel that keeps it from getting too frenetic. This effect is created by a chunky, rhythmic guitar part and a mid-tempo groove that’s almost danceable. Choogle music will definitely get your neck and shoulders moving, and cause you to drink your beverage at a quicker pace.

As for canonical choogle albums, it should be noted that few artists are able to keep a good choogle going for both sides of an LP. CCR obviously is in a class by themselves. I would also say that all the albums J.J. Cale made in the 1970s qualify. More recently, Steve Gunn’s Eyes On The Lines is a wall-to-wall choogle masterpiece. But for the most part, you’ll want to stick with specific songs, like the ones on this excellent playlist.

As for my personal favorite choogle anthems, I would nominate the following songs:

  • Waylon Jennings, “I’m A Ramblin’ Man”
  • John Lee Hooker, “Shake It, Baby”
  • Tony Joe White, “Pork Salad Annie”
  • The Hollies, “Long Cool Woman (In A Black Dress)”
  • Deep Purple, “Hush”
  • T. Rex, “Bang A Gong (Get It On)” (Strangely, T. Rex’s “Chariot Choogle” doesn’t qualify)
  • Tom Petty, “Yer So Bad”
  • Natural Child, “Firewater Liquor”
  • Rose City Band, “Rivers Of Mind”
  • Kurt Vile, “Jesus Fever”

What’s the most uncomfortable moment you’ve had during an interview? — Matt from Elmwood Park, Ill.

Just reading this question makes me wince and gives me the chills. There are few things in my life that have made me more nervous than interviewing somebody. For the first dozen or so years of my career, I would get really bad stomach aches before doing a phoner or (worse!) talking to someone in person. Fortunately, I eventually did enough interviews over time that I stopped getting nervous.

I found that my own anxiousness was the cause of much of the discomfort in my early interviews. If my conversation with an artist was awkward, it was on me as the journalist (or the “host” essentially of the interview) to make it more amenable for good back-and-forths and sharing. I just wasn’t very good at that for a long time, though I think I’ve made up for it since then.

However, when I was younger I also had the disadvantage of working for a small-town daily newspaper, which usually meant the person I was speaking with had never heard of my publication or the town I was living in, and therefore had very little reason to care about our interview. And that only compounded my anxiousness.

Looking back, some of the most awkward interviews I had were with people that I also didn’t care about, but I was forced to cover them because they happened to be playing the local casino or an area county fair in the upcoming weeks. Just the other day, I randomly remembered a very uncomfortable interview I did with Taylor Hicks, the “Soul Patrol” guy from American Idol. This was right after he did well on the show, so he was definitely feeling himself at the time.

I wish I could remember a particularly awful moment from this interview, but I think I must have mercifully wiped it from my memory banks. I think at one moment I asked a slightly snarky question about how he was king of the “Soul Patrol” and he swatted me down like I was a Doobie Brothers cover. I’m sure I deserved it!

Here’s another moment that comes to mind: I once did an interview with a musician I really like, and at the start we went to shake hands and he gave me a dead fish. I tried to let go early but he kept holding on, so I then went back and squeezed his hand slightly too hard. Finally, our terrible handshake ended and we proceeded to have a wonderful interview. But I’ve thought about that handshake at least once per week ever since.

Some artists covered here are Warner Music artists. Uproxx is an independent subsidiary of Warner Music Group.

×