A certain nervous tension arose when young New Zealand pop visionary Lorde announced that her new album Melodrama would be entirely co-produced by Jack Antonoff — not because he lacks talent but because his talents are so distinct.
Antonoff, a proud native of New Jersey and a very public nervous wreck, spent a decade paying his dues fronting the post-Springsteen emo band Steel Train before coming to prominence in 2012. That’s when Fun., his band with the Format’s Nate Ruess and Anathallo’s Andrew Dost, saw their aspiring generational anthem “We Are Young” fulfill its ambitions by spending six weeks as the #1 song in America. “We Are Young” went on to win Song Of The Year at the Grammys, where Fun. also won Best New Artist, but a follow-up to breakthrough album Some Nights never materialized because Ruess opted to go solo instead. That cleared the way for Antonoff to devote his full attention to Bleachers, the very good ’80s-nostalgic self-care project he launched in 2014, and to ramp up his side hustle as a pop songwriter and producer.
By that time, Antonoff had so thoroughly honed his faded-neon maximalist mirage aesthetic that much of his output basically screamed THIS SONG WAS CREATED BY JACK ANTONOFF, WHO ENJOYS THE WORK OF FILMMAKER JOHN HUGHES. Think of the Born To Run In The U.S.A. highway chug of Bleachers’ “Rollercoaster.” Or the pulsing pianos and exuberant, world-conquering chorus of Sara Bareilles’ “Brave,” an Antonoff co-write. Or the gated drums, rippling synths, and sampled “oh-whoa” vocals on Taylor Swift’s Antonoff-produced “Out Of The Woods.” These are good songs, but they are not subtle. When Lorde began gushing about Antonoff’s deep involvement with her album, my fear was that by employing a producer with such a strong point of view, her own unique style would be drowned out.
That thankfully did not turn out to be the case. Melodrama is very much Lorde’s auteurist statement. It does not strictly adhere to the sleek minimalism of her 2013 debut Pure Heroine, but it also isn’t smothered under the weight of Antonoff’s production. The evolution is natural and unmistakably her own — a panorama of piano ballads, artful club music, and soaring synth-pop imbued with so much personality that the actual sound of the music becomes an afterthought. Although Melodrama hasn’t yet generated a hit single, it’s eliciting rhapsodic praise from critics and fans alike and will likely debut atop the Billboard 200 albums chart next week. Antonoff seems to have functioned the way great producers are supposed to: as a sounding board who helps an artist become the best possible version of themselves.
So perhaps it’s no wonder that Antonoff’s name has been attached to so many high-profile projects lately. Most of his output after teaming with Swift on “Out Of The Woods” was relatively obscure: helming bonus tracks and deep cuts for pop strivers like Sia, Rachel Platten, Troye Sivan, Christina Perri, and Fifth Harmony or working with more indie-leaning pop acts like How To Dress Well and St. Lucia. But late last year he came back to the spotlight in a big way as the producer behind “I Don’t Want To Live Forever,” Swift’s duet with Zayn Malik from the Fifty Shades Darker soundtrack, which was a lot more successful than you might have realized (it peaked at #2 this past February). Then came the news of his extensive role on Melodrama, followed by a New York Times feature linking him to new projects from artists as varied as Pink, St. Vincent, and the Killers plus his longtime collaborator Carly Rae Jepsen. Some of these combinations are admittedly intriguing — I’m particularly curious to hear what happens when Annie Clark’s squiggly art music meets Antonoff’s square blocks of emotion — but at what point do we say onoff’s onoff?
It’s not that I mind the guy having a hand in so many albums of note. As exemplified on the latest Bleachers album, which arrived early this month, Antonoff is becoming a lot more adventurous than his reputation as a traditionalist suggests. On Gone Now, those ’80s throwback tendencies intermingle with many strains of modern pop. There are contributions from people you’d expect, like Lorde and How To Dress Well’s Tom Krell and synthpop luminary Vince Clarke. But he also makes room for hip-hop producers known for their work with Kendrick Lamar (Sounwave), Drake (Nineteen85), Chance The Rapper (Nico Segal), and Outkast (Organized Noize), seamlessly threading their ideas into his neurotic would-be anthems. Industry pros Greg Kurstin, Julia Michaels, John Hill, and Emile Haynie are on board, too. The results tend to be super catchy but also intensely weird — a splattered collage of ideas and emotions deconstructed in real-time.
Gone Now and Melodrama both suggest Antonoff has a lot to offer as a creative partner, yet not necessarily as a hit-maker. Ever since Fun. fell apart, the only top-10 single Antonoff has produced is “I Don’t Wanna Live Forever,” and that’s a duet between two superstars from a blockbuster movie soundtrack, which means we’re grading on a curve. If artists are looking to him to recreate that, he may be in over his head. Antonoff seems to be at his best when he’s melding minds with his collaborators over the course of a full-length project; there must be a reason so many of his one-off productions for pop artists weren’t released as singles. Mainstream figures seeking mega-hits would still be better served to call up Max Martin, Julia Michaels, Sia, Pharrell, Mark Ronson, or any of the songwriter-producer types with a proven record of chart success.
Where Antonoff may have a lustrous future is in the new mainstream developing online adjacent to the world of top-40 radio and broadcast TV — that increasingly broad and fertile territory between the superstars and the underground. There is an entire alternate universe cropping up, an ecosystem powered by festivals and streaming services and websites like this one. It’s a world that only partially overlaps with the mainstream as we’ve long understood it, one where genres commingle more readily than they often do in old-guard media and album-length statements are at least as important as that one signature song. Dudes like Ariel Rechtshaid and Rostam Batmanglij have carved out lucrative careers in that space, and Antonoff seems to be settling in alongside them as one of its go-to producers. And if Melodrama is any indication, he may survive in that arena by trading his sledgehammer for a pickax.
Even though the advance singles for Katy Perry’s Witness basically tanked, the album had no trouble recording one of the biggest debuts of the year. Per Billboard, Perry’s 180,000 equivalent units and 162,000 in traditional sales comprise the biggest first-week figures of 2017 by a woman. It’s Perry’s third #1 debut following 2010’s Teenage Dream and 2013’s Prism. Witness follows Halsey’s #1 debut last week with Hopeless Fountain Kingdom, the first time two women have gone back to back at #1 since Rihanna’s ANTI and Gwen Stefani’s This Is What the Truth Feels Like in April 2016.
After Kendrick Lamar’s DAMN. at #2 comes his TDE labelmate SZA, whose debut album CTRL debuts at #3 with 60,000 units and 25,000 sales. Country veterans Lady Antebellum are up next with a #4 debut for Heart Break thanks to 53,000 units/47,000 sales. At 5-6-7-8 are Drake, Ed Sheeran, Halsey, and Bruno Mars. Rockers Rise Against enter at #9 with 29,000 units/27,000 sales for Wolves. And Post Malone’s persistent Stoney climbs back up to #10.
As for the Hot 100 singles chart, Luis Fonsi, Daddy Yankee, and Justin Bieber’s “Despacito” reigns for a sixth straight week. It’s followed at #2 by DJ Khaled’s “I’m The One,” also featuring Bieber plus Quavo, Chance The Rapper, and Lil Wayne up one spot this week. Billboard reports that Bieber, thanks to those two tracks plus the #16-debuting David Guetta collab “2U,” becomes the first artist to appear on the three most purchased digital downloads in a single week.
Back to the Hot 100 top 10: Bruno Mars’ “That’s What I Like” slides to #3, followed by Ed Sheeran’s “Shape Of You,” Kendrick Lamar’s “HUMBLE.” at #5, and Future’s “Mask Off” at #6. The Chainsmokers and Coldplay’s “Something Just Like This” rises one spot to #7, extending the Chainsmokers’ streak with a song in the top 10 to 59 straight weeks, still second to Katy Perry’s 69-week run in 2010-11 but increasingly impressive all the same. Rounding out the top 10 are Zedd and Alessia Cara’s “Stay” at #8, Post Malone and Quavo’s “Congratulations” rising to a new peak at #9, and Lil Uzi Vert’s “XO TOUR Llif3″ at #10.
Calvin Harris – “Feels” (Feat. Pharrell, Katy Perry, & Big Sean)
Our fearless leader Scott Lapatine is correct that Katy Perry sounds like Gwen Stefani here, which is a great look in the context of this ska-inflected bop. And honestly, guesting on a much better Calvin Harris track than the one Taylor Swift ghostwrote is far better revenge than “Swish Swish” will ever be.
DJ Khaled – “Wild Thoughts” (Feat. Rihanna & Bryson Tiller)
News of a “Maria, Maria” sample had me worried, but from the moment Rihanna sings “Know you wanna see me nakey, nakey, naked” it’s clear this is one for the pantheon.
Fall Out Boy – “Champion”
If you’re thinking, “Wait, didn’t Fall Out Boy already release a song called ‘Champion’?” you’re probably thinking of “Centuries,” the inescapable jock jam that was used in ABC’s coverage of the College Football Playoff a few years back. This song is not exactly going to make you forget that one.
Shawn Mendes – “There’s Nothing Holdin’ Me Back”
John Mayer’s new album is supposed to be his return to pop, but his young protege Mendes is proving far more adept at recording hits in waiting. “There’s Nothing Holdin’ Me Back” is not some genius work of art, but it’s smooth and refreshing like a domestic lager.
Nico & Vinz – “Intrigued”
The African-Norwegian duo behind 2014 breakout “Am I Wrong” hasn’t scored a proper hit since then, but I continue to enjoy their singles. I like them when they go bright, as on 2015’s “That’s How You Know,” and when they go dark, as heard here. Keep plugging away, Nico & Vinz!
NEWS IN BRIEF
- @KatyPerry became the first Twitter user to hit 100M followers. [Twitter]
- Meanwhile Perry’s original demo of Britney Spears’ “Passenger” (produced by Diplo and co-written by Perry and Sia) surfaced on YouTube. [YouTube]
- Lorde is shooting a music video “somewhere totally magical.” [Twitter]
- Lorde also apologized for comparing her friendship with Taylor Swift to an autoimmune disease. [Refinery29]
- Selena Gomez is selling merch inspired by her “Bad Liar” video. [Selena Gomez]
- Drake, the Weeknd, Swae Lee, and NAV cameo in BAKA’s video for “Live Up To My Name.” [YouTube]
- Halsey recorded a PSA protesting Trump’s Global Gag Rule. [YouTube]
- Shawn Mendes, Raury, and Lil Peep walked the runway for Milan Fashion Week. [NYT]
- Dave Chappelle will host Rihanna’s third annual Diamond Ball in NYC 9/14, and Kendrick Lamar will perform. [Page Six]
- Justin Bieber’s 11th wax figure was unveiled in Orlando. [Click Orlando]
- The brass tiara Ariana Grande wore to promote Dangerous Woman is going up for auction. [WWD]
- In a Late Night interview Will Ferrell hinted at why Mariah Carey was cut from his new movie The House. [YouTube]
- Madonna’s childhood home near Detroit is up for sale. [TMZ]
- Ex-Chairlift singer Caroline Polachek and PC Music’s Danny L Harle will appear on a new EP by Pentatonix side-project Superfruit. [iTunes]
HOLD ON, WE’RE GOING HOME
To whoever just subscribed my email accts (family, work, obsolete) to multiple @Nickelback promotional & fan newsletters:
It's. Not. Funny.
— Ben Sasse (@BenSasse) June 16, 2017