Less than 12 hours after Taylor Swift’s 10th album, Midnights, dropped on Oct. 21, a 25-year-old New Zealander posted a video on Twitter in which he recorded himself correctly guessing, one by one, upon first listen, every song on the album produced by Jack Antonoff.
“I’m able to instantly detect if Jack Antonoff worked on a song due to a visceral hatred of his production style,” Caleb Gamman captioned his clip, which currently has over 84,000 likes. To be fair, 17 out of the 20 tracks on Midnights were produced by Antonoff, but there was something mildly exhilarating about watching this guy hesitate on the exact songs—“The Great War,” “High Infidelity” and “Would’ve, Could’ve, Should’ve”—that Aaron Dessner produced instead. “Snow on the Beach” was the first one that made Gamman hesitate, until he heard Swift’s voice swoop up. “No, that’s him,” he said with a chuckle. “Midnight Rain” was the one that really floored me, though. Gamman could tell it was Antonoff before even hearing a lyric, upon the drop of a mere exhale (or yell?). That’s the one that made me want to talk to him, because what the actual fuck?
Antonoff presents not so much as a formalist musician, but a vibes-based producer who female singer-songwriters in particular love to work with. As Antonoff himself told The Guardian in 2017, his method is disentangling “the saddest, most upsetting, most real things someone might go through, and then finding a way to sew those into pop songs.” What does that mean???? At Pitchfork, Quinn Moreland swiftly tethered that magic to the ground, summing up his sound as “essentially, nostalgic guitars and string arrangements, swelling choruses.” Yet Antonoff’s ubiquity—last year alone he collaborated with Swift, Lana Del Rey, Lorde, St. Vincent, Clairo, and even had something to do with Olivia Rodrigo—makes it really hard to parse what is and is not an Antonoff song. In Moreland’s words: “As the designated steward of Tasteful Pop, maybe his omnipresence has flattened the sound of that niche between mainstream pop and indie music.”
Gamman is not a music guy. He’s a video producer. He has a YouTube channel in which he deconstructs content, mostly movies and games. Which is not to say he doesn’t have a history with Antonoff. As a high schooler, when he was still a reasonable drummer, he remembers having to perform (he doesn’t remember what for—perhaps because of the sonic trauma) songs by Antonoff’s band at the time, fun. (“I wasn’t loving it,” he says. “But I didn’t know that I would categorically dislike it at that point.”) After Antonoff started his one-man band, Bleachers, Gamman had an ex who fell for the 2015 female-fronted remix album of the band’s previous-year release. But, as he reveals in our conversation below (condensed because no one speaks in Q&A format, least of all me) his hatred of Antonoff’s sound is far richer than mere sour grapes.
One of your tweets says, “I’m the only person alive with good media literacy so whenever anyone disagrees with me it means they’re objectively an idiot.” I know it was just a stupid tweet, but where does that impulse come from?
I have a bachelor’s in creative media production. Part of that was analyzing things, so I do have a formal background in it. But that’s always been the interesting thing to me—I think I enjoy pulling something apart more than I actually enjoy watching it, or whatever. I think I have somewhat destroyed my ability to earnestly engage with anything. I will be pulling something apart as it goes.
Have you always been that way?
I was always pretty specific in my tastes growing up. I wouldn’t want to watch much or listen to much. I could get very invested in something. It’s maybe a little bit of a defense mechanism rather than being in the thrall of a piece of music and manipulated by it. It has always been like that. But how good I am at the critique has changed.
Why would you take that approach?
I know. In primary school I only wanted to listen to U2.
It’s funny that you’re shitting on Jack Antonoff and you like U2.
I’ll shit on U2 NOW. It’s like that story about Steven Spielberg, where after he saw special effects in a movie, he would go home and reverse-engineer it so that he could get over it.
When did you first encounter Jack Antonoff?
Probably fun. “We Are Young” would be most people’s first experience of him. I didn’t love that, but I wasn’t immediately completely hating him. It was only when he started producing for other people that I started to actively not like it—and then it was pretty much immediately. I had liked early Taylor Swift. I was even into 1989, which was Jack Antonoff—not all of it, but he was involved—and I didn’t hate that. But after that, everything Jack Antonoff did I started to be inherently put off by.
Well, what’s the deal? Why?
I feel like I can work backwards and explain it. But there was something about it where if I just heard his production, it would elevate my heart rate. I would be like, “Oh, dear.” Definitely the way he treats the vocals is off-putting to me. It’s almost like ASMR-y, and he will do digital harmonizing—using auto tune to retune as harmonies—rather than doing it authentically. He’ll even do whisper tracks, so you get all of that sibilance and mouth noise. The main thing is digital vocals that feel very close and personal, like, overly intimate. And just altogether the way that he processes those vocals is also very wide. He does stereo expansion, so it’ll sound like it’s all around you.
Oh, you mean like U2? Just kidding.
And then I suppose I’m not huge on the super clean bass. He uses classic drum sounds and then he puts an effect on them so that they all sound a little bit washed out. He’ll often flip the high end of the sound so you’re only getting the bass-y sounds of the drums. Oh, and he will pitch them around. I guess all drums are going to have a pitch, but he will use them to do something harmonically. It just creates a full mix that to me is, as a whole, off-putting.
How do you pick out those elements and know it’s him, though? It’s not like there aren’t people who do the same things.
Absolutely. I really love a clean reverb sound when it’s on a PC Music [British label founded by producer A.G. Cook] track. And I really liked digital harmonizing when Kanye West went through that phase, not to bring him into this. But the ability to tell whether it is Jack or not is not super rational.
It makes me think you have a really intimate knowledge of his work even though you dislike it.
Because he’s worked with so many artists that I like, I kind of do.
What’s your favorite of his?
The album that he did with Lana Del Rey I thought was OK. I didn’t think it was the best Lana album, it was just like a solid Lana album. It doesn’t have too many of the trappings of Jack.
Norman Fucking Rockwell?
Yeah. He also did a song called “Foreign Girls.” The first time I heard that song, it was on a broken speaker system and only the right channel of the speakers was working, and I thought, “This song is great.” And I searched it up, and I saved it. Then I listened to it back on headphones and it turns out in the left channel, there’s this insane saxophone run going through the whole thing and it was unbearable.
That is very funny. What is the Platonic ideal of the worst of the Jack Antonoff sound for you?
The Reputation album by Taylor Swift, that was pretty rough. I can’t listen to any of that, it’s too embarrassing.
I think a lot of people agree with you. What did you think of the Lorde album [Melodrama, which a number of critics consider a masterpiece]?
Yeah, I mean, it was Jack. I listened to a bit of it, but I was kind of like, I can hear him in there.
So, wait, how did you discover you had this skill?
It probably was when Reputation came out [November 2017], that was when I identified that when I would hear a Jack Antonoff song, I would physically not like it. By the way, I’m completely fine with almost any piece of music. Any piece of music I hear, I go, “That’s great.” It’s JUST Jack Antonoff that I don’t like. It’s a physical thing. I know it’s Jack in my bones.
There’s nothing else that hits you in the same way? I wonder if there are any tastes or touches?
You mean a sensory thing? I don’t think so. I can’t really think of anything else that would do it.
Vulture did this breakdown of all the elements of Jack Antonoff: Poppy, percussive acoustic guitars, grand string flourishes, big ’80s synths, bigger choruses, intimate songwriting, a woman with a guitar or piano. And I’m like, these all seem random.
Yeah. And sort of applicable to at least half of music.
That’s why I was confused. I’m like, this is not helping me as a key.
I do listen to music and mostly hear the production. I’m not that good with lyrics. I don’t have a hard time understanding people speaking, but as soon as you start singing, it just becomes noise, like part of the musical mix or whatever. By the way, I wasn’t expecting to get 100 percent success [in the video]. I think I only did because it is mostly Jack Antonoff. My friends know that I can do this. I have done this privately with Jack Antonoff produced albums in the past. I usually get some false positives. There were some on the last Taylor Swift album where I think it was a New Zealand producer [Joel Little] and I was like, “That’s Jack Antonoff for sure.” And it wasn’t. But he was doing that style, so that can happen. It’s a style that’s going around and I think more people are adopting some of his tics.
I guess it’s a slippery slope between having a sound versus being a bit lazy about your sound?
People were saying he’s like the JJ Abrams of music and I can see that. I think any mainstream producer doing super commercial music, you’re going to keep doing what works. But he must be great to work with. It seems like everyone loves working with him.
I was reading about how people like working with him because he brings out their sound more, rather than projecting his sound onto them. But I feel like he does.
Yeah, I think Clairo [Sling, 2021] and Lana are the two projects of his that are different from his sound, but everything else that he’s produced, it’s the sound of Jack Antonoff.
I’m wondering how much of the recoil is coming from just the pervasiveness of that sound.
I think the fact that the video has got any traction, I think reality has caught up to my opinion. I have been quietly posting Jack Antonoff hate for years. But now it’s tipped over.
What made you decide to do the video?
Have you seen those guys who play GeoGuessr? There’s this game where you get spat out at a random place in Google Street View and you have to guess where you are. There’s this guy [Georainbolt] who is the best in the world at doing this. Just by looking at a picture of a place for a second, he can pinpoint where it is on a map. So that was the style of the video. I was just doing it as bonus stuff on my website. I saw that [Swift] dropped the album, and I just made a note for myself that was, “When I get up tomorrow, I should do this video in the style of this guy’s videos.”
What music do you really love—the absolute opposite of Jack Antonoff?
I’d maybe say A.G. Cook. If you’re familiar with PC Music, he’s done production for Charli XCX recently [and for Beyoncé]. He is doing a lot of similar stuff to Jack Antonoff, but somehow, it’s incredibly palatable to me. He maybe pushes things further. He’s willing to go all out onto a super clean sound or a super digital sound, whereas Jack Antonoff is sitting just within that. A.G. Cook is a good parallel, because if you try and break down what Jack Antonoff is doing, bullet-point it out, you could say all the same things about A.G. Cook, but it’s more extreme and more interesting.
You just hate Jack Antonoff. It’s so clear to me that you hate this poor man.
I don’t even know the guy. I know less biographical information about Jack Antonoff than most people I talk to. I have no interest in it. It’s just sonically, I can’t stand it.