Measure for measure: When Jack Antonoff and Minions collide

A minion smashes his guitar with music notes surrounding it.
(Clare Martin • The Student Life)

Many roads lead to “Minions: The Rise of Gru”: viral memes, suited-up teens, loyalty to the “Despicable Me” franchise, Michelle Yeoh, an unchecked obsession with asinine yellow pill-shaped creatures — the list goes on. The one that led me to watch the animated film that grossed over $900 million globally this past summer was the fact that Jack Antonoff had produced for it a star-studded soundtrack

I wondered how his cavalcade of beloved contemporary musicians — Caroline Polachek, Tierra Whack, Thundercat and St. Vincent, to name a few — would sound covering ’70s funk hits under his direction. Here was the man behind indie rock band Bleachers, the recent Grammy-winning producer of pop darlings Lana Del Rey, Lorde and Taylor Swift and the member of the bright 2010s band fun. And he was going “hard” on a special new project.

Plus, I’ll admit, I was kind of excited to revisit those stupid, banana-loving round boys on the big screen.

Though the “despicable” in “Despicable Me” refers to its wannabe-villain protagonist Gru, the word has come to better suit his army of henchmen in the wake of their absolute invasion of popular culture — an invasion that has paralleled, if more suddenly, Jack Antonoff’s own movement from fronting his own solo project to producing for some of the biggest names in mainstream pop. As the grinning googley-eyed faces have come to adorn key chains, Uniqlo tees, HelloFresh coupons, IHOP specials and more, Antonoff’s name has come to grace the production credits of popular albums like “Melodrama,” “Norman Fucking Rockwell!”, “folklore” and so on. 

I’ll spare readers an in-depth review of Antonoff’s soundtrack, whose 19 songs turned out to be largely forgettable, save for a couple songs, including Weyes Blood’s vigorous cover of Linda Rondstadt’s “You’re No Good” and G.E.M.’s spin, in Mandarin, on Nancy Sinatra’s “Bang Bang.” The sole original song, “Turn Up the Sunshine,” co-written by Antonoff and featuring music giants Diana Ross and Tame Impala, didn’t hit the way Pharrell’s snarky “Despicable Me” did back in 2010.

But all this hardly ended up mattering, for only a handful of Antonoff’s songs were actually featured in the movie itself, each for what felt like fleeting seconds. The remaining covers were either wedged into the credits or not played at all. What’s more, many of the songs that did appear in the film were actually — and possibly for the better — the original versions, from Lipps Inc.’s “Funkytown” to the Carpenters’ “Goodbye to Love” — no Phoebe Bridgers is heard in the movie itself. The jam-packed soundtrack was thus more of an addendum to “Minions: The Rise of Gru” than a true part of it.

Yet even though the soundtrack wasn’t central to the film, nor groundbreaking on its own, Antonoff’s presence was still inescapable — a label quite frequently also used to describe the perhaps even more omnipresent Minions. Like the Minions, Antonoff is relentless in his earnestness and optimism, traits that have been met with equal parts suspicion, affection and memeification. Though Minions appear cute and cuddly, they’re also frustrating and predictable. They are also, questionably, predisposed to kowtow to evildoers.

Theories likewise abound regarding Antonoff’s true nature and his worth as a musician: Is he really so well-meaning as the New Jersey boy-next-door? What gives rise, then, to his lingering “Dan Humphrey aura,” in the words of Quinn Moreland? Why does Bleachers’ music pale in comparison to his collaborations with other singers, while the band themselves track as increasingly unambitious?

Some fans have grown attached to the goofiness and sweetness of the Minions, just as others have endeared themselves to Antonoff’s apparent and self-proclaimed caring and compassionate disposition— the supposed antithesis of problematic music figures like Dr. Luke. 

But for all their ubiquity, both the Minions and Antonoff have also been trivialized, commodified and memeified to the point of becoming cultural playthings and even scapegoats for others’ insecurities. Perhaps it’s no coincidence that “inescapable” and “despicable” are near-anagrams, for the Minions, and Antonoff have certainly become as inescapable as they are despicable to the public eye.

It’s not easy to stay relevant in today’s hyper-mercurial zeitgeist, and it’s even harder to do so without public reception souring into boredom or distaste. In this regard, the Minions and Jack Antonoff have endured conspicuously. 

How, then, have the two persisted as both objects of disdain and major cultural fixtures? For one, they share the thick, round eyewear and modest denim of passé hipsters from the aughts. But perhaps their endurance reveals more about the public’s increasingly strained relationship to the popular. The more we despise something, the more we cannot avoid it, with marketing, algorithms and online discourse ensnaring us in a cycle of maddening and polarizing trends, our attention and mockery fuel to the fire. We resent the Minions and Jack Antonoff because they’re everywhere; they’re everywhere because they so tickle our frustration.

When controversy and cynicism trump inspiration and satisfaction, we can no longer determine our own heroes. It matters not if we swoon or sigh, if the soundtrack of “Minions: The Rise of Gru” is great or banal, for we have no choice but to listen to the music.

Becky Zhang PO ’22.5 likes listening to music, especially while in a moving vehicle.

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