Jack Antonoff: Rocker, Ally, Militant Fashionisto, Lena’s Arm Candy
By Alexandria Symonds
Jack Antonoff, best known as the lead guitarist for crowd-pleasing indierock band Fun., and — we’ll say it — as the boyfriend of Lena Dunham, is honest to a fault about his personal style.
“I have a very Jewish face,” he says, “so I can get away with almost borderline Nazi looks, like army pants and stuff like that... I grew up in the ’90s; I like big sweaters, grays, fleece. All those things came together to look like a weird Jewish military person.”
Fashion aside, Antonoff doesn’t have much in common with a marine — except, possibly, for his to-the-minute time management, a necessity given his schedule lately. The evening before our shoot, he was backstage at Saturday Night Live, supporting Dunham in her debut as host. The day before that he’d Instagrammed a pic of them on a double date with President Barack Obama and the first lady. Two days after SNL, he was in Dallas, then Austin, to play his new solo project’s first-ever shows at South by Southwest.
That project, Bleachers, exhibits traces of nearly every irrepressibly catchy, stylish pop-rock act of the past 30 years, from John Hughes–soundtrack types like The Cure and Cutting Crew to modern stadium-fillers like the Killers. Just don’t call it a side project. “I didn’t do Bleachers because of Fun.,” he explains. “I did it because I wanted to make my own albums.”
It’s understandable that he’s concerned about the comparison. Just a year ago, Fun. won Best New Artist and Song of the Year at the Grammys, following the success of their Queen-y power ballad “We Are Young,” which catapulted to number one on the Billboard charts following a Glee cover and a high-profile placement in a Chevy ad that premiered during the 2012 Super Bowl. All of which is a lot to live up to. But with Bleachers, Antonoff insists, “It was never like, ‘OK, fantastic, now I’m going to do the opposite.’ It doesn’t sound reactionary or apologetic. It all just fits.”
Of course, there have been upsides to Fun.’s success: When making the Bleachers album, Antonoff had an impressive roster of consultants on hand. They included Vince Clarke of Erasure and Depeche Mode, who helped produce the LP, as well as Paramore’s Hayley Williams, and Taylor Swift, both of whom provided feedback throughout the writing and recording process. “I need them to be extremely critical and I need straightforward opinions,” Antonoff says.
You get the feeling he really means it. Bleachers’s first single, “I Want to Get Better,” couldn’t be more straightforward and candid. And it’s a handy mantra considering Antonoff’s extracurricular activity of choice: The Ally Coalition, a sort of grown-up gay-straight alliance he founded in 2012 with his band and his sister, fashion designer Rachel Antonoff, to support LGBT rights. He’s keenly aware that his involvement might come off like straightsplaining, and quickly addresses it.
“There’s a weird line,” he says. “You want to help, but I wouldn’t want to be in the position where, during this massive moment in civil rights, anyone felt like there were too many straight people talking for them.”
His main goal, instead, is properly allocating resources and funds. In practice, this has meant everything from donating a cut of Fun.’s ticket sales to marriage equality organizations to working with high school GSAs. The Ally Coalition has lately directed its efforts toward raising $250,000 to build a community health hub for the Ruth Ellis Center, which provides shelter and services to homeless LGBT youth in Detroit.
Neither of Antonoff’s high schools had a gay-straight alliance. He recalls being bullied at public high school in New Jersey: “I grew up in a time where if you had blue hair, you were gay. Every- thing different was just ‘gay,’ in a very bigoted way.” Transferring to the Professional Children’s School, a performing arts school in Manhattan, was a sea change. “I was one of two straight boys in my entire class — it couldn’t have been a more opposite scenario,” he says. “I feel like it saved my life, in a way.”
For Antonoff, a project like the Ally Coalition is a no-brainer. “Unless you are a white male who’s had the most privileged existence of all time and never had anyone make fun of you — which I can’t really imagine is anyone besides, I don’t know, fucking Rick Santorum — you’ll be able to give a shit about what’s going on.”
Photography by Juco