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This is Robin Sloan’s workspace for 2019. The newsletter is the best way to follow along; it goes out every Sunday.

Don't take the money

Here’s a video I return to more often than I ever expected I would.

I first encountered the musician Jack Antonoff as a producer on Lorde’s latest album Melodrama, which I liked a lot. At some point, I clicked over to his band’s performance for NPR’s Tiny Desk Concerts—that’s an archive you can have so, so much fun exploring—and found myself captivated by one song in particular, called “Don’t Take the Money.”

I’ll say one thing before, then another thing after.

The thing before: Antonoff’s singing here is not “good” as typically defined, and your first reaction might reasonably be skeptical, but its weakness is what sets up the rush of relief when his bandmates’ voices join in, like two airplanes lifting a third mid-flight, touched wing-to-wing. (Have airplanes ever actually done that? It feels to me like a canonical metaphor for support. I probably saw it in a cartoon.) How could you achieve an aesthetic effect like that if his singing in the first place wasn’t flagging, failing? Give it a chance.

I’ve cued the video up to the start of the song:

The thing after: that beat on the boombox!! It’s so simple, and for the whole duration of the song, it just loops, a constant, crunchy, echo-y boom… bap… boom… bap. The first time I watched the video, I was totally charmed by the boombox—the fumble at the end!—and also, I felt like I’d learned something important, been let in on a secret:

That’s all you need!

This whole lovely song—and it is lovely—is built on nothing but a looping boom… bap… boom… bap. The beat does what it needs to do. And if boom, bap is all you need to make a song, what else might be all you need to draw a picture or write a story or start a business?

I’m telling you, that boom, bap and its perfectly effective simplicity has stayed with me.

It’s almost essential to pair this performance with another video showing Jack Antonoff in his home studio. The space has become an important part of his marketing; I can’t count how many times I’ve now seen it explored and re-explored. Antonoff’s studio has an excellent publicist. This video, produced by/for Antonoff himself, is noteworthy for its deliberate pace. Another version would cut faster from step to step, compressing the whole process into three minutes rather than eight. But it’s the eight-minute version that’s interesting, as you watch the song grow layer by layer:

Two things stand out:

  • The transformative effect of the sidewalk ambience. He’s right—it makes it all work, makes it come alive.
  • The home studio’s built-in microphones, placed in its far corners, so its user can capture, at any moment, anything: the thwack of a drumstick, the tinkle of a bell, a stray yelp or howl. What a cool tool.

Finally, I want to dwell on the content of the song, which, along with the boom, bap, is the reason any of this stuck in the first place. In the process video, we learn that the song began with the refrain, the words just looping like a mantra: “Don’t take the money. Don’t take the money. Don’t take the money.”

If you needed a moral maxim for the 21st century, a principle to help you determine right action, you could do a lot worse than “Don’t take the money.” One of the reasons you know it’s right is that people rarely get credit for not taking the money. Simple refusal—“no thanks”—generates no headlines, not even much conversation, but it’s happening all the time, all around us, people not taking the money, in amounts very large and very small. Refusing to establish an exchange rate for a certain kind of art, or work, or care.

August 2019, Oakland

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