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:

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