Emily Warren: Live at Rough Trade

Emily Warren occupies a unique space within the music industry. She’s spent the last four years as an extremely prolific songwriter, collaborating on high-profile songs with some of the biggest names in pop music and even appearing as a featured performer on several occasions. Her writing is sharp and emotionally insightful, but her strong pop sensibilities always shine through with big, radio-friendly hooks.

At the same time, her debut album Quiet Your Mind, released last month, would be more at home on the alternative charts than almost anything else she’s done. The songs all have the high level of polish you would expect based on her previous work, but the actual content mostly hews closer to indie rock than to anything like “New Rules” or “High Five.” Another unorthodox aspect of her career is her association with the Chainsmokers, a close working relationship that far exceeds her investment in any of the other artist she’s worked with. Warren at times seems to be single-handedly driving the duo’s evolution from faceless EDM producers into a legitimate musical group, one well-written song at a time.

With all this in mind, I had one question going into her concert at Rough Trade in Williamsburg: what was the crowd going to be like? This is something I think before arriving at most concerts, and often the answer turns out almost comically predictable (two highly personal examples: Mountain Goats shows are packed wall to wall with sad young queers, many of whom are likely practicing Wiccans, while Magnetic Fields performances are so completely stacked with bespectacled English majors that I almost felt I was being made fun of), but this one was particularly mysterious, given that Warren’s big-name collaborations combined with her still-nascent solo career make her exact level of fame difficult to discern.

Rough Trade is an intimate venue — the performance space is actually in the rear of an independent record store, but the whole building has those wonderful high ceilings that you can only get on the far outskirts of Brooklyn — but the show sold out so quickly that two further blocks of tickets were opened up in the week leading up to the show. Even as the crowd filled in and I found myself crammed shoulder-to-shoulder with a mass of fans in front of the stage, understanding continued to elude me. Who were all these people? There were easily hundreds of them; surely they couldn’t all be running an obnoxiously self-referential Chainsmokers fan blog.

The short answer, which hit me as soon as Warren began her first number (“Something To Hold On To”) to wild cheers and everyone around me began to sing along, is simple: the audience was filled with people who have, one way or another, come to discover Emily Warren’s music and found something meaningful in it. People who had already fallen in love with the music of Quiet Your Mind and were here to see those songs performed live. In other words: fans.

The longer answer is a bit more complicated, but not in a bad way.

Before we get to that, let me back up: the opening act for the evening was Annika Zee, a Canadian-born multimedia-artist/musician who produces the exact kind of dreamy and atmospheric music that you could imagine being set against a projection of an experimental short film, or serving as the soundtrack for a confusing modern dance performance. Not in a bad way, to be clear: Zee’s music is endlessly intriguing, alternating between soothing soundscapes and controlled chaos. A song built around a simple drum loop and a spacey synth will be suddenly pierced by a confrontational vocal that sets your hair on edge. Again, not in a bad way. Zee also has the sort of casually commanding stage presence that you might expect from an artist who maintains full control of her work, from writing and production all the way down to visuals and cover art.

Warren was similarly at ease on stage, though she brought a more openly giddy energy to her performance. Warren was exceedingly grateful to the audience from almost the first moment, enthusiastically commenting on the size of the crowd and reacting with infectious joy when she realized how many people had already memorized the lyrics to her songs. Backed by a four-person bad, Warren sang every song on Quiet Your Mind, and while there were no notable deviations from the album arrangements, her vocals were given considerably more room to shine than they do on the album.

Warren has a unique voice, powerfully emotive with a sharp edge and crisp annunciation, closer to a jazz crooner than the sort of pop star she usually writes for. It isn’t that her vocals are buried or obscured on record, but even while her lovely falsetto is on full display throughout the album’s eleven tracks, some of her voice’s more interesting qualities remain obscured. My favorite of Warren’s vocal performances is actually “Until You Were Gone,” her first outing with the Chainsmokers, where she burns through the vocal line with an abandon that she’s rarely matched since, letting the edges of her voice fray in a manner that matches the driving force of the music. The quieter tones of Quiet Your Mind suggest that she’s not currently interested in that style of singing, which is fine, but it was still exciting to hear her sing live and be reminded of how bracingly powerful her voice really is.

In what was a real treat for those of us depraved enough to consider ourselves “Top 40 nerds”, Warren performed an acoustic medley of some of the songs she had written for other artists, including “New Rules,” “High Five”, “Capsize,” and, of course, “Don’t Let Me Down.” This was followed shortly thereafter by a full-band performance of her Chainsmokers-assisted summer single, “Side Effects,” which featured a surprise appearance by Andrew Taggart, who danced onto the stage holding two full tequila shots before performing the background vocals during the song’s breakdown. Taggart followed this cameo with a heartfelt speech commemorating Emily’s accomplishments (during which he referred to her as “the third Chainsmoker,” which suggests that I was at least on the right track when I wrote this piece back in April).

It was a show filled with good vibes and affable stage banter, suggesting that Warren was incredibly comfortable with the crowd, for reasons that became clear as the night went on. New York City is Waren’s hometown, so this performance (which she humorously referred to as the second stop in a two-show tour) was a sort of homecoming, and that was reflected in the audience. Aside from the family and VIPs cordoned off in the balcony around the performance space, there were quite a few of Warren’s friends packed into the front of the crowd, a fact to which I was ignorant until several of them joined her onstage for a recreation of the choreography in the “Poking Holes” video.

Undoubtedly, the proximity of so many loved ones contributed to Warren’s comfort on the stage, which transformed even minor errors — choking on the first line of a song, spilling her drink over her setlist, her microphone somehow coming unplugged — into utterly charming moments. It’s a rare pleasure to see an artist perform in their home town; Hanif Abdurraqib once theorized that the anticipation of leaving the concert and getting to fall into their own beds inspires performers to leave it all on the stage. Emily Warren may have been playing with a home field advantage, but the musical skill and engaging stage presence she demonstrated last night were certainly no fluke. Watching a performance like this, one can hardly disagree with Taggart’s prediction that she has plenty of similarly successful shows in her future.

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Siren

Three Ways To Write About ‘Siren’ by The Chainsmokers & Aazar

1. If the whiplash-inducing shift from the apocalyptic trap-bass fever dream of “Save Yourself” to the country-inflected of “This Feeling” suggested that the Chainsmokers are courting multiple audiences simultaneously, the sudden pivot back to “Siren” confirms it. They’ve always kept one foot planted firmly on either side of the pop/EDM divide, but they used to be forced to split the difference within individual songs: large swaths of their debut album, Memories…Do Not Open, felt like attempts to graft a pop sensibility onto an EDM sound, or vice-versa. The resulting soupy mixture of dreary, world-weary lyrics and mid-tempo beats produced an album that even Drew Taggart has referred to as “unfinished”, and while the first half of 2018 saw the group pursuing a sharper, more interesting version of the same songwriting style, it clearly wasn’t working well enough for them (or possibly their management), because ever since “Side Effects”, they’ve been devoting entire songs to either one style or the other. It’s brilliant, in a way: even if they never again reach “Closer” heights of mainstream popularity, by playing to the EDM crowd in a way they really haven’t in years, the Chainsmokers can build an audience who will stick by them in the long-term, regardless of how well their pop singles perform on the top 40. So I could have written about “Siren” as a piece of marketing, but nobody except me (and possibly Adam Alpert) would find that interesting.

2. It would be silly and maybe even a little embarrassing for me to pretend that “Siren” doesn’t sound a whole lot like “Save Yourself.” The formula is practically identical: a collaboration between the Chainsmokers and an electronic music producer with almost no public presence outside the EDM scene, built around two long instrumental passages, stitched together by a couple of melodic passages and vocals from Taggart himself. The biggest difference between the two songs is their respective “drops”, that oft-fetishized moment of climactic release that features so prominently in modern dance music. Whereas the drops in “Save Yourself” varied in tempo and drew from a variety of aggressive textures, the drop in “Sirens” is built around a repetitive burst of synth that sounds more like a clucking chicken than any siren that I’ve ever heard. Which isn’t to say there’s nothing here to recommend: the drop is still plenty of fun, and the vocal sample at the beginning is a nice touch, as are the strings that feature prominently in the song’s second half. There’s just not enough to differentiate this song from “Save Yourself” to the untrained ear, but as I mentioned above, the untrained ear is not the target for this song: this song is an offering to the true bass-heads, the kind of people who will read the previous paragraph and work themselves into a frenzy over my perceived ignorance. So I could have written about “Siren” as a piece of music, but basically no one would want to read that, and those that would want to read it still wouldn’t have enjoyed it.

3.

Three weeks down,
but you’re on the mend —
You swear that you’re free from the passenger seat
As we drive through the night,
’til it starts again:
You blame it on me ’cause you’re three pills deep in

I tell myself I love the silence, but maybe I just wanna hear the sounds of the siren

I tell myself I love the silence
But maybe I just want to hear
the sounds of the sirens

If you’ve never heard “Siren” before — and, if you’re reading this, the odds are that you haven’t — take a second to read over these lyrics. Do you find them striking at all? If you encountered them outside of their actual context, how do you think you’d feel about them? If you read them as a poem, would you like it? What if you read them as a Raymond Carver story? Alright, maybe that’s too grandiose — what about a passage in a Bret Easton Ellis novel? Does that seem like a better fit? Because when I listen to “Siren,” that’s what I hear: a piece of flash fiction, that captures a single moment in a much longer and very sad story that we’ll never know the end of. There are several things that could be triggering this reaction in me — the deep-seated psychosis that would lead me to devote an entire year to thinking about the Chainsmokers, for one, or perhaps the mental deterioration that I’ve experienced as a result of putting that ridiculous plan into action. But I do believe this song is unique within the band’s catalog. Only a few other Chainsmokers songs have devoted this much detail to an actual narrative, most notably “Closer” and “Paris”, but unlike those songs, “Siren” never resolves into any grand statement or meaningful refrain. The lyrics leave us in a place of quiet discomfort and uncertainty, as the narrator sits in a car with their ailing companion, content to let the sounds of the city outside his window fill the space because the idea of starting another conversation is too painful. We don’t know exactly what the relationship is between these two or how damaged it is or if it’s even going to survive this car ride. We’re left with only the music to carry us forward, and the fact that we don’t get any new lyrics after the first minute only enhances the feeling that what we’re hearing is not exactly a song, but a piece of storytelling with musical accompaniment. We’re forced to discern our own meaning from the lyrics, an act for which there is not typically room within a song by the Chainsmokers. So I could have written about “Siren” as what it really is, to me, anyway: one of the best short stories I’ve encountered this year. And yes, that would have been ridiculous. But that’s why I did it.

The Roommate From ‘Closer’ Makes A Phone Call To Her Best Friend, or: The Continuing Adventures Of Jess And Nicole

Nicole, 26, is walking through Prospect Park in Brooklyn, NY, holding the leashes of four separate dogs, when her phone begins to ring. Upon hearing the ringtone (“Ignition [Remix]” by R. Kelly), she knows exactly who is calling, so she answers.

NICOLE: Hey, bitch.

JESS: Nicole? It’s Jess.

NICOLE: Uh, yeah, I know it’s you. That’s why I said, “hey, bitch.” Do you think I just answer the phone like that all the time?

JESS: What? No, I don’t think that. Listen–

NICOLE: Just so you know, I’ve got a bunch of dogs with me right now, so if I lose you, it’s… well, I guess it won’t be a reception thing, but if one of the dogs tries to run away, or something, I might have to hang up.

JESS: I get it. I just–

NICOLE: This whole thing is such bullshit. I thought when I signed up for this stupid dog-walking app I’d get paid to hang out with a bunch of cute dogs, but all I get are these huge, slobbering idiots who want to fight every other dog they see. Yeah, that’s right, Brutus, I’m talking about you. What? You got a problem with that?

JESS: That sucks. So–

NICOLE: Wait, why are you calling me right now? I didn’t miss our weekly Skype call, did I?

JESS: No, that’s on Saturday.

NICOLE: Oh, hey, do you think we could change it to Sunday this week? I’ve got a callback for an audition on Saturday.

JESS: Oh, really? Congrats.

NICOLE: Thanks! It’s for Midsummer Night’s Dream, again. Which, like, ugh. And it’s in Jersey, so that’s a shitty fucking commute, if I get it. But I had an audition last week that I’m still waiting to hear back from, it sounds like it’s gonna be really cool. It’s an all-female production of Zoo Story and–

JESS: Nicole!

NICOLE: What?

JESS: Can you shut up for, like, one second, so I can tell you why I’m calling?

NICOLE: Wow, spicy.

JESS: Sorry. It’s been a shitty two days.

NICOLE: Aw, Jess. Go on, tell me what happened.

JESS: It’s Becca.

NICOLE: Becca C?

JESS: Yeah, Becca C. Who else would it be?

NICOLE: Well, it could have been Becca K.

JESS: I don’t live with Becca K, though. I live with Becca C. Or, I used to.

NICOLE: Wait, used to?

JESS: So. Two days ago, I spent the night at Terry’s place.

NICOLE: Oh, how’s that going, by the way?

JESS: Ehh. I’ll tell you on Sunday.

NICOLE: Oh, can we do Sunday morning, though? I have a shift at the restaurant in the afternoon.

JESS: Nicole. Focus.

NICOLE: Right! Sorry.

JESS: I wake up Thursday morning and I head back over to our place, and it’s still early — like, eight A.M. And I pull into the apartment complex, and I see right away that Becca’s car isn’t there. And, like, that’s weird, right? Because Becca doesn’t ever get up before ten. Eleven, if she’s been out drinking. Which… she usually is.

NICOLE: Did she go out on Wednesday?

JESS: I left the apartment at eight P.M., and she was still wearing her sweatpants.

NICOLE: Yeah, but… sometimes she doesn’t get ready to go until like, after nine, right?

JESS: True. But only if she’s done her hair ahead of time. And you wanna know what the state of her hair was, when I left the apartment?

NICOLE: Bun?

JESS: Top bun.

NICOLE: Oof.

JESS: Yeah. She wasn’t going anywhere. And plus, she had been putting out this sort of, like, weird energy all day? I mean, she had been watching The Office since I got home from work, which is not unusual, but she didn’t seem very into it. It as like she had something on her mind.

NICOLE: Brutus! God damn it, if you don’t leave her alone, I will choke you! I will choke you out!

JESS: Just talking to myself here.

NICOLE: No! I’m sorry! I’m listening. Becca was acting weird.

JESS: It wasn’t just weird — I know what weird Becca is like. This was different. So, when I pull into the parking lot the next morning and don’t see her car, my first thought is, oh! She’s finally doing what she said she was gonna do six months ago, she’s going to meet with an academic advisor at the University and see about re-starting her Masters program.

NICOLE: Didn’t she complain about that program, like, all the time? Would you really want that?

JESS: It’d be better than her lying around the apartment all day, doing nothing, complaining about her parents.

NICOLE: Oh, God, never mind. I just remembered what it’s like to hear Becca talk about her parents. I almost forgot.

JESS: I never got that luxury. You’re so lucky.

NICOLE: Hashtag blessed!

JESS: (laughing) Shut up. So, when I got into the apartment, something felt really wrong, like, right away. Like something was different. I couldn’t figure out what it was, but it felt so weird that I decided to check on Becca really quick. I go to knock on her bedroom door, but then I see that it’s not even closed. I push it open the rest of the way, and you know what I see?

NICOLE: What?

JESS: Nothing.

NICOLE: Nothing?

JESS: Nothing! The room was totally empty! Becca cleared out all of her shit and left literally in the middle of the night.

NICOLE: Are you serious? She didn’t leave a note or anything?

JESS: Nothing. I tried texting her, calling her. No response.

NICOLE: That’s so fucking weird.

JESS: Yeah, but here’s the thing: she didn’t just take all of her shit. When I went back into the living room, I realized why it felt so weird in there. Because a bunch of my shit was missing.

NICOLE: She stole your shit?

JESS: She stole my shit! She took my big lamp, she took a bunch of my books, she took my ukelele–

NICOLE: The ukelele I got you for your birthday?

JESS: Yeah!

NICOLE: That bitch!

JESS: She cleared out about half my bottles of liquor. She took all of my How I Met Your Mother DVDs.

NICOLE: Even season nine?

JESS: Even season nine.

NICOLE: Oh my god, who is she?

JESS: Nicole. That’s not even the worst of it. You know what else she took?

NICOLE: What?

JESS: My mattress.

NICOLE: Your mattress? She stole your mattress?

JESS: She stole my mattress.

NICOLE: Like, she took it right out of your room?

JESS: No, no — the mattress she had in her room was actually mine. When we first moved in, she asked if we could switch because the mattress she had was too soft for her to sleep on, and I was like, sure, I don’t care, let’s trade.

NICOLE: Oh. Well… do you think maybe she forgot that you switched? And she just thought she was taking her own mattress?

JESS: No! Because the first mattress she had, the one that ended up in my room? That was my mattress, too.

NICOLE: Wait, so, Becca’s parents are like, super-rich, and not only did she not have her own mattress when you guys moved in together, but she took yours with her when she left?

JESS: Yes.

NICOLE: What a fucking psycho.

JESS: Hey, don’t say that. It’s offensive.

NICOLE: To who? Psychos?

JESS: Well… yeah. But you’re not supposed to say ‘psycho’ any more.

NICOLE: You’re right. But, like… what other word is there? How else would you even describe that behavior?

JESS: That’s not even the worst of it. The mattress that she stole? I was actually borrowing it from my aunt and uncle. They gave it to me for free, I just had to promise I’d have it back before their son finished college and needed it for his apartment, and I said, sure, because I thought by then Becca would have gotten her shit together to a high enough degree that she would at least be able to buy her own fucking mattress.

NICOLE: Do you know when your cousin is moving in to his apartment?

JESS: Yeah, next month.

NICOLE: Jesus! This is so completely fucked. Like, I knew Becca had problems, but she literally robbed you and disappeared. Who even does that? Who steals a fucking mattress?

JESS: And now I have to pay for a replacement mattress. I’m out at least six-hundred dollars, not even counting all the rest of the shit she stole.

NICOLE: Wait. Wait, hold on. Do we know for sure that Becca took all that stuff?

JESS: Nicole–

NICOLE: Oh! What if someone broke into your apartment last night? And they took all your stuff, and then–

JESS: Nicole, calm down, Becca’s not… dead, or kidnapped, or whatever.

NICOLE: How do you know?

JESS: Have you been on Instagram today?

NICOLE: I’m trying to do this thing where I don’t check it until I’ve done at least one productive thing, because you know I used to check it right when I woke up? And not just Insta, I would check Facebook and Twitter, too — and Snapchat, when that was still a thing — and first of all, it was making me super anxious, because the world is so fucked that you can’t read the news without having it fuck up your whole day, and second it was, like, a huge time suck, right at the beginning of the day, when I should be getting up and jogging or doing meal prep, or… whatever.

JESS: So, that’s a ‘no’?

NICOLE: Yeah! No.

JESS: Well, Becca posted an update to her story just one hour ago.

NICOLE: Oh, shit. Where was she?

JESS: According to the location tag she used, she’s somewhere in the middle of the Nebraska.

NICOLE: What the fuck.

JESS: There were two posts. The first one was just a picture of a corn field or some shit —

NICOLE: What filter did she use?

JESS: …

NICOLE: Sorry.

JESS: And there was a caption, and I quote: “Start spreadin’ the news.”

NICOLE: “Spreadin’?” Like, with an apostrophe and everything?

JESS: Do you know what that is?

NICOLE: It’s fucking gross is what it is.

JESS: No, Nicole, that’s the first line of that song. “New York, New York?”

NICOLE: Wait. Wait. No, that can’t… wait. Are you sure?

JESS: Do you know what the second update was?

NICOLE: A selfie?

JESS: Yeah, of course.

NICOLE: Of course.

JESS: Nicole. This bitch was parked by the side of the road, sitting on the hood of her ugly-ass broken-down Range Rover, flashing the peace sign, with the caption, “I’m leavin’ today.”

NICOLE: Jess, stop.

JESS: And you know what was strapped to her roof?

NICOLE: No.

JESS: My fucking mattress.

NICOLE: Becca is driving from Boulder to New York City with your mattress strapped to the roof of her car?

JESS: Yah.

NICOLE: Jess, I… I don’t even know what to say. This is the crazi–this is the most bizarre thing I have ever heard. How could–oh, fuck.

JESS: What?

NICOLE: It’s Brutus, he’s trying to fight another dog. HEY, IDIOT, CALM DOWN! What? No, sir, no, I wasn’t talking to you, I was talking to the dog. What? Well, no, he’s not MY dog, listen, I–

JESS: Nicole?

NICOLE: I’m sorry, Jess, I gotta go real quick.

JESS: Yeah, sure.

NICOLE: Talk to you Sunday?

JESS: Talk to you Sunday.

NICOLE: Cool. Jesus Christ, your fucking mattress — BRUTUS IF YOU DO NOT GET YOUR NOSE OUT OF THAT MAN’S CROTCH RIGHT NOW NOW YOU ARE GOING HOME IN A BODY BAG, I SWEAR TO GOD.

This Feeling

I’ll tell you a story before it tells itself

It would be easy for me to say that “This Feeling” sounds like the Chainsmokers trying to combine elements of their two biggest hits with co-writer Emily Warren’s long-running preoccupation with self-destructive romantic relationships; after all, it’s got the male/female duet format of “Closer,” the alt-rock stylings of “Something Just Like This”, and the lyrical themes of… well, “Closer” again, but also “Side Effects,” “All We Know,” “My Type”, etc. The first half of the song (before Taggart’s vocals kick in) could be from any number of contemporary electro-pop songs featuring a strong female vocal, particularly Zedd-produced tracks like “Starving” or “The Middle”, with the latter being especially relevant given that it, like “This Feeling”, re-purposes a country singer into the context of an upbeat dance song. Speaking of which, Kelsea Ballerini is a shrewd choice for a guest vocalist; she’s a proven success within the country-music demographic, a market that has gone entirely untapped by the Chainsmokers to this point. And they’re not the only ones who benefit: as a mainstream artist working within an authenticity-obsessed medium, Ballerini has to perform a delicate dance to remain acceptable to her audience, so appearing on a track where she can completely shed her country-music roots and aim straight for the pop charts is a savvy career move on her part. Every element of “This Feeling” can, if you’re so inclined, be broken down into a series of crass, cynical decision with direct commercial implications, turning the song itself into a mere conglomeration of parts, each one meticulously designed and implemented with the aim of appealing to the widest possible audience of people. The weird thing is that none of that matters and it never will.

I’ll lay out all my reasons, you’ll say that I need help

There’s a reason why this kind of song is popular, and I don’t just mean the type of song produced by Zedd or Clean Bandit or Calvin Harris —  I also mean songs specifically produced by the Chainsmokers themselves: “Something Just Like This” and “Closer” were massive hits for the group, enough to ensure retained cultural presence for two years straight. If the tides of time wash clean everything else the Chainsmokers have ever touched, “Closer” will still be immortalized on whatever form the Time Life collections take thirty years from now, and Coldplay’s co-ownership of “Something Just Like This” ensures that it will be remembered as a least curious footnote in that band’s long, strange career. Here’s a statement that seems self-evident but will be endlessly frustrating to a significant number of people: this popularity means something. No piece of media becomes this successful by accident, as much as that may often seem to be the case. Okay, yes, there are powerful, corporate-run forces in our capitalist society that use their influence to insidiously control the conversation surrounding music (well, there’s mainly just the one), but you know that old saying? About horses, and how you can present an appealing option to them, but you can’t make them do the thing you want them to do unless they actually want to do it? This is what that’s about. Yes. This exact situation.

We all got expectations and sometimes they gone wrong

So, if these songs are all popular for a reason, what is the reason? It’s an obvious answer, so obvious that feels ridiculous, borderline insulting to write it. But there’s really no way around it, so unless we want to waste our time, we might as well put it out there. People like these songs for the same reason they like any song: because it sounds good and it’s fun to listen to. Whatever musical elements make up the song hit the pleasure center of their brain in an appealing way, while the lyrics connect with them on some level. There are other ways to listen to music and analyze its influences, the exact structure of the work, how the artists position themselves culturally, etc., but most of the people who listen to music hear a song and decide whether they like it or not based on how it immediately affects them. To the extent that they consider it critically, all of their thoughts are based on their initial reactions. Critics are not excluded from this, either. It’s impossible to write about music without taking your own enjoyment of it into consideration, and even if you could, why would you want to? Even if every song was really nothing but a group of components dispassionately assembled in a specific order to incite a certain reaction, the reaction would still be the culmination of the entire process. If you could actually hear to a song without experiencing it, it would cease to be the potentially life-altering experience it is now and would become nothing more than an unentertaining chore, a clinical dissection of an object you can’t even see. If music could be accurately criticized, no one would ever listen to it.

But no one listens to me, so I put it in this song

Another weird thing is that everybody already knows this to be true. We are, as a culture, so aware of the disconnect between our experience of music and the objective reality of it that we invented a new term in order to categorize art that we enjoy but simultaneously believe to be unworthy of enjoyment. A “guilty pleasure” is a piece of art that moves your body, your heart, even your soul, but which you feel you must, for some reason, distance yourself from. For various cultural reasons, there are some works that we feel must be held out at arm’s length, separate from ourselves, even as we embrace the effect the work has on us.  But why? It doesn’t work like that the other way around. If you encounter a piece of art that you critically determine to be worthy of praise, yet you yourself remain unmoved by it, you don’t place in a category meant to delegitimize it as a work (or at least you’re not supposed to). In fact, sometimes people will repeatedly expose themselves to a piece of art that they know they’re supposed to like, over and over, just to see if maybe they can trigger a single pleasurable experience. This is a fool’s errand, a life-wasting exercise in masochism, and it has lead to more bad takes than any other cultural practice. We could wipe out every obnoxiously contrarian “But What If It’s Actually Bad”-style think-piece in a week’s time if we stopped fetishizing the outdated idea of an artistic cannon. We’re never going to do this, of course, but it’s worth remembering that we could if we wanted to.

They tell me think with my head,
Not that thing in my chest
They got their hands on my neck this time

Drew Taggart, ever the poet, claims that “This Feeling” is about “being yourself and not giving a fuck what people think about you.” In the song, this is a reference to a romantic relationship, presumably a bad one — there are a few hints in the second verse that things between this couple are not ideal, but for the most part, we don’t get many details about the relationship itself, because the relationship isn’t important. What’s important is that this relationship makes the narrator feel good, while everyone around them insists that they’re making a mistake. The narrator’s response to this is incredibly human and unsurprisingly combative. If you’re being made to feel guilty about something that you experience as unambiguously positive, you essentially have two choices: completely abandon any illusion of agency within your own life and admit that your every decision is controlled by outside forces, or resolve to not give a fuck. This can admittedly be a somewhat imprudent attitude to adopt when navigating the emotional minefield of a romantic relationship — it is entirely possible that a friend who has your best interests in mind can examine your situation from a different point of view and offer up valuable advice. Sometimes, people want you to think with your head because your heart is being stupid. But the same reasoning doesn’t apply to music. After all, has anyone ever been convinced, by any argument of any scope and intelligence, that their favorite band is “actually bad?” Can you imagine what you would think if someone even tried to do that? Even if it was your best friend, the person’s who opinion you value most in the world, you probably wouldn’t give a fuck. Now imagine if it was some bozo writing an online culture magazine.

But you’re the one that I want,
And if that’s really so wrong
Then they don’t know what this feeling is like

“This Feeling” does not present a universally applicable maxim for living a truly fulfilled life. But it doesn’t have to do that; it’s a pop song. All it has to do is keep you entertained for about three minutes. It can be more than that, obviously. A truly exceptional pop song can stay with you for much longer, becoming so intertwined with your own personal experiences and memories that the song becomes a fixture of your life, an beacon of intense emotional power shining throughout the years to mark one single point of pure, iridescent joy. It can also be a neat thing to play at parties, or in your car. Music criticism can be interesting and even enlightening, but no amount of words will ever substitute a single experience like that. I’m not saying that we should stop talking about music altogether; again, even if that were actually a good idea, we’re never going to do it. I’m also not advocating for an anti-intellectual, gut feeling-driven philosophy or attitude, at least not when it comes to important things, like social justice or climate change. All I’m trying to say is: let’s not forget what we’re talking about here. This is a pop song. The entire chorus is the word “yeah” repeated about fifty times. It’s good and it’s fun to listen to, and if you disagree, I don’t give a fuck and I never will.

And I say:
Yeah-eah
Yeah-eah-eah-eah

The Complete Videos: 2016

Don’t Let Me Down

The video for “Don’t Let Me Down (featuring Daya)” begins with Andrew Taggart and Alex Pall approaching a convertible parked on the side of a winding mountain road. In a series of quick shots, the two of them enter the car, start the engine, and begin to drive down the road, Pall in the driver’s seat, Taggart on the passenger side wearing a pair of enormous earphones, presumably so that he can block out the roar of the wind as it passes by and listen to his favorite song, which is quickly confirmed to be “Don’t Let Me Down” by the Chainsmokers (featuring Daya).

Here we are greeted by the first in a long sequence of questions: why was this very nice vintage convertible sitting seemingly-abandoned by the side of the road? As Pall and Taggart approach it, there is little sense that they are returning to a car they themselves have parked, but we are forced to assume that this car does, in fact, belong to them. But what were they doing outside the car? Since neither of them is carrying a camera, we can assume they weren’t taking pictures of the scenic view — maybe one (or both) of them need simply needed to urinate.

But even if these concerns can be swept aside, we must then grapple with this: why does Taggart think it is socially acceptable to listen to music on his headphones while on a long drive with his friend? The car must not have a working sound system, otherwise the two would simply listen to music together. But instead, Taggart has abandoned Pall to the painful isolation of a long car drive with no music and no one to talk to.

This monstrous betrayal will soon be the least of Taggart’s worries, however, as the video then cuts to a shot of a distressed-looking Daya, wandering through the marsh dressed in all black like an Instagram-ready sorceress of the lowlands. Moments later, she appears on the road, blocking the advance of Taggart and Pall. It’s a strange-enough sight on its own (enough that Taggart takes the drastic step of removing his headphones), but before they can react, four other young women materialize behind Daya and step out to flank her. Taggart and Pall, seemingly unfazed by this flagrant disregard for physics, get out of the car to investigate.

Receiving no answers from the silent phalanx of Snapchat witches, Taggart and Pall return to their car with no clear plan for dealing with this bizarre interruption of their trip, but they’ve barely sat down when something shocking happens: the car begins to move of its own volition, bouncing up and down like as if it were possessed by a set of enchanted hydraulics. And possessed it may be; while the car bucks and lurches, Daya and her coven perform a synchronized dance that looks for all the world like some manner of dark invocation.

The car moves backwards and forwards, seemingly at the whims of Daya and her dastardly cohort of enchantresses. We know not to what end Day has hexed this unbelievably primo automobile, only that she has full commands of its motions. All the while, Taggart and Pall stare on, their faces grim and unreadable. They seem neither shocked nor disturbed, almost as if this encounter was expected, maybe even… foretold?

The dance continues and the ancient machine’s movements grow wilder, threatening at times to fully toss Taggart and Pall from the car, until, impossibly, it happens: as her ritual reaches its climax, the car gives one final heave and Taggart and Pall are flung into the air. Suspended as if by a phantom thread, they float above the car, their expressions twisted into twin masks of shock and awe. Daya looks on as her companions slowly wind down their deadly jig. Her face betrays no feeling of satisfaction or relief, only a lingering sadness.

The video fades out, but only for a moment, before we are treated to a final image of Taggart and Pall, hours after their encounter with Daya, still suspended in the darkened firmament. The forest around them is alive with the sounds of the night, but they remain suspended in time, prisoners of the air, isolated from every other living creature. A cruel fate, yes, but perhaps not an undeserved one.

At the end, the message and meaning of all that’s come before is finally clear. Previous to the opening of the video, Taggart and Pall murdered Daya and transported her corpse in the trunk of their vintage convertible. After abandoning her body by a quiet mountain road, they attempt to return home — Taggat so overcome by guilt that he attempts, futilely, to block out the world with his music — only to encounter her forlorn spirit on the highway, watched over by a family of furious wraiths, ready to enact the only vengeance she can.

Technically, this makes “Don’t Let Me Down” the first (and so far only) murder ballad within the Chainsmokers cannon.

Closer

The “official” music video for “Closer” is notable for two reasons: the first is that even though this video is ostensibly a re-telling of the song’s very clear narrative, it focuses on the sexual activity between the central couple (portrayed by singers Andrew Taggart and Halsey) to such an extent that it becomes unbearably distracting. The two spend so much time writhing around with each other half-naked on top of a bed, either actually kissing or rubbing their faces up against one another, that it becomes impossible to think about anything other than the mechanics of filming these scenes. How long were they in this bed together? How well did they know each other before filming this video? Did they ever feel uncomfortable being so physically intimate and, if so, was there a point where it passed from awkwardness into utter tedium as their shooting day dragged on? Did either of them have bad breath? Things of this nature.

The second reason is that, despite containing the (allegedly) erotic sight of two nubile young performers canoodling, the “official” video has literally a fraction of the views as the lyric video. Directed by frequent collaborator Rory Kramer, this video (or “a Rory Kramer vision”, as the title cards identify it) has 2.1 billion views, while the Dano Cerny-directed second version, released three months later, has just over 276 million. Don’t let the absolutely staggering quantity of those views overwhelm you; while it may seem strange to refer to anything that has been viewed hundreds of millions of times as a ‘failure’, if your audience drops by 90% between installments, it’s hard to frame it as a win.

Now that we’ve got that out of the way: you should absolutely let the staggering quantity of those views overwhelm you. Putting aside the fact that even that 2.1 billion views only ranks it as the twentieth most-viewed video on YouTube, those are still magnificent numbers, and meaningful, too. Because “Closer” was one of the biggest songs of 2016, and while there were certainly plenty of people who threw the lyric video on in the background while their attentions were elsewhere, with over two billion views, it stands to reason that a sizable number of people actually watched the visuals. With that in mind, it’s worth considering how those visuals impact the way those viewers experienced the song.

To put it simply, the narrative of “Closer” the song and the narrative of Kramer’s video (sorry, “vision”) do not match up. The song is about two dysfunctional exes briefly reigniting a failed relationship out of a misplaced sense of nostalgia and overwhelming loneliness, while the lyric video, as much as it can be said to be “about” anything, is about two conventionally attractive young people in an apparently stable relationship reminiscing over some of the good times they’ve had, driving around in their Range Rover and frolicking in various scenic locales.

That’s not necessarily a problem in and of itself — Kramer’s job here was to create some pleasing visuals to play while the lyrics of the song flashed across the screen, and he certainly succeeded in that. What’s disconcerting is that the lyric video isn’t quite different enough from the song’s story to make the contrast as obvious as it should be. Like the song, the video depicts a couple looking back with fondness on the recent past, but skims over the song’s darker implications. If you weren’t paying attention — and again, plenty of this video’s viewers probably weren’t — this video might leave you with the impression that “Closer” is simply a song about nostalgia and being in love. Again, it’s not not about that, but this surface-level reading strips the song of all its drama and turns the chorus from an ironically anthemic statement of purpose into a genuinely romantic statement, completely inverting the songs meaning.

This is, in all likelihood, not something worth losing too much sleep over. There’s no reason to believe that the majority of the Chainsmokers fandom lacks the basic interpretive abilities necessary to understand the song’s intended meaning. But this isn’t really about those people; it’s about the public at large, who have for the most part already left the Chainsmokers in their cultural rearview. These are the people who heard this song on the radio so many times that it lost all meaning, and when they look back on it ten years from now, all they’ll remember is that initial rush of emotion they got when they first watched the video — a video which, on top of its other troubling aspects, promotes the blatantly false notion that the band’s name is spelled “Chainsmokres”.

I mean, come on.

All We Know

Like the more-successful version of the “Closer” video, “All We Know” is yet another “vision” from frequent Chainsmokers collaborator Rory Kramer, and while the video stands as one of the very few unqualified aesthetic successes in the group’s videography, it unfortunately contains a fundamental misalignment between subject and form that ultimately detracts from what might have been a solid entry in the cannon.

The song itself is about the most predictable follow-up to “Closer” that could have been released; lyrically, it displays a slightly more romantic reinterpretation of the themes of the previous song (to the point where it’s easy to imagine this as an epilogue to the story of “Closer”), while musically representing something of a retreat, suggesting a sort of soft alt-rock blend between the styles of “Closer” and “Don’t Let Me Down” while returning to the earlier (and “safer”) tactic of mixing Taggart’s vocals beneath those of a more-polished female singer, a la “Roses”. As a single, it didn’t pull the same numbers as “Closer,” but it was never going to; in hindsight, it seems insane that the Chainsmokers even tried to release another single in 2016.

As for the video, “All We Know” boasts a plot that manages to be both embarrassingly threadbare and crushingly sad; like, sad to the point that you don’t to watch it, or even really think about it. The bulk of the video revolves around footage captured via SnorriCam (also known as a “body-mount” or “the least obnoxious cinematic flourish in Requiem For A Dream”), documenting the story of a man who leaves his apartment after fighting with his girlfriend, meets the Chainsmokers in a liquor store, gets drunk outside a Wendy’s, throws some abandoned furniture into the street, then hitches a ride to the mountains where he watches the sunrise.

The moment that launches this dark night of the soul and sends our protagonist on a drunken sojourn through Los Angeles is handled in such a perfunctory manner that it doesn’t even appear on screen, but if you turn your volume all the way up during the twenty-two seconds of titles that roll over a black screen at the video’s beginning, you can hear the main character speaking to someone over the phone (his brother, I think?) who informs them that his (their?) dad has fallen ill and will probably die soon.

The fact that this incredibly depressing detail is not confirmed at any point during the body of the video (the brief exchange that the main character has with his girlfriend at the beginning is vague enough to suggest anything from a terminal illness to a breakup to a bad day at work) leaves open the possibility that it was a last-minute addition to the video, a cheap and transparent attempt to layer unearned meaning onto what would otherwise be nothing more than a particularly conceptual sizzle reel.

And here’s the thing: this video does look really cool; more than that, it’s an extremely accurately-filmed depiction of how it feels to be publicly drunk in a large urban area  — not so much in the exact details, but in the overall feeling of disorientation, the way you can quickly swing from feeling claustrophobically hemmed in by light and noise on all sides to feeling like the last person left alive on earth. Given the lyrical subject matter of “All We Know”, there was no reason that this video couldn’t have stood on its own without the dying-dad subplot, but we must remember that Rory Kramer is an artist, and the intentions of the artist are, ultimately, inscrutable.

Save Yourself

When the Chainsmokers released “Side Effects” last month, I glumly theorized that it might represent a change in direction — a sort of retreat from the creatively risky work the group had been doing earlier this year, back towards the more dependably successful pop-EDM formula of their early days. Any concern that the Chainsmokers are growing conservative is completely obliterated approximately fifty-three seconds into “Save Yourself,” their blistering new collaboration with rising electronic music producer NGHTMRE.

Not only is it light years away from the breezy summer funk of their previous single, it’s unlike any song they’ve released before, an aggressive, crushing wave of bass with the biggest ‘drop’ in a Chainsmokers song since their 2014 collaboration with Tritonal. It’s odd to think that one of the biggest EDM acts in the world had never before fully embraced the trappings of dubstep, and your enjoyment of “Save Yourself” will be largely dependent on your affection towards that oft-reviled genre — personally, my feelings on dubstep are more Key & Peele and less Deadpool 2, but your mileage may vary.

Lyrically, it’s hard to discern exactly what’s going on in “Save Yourself”, but it shares the same sense of undefinable regret as “Somebody” with a more pronounced (yet ultimately bewildering) sense of defiance. But the actual words here aren’t the point; this entire track, from its ominous title and destructive cover art to its punishing drops, all the way to its downright frightening lyric video, is meant to convey a blend of excitement and menace, and it works; NGHTMRE’s unique production style tempered with Taggart’s sense of melody makes this the most viscerally satisfying Chainsmokers song in years, if not ever.

“Save Yourself” isn’t all that strange on its own — given their background in dance music and their energetic live shows, it makes sense that the Chainsmokers would venture into this territory; what’s confusing is that they’ve chosen to do it now. “Side Effects” suggested that the Chainsmokers were hungry for a surefire hit after a lackluster response to their more experimental work in the first half of the year. But “Save Yourself” isn’t a bid for mainstream success; if anything, it’s more niche than the alt-rock stylings of “Sick Boy” or “You Owe Me”. The closest dubstep came to breaking into the mainstream pop charts was Taylor Swift’s “I Knew You Were Trouble,” and that was six years ago.

In fact, the lingering traces of the EDM-pop trend that was instigated by Calvin Harris (with more than a little help from Rihanna) have all but vanished from the charts: scanning the billboard hot 100, there are maybe six songs that still bear traces of that short-lived revolution. A few of those are debatable (even Harris himself has moved in a much different direction with his current music), and only three of them come from producers with enough clout to promote themselves as solo artists — a category that the Chainsmokers themselves once fit neatly into.

When you compare today’s pop scene to the state of the industry when the Chainsmokers first arrived on the scene in 2014, its obvious how disconnected they’ve become from current trends. This isn’t at all unusual — the opposite is much rarer, and when you look at the sort of groups that have managed to stay afloat long past their expiration date, you sometimes start to wonder if it’s even worth it. Nobody wants to end up like Maroon 5, clinging to relevance by their very fingernails, desperately climbing onto the back of whatever new artist they believe can keep them afloat for another two years.

Still, in addition to being artists with their own inscrutable goals and motivations, Taggart and Pall are working musicians who need their product to resonate with as many people as possible in order to make their continued existence financially feasible. Why, then, would they pivot from the darkest, most alienating music they’ve ever made to a big, shiny dance song with a shamelessly pandering music video, then pivot once more back towards a highly-aggressive subgenre of electronic music that is beloved by very few and despised or forgotten by the culture at large?

It’s probably unwise to speculate too much about the group’s intentions, artistic or otherwise, but we’ve come this far, so let’s give it a go: if the Chainsmokers still plan to package every song they’ve released this year into an album (and this is looking more and more like a very big “if”), then we can view this eclectic collection of songs not as a series of missteps and course-corrections, but as a legitimate strategy to capture as much of the market as possible. When this album is completed, it will have at least one song that caters to every possible Chainsmokers fan. People who want to dance to Charlie Puth-esque pop-funk? They’re covered. Rave kids and festival lifers who love flashy DJ sets but want something a little harder than “Don’t Let Me Down?” There’s a song for them, too. Overly precious amateur music critics with a soft spot for self-referential pop songs about anxiety? Hey, how about that?

I would not be surprised to learn that Taggart and Pall are proponents of the Long Tail theory, which (more or less) states that as our culture becomes increasingly fragmented, creators have less of an incentive to produce work for an imagined “mainstream” and would be better off serving the ever-rising number of highly specific niche markets. Massive, all-consuming pop hits like the Chainsmokers’ own “Closer” will more than likely soon be a thing of the past; the speed with which this eventuality comes to pass (and the degree to which it actually occurs) will have an enormous impact on pop culture in the future.

Any band who wants to keep making music into the next decade would do well to abandon all hopes of crossover success and play to their own little corner of the world with extreme fervor. It would seem that the Chainsmokers, two-time one-hit wonders who forever remain one step ahead of cultural annihilation, have chosen to simultaneously target as many little corners as they can. Whether or not they will be ultimately be successful remains to be seen.

Yellow Square: The Chainsmokers, Twenty-One Pilots & Stan Culture

On July 19th, the Chainsmokers tweeted an image of a yellow square with the caption “Ready for some new music,” followed by a tiger emoji. It was a slightly obtuse way of promoting their next song, particularly for a group that had dropped its most recent singles with very little in the way of build-up, but the meaning was clear. You might expect that most of the people reading this tweet would be fans of the Chainsmokers, and would therefore respond to this announcement with enthusiasm or at least moderate interest — and if one of these people ran a blog where they wrote almost exclusively about the Chainsmokers, you might expect that they would feel a nearly spiritual sense of relief at having something new to discuss.1

If you read the responses to this tweet, however, you’ll see that the tenor of the reaction is overwhelmingly negative. This shouldn’t be all that surprising, considering what a divisive band the Chainsmokers are, but we’re not talking about generalized criticism from the public at large. There are nearly two thousand replies to this tweet, and it isn’t just that most of those people are upset, it’s that they’re all upset about the same thing.

The top reply to the tweet reads as follows: “Then they’re going to release songs named Swimsuit and Rico And The bikers, New album name is gon be called Hench [sic].” This has tweet has received 821 retweets, over 4,500 likes and 37 mostly adulatory replies. It is also completely incomprehensible to roughly 99.9% of the human population.2 To understand this tweet takes both extreme dedication and an arguably misguided sense of curiosity, but doing so brings you a step closer to understanding what might be the driving force of internet culture in 2018.

A closer look at this confusing tweet and the melange of memes and snarky replies that follow reveals that nearly everyone involved in the conversation has some reference, whether in their username or their Twitter avatar, identifying them as fans of the alternative hip-hop/indie rock group Twenty-One Pilots. Twenty-One Pilots is a group currently consisting of two members: lead singer Tyler Joseph and drummer Josh Dun, but the band has existed in some form for nearly ten years. They’ve been intermittently successful throughout their existence, but most people would only know them as the group behind “Stressed Out,” “Ride” and of course “Heathens”, which bears the unique honor of being the least-objectionable song on the Suicide Squad soundtrack.3

“Stressed Out” in particular was a massive hit, a song that clearly struck a chord with a wide array of people who feel besieged by the difficulties of adulthood and modern life, but maybe the most remarkable thing about it is that it’s a multi-platinum pop song that features the chorus “My name is Blurryface and I care what you think.” I can’t imagine what casual listeners made of this refrain, though it clearly didn’t bother anyone enough to stop them from buying the album. Anyone willing to use Google can confirm that “Blurryface,” aside from being the album that featured “Stressed Out” and “Ride,” is the name of a fictional character within the band’s songs that acts as a manifestation of Tyler Joseph’s fears and insecurities.

Blurryface isn’t exactly a concept album, in that there’s no real over-arching storyline or characters to follow, but the band is certainly dedicated their themes and iconography. Throughout the album’s entire release cycle (known by fans as “the Blurryface era”), Joseph and Dun wore coordinated outfits, which in Joseph’s case included bright red socks and black greasepaint that covered his hands and his neck. This is meant to be Joseph’s way of embodying the character of Blurryface, but again, there’s not a precise story being played out across the album; rather, the concepts and images surrounding the music seem designed to invite deeper investment from the listener. A song about feeling anxious and overwhelmed is one thing, but a song like that existing as part of a flesh-out world in which uncomfortable concepts can be engaged with on a semi-fictionalized level? That’s like catnip for burgeoning teenage obsessives. That’s the sort of thing that forms a lifelong bond between fan and artist.

It’s not hard to see why people, especially younger people, have become so invested in Twenty One Pilots.4 There are two reasons, one benign, one slightly more sinister. The first is their aforementioned dedication to iconography and concept: not only does this create a more exciting and involving environment in which fans can experience the group’s music, it lends them an air of artistry that is often missing in massively-successful pop groups.

At the end of the Blurryface era — which was mostly wrapped up with the video for the album’s final single, “Heavydirtysoul”, memorably featuring a flaming car driving down a highway, but didn’t officially end until the final stop of their tour — the band went completely silent on social media for the better part of a year. Imagine what that must be like for a teenager in 2018, someone who had Instagram when they were eight years old. The idea of your favorite artist — hell, any artist — voluntarily shutting themselves off from the world like that? It would seem massive. It would really feel like the end of an era, not just in a band’s promotional cycle, but in your own life. This flair for the dramatic doesn’t quite reach the levels of someone like David Bowie or even Coheed & Cambria (get back to me when Joseph teams up with Peter David to write the Blurryface graphic novel), but it’s just enough to make the group stand out. As a fan, you’re no longer just listening passively listening to music, you’re going on a journey with a group of artists who are giving you work to actively interpret.

That’s the nice reason. The second reason is a little less pleasant, but it requires a lot less explanation: Blurryface is the first full-length album to have every track on it certified gold for the same reason that Eminem is the most successful rapper of all time. Twenty-One Pilots’ music is more stylistically diverse than Eminem’s, but at their core they’re a rap group made up of two upper-middle-class white guys from the Ohio suburbs. They make hip-hop music that is more palatable to racially-anxious white listeners, thereby opening themselves up to a level of success that no black artist could ever reach.

On a certain level, this is not their fault — it would certainly be ridiculous to hold Twenty-One Pilots to account for the deep-seated racism that permeates every facet of American life, and to be fair, they’re not claiming any sort of lived cultural experience outside of their own. But even this honesty can sometimes veer into unpleasant territory: on the song “Lane Boy,” a song about not having your artistic expression limited by the opinions of others, Joseph raps “I wasn’t raised in the hood/but I know a thing or two about pain and darkness,” a skin-crawlingly defensive sentiment that I think is meant to be read as defiant of industry trends5 but mostly has the effect of classifying pain of marginalized people as a subset of the more universal kind of human suffering that can affect anyone, regardless of their background.

In this moment, Joseph has appropriated an art form from another culture as his own and used it to implicitly minimize the very reasons for its existence, and this is to say nothing of the fact that this dude raps this line while walking around in black face-paint that comes up to his fucking chin. I don’t want to think that any of this is intentional — it’s most likely just born of the ignorance that is an inherent product of white privilege — but that doesn’t make it any less insidious.

And but so all this is to say that for a variety of reasons, the Twenty-One Pilots fandom (also known as the Skeleton Clique) is enormous, passionate, and from the beginning of the band’s hiatus in July 2017, exceptionally bored. There are certainly many things that a group of internet-savvy young adults could do with the free time they suddenly had, now that the objection of their obsession had temporarily vanished; perhaps some would even suggest that they try listening to a different band. Well, when the Chainsmokers released “Sick Boy” in January of this year, it became clear the that the Clique was listening, and they did not like what they heard.

Almost as soon as “Sick Boy” was released, the Clique accused the Chainsmokers of ripping off Twenty-One Pilots, and to their credit, it’s not much a reach; both “Sick Boy” and Twenty-One Pilots’ “Heathens” are dark and piano-driven, with distorted vocal harmonies and a thumping beat. We know that the Chainsmokers were looking for a new direction after Memories…Do Not Open, and “Sick Boy” was released nearly eighteen months after “Heathens,” so the timeline certainly checks out, and the fact that the Chainsmokers have never explicitly mentioned Twenty-One Pilots as an influence is certainly suspect.

Also, on a few occasions (most notably in The Chainsmokers: Memories), Andrew Taggart has made reference to the Sick Boy as a character of sorts, one that embodies the many anxieties he was feeling at this point in his career. It’s not enough for a lawsuit — you can’t copyright a vibe — but considering the Chainsmokers have borrowed ideas from other artist before (both openly and not-so-openly), there’s certainly enough evidence to convict them in the dreaded court of public opinion.

That wasn’t the end of it, though. Two months later, when the music video for “Everybody Hates Me” was released, featuring scenes of the Taggart and Pall riding down the road and standing in front of a burning car, the Skeleton Clique once more made their displeasure known. Taking to Twitter in droves, Twenty-One Pilot fans accused the Chainsmokers of ripping off the video for “Heavydirtysoul”, and while you can certainly see where they’re coming from, the evidence is much weaker than it was in the case of “Sick Boy.” Twenty-One Pilots are far from the first band to make a music video featuring a combination of moving cars and flames — off the top of my head, Radiohead’s “Karma Police” and M.I.A.’s “Bad Girls” both use this same imagery to greater effect than either artist — and while both videos were meant to represent the end of an era, the Chainsmokers blowing up a Range Rover, a vehicle they elevated to mythic status in the chorus of “Closer”, is still more clever than Twenty-One Pilots standing near a burning car, the model of which has no significance within their music.

Even still, you could forgive the Clique for being a little over-eager; after all, without any new Twenty-One Pilots content to occupy them, they needed to amuse themselves. But then, on July 11th, Twenty-One Pilots officially ended their hiatus, returning with two new songs (“Jumpsuit” and “Nico & The Niners”), the announcement of a upcoming album, and a first look at the imagery that would be the center of this new era. Whereas red and black were the primary colors of the “Blurryface” era, the iconography of the “Trench” era would be centered around the color yellow — a color which, when it appeared on the Chainsmokers twitter feed one week later would, ironically, make the Clique see red.

We have now, perhaps, come to a place of something close to understanding; understanding why hundreds of terminally-online fans of the band Twenty-One Pilots all descended on a single tweet by the Chainsmokers, accusing them of ripping off their idols simply on the basis of a single yellow block. Primed by one arguably legitimate critique, fueled by a second, less convincing incident, and stirred into a renewed fervor by the return of their favorite band, they all sought to call out a pair of (alleged) imitators for the (probably) imagined crime of wave-riding.

And yet, greater understanding eludes us still — or, I guess I should say, it eludes me. I understand what it is to be a fan of something. I even understand what it is to build a large portion of your identity around your fandom, and even if I didn’t, I wouldn’t have to look far for examples: gamers who spend all of their free time attempting to perfect the fastest route through a particular game, cosplayers who devote untold hours to stitching together costumes so they can pose for pictures in convention halls. These are not things that I myself would ever participate in, but I can see how they bring joy and meaning to the people who do.

What I cannot understand is the drive that some people have to act as foot soldiers in an endless war, defending their idols from anyone who would dare question their perfection. I’m not just talking about the Skeleton Clique; I’m not even just talking about pop music fandom in general, though you don’t have to dig deep to find examples of how destructive those groups can be. I’m talking about anyone who spends a single moment of their precious and finite life trying to clear Woody Allen’s tarnished name, or anyone who decides that a negative review of a comic book movie that they haven’t even seen is cause enough to end a person’s life. I’m talking about the poor, lost souls who troll through Elon Musk’s mentions looking for a chance to defend their billionaire idol. And while I’m at it, I guess I’m also talking about the unbelievable amount of Americans who still support Donald Trump despite there being no reason to do so.

This is Stan6 Culture, idol worship in the 21st century. You can’t hand-wave it away by saying that “fandom has always existed” — as if the internet and social media have not fundamentally changed the way humans interact with one another. You can’t downplay it because “they’re just kids and they’ll grow out of it,” because there is a whole generation of people coming of age online and this is going to be the only world they’ve ever known. And you certainly can’t argue with it, because one day after the Chainsmokers posted the infamous yellow image, they posted a fleshed-out image of their new single’s album art, this one featuring the date ‘7/27’, clearly indicating the song’s release date, and this time they were inundated with attacks by fans of the defunct pop group Fifth Harmony for having the audacity to release a song on the same day that the band was formed.

Because Fifth Harmony once released an album entitled ‘7/27’, one fan claimed that “Fifth harmony invented 7/27 [sic]”, and yes, they were probably joking to some extent, but probably not as much as you think, and even then, it’s not the kind of joke that’s funny.

1. You would be right.

2. This is a rough estimate.

3. “Sucker For Pain” does deserve special mention here for managing to capture the aggressively misbegotten and overstuffed spirit of the movie itself.

4. I’m not just saying this, by the way: no less an authority than the Alternate Press Music Awards (Fueled By Monster) awarded them Most Dedicated Fans in 2017.

5. Even this interpretation is pretty disingenuous: Joseph doesn’t seem to have any problem with the industry trend towards melodic rap groups fronted by white men, but he’s got a problem with the genre’s focus on inner-city distress and urban oppression?

6. For anyone who doesn’t know, “stanning” is the act of being overly obsessed with an artist, person or character. It’s usually self-applied with either a small degree of self-deprecation or a disturbing amount of un-ironic pride.