Somebody (Rory Kramer Vision)

1. You Should’ve Known Better

It is difficult to feel sympathy for people who are rich and famous. This is not entirely bad; the gross imbalance of wealth and power in our society is the cause of our greatest problems and will remain so until the current social order is entirely restructured — a process that will be further delayed if we choose to emphasize the well-being of powerful people.

If we become too attached to the image of powerful people as ordinary human beings with problems similar to our own, we run the risk of excusing them their many transgressions in a way that can easily morph into hero-worship. For an example of this phenomenon, just take a look at any of the people who follow tech mogul/idiot savant/billionaire union-buster Elon Musk on Twitter, and how they rise up to his defense whenever his character is questioned.

All this is not to say there is no value in the act of empathizing with powerful people. Going back to the roots of dramatic storytelling in Greek tragedy, the audience was expected to sympathize with a great person, a figure of immense stature, who is brought low by an all-too-human flaw.

There are many reasons why we might be compelled to sympathize with the people who rule us — the connection between Elon Musk stans and the innate human need to believe that our caretakers are without flaw is probably deserving of more attention that I can give it here — but the most basic one is that in many ways, a powerful person’s life is not unlike our own. They have strengths and weaknesses and they experience conflicts, but because their actions carry greater weight, their lives have the potential for larger, more exciting conflict — all the better to engage the audience and demonstrate the themes of the story. To draw a very rough connection, it’s the reason why people find a battle between Batman and Superman more exciting than a debate about the nature of power and the correct application of justice, or even a similar story played out between two average, non-powerful men.

In theory, anyway.

Besides all that, there are practical concerns: if we deny ourselves the ability to empathize with people just because they’re rich and famous, we are categorically eliminating the work of any artist who has written about themselves after experiencing success. Everything Bruce Springsteen wrote about the struggle of working-class Americans after 1973 is no longer meaningful. Or Bob Dylan, if that’s more your speed. Anything that Stephen King wrote where the main character is a famous writer? All of that’s gone, too, including The Shining. Same goes for any millionaire Wesleyan graduates who write musicals with obvious self-insert main characters rapping about how they’re young, scrappy and/or hungry.

And the artist doesn’t have to be a national best-seller for this to apply; nearly any band successful enough to release an album and tour behind it, or a writer successful enough to have a book published and advertised, or an artist who has an entire room in a major gallery devoted to their work — any of these people has already reached a level of success most of us will never know. This doesn’t excuse the sort of laziness or creative solipsism that can convince an artist that it’s a good idea to write something like Lunar Park or “Hotel California”. But if the art is good enough to engender empathy and make us feel a connection with the creator, it doesn’t matter how much money they have.

2. I Don’t Really Like Anybody

Rick & Morty is a good show with an extremely unpleasant fan base. This is an uncontroversial claim that could apply to probably 99% of all intellectual properties, yet it still has the potential to alienate a significant portion of the people reading this or at least raise several questions about the tastes of the person making it. This is unfortunate, but not entirely unwarranted.

Like any piece of fiction marketed toward young white men, Rick & Morty has collected within its fandom a number of garden-variety misogynists and minor-league hate mongers. A brief glance at any of the largest Rick & Morty fan pages on Facebook will net you a wide array of bigoted, unpleasant comments and attempts at humor.

The widely held image of Rick & Morty fans as a group of unpleasant and entitled man-children was solidified in the wake of McDonald’s brief resurrection of the Szechuan chicken nugget sauce referenced in the show’s third season. This well-intentioned promotional stunt lead to an embarrassingly impassioned outcry from fans of the show when it was discovered that not enough sauce had been supplied to participating McDonald’s locations. The immature and disruptive behavior on display that day was an embarrassment not only to anyone who had ever enjoyed Rick & Morty, but to anyone with even a modicum of self-awareness. But even before the events of October 7th, 2017, there was already a pervasive sense that Rick & Morty fans were condescending faux-intellectuals who confused the show’s “edgy” humor for philosophical insight — there was a meme all about it, and everything.

It would be wrong to say the show’s content has no connection to the unpalatable portions of its fan base; any time you depict a nihilistic asshole as the badass, ultra-capable center of the universe, you run the risk of glamorizing them, even if your intent was the opposite (see also: Fight Club). But Rick & Morty is better than its reputation as chum for the MRA crowd suggests. It has a unique comedic voice and is endlessly clever in its utilization and subversion of classic science fiction tropes — and, yes, there is an episode where the main character turns himself into a pickle, but it’s really a lot more entertaining than you might think if your only point of reference is the most obnoxious person in your college dorm shouting “I’m Pickle Rick!” at all hours of the night.

Even though Rick & Morty’s main virtue is an abundance of wit, the show occasionally demonstrates ambitions beyond merely being clever and reaches for genuine pathos. In what is probably the show’s greatest single moment, Morty’s sister, Summer, has just learned something that causes her to question her place in the universe. When Morty’s attempts to calm her down fail initially, he reveals that her actual brother is dead and that he, the Morty we have followed throughout the entire show, is actually from a parallel universe.

This is surprising for the audience because it confirms a significant piece of continuity within a show that, until this point, seemed to play fast and loose with the idea of it — but it’s affecting emotionally because it allows Summer to put her existential crisis into perspective. Being faced with this example of the underlying chaos and nonsense at the heart of the universe doesn’t allow her to realize her place in the world, but what it does do is better: through realizing that she has no place in the universe, Summer is able to take ownership of her life, put aside the looming questions of fate and purpose, and simply enjoy herself.

A theoretical ‘good fan’ of Rick & Morty might take from this a lesson that would ease their anxiety and allow them a bit of peace in a world that can often be painful and confusing. It’s unfortunate that many fans have instead taken from the show the lesson that it’s cool to be a mean genius who lives a life removed from consequence, but it’s not exactly surprising.

3. The Only Thing That I Can’t Afford

The Chainsmokers recently released a second music video for their single “Somebody”, directed by their friend and frequent collaborator Rory Kramer. The main portion of the video is a lo-fi travelogue similar to the one Kramer created for “Roses”, interspersed with quotations that, to be frank, read like they came straight off of somebody’s Pinterest vision board.

At the end of the video, once the song has finished playing, Kramer settles on a single shot of Andrew Taggart as he discusses the song’s underlying theme.

Being able to discern what’s real and what’s not in a world that is seemingly… everything seems to be real, but… it’s tough to discern what is and what isn’t.

I don’t feel like I’ve lost myself thanks to the people I’ve surrounded myself in, but I’m very conscious of the fact… losing yourself is a relative term, I guess, because you have a preconceived notion of what losing yourself means but it could happen in a completely different way than you see coming.

And I think trying to keep perspective on everything, and, you know, the relative unimportance of your existence, is kind of comforting. So, yeah. I try to think about that stuff.

Watch Rick and Morty, it really helps.

While Taggart speaks, a large portion of “Desiderata” by Max Ehrmann appears on-screen, which makes sense aesthetically — how else to end a video full of devotional affirmations than with a deep in the source of all self-help texts — but seems somewhat at odds with what Taggart is actually saying, particularly the line, “You are a child of the universe no less than the trees and the stars; you have a right to be here.”

Andrew Taggart lives the kind of life most of us can only imagine. The benefits of his lifestyle are numerous and should not be discounted, but the drawbacks are worthy of consideration, as well. It’s not hard to imagine Taggart relating to Ehrmann’s description of life as primarily being “noise and haste”, considering that he is contractually obligated to fly around the world and play loud music for aggressively inebriated crowds. A famous life is a life of privilege, but it’s also, as Ehrmann says, a life of “fatigue and loneliness.”

And yet, the sentiment Taggart expresses in the video has less in common with Ehrmann’s suggestion to be “at peace with God” than with Rick & Morty’s insistence that you be at peace with what is, essentially, the absence of God. In referencing Rick & Morty while invoking the idea of finding comfort in the relative unimportance of your existence, Taggart is talking about finding peace through a sort of gentle nihilism. He has adapted the philosophical implications of insignificance to not only allow him freedom from the ever-present pressures of his unique life, but to also incorporate the necessity of treating your friends well and holding on to your own moral code.

Andrew Taggart is a rich white man who earns obscene amounts of money playing dance music, but at least he can appreciate the content of his favorite show in a way that enriches his life. At least he knows how to be a good fan. And even if the things he sings about in “Somebody” seem irrelevant to the majority of his listeners on a surface level, at least there is something in his music that can, potentially, add meaning to their lives.

And as for the bad fan? The solipsistic narcissist who only believes in his own version of truth? That leeches off the people around him and pursues his own personal ends under the guise of righteousness? The person who watches Rick & Morty and dreams of being cool and smart enough to fly around the galaxy having crazy adventures and not caring who he he hurts?

Well, the less said about him, the better.

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On Youth

The Chainsmokers are closely tied to the concept of youth. The most obvious reason for this is also the most depressing: these are the guys that made “#SELFIE,” and “#SELFIE” is about taking pictures of yourself, which is, apparently, something that only young people do. This in itself is enough to cement the connection in the mind of any hack culture writer, but the band’s association with youth runs much deeper than that.

The Chainsmokers, at least in theory, make music that falls under the banner of EDM (Electronic Dance Music). EDM is about chasing a temporary high; it’s the music of day-long festivals and all-night parties and it focuses on visceral excitement as opposed to depth. Rightly or wrongly, these are things that most people associate with being young. Beyond that, however, the idea of being young is central to the lyrical identity of the band and features as a recurring concept within their music — and their take on it is a lot darker than you might expect.

“Closer” remains, with one aforementioned exception, the song most people associate with the Chainsmokers, and it seems, on a surface level, to glorify the experience of being young — the refrain, “we ain’t never getting older” is certainly not a thing that anyone over the age of thirty would ever say, at least not out loud. But if the characters in the song are still within the realm of the young, then they’re right on the precipice of leaving it behind; they’re looking back on a time where they were more carefree and unafraid to pursue what they wanted. While the song as a whole is more about nostalgia than it is about actually being young, that focus on nostalgia implicitly defines youth as a time worthy of being looked back upon fondly.

Though lacking in the lyrical depth of “Closer,” “Last Day Alive” does attempt to paint a picture of what it is to be young. This is accomplished through an unceasing barrage of insipid lyrics about the magic of youth that would be more at home on a dorm-room wall than in a song. The blame for that falls at least partly on featured vocalists and credited co-writers Florida Georgia Line, whose clumsy hands can be felt all over lyrics such as “Now or never/It’s now or never,” “Twisted up in adolescence… feel alive and dangerous,” and the axiomatic line, “the night is young and we are young.” Not poetry, by any means — hell, even Nate Ruess would give these lyrics another pass — but it clearly communicates an idea: youth is a dramatic and confusing but ultimately an exciting period, where life-altering events of great importance can happen any time.

But a closer reading of both those songs reveals darker undercurrents. While the verses seem to celebrate youth, the chorus of “Last Day Alive” works as both a rallying cry and a warning. “Run into the bright lights most nights/Now or never/Always and forever, the last day alive.” Divorced from the high-energy music that accompanies them, these lyrics seem to depict an unending cycle of empty hedonism and depression. The idea of living without regrets, even for a single night, certainly has its appeal, but what sordid situation would drive a person to pursue that way of life every night? It might be empowering to, as Tim McGraw would say, live like you were dying, but what are the physical and emotional consequences of actually living each day like you won’t see tomorrow? There’s a name for that kind of philosophy: it’s called nihilism.

“Closer,” for all its nostalgia, takes a far from romanticized view of its characters. Not only are they both miserable and poor, there’s no suggestion that their reunion will alleviate their suffering or restore even a bit of their youthful grandeur. This song is not about the rekindling of a lost love, it’s about an all-caps BAD IDEA casual hook-up between two lost souls. Honesty, the two characters in this song don’t even seem to like each other all that much. One gets the impression that they feel almost compelled to have sex with one another, either because of their undeniable sexual chemistry or an unhealthy attachment to the past. Possibly both.

“Paris” is the closest the Chainsmokers have actually come to making a song about the power of youth, with its lyrics about youthful defiance paired with a sort of musical pseudo-glamor. But even at their most anthemic, the Chainsmokers can’t help but let darkness creep into every corner of their music.

The first sentiment we hear from either of the song’s doomed lovers is a pained combination of substance abuse and fatalism. “If I could take this in a shot right now/I don’t think that we could work this out” does not exactly fit within the theme of Love Conquers All. It seems to suggest that once this illicit vacation has ended, both parties and the love they share will be crushed by reality.  The couple in “Paris” are only together because they’re hiding from some set of ill-defined consequences and they’re struggling even to hold on to what little happiness they’ve found.

The song’s refrain. “If we go down then we go down together,” initially reads as defiance in the face of adversity, but Taggart’s subdued vocal style and the downbeat instrumentation make the fall from grace seems almost pre-ordained. The only sliver of hope lies at the end of the chorus: “let’s show them we are better,” a sworn oath to go down fighting that does little to inspire. Failure is inevitable. The best these two people can hope for is to fail in a manner that demonstrates character and proves that they’ve been underestimated for the entirety of their brief lives. But don’t hold your breath.

Perhaps the key to unravelling this theme lies in the appropriately named “Young,” an album track (and mildly successful single) from Memories… Do Not Open. “Young” almost entirely eschews any EDM stylings, aside from a brief burst of synth after the chorus that sounds more like lip-service to the idea of the Chainsmokers as a band you can dance to. “Young” is a plaintive semi-ballad sung mainly over an acoustic guitar, with lyrics that catalogue the numerous miseries in the lives of two young lovers.

Darker even than “Paris,” “Young” offers almost no hope and absolutely no suggestion that all of this pain and struggle is anywhere near worth it. Everything these two people do leads to dysfunction and/or destruction. They fight constantly and they have to sneak around just to see each other, all the while hoping that their love will carry them through to better times — but even this feels perfunctory: “maybe we can go from this” is hardly a grand romantic statement. But even that small bit of hope is snatched away by the end of the song.

I’m calling you up, you tell me it’s over
You say what you want
But it’s hard when you’re young

This final refrain efficiently captures the frustration and longing that comes with youth. Even if your intentions are good and your feelings are genuine, it’s not always enough to tame the confusion and pain that churn ceaselessly within you. The song’s ultimate moral, “It’s hard when you’re young,” is, perhaps, a bit simplistic, but it’s also honest in the way only a very simple statement can be, and it’s certainly backed up by the rest of the lyrics.

In the song’s most striking image, the narrator crashes his partner’s car and then engages in a late-night shouting match with their father that almost turns violent. Who can look at this pathetic, dismal state of affairs and say that young love is beautiful? Who can say that being young is anything but hard?

A Brief Conversation Between Two Women Who Are Out For The Night With The Narrator Of “#SELFIE”

“Hey, Jess?”

“What?”

“Can I ask you something?”

“What?”

“I said, can I ask you something?”

“Did you say something? I can’t hear you! The music’s too loud!”

“Sorry! I’ll just, uh. Hold on… there, is that better? Can you hear me now?”

“Yeah! Oh, you smell really nice.”

“Oh my God, thank you! I finally switched back to antiperspirant. I know it’s supposed to, like, give you cancer, or whatever? But deodorant’s just not strong enough. It always wears off as soon as I start sweating, and then all my clothes just reek of b.o., and then it’s like, oh, sorry, did you want to wear that shirt twice before doing laundry? Not gonna happen. God, I bet I just stank so bad the past few weeks, right? But you just didn’t say anything? It’s okay, you can tell me now.

“No, I didn’t think you smelled bad.”

“Really? You mean that?”

“Yeah! I would tell you if you did.”

“That means so much to me. Really! I hate when people won’t tell you shit like that. Friends, I mean. I get why strangers wouldn’t tell you, but if someone’s your friend, they should be looking out for you, right?”

“Nicole?”

“What?”

“What did you want to ask me?”

“Oh, yeah… what do you think’s going on with Becca?”

“Which Becca? Becca K?”

“No, not Becca K! Ugh. No, Becca C! OUR Becca!”

“What do you mean, going on with her? I didn’t notice anything.”

“Really? Nothing at all? Not even when she was talking about Jason for like ten straight minutes? And then she made us take like twenty different selfies with her before we could go to the bathroom? And then, even after she finally got a selfie she liked, she took it down after like five minutes because it didn’t get enough likes, and we had to take a whole NEW selfie while we were in line for the bathroom?”

“What’s so weird about that?”

“Well, first of all, if she was just going to take a selfie while we were in line for the bathroom, couldn’t she have just done that to begin with? Like, if taking a selfie while we wait in line for the bathroom is an option, shouldn’t we have just gotten in line for the bathroom and then–”

“I get it.”

“That didn’t seem weird to you?”

“No. Becca’s always like that. You know she’s, like, addicted to Instagram.”

“Well, yeah, I mean, so am I. Like, I’m on there way too much.”

“Ugh, me too. It’s so addictive!”

“I know! But it just makes me feel so bad about myself. You know what I did, though? I turned off all the color on my phone. So it’s all in black-and-white now! It’s supposed to make it, like, less addictive, or something. I don’t really know how it’s supposed to work.”

“Was that all? About Becca?”

“I forgot what I was saying.”

“You said she was acting weird.”

“Oh, right. She is acting weird! She made us do a bunch of shots!”

“Becca loves shots. You love shots, too!”

“Yeah, tequila shots. But all of a sudden she’s making us do shots of vodka, like we’re fucking nineteen years old again.”

“Oh my God, do you remember Burnett’s?”

“Oh, my God. Don’t. Don’t.”

“Remember that pink lemonade flavor they had? And how we would store it in the freezer?”

“Jess, stop! I’m gonna throw up!”

“That’s exactly what you said the last time we had Burnett’s!”

“Shut up! You’re so stupid!”

“That’s exactly what I said to you the last time we had Burnett’s!”

“Ugh! You’re so stupid! I love you.”

“Oh my God, are they playing ‘Summertime Sadness’ again?

“Yes!”

“Damn, is something wrong with the DJ? Are they, like, still here? Or is it just on repeat?”

“Honestly? I don’t care. I fucking love ‘Summertime Sadness,’ I would listen to it a thousand times if I could.”

“You know what? Same! This song so good.”

“I know! It’s such a bop.”

“Ew, don’t call it that.”

“What? A bop?”

“Yeah, don’t call it a bop.”

“Why not?”

“Because it’s … I don’t know, it’s like…”

“What? ‘Rachet?'”

“Ew!”

“I know! Since when does Becca talk like that? Like, I get it, it was weird that that guy was sleeping in the club, but like…”

“I don’t think he was sleeping, I think he was just passed out.”

“Same thing, right?”

“No, I think Becca was saying that he was, like, homeless or something? But I think he just drank too much, because they had to carry him out by his arms and legs. I think I heard an ambulance outside, too. I wonder if he’s alright.”

“Oh my God! Wait, stop, you’re getting me distracted. Becca!”

“What about her?”

“Okay, so even if you don’t think Becca’s acting weird at all, like, taking a thousand selfies and talking about Jason all night and doing a bunch of shots and basically just acting like she’s on coke, if nothing about that seems weird to you, I still have one question.”

“Yeah?”

“Where the fuck is she?”

“What do you mean? She was just… oh.”

“No, seriously, where is she?”

“Oh. Shit.”

“Right? That’s what I’m saying.”

“Alright, hold on, wait, let me think for a second. We got up to dance, and she asked us if we knew anyone else here, and we were like….”

“No, definitely not.”

“Right, right. And then… oh! She got a text from Jason!

“Yeah! And she asked us if she should go home with him.”

“And we were like, no definitely not.”

“Definitely not, yeah.”

“Like, ever.”

“Ever ever.”

“And then she said she was just gonna go talk to him. And said that Jason was still with that other girl, the one with the cheetah print top? So you tried to stop Becca from going over there.”

“Yeah, I like, grabbed her by the back of the neck, or whatever.”

“You were like a, a fucking female lion, picking up her cub!”

“God, it just, it feels that way sometimes, you know?”

“And after a minute, she said, fine, I won’t go over to Jason’s table, but I’m gonna go outside and smoke a cigarette. And you were like, wait a sec, I’ll come with you.”

“But then ‘Summertime Sadness’ came on, and I was like, oh man, I love this song–”

“Such a good song.”

“Right? It’s just so good, I gotta move, I gotta get out on the floor and dance.”

“And by the time the song was over, she’d already gone outside.”

“Oh my God, Jess.”

“What?”

“Look! Over there, Jason’s table!”

“Jason’s not there anymore.”

“Yeah. Exactly.”

“But Becca’s not there anymore either.”

“Yeah. Exactly.”

“Oh… oh. Wait. You know who else isn’t there?”

“That girl! The one who was hanging out with Jason all night! The one in the cheetah print!”

“So, you don’t think…”

“Becca went home with Jason… and that girl in the cheetah print?”

“Oh.”

“Oh.”

“…”

“…”

“Nice!”

“Holy shit, go Becca!”

“Yeah, oh my God! Get it!”

“That’s why I love Becca, she just does shit like that, you know?”

“Yeah, I love it. It’s so modern, you know?”

“Yeah, like, I didn’t want her to go home with just Jason, ‘cause he’s, like, a total loser? But I love that she just, like, walked over there and was like, hey, bam, check it out, both of you, I’m laying it down, here’s what we’re gonna do.”

“I really respect that. She knows what she wants. It’s inspiring, really, and it’s… you know what it is? It’s empowering.”

“Yeah! It’s weird, but, like, that sort of thing, like, super feminist, now. And I love that she feels like she can share that part of her life with us, you know? It’s really touching.”

“I love Becca.”

“Me too.”

“Oh my God, is that–”

“‘Summertime Sadness!'”

“Yes! I love this song!”

“Me too! I hope they never stop playing it. It’s such a–”

“Don’t.”

Finishing The Closer Review

I’d just finished writing the ‘Closer’ review. I laid down on my bed and fell into a deep sleep and when I awoke, I believed I’d told a lie.

Not on purpose, though. When I wrote about why millennials responded so strongly to ‘Closer’, I was trying to be honest — even as I buried it under enough qualifiers to disguise the fact that I was essentially calling it “the soundtrack of a generation.”¹ My point didn’t center on any specific event within the song’s narrative; rather, I was arguing that the general impression of life conveyed by the lyrics clearly resonated with a lot of people, and that the song owes much of its remarkable success to that resonance.

But how could I be honest about this song’s lyrical content without mentioning the fact that I have never experienced anything even remotely similar to the central narrative? The primary romantic relationship of my life began when I was a teenager and, precluding any serious catastrophe, will continue until roughly the time that I am dead. I have never and will never hook up with a financially destitute ex-lover after a chance encounter at a hotel bar. I don’t think I’m unique in this regard — out of the millions of people who have deliberately listened to ‘Closer,’ it is unlikely that all of them have gone through the identical experience — but the facts of my life are so dissimilar from the situation depicted in this song that it would probably bear mention, if I were being totally honest.

I knew I was lying when I wrote about that part of the song. But I didn’t have a choice. It’s already difficult enough to convince people to read something that you wrote on the internet; it would be nearly impossible to do so if you opened every bit of writing with a lengthy disclosure about your personal life. I don’t think it was necessarily wrong to hold back that bit of personal detail, but that’s not the issue here. The issue is: does it matter? Is the fact that ‘Closer’ resonates with my despite my experiential disconnect with the subject matter proof of the song’s genius? Or does my entire argument collapse if the idea of ‘relatability’ is undermined, rendering the entire discussion meaningless?

Also central to the thesis of my ‘Closer’ review was the inherent magic of youth and the unavoidable tragedy of its ending. I wasn’t being totally disingenuous — there is, after all, a reason why many people look back nostalgically on their adolescence. Youth has its advantages: many parts of life still feel exciting and new, the world seems full of possibilities, and physical decrepitude is a distant idea. But my personal experience of being young is that, quite frankly, it blows.

I spent the majority of my teenage years emotionally and mentally distressed for reasons that were unknowable to me. Every aspect of my life was governed by rules that seemed antithetical to my well-being. The endless possibilities of the world left me paralyzed in a near-constant state of anxiety and I felt disconnected from my own body in a way that caused no end of distress. And in the grand scheme of things, I was actually doing very well. I lived a life of privilege and opportunity that would have seemed absolutely foreign to other people my age. Societal currents and purely random chance conspire to rob many people of the carefree, wonder-filled youth that our culture promises them.²

The magic and wonder of youth is a highly subjective concept, accessible only to a rare few. For many others, myself included, the experience of youth is better captured by the unreleased Mountain Goats song, “You Were Cool”:

It’s good to be young, but let’s not kid ourselves
It’s better to pass on through those years and come out the other side
With our hearts still beating
Having stared down demons
Come back breathing

Even when I was trying to be honest, I addressed my true feelings only glancingly, such as my one-line digression about the lyric “I drink too much and that’s an issue, but I’m okay.” I singled this lyric out as a particularly insightful character note, but neglected to mention that it’s also one of the truest pieces of songwriting that I’ve ever heard.

This attitude, more than any grandiose carpe diem-type sentiments about living in the moment, best captures my experience of being young. I can think of dozens of people — myself included — who have acknowledged that their relationship to alcohol is toxic, enough so that it has negatively impacted their life, only to casually shrug it off because they haven’t descended into full-fledged alcoholism. This is privilege only afforded to the young, people with enough freedom to get absolutely obliterated on a regular basis and not totally disrupt their lives. This single, wonderfully observant detail was enough for this song to win me over, and yet I barely mentioned it in my review; not because I was embarrassed by it, but because it would have felt out of place within the argument I was constructing.

Once again, I don’t think it was wrong to do this. But it certainly wasn’t honest.

Reading over the Closer review, I don’t hate it. I’m sure there are things I could have done better if I’d spent more time on it, but I set a strict timeline for publication and I wanted to stick to it. And even if I had found a way to seamlessly integrate all the information I’ve laid out here into the original article, that would only be a cosmetic change. There’s something else bothering me, something that runs deeper than a few personal details. Something at the bottom of all of this that just doesn’t seem right. A bigger lie than any of the other ones I told. And I’m not sure what it is.³

Maybe it has something to do with the last line — or, I suppose, the “kicker”, if you want to be technical — a last-minute flourish that I only later came to realize was directly lifted from the title of The Decemberists’ 2015 album What a Terrible World, What a Beautiful World. But it could just as easily have come from any overwrought piece of criticism I’ve absorbed over the past decade.

If I had to guess, I’d say that there’s probably an article buried deep in the archives of Pitchfork.com with the exact same ending. For several years, Pitchfork was my only source of music journalism and was, to my underdeveloped collegiate mind, the only objective arbiter of musical taste. If I made the mistake of enjoying an album that wasn’t rated about a 7.0, I had to perform a series of increasingly complex mental gymnastics to justify it to myself.

This borderline-pathological compulsion to legitimize my own taste was especially tiring, considering my longtime obsession with pop music and how much mental energy I devoted to it. I did eventually break free from my slavish devotion to whatever the editors of Pitchfork deigned to label the Best New Music, but not before I had constructed an elaborate critical framework around my own enjoyment, to the point where I couldn’t enjoy a song by a widely-maligned EDM duo without exploding that pleasure out into an inherently ridiculous long-term writing project.

Hypothetically speaking, I mean.

1: Again, my goal here was not to obfuscate my point, which is essentially very simple, but to avoid the sort of obvious and hackneyed writing that would cause any potential reader to wrinkle their nose in disgust. I think this is understandable.

2: It should go without saying that my sociological analysis here is extremely under-developed, but to honest, I have more personal reservations about this paragraph that dwarf any other concerns.

3: That is not wholly true.

Closer

By any practical method of determining success, “Closer” is a massively popular song, but only one metric points to the reason that it is a truly important song: “Closer” is the third most-played song of all time on Spotify.

Much like chart success, an abnormally high amount of streams doesn’t necessarily signify quality — “rockstar”, Post Malone’s charmless ode to “poppin’ pillies [sic]” currently holds the number ten spot on Spotify’s all-time list, and right at the top is “Shape Of You” by Ed Sheeran, a bafflingly unsexy song about having odorous intercourse after stuffing your face at a Chinese buffet. It is nearly impossible to imagine anyone looking back fondly on either of these songs ten years from now, much less still listening to them — but “Closer” is different. The popularity of “Closer” may be driven by the same factors that continually push Justin Bieber’s underwhelming singles to the top of the charts, but the song itself is striking, unique and emotionally resonant in a way that will ensure it remains relevant long after the era it typified has passed.

Spotify is a relatively new platform for music distribution and the majority of its users fall between the ages of 18 and 34; broadly speaking, the people who determine a song’s popularity on Spotify fall under the generational demographic of “millennial,” a much-abused term that is nonetheless a useful signifier.

We can therefor reasonably determine that “Closer” is a song that connected with millennials to a high degree, but that hardly makes it special or worthy of praise — again, Ed Sheeran. Still, “Closer” is unusual among the other most-streamed song on Spotify because, broadly speaking, it’s not a song you can dance to. It’s not a song about having a good time or living in the moment or anything else that would make it suitable for a party playlist thrown together by a casual music listener. It’s a lyrically dense narrative about two former lovers reconnecting after several years apart. If people (specifically, millennials) are connecting with this song, it’s because they relate to the story being told.

The key to making something feel universally relatable is, somewhat paradoxically, to ground it in highly specific details that lend the story a degree of verisimilitude. Andrew Taggart and co-writer Shaun Frank sprinkle the verses of “Closer” with small-but-believable character notes, such as the couple’s shared love of a Blink-182 (particularly one song whose name escapes them both) or an off-handed reference to one character’s drinking problem (which is probably a lot worse than he’s willing to admit). This sharp writing, combined with the very different but equally distinctive singing styles of Taggart and guest vocalist Halsey, creates a strong impression of two unique characters telling the same story from separate points-of-view; but, as is usually the case, the chorus is really what takes it to the next level.

In lieu of a more straightforward account of the couple’s re-ignited passion, the chorus spills out in a series of images that paint an impressionistic picture of two young people living a semi-transient life in 21st century America. Both of them seem to be dissatisfied with their place in life — details are sparse regarding the character voiced by Taggart, but what little we get is buried under enough layers of self-deception to suggest a deep-seated angst–but it’s the female partner, portrayed by Halsey, that gets the most vivid description.

She drives a car that was purchased for her by her parents, suggesting the sort of privilege and unearned wealth that are among the negative associates usually hurled at millennials — but she also stole mattress from her roommate, a crime so specific and unglamorous hat there’s no way it was committed out of anything other than sheer need. Her parents may be rich, but her life is such a mess that she can’t afford her own bed, much less a new car, and she’s bouncing around from one city to another, completely unmoored from any job or personal relationship that might hold her in one place.

This specific situation is unfamiliar to large swaths of American youth in a variety of ways, but the feeling it conveys is universal, particularly to the millennials. The characters in this song were born into a life where they were promised unlimited success, only to find when they came of age that the deck was heavily stacked against them. Yes, they’ve made some mistakes of their own — the ill-conceived hook-up that forms the basis of the song’s narrative seems like only the latest in a long list of poor decisions — but their flaws only serve to make them more relatable. They’re not angelic ciphers undone by the cruelties of fate, they’re real people struggling against a world that seems to see-saws wildly between indifference and outright malice.

We live in a society where public figures would rather paint an entire generation as lazy and entitled than take a moment to examine whether rampant under-employment and widespread malaise are the result of something more systemic; hearing a pop song that even glancingly acknowledges that reality is cathartic, and when that message is paired with the even more universally-relatable feelings that come after the end of a romantic relationship, the reason behind this song’s massive popularity seems pretty clear.

This brings us to the song’s central refrain, “We ain’t never getting older,” which functions as a sort of lyrical rorschach test: if you’re feeling uncharitable towards the characters in the song (or the people who wrote it the song, or the people you imagine enjoying it), you can dismiss this sentiment as wishful thinking, a painfully naive sentiment that could only come from a couple of drunk twenty-somethings high on the false immortality of youth. And if that’s how you feel, you’re (sort of) missing the point. This lyric is meant to be meaningless and empty, because it reflects the inner life of two characters who feel that their lives lack meaning.

This isn’t the satire defense, wherein someone writes a dumb pop song, only to backpedal and claim that they were actually making fun of dumb pop songs — Jewel pulled this move in a spectacular fashion, but Halsey herself deserves honorable mention for “New Americana” — it’s perfectly clear that we’re not meant to hear the refrain and scoff at its foolishness. The Chainsmokers and Halsey are simply acknowledging the inherent contradiction of all songs that glorify youth: it feels great to be young, but it can’t last forever.

The giddy rush of youth is infectious, but it eventually runs out. All the stuff that seemed fun and cool starts to look ridiculous and a little sad as you mature. Everybody knows this — even people in their early twenties can look back on their teen years and shake their heads in embarrassment. It’s ridiculous to assert that the writers of this song, or even the people in it, don’t understand this. The refrain is a concise and anthemic encapsulation of the self-defeating yet irresistible battle cry of youth. It strikes the perfect balance, allowing us to feel the same addictive feelings of immortality as the characters in the song, while never letting us forget that what they’re feeling is ultimately a fantasy.

“Closer” is about two people choosing to live in the moment, but the song’s final contradiction is that the moment they were living in was objectively terrible. Not just for the characters in the song; “Closer” was released in summer 2016, in the midst of a politically and socially tumultuous period that, unbeknownst to anyone of us, would only become more unhinged as the year drew to a close. Trying to escape from a world that doesn’t make sense, while desperately avoid the knowledge that it’s going to be even worse tomorrow; is there a feeling that better captures America in 2016?

“Closer” will forever be a song of its time, but that’s okay; that’s what pop songs are supposed to be. When music historians or future filmmakers are looking for a song that symbolizes our present era, they’ll turn to this song; but more importantly, so will the people who lived through it. In that way, this song will live forever, suspended for eternity in a state of perpetual youth. What a terrible fate; what a beautiful, terrible fate.

The Same Old Dance: 3OH!3 & The Perils of Over-Analysis

Not long ago I came to the realization that, as of this year, 3OH!3’s second album is a full decade old. At first, this flash of understanding induced little more than a momentarily flinch, just one more drop in a endless cascade of reminders that I am slowly beginning to age out of relevance. But the longer I dwelled on it, the more it began to trouble me.

After further reflecting on the ten years that have passed since 3OH!3 released Want and stepped onto the world stage, I was determined to re-evaluate what originally drew me to their music. Because I was obsessed with 3OH!3. This obsession didn’t last longer than a few months, but I was deeply committed to it. In my pre-torrent days, I was forced to download their album one track at a time from LimeWire or KaZaa — I don’t remember which one I was using in 2008 — and I pieced it together with care and dedication, even snagging a low-fidelity file of “Tapp,” the album’s abrasive instrumental intro track. I spent more time thinking about this band than anyone living outside the Denver area code that was their namesake.

3OH!3’s popularity was the single biggest accomplishment of anyone associated with the aborted alt-rock spin-off “crunkcore,” a genre that combined all the least attractive elements of emo, hip-hop and EDM into a musical movement that feels, in hindsight, like the musical embodiment of an embarrassing yearbook photo.

Crunkcore bands invariably wore the sort of dark, bang-centric hairstyle that you’ll recognize if you had a MySpace account or attended a rock concert any time during George W. Bush’s second term. They had the intense, in-your-face attitudes of white people ironically appropriating rap lingo, and when they sang (which was rare) they all sounded like the guy from Panic! At The Disco on his worst day. They had their appeal, but none them made anything you could feel good about listening to unless you were under the age of fourteen.

It wasn’t the style of 30H3’s music or their frat-bro personas that captivated me, though; I listened to their music for the moments when the braggadocious facade would crumble and the lyrics would turn introspective and self-critical. These moments were often brief and disorienting, starkly emotional and honest in comparison to the machismo-fueled party anthems that dominated the album. The drum and bass would fade away, replaced by mellow piano chords and a sense that, at the center of all this hedonistic excess and noise, there was an emptiness that couldn’t be filled.

The second song on Want, “PunkBitch”, is seemingly designed to annoy from the title onward. The music is aggressive, with loud, buzzing synths blasting over a skittering, third-rate trap beat, while the brain-dead lyrics are shouted with a Lil Jon affect that stops just short of being a full-on Dave Chapelle sketch.

There seems, briefly, to be a suggestion that all this is meant to be funny: “When I come up in the club, I’m talkin’ mad shit/Come up in the club, I’m ‘bout to get my ass kicked,” indicates, if not a firm grasp of irony, then at least a modicum of self-awareness. But if this is supposed to be a joke, the punchline never comes; not in this song, not in any of the songs afterwards. There are times when the duo’s delivery is positively Sandbergian, but this is not Lonely Island. This isn’t even LMFAO.

But after two iterations of the hook (“We datin’ mad models/And poppin’ mad bottles tonight”), the song shifts gears completely. Over a stripped-down version of the beat, 3OH!3 sings an inscrutable but identifiably regretful bridge, before a new refrain kicks in:

You put my picture in a box it was the one inside your locket
What happened to the keys that used to jingle in your pocket?
Your fingers say to come, but your eyes say I should stop it
If I regret all I’ve done I would be trapped inside that locket

It’s not much on the page. It probably wouldn’t be much to hear now, if you’d never heard it before. But the first time I listened to this song, this second refrain captured my thoughts to the degree that I can still recite it from memory. I have had those words bouncing around my head for nearly one-third of my time on earth.

In the context of what I expected to be a mindless and catchy song built around recycled hype-man dialogue, these words seemed almost poetic in their obscurity. We have no idea who the narrator is addressing here, nor do we know the significance of the jangling keys that echo in the halls of his mind, or exactly why this locket is powerfully symbolic to him. If you squint, it suggests that the all the partying and poor behavior of the first two verses is a response to the end of a relationship, but the details remain just out of reach. We know that the narrator has a complex inner life, but any deeper understanding of his motivations are withheld from us.

There are other examples: the ballad “Still Around” alludes to the destruction of Sodom & Gomorrah and directly addresses the issue of mortality, while “Colorado Sunrise” devotes an entire song to a celebration of the protagonist’s self-destructive lifestyle while acknowledging the moments of romance and even beauty that can still exist with in it. The lyrics of “I Can’t Do It Alone” are almost explicit in their depiction of barely-restrained heartbreak and misery hidden behind a veil of what you could charitably call “light misogyny”.

 

Even in “Don’t Trust Me”, the band’s single biggest hit, the obnoxious refrain of “don’t trust a ho/never trust a ho” is affixed with the dependent clause, “‘cause a ho won’t trust me” — once again seeming to imply that this raucous and unsavory lifestyle is in response to a perceived slight or abandonment. It doesn’t make the members of 3OH!3 seem more likable, but it does make them seem damaged in an interesting way — or, at least, damaged in a way that might be interesting if you took the time to really consider it.

Perhaps you see where I’m going with this.

None of us is entirely free from ourselves; we are all, in our own way, slave to the patterns that we have developed autonomously or had instilled in us. A key aspect of emotional maturity is the willingness to examine one’s own behavior, so as to learn more about oneself and, hopefully, break free from our harmful cyclical behaviors. So please, give it the full weight of your consideration when I say with absolute sincerity that I do not believe the Chainsmokers to be the 3OH!3 of 2018.

Even if you believe both groups to be of comparable quality — I do not, but you might disagree — their approach to music is blatantly different. 3OH!3 has never altered their lyrical style or attempted to expand the scope of their songwriting: ten years on, they’re still writing dumb-yet-catchy pop-rap songs about cheating on their girlfriends. By the release of their third album, Streets Of Gold, any trace of soul or inner conflict had been scrubbed neatly away, and they’ve never looked back.

And while their lyrics have gotten sharper and their music has become noticeably less grating, they’re still adolescent enough to build a chorus around the phrase, “If our shit’s so bad, why’s your sister trying to fuck us?”, a lyric that scans as funny at first, until you imagine it being written on Facebook by your high school friend that’s been trying to get his music career off the ground since ‘06. 3OH!3 is that high school friend, on a generational scale — while the rest of us moved away, 3OH!3 stayed in their hometown and never stopped acting like teenagers.

The Chainsmokers have released their share of bad songs, but it would dishonest to say that they haven’t evolved at least a bit: they went from novelty songs about social media to nostalgic love songs to solipsistic piano-pop to an ongoing critique of fame in the time of Instagram. The Chainsmokers may have gotten famous for one terrible song, but 3OH!3 is the band the Chainsmokers would be if they never stopped making “#SELFIE.”

Importantly, 3OH!3 isn’t a band to be enjoyed in posterity. It will be impossible, and already is for many of us, to look back on 3OH!3’s music and feel anything but mild-to-moderate shame. The Chainsmokers, on the other hand, have devoted a good chunk of their career to making songs intended to evoke the feelings of nostalgia, thus ensuring that their music will trigger an even stronger dose of those feelings when you encounter it years later.

Your mileage may vary as to how successful they were — except for “Closer.” “Closer” is unimpeachable, a song that perfectly captured the feeling of the time in which it was made. It may not make it onto any greatest-hits compilations, but when you hear “Closer” twelve years from now, you will wince and clutch your chest — but not in an entirely unpleasant way — and you will think, “oh my God, 2016 was such a fucking long time ago.”

That may not be much. But it’s more than you can say for 3OH!3.

Somebody

While it’s not an overt departure from the group’s established style, “Somebody” represents a minor but critical shift in how the Chainsmokers utilize their guest vocalists. In the past, any performer featured on a Chainsmokers song either dominated the entire track (“Something Just Like This,” “Don’t Let Me Down”), had their vocals mixed in with Taggart’s (“Roses,” “All We Know”) or functioned as back-up singers (“Paris,” “The One”). The biggest exception is “Closer,” which was structured as a more classically styled duet between two performers who come together to sing the chorus. “Somebody” marks the first time that the Chainsmokers have deployed a guest vocalist in the manner of a typical pop performer: Taggart performs the verses but hands the chorus over to Drew Love, the same way a rapper might recruit a singer for an attempted cross-over hit.

This tells us a few things. The first and most obvious is that the Chainsmokers consider themselves performers with their own particular style (or “brand,” if you must) which must be present in some form throughout all of their songs, and Taggart’s vocals are a part of that brand. Taggart and Pall are currently attempting to move away from their identity as producers, so it makes sense that they would follow the same rules as any other pop star. Ariana Grande or Jason DeRulo would never release a single from which their own voices were completely absent; even Pitbull, who famously contributed about 20% of the vocals to his hit “Hey Baby”, still makes his presence felt, even if he only appears briefly.

The second thing that we can glean from this decision is a subtle dash of humility, a rare quality in the world of the Chainsmokers. By handing the song’s chorus off to a singer with a more powerful and expressive voice than his own, Taggart is, on some level, admitting that there are things he cannot do as a vocalist. This is bad news for fans of Schadenfreude, people who only care about the Chainsmokers when they can watch them totally botch a performance on live television, but it’s good news for fans of the band’s music or anyone interested their ongoing creative evolution. Drew Love’s appearance demonstrates that Taggart will not stretch himself too far beyond his limits, and that both he and Pall are still aware of how working with a guest vocalist can open up new possibilities for their music.

After “Somebody”, it’s not impossible to imagine the Chainsmokers releasing another song like “Something Just Like This”, where their own creative identity is partially or completely subsumed by another performer — but unless they score another name as big as Coldplay, it doesn’t seem likely.

Lyrically, “Somebody” is a song about the false promise of happiness that comes with success and the ongoing struggle to not succumb to devastation once you discover it was all an illusion. The song’s subject matter is unsurprising  in our current cultural moment, where the spiritual emptiness of fame is an expected, even formulaic subject matter for any artist who wants to develop a critique of modern life. But until “Somebody,” Taggart and Pall had yet to release this sort of song, and now that they have, it adds yet another dimension to their current artistic project.

Ever since the Chainsmokers dropped “Sick Boy” and revealed that they are, for lack of a better term, “pulling an 808s & Heartbreak” (also known as “going full Drake”), it’s been only a matter of time before we got a song like “Somebody”. “Sick Boy,” their first single of 2018, was more a declaration of intent than a fully formed creative statement. “You Owe Me” was a modern take on critics and fandom; “Everybody Hates Me” was specifically about the pressures of being famous in the digital age. “Somebody,” on the other hand, tackles the timeless signifiers of success: “fancy cars, crowded bars and supermodels.” The song addresses the dangers of entering into a world where your every wish is attended to, and how the addiction to that kind of lifestyle can corrupt and consume a person’s sense of self.

Interestingly, the Chainsmokers seem mostly unworried with regards to the moral rot or emotional turmoil that fame can bring; rather, their primary concern is the loss of the individual identity. You can hear this in the refrain, “I don’t really like anybody/So don’t tell me I’m like anybody else”; the narrator is deeply anxious about are losing themselves to this new world, and he responds to that feeling with aimless, unfocused aggression. This behavior is consistent with the psychological concept of ‘displacement’, wherein the subject is unable to confront or process the actual source of their distress and often ends up scapegoating another person or group of people. In this case, the singer is scared and angry about the possibility is losing his personality (and, perhaps, his soul) to these new temptations, but he ends up directing this aggression outward, towards the people he believes have already succumb to the hazards of worldliness. He may say “I don’t really like anybody,” but really, he doesn’t like himself.

This much is obvious when Taggart sings, seemingly in second-person, “You should’ve known better/than to listen to your heart again.” At first, this line scans as another lyric about a failed relationship. But when read in conjunction with the chorus, it becomes clear that the singer is referring to the morally questionable choices he has made in this new world of material pleasures. The heart — or, rather, the part of the mind driven by sentimental notions of goodness and love — the thing that we often rely upon as a morally sound guide through this confusing and dangerous world, might in fact be the thing that lead us astray to begin with. It is, to put it lightly, a disquieting notion, and among the most chillingly dark lyrics that the Chainsmokers have produced to date.