The Chainsmokers: Memories

To call The Chainsmokers: Memories a ‘documentary’ is a stretch. Though the opening titles bill it as “a film by John Sands,” there is little about the form and the content of Memories to differentiate it from a web series. Initially, it was indeed released as a series of twenty four chapters, with each chapter ranging between one and five minutes in length, following The Chainsmokers as they embarked on a nationwide arena tour in 2017. While Memories mostly sticks to this central premise, there are few attempts to build continuity between the chapters or to draw out any larger, more interesting story from the events depicted, and while the whole project is well shot and sharply edited, in the end it mostly resembles the sort of behind-the-scenes bonus feature often found on special edition DVDs.

For example: one entire episode is devoted entirely to footage of a guest appearance by Florida Georgia Line, who join the Chainsmokers onstage to perform “Last Day Alive.” During the course of this episode, the only thing we learn is that Drew Taggart considers the members of Florida Georgia Line to be “fun-loving guys” who make great music and are “always down to just rock out.” The episode before that is a mere fifty-three seconds and features the group’s videographer Rory Kramer recounting the thoroughly unimpressive story of how he met Taggart and Pall. Another episode documents a bizarre moment on tour wherein the Chainsmokers crash a high school prom, which is about as awkward as it sounds but only half as fascinating.

Some chapters feature interviews with friends and family of Taggart and Pall, which ostensibly offer a new perspective on the group and their origins but mostly exist as an excuse to share pictures of teenage Drew with a mohawk and coax adulatory quotes out of industry titans such as Chris Martin and Zedd. The most insightful of these quotes comes from Mr. Coldplay himself, concerning those who would challenge the legitimacy of what the Chainsmokers have accomplished:

“To say that DJs who make music aren’t musicians is to assume that all instruments had finished being invented in the 19th century. When the harpsichord was overtaken by the piano, no one said “oh everyone who writes music on the piano is an idiot.” So, in the same way, you get people like Drew, who they… they play the computer, like an instrument.”

“Insightful” here being a relative term. Thanks, Chris.

The closest that The Chainsmokers: Memories comes to any sort of arc is the slow physical and mental disintegration of Taggart and Pall over the course of their grueling sixty-day tour, and the differences in how the two of them are affected goes a long way towards demonstrating their unique personalities and roles within the band.

Apart from general exhaustion, the greatest setback Pall suffers is a broken rib, which he receives during a drunken wrestling match that breaks out on his birthday. The fact that Pall’s birthday party results in the formation of a ersatz fight club, along with the fact that this event is viewed as an inevitability by everyone who witnesses it, is perhaps the single strongest evidence provided by Memories in support of the widely-accepted idea that the Chainsmokers are a couple of empty-headed aggro frat boys. If the goal of Memories is to humanize Taggart and Pall, then this moment is its greatest failure, making the two of them seem unpleasant and almost obnoxious to be around.

On the other hand, what we see of Taggart’s struggles with self-esteem and depression are humanizing, and they come close to being full-on endearing. Taggart has made no secret of the fact that he’s not a singer by trade, and Memories is likewise transparent about this, showing Taggart struggling during multiple lessons with his vocal coach. As the tour wears on and Taggart’s voice begins to suffer, we see his confidence falter and self-doubt begin to creep in — the latter made literal in an agonizing scene wherein a doctor inserts a long tube-shaped camera through Taggart’s nasal passages in order to examine his vocal chords. This, in turn, leads to genuinely sweet moment where Taggart reveals his intense fear of needles and the camera operator offers to hold his hand — an offer that Taggart accepts with none of the self-consciousness you might expect.

The most interesting stuff in Memories involves Taggart and Pall reacting to their critics, occasionally in real time: in one sequence, someone behind the camera hands Taggart a cell phone so he can read a negative review. He gets a few lines in before chuckling and exclaiming, “damn, dude, this guy’s pissed.”

But it’s not all laughter: when Taggart concedes that there are some criticisms he agrees with, a look of real disappointment crosses his face, a rare vulnerable moment demonstrating that no matter how you may feel about the Chainsmokers, they do see themselves as artists, and as such, they feel the same frustration that any creative person feels when they don’t reach their own standards. When Taggart calls their first album “rushed” and reveals that he considers it unfinished, it’s a bracing moment of honesty from one half of a duo that is often painted as tragically egotistical.

Not all such moments are quite as refreshing, though; some are downright uncomfortable. Both Taggart and Pall complain about being treated unfairly by critics, specifically by the author of the famous Billboard cover story that solidified the duo’s public image in most people’s minds. Staring dead-eyed into the camera, Pall ominously claims that the this particular journalist “stole” a moment from them during what should have been the peak of their career, repeatedly insisting that everything they said in that interview was taken out of context and used against them.

Aside from a few stray comments, the Chainsmokers seem less bitter about their critics than honestly perplexed. At one point, Taggart describes the surreal feeling of having people criticize your entire body of work while you have the number one song in the country. While that sentiment may come off as a humble-brag in any other context, when Taggart says it, he seems to genuinely be grappling with what he sees as a major contradiction. Anyone who has ever experienced self-doubt should be able to empathize with his crestfallen realization that no amount of financial success will be enough to quiet his critics, both external and internal.

It’s not a new issue — performers, even successful ones, have been subject to harsh criticism for at least as long as music and language have existed — but Taggart and Pall face a unique challenge in having achieved fame in an era where all criticism is easily accessible, from thoughtful, printed journalism to anonymous Twitter comments. The amount of criticism they receive is probably no different than it would have been in a different era, but it’s all so much more immediate now. It would take them less than a minute of googling to find a slew of people passionately arguing against not only their continued relevance but their very existence.

In what is by far the most affecting moment in the entire series, Taggart opens up on his struggles with depression, and how it intersected with his seemingly perfect existence:

“We fucking lied. We never show how hard we’ve worked to get to where we are now. We just post about us DJing in front of huge crowds and having fun with our friends, which we do a lot, but there is a really hard dark side to this that you just don’t see. I was depressed for the first time in my life during the most exciting part of our career… and I didn’t really realize I was depressed until I wasn’t.”

Taggart’s comment may seem to fly in the face of some widely-accepted ideas about depression, but it’s maybe one of the most insightful comments on the subject I’ve ever heard from a non-professional. Even if it seems clear in hindsight, it can be difficult to recognize depression in the moment, particularly if you have a limited understanding of how it manifests. Being cushioned, as Taggart was in this time, from the more menial and unpleasant aspects of day-to-day living, would only make it harder to comprehend whatever symptoms he experienced; if you spend every day of your life living your dreams, what does it mean if you’re still not happy? What does it mean if you actually feel worse than you did before?

If you live a normal life wherein you are fully vulnerable to the million little pains and disappointments of everyday existence, at least you have some sort of context to understand your darker thoughts. What’s more, you don’t have anyone in your life whose entire job is to keep you in a perpetual state of anesthetized satisfaction. While you or I might lack the privileges that come with a life like Taggart’s, this is one situation where, strange as it may seem, we actually have an advantage.

But in spite of some minor revelations and the occasional moment of honesty, there’s a constant feeling of artifice hanging over the entirety of Memories. This isn’t surprising or even necessarily damning; this entire project is basically the video version of a puff piece, meant to give the illusion of a look into the lives of Taggart and Pall. The fact that it doesn’t offer any earth-shattering insight is part of the design, and it would be dishonest to criticize the work based on a standard to which it clearly does not aspire.

The unfortunate truth, however, is that that same sense of artificiality begins to seep into the band as well, mostly due to a single anecdote from early on in the series, related by Pall and his longtime manager Adam Alpert. While you would be forgiven for believing that the Chainsmokers came into existence as a collaboration between Pall and Taggart, the truth is that Pall was DJing with another person (Rhett Bixler) under that name for at least three years. It was only after Alpert began to represent Pall that Bixler left the band and Taggart came onboard to fill the vacancy. In the group’s own words, this led to an arrangement wherein Pall began teaching Taggart how to DJ while Taggart taught Pall how to produce.

This story is not some closely-guarded secret. To paraphrase John Darnielle, it happened in 2012; it’s on their wikipedia page. Yet, hearing it in Memories was the first time I had cause to consider it in the larger context of the Chainsmokers’ entire existence. This is not an artistic pairing that bore the fruit of creative collaboration — I mean, it is that, in the sense that the duo’s entire existing discography is a result of their partnership. But the brand of the Chainsmokers existed long before Taggart began producing songs under that name. Indeed, the mildly successful status of their extant brand is the only reason Apert and Pall even reached out to Taggart at all. To put it bluntly, Taggart was, originally, a mere second body, summoned forth to fill a pre-assigned role because, hey, if you booked the Chainsmokers, you expect two guys to show up.

It shouldn’t be a problem that Pall worked with someone else before he met Taggart; hell, even the Beatles cycled through two extraneous members before finalizing their ranks. It also shouldn’t be a problem that Pall wanted to capitalize on the success he had found under the Chainsmokers moniker, rather than start an entirely new group. Building a fanbase is difficult, and it’s hard to begrudge him holding onto the relatively benign advantage of name recognition. None of this should be a problem.

But there’s something about the cumulative effect of all twenty-four chapters of The Chainsmokers: Memories that makes it a problem. The glossy frivolousness of the entire project combined with the impression it gives of Pall as a shrewd and somewhat boorish businessman contrasted with the relatively tender spirit and still-evolving artistry of Taggart makes the group’s entire career seem suspect. Was “#SELFIE” really a joke song that went viral as a fluke, or was it a carefully executed attempt to capture the success of similar hits like “Harlem Shake?” Is Taggart’s expanded role as singer and frontman a genuine example of artistic growth and risk-taking, or a calculated move to solidify the group’s artistic identity without relying on guest performers? Are the lyrics about self-doubt and identity in the group’s new songs an honest examination of their personal struggles, or simply a crass way of expanding their audience by playing off of our universal anxieties? And does knowing the answer to any of these questions change anything if you still enjoy their music?

The problem with The Chainsmokers: Memories isn’t that you can’t tell what’s real and what’s fake; it’s the fact that, in the end, it doesn’t even matter.

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Side Effects

“Side Effects” is such a radical departure from everything the Chainsmokers have been doing this year that it suggests a major shift in their current strategy. It originally seemed that Taggart and Pall planned to release one song a month for the entire year, but it’s been three full months since their previous single “Somebody”, which made only a minor impact on the charts. Of the four songs they released between January and April, “Sick Boy” has been the most successful, and even that hasn’t come anywhere near the group’s past hits.

The underwhelming performance of the group’s recent singles might be the reasoning behind the stylistic pivot of “Side Effects.” “Side Effects” is the first of their 2018 singles where Andrew Taggart does not perform lead vocals and the first not to address the subjects that have become the band’s primary thematic concerns: the negative effects of social media, the dangers of fame, and the way those things intersect in modern times. Instead, “Side Effects” is a self-consciously fun and breezy “summer bop” with highly relatable lyrics and none of the darkness that has accompanied their previous four songs.

While it lacks the bracing honesty and weirdness of something like “Everybody Hates Me,” “Side Effects” does make for a fine piece of mid-summer pop-funk with a sprinkling of classic house style. The strutting, bass-heavy instrumental bears more than a passing resemblance to the recent output of one Charles Otto Puth Jr., but (hopefully) not enough to draw the ire of his most ravenous fans — “Sick Boy” lifted some stylistic elements from a few songs by Twenty One Pilots and that band’s cultish followers still haven’t shut up about it.

Lyrically, frequent co-writer Emily Warren revisits the subject matter of previous songs like “Don’t Say” and “My Type,” tirelessly reporting on the intoxicating ups and downs of being attracted to someone who you know you shouldn’t be with. If the lyrics are lacking in the deliciously anti-social and specifically modern barbs of this era’s previous singles (“how many likes is my life worth,” “I don’t really like anybody,” etc.), it’s only because the subject matter is so much more conventional.

“Conventional” in this case is not necessarily a negative — everyone involved in the production and writing of this song knows exactly how to deliver a solid dance track, and Warren gives her best vocal performance on a Chainsmokers song since “Until You Were Gone”. If “Side Effects” had been released between “All We Know” and “Setting Fires” it would rank as one of the most straight-up enjoyable songs the band has ever released. The only problem with this song is the potential future it suggests for the Chainsmokers, one that is considerably less interesting than the direction they seemed to be heading in.

If their recently singles failed to perform as well as expected, it only makes sense that the Chainsmokers — or, more likely, someone at Columbia records — would want to alter their approach. It would be a shame if “Side Effects” marks the end of the era that began with “Sick Boy,” forcing the Chainsmokers to retreat into a style that has paid such high dividends in the past, churning out pop-EDM with generic lyrics sung by a roster of faceless indie performers (and, occasionally, Chris Martin), but it wouldn’t be surprising. The folks at Columbia don’t have any reason to care that the Chainsmokers were just coming into their own as musicians and developing a unique identity within a space that few other acts could occupy; all that matters to them is that the boys can keep churning out hits, and once you put up numbers like they did with “Closer,” it’s awfully hard to go back.

There is, however, a more charitable interpretation of this song’s existence: namely, that Taggart and Pall wanted to give their long-term collaborator and friend Emily Warren a proper spotlight on one of their singles, now that they’ve established their own identity and no longer feel pressured to consign her to ‘uncredited guest vocals’ as they did om “Paris.” It would take a bit of naivete to believe this version of events, but that doesn’t place it entirely outside the realm of possibility.

Really, we won’t be able to fully understand the philosophy of “Side Effects” until we hear what the Chainsmokers release next — which, in all likelihood, is dependent on what the general reaction is to “Side Effects.” Meaning that, even if you enjoy this song (as I do), you can’t help but feel a little gross about what it represents. It’s a complicated situation — exactly the sort of thing that the Chainsmokers used to write songs about.

Bloodstream

How many times in one week is too many times to be drunk? Asking for a friend.

The Chainsmokers pose this question at the outset of “Bloodstream,” a slow, contemplative track from their debut album Memories…Do Not Open. It’s a question that hangs over the whole song: the chorus features the refrain “I’m fucked up, I’m faded,” the second verse opens with with a lyrical parallel between binge drinking and depression — even the song’s title is an oblique reference to the narrator’s blood alcohol content.

It’s an interesting question, but several things about it remain unclear. First of all: what is the issue here, exactly? The song’s somber tone and the artlessly self-excoriating lyrics suggest that the narrator is doing something wrong by drinking to excess on three nights out of seven, but is the problem that he wants to get drunk too often? Or is the problem that he has the means by which to get drunk too often? More succinctly: is this an issue of desire or ability?

Based on the lyrics, it would be easy to assume that the narrator’s desire to drink away his troubles is the real concern. He shows a good deal of dissatisfaction with his life, from the troubling disconnect between his wants and his needs (“I thought I don’t need that much/I guess I was out of touch”) all the way down to his living situation (“Things were sweet three months ago/When I was living how I wanted, on my own”).

In the chorus, he expresses frustration towards himself (“I’m so complicated”), demonstrating the sort of soul-baring self-hatred that can only be attained through years of practice or through one night of emotionally irresponsible alcohol consumption. The narrator regrets the things that he’s said and the way they were taken, regarding them as “overrated”, i.e., not worthy of the attention that has been directed towards them.

There is a potential for redemption suggested in this dismissal of his past actions — apologize for what you’ve done, acknowledge that you can do better, and the problem is solved. But something holds him back and prevents him from doing the one thing that would make his life better. He stands by his words: “But I meant it/Yeah, I really fucking meant it.” Is this pride? Or just the result of a prominent self-destructive streak?

To address the question of ability, we must look outside the song’s lyrics and to the words of the artists themselves. In their track-by-track breakdown of Memories…Do Not Open originally published on Facebook on the eve of the album’s release, the Chainsmokers had this to say about “Bloodstream”:

In the year that we spent writing this album, a lot changed. We experienced fame for the first time. It wasn’t what we expected. After years of being relatively unknown, all of a sudden people were commenting on everything we did from what we wore to what we tweeted. The feeling of being taken out of context and misrepresented in the media weighed heavily on us. While the song represents the frustration in dealing with our newfound attention it also touches on relationship. We are often criticized for being “party boys” in what seems to be an attempt to discredit our artistry, when in fact, our partying has led to some of our most sobering song writing moments. We wrote this song at 4am in London after one of our shows at Brixton. Bloodstream is about the acceptance of who we are from ourselves.

Obviously, there’s a lot to unpack here: the defensive scare-quotes around “party boys,” the faulty syntax of “it also touches on relationship” and the confounding assertion that this song is about “the acceptance of who we are from ourselves.” But for now, let’s take a step back and consider what this tells us about the song as a whole.

With the added context that comes from the image of an early-morning post-concert writing session, we can understand that “Bloodstream” is actually about the struggle to come to terms with newfound fame and attention. Andrew Taggart and Alex Pall feel their actions and words are overly scrutinized by the media and, as a form of self-medication, they have taken to overindulgence of alcohol.

As strange as it may seem, in order to understand this song we must put aside any concerns we have about whether or not Taggart and Pall’s actions are worthy of criticism. Because regardless of whether one is right or wrong, one still feels the stress of criticism in the same way. And in times of great stress, even when it’s not the most sensible option, it’s only natural to reach for something that will numb and temporarily disintegrate those painful feelings.

The unique aspect to this situation is that Taggart and Pall are well-paid musicians working in the public eye. They have a career that affords them a certain lifestyle, and this lifestyle affords them the ability to get drunk nearly as often as they want. They have the funds and the free time to binge drink between shows (and, potentially, before and during shows) and feel little consequence to these choices, whereas someone working a more typical nine-to-five job might see their performance and reputation suffer if they show up to work hungover multiple times in the same week.

In the end, “Bloodstream” tells a tale as old as time, or at least nearly that old: the exceptional pressures and unique opportunities of life inside the entertainment industry enable those within the profession to pursue their self-destructive tendencies to the furthest end. When viewed through this context, keeping in mind the tragic fates that have befallen other musicians with substance abuse problems, the idea of getting drunk a little too often seems almost quaint in comparison, and  not especially deserving of any serious self-interrogation.

For the rest of us, though, it’s still an open question.

Break Up Every Night

At first glance, there’s not a lot to say about “Break Up Every Night,” the second track on Memories…Do Not Open; it’s a catchy, fast-paced song that utilizes the style of pop-punk and mid-2000’s alt-rock to deliver a deeply silly (and mildly offensive) story about a relationship between two unstable young people. In the context of the album, it’s rare burst of energy among a group of tracks that can sometimes blend together. Looking at it critically, it’s difficult to find anything to engage with. Even still, I find it interesting, but what I find more interesting is the fact that I find it interesting.

For example: “Break Up Every Night” represents the biggest — and perhaps only — creative gamble on the album. Unlike most of the songs here, it doesn’t seem reverse-engineered from the DNA of their runaway hit “Closer”, nor does it cast the Chainsmokers as semi-anonymous producers backing better-known artists. “Break Up Every Night” actually demonstrates the group’s willingness to experiment. Granted, the group’s attempt to step outside of their comfort zone is simply adjusting their style to resemble that of a radio-ready indie-pop band — but it shows an interest in growth or, at the very least, an attempt to reach out beyond their current audience.

Or rather, it would show that, if “Break Up Every Night” had been a single. Five songs — nearly half the tracks on the album — were released to radio, but “Break Up Every Night” was not. An odd choice, given the song’s obvious aspirations towards crossover appeal, but not entirely unheard of, particularly in the age of digital streaming, when any single track can potentially break free of an album and climb the iTunes charts unbidden.

But the lack of radio support seems a bit stranger when you consider that “Break Up Every Night” was co-written by songwriting/production team Captain Cuts, a three-man collective closely affiliated with radio-ready indie-pop bands GroupLove and Walk The Moon. It’s not hard to imagine a label executive pairing up Captain Cuts with the Chainsmokers in the hopes of recreating the success of “Tongue Tied” or “Shut Up And Dance” — in fact, considering the pressure that they must have been feeling to score another hit, it would be surprising if that didn’t happen.

The situation becomes a bit stranger, however, when you consider that Captain Cuts then recruited their lesser-known associates from the indie band Smallpools. Despite having nearly all of their music produced by a trio of known hit makers, Smallpools remain basically unknown. It’s difficult, then, to imagine what could be the benefit of tossing three more cooks into the already overflowing proverbial broth of this song.

Throw in the standard credits for Andrew Taggart on songwriting and Alex Pall on production (along with DJ Swivel, who receives a co-production credit on the entire album) and you end up with nine credited songwriters all working on a song that landed the coveted second track on the Chainsmokers debut album (a track number usually reserved for lead singles) and was then completely forgotten about.

This is certainly a lot of information, but none of it is very interesting. One could argue that it is always worthwhile to consider the amount of effort that goes into the music that most people consider “disposable,” but that’s only interesting on a grand scale. When you break it down to a case-by-case basis (particularly when discussing a band that is widely dismissed or disparaged), any larger point grows fuzzy and indefinable; the whole thing starts to feel like trivia. But trivia only matters if it relates to something that people care about. Star Wars trivia is interesting. Trivia about the Rolling Stones is interesting. Trivia that revolves around the creative minds behind a 2017 Neon Trees single is… I’m not even sure what it is. But it’s not interesting.

And yet, somebody does care. Somebody is out there right now, poring over the Wikipedia page for Memories…Do Not Open and puzzling over the fact that a song with a small army of talent behind it was performed once on Saturday Night Live and then forgotten forever. And that same person is reading reviews of that same SNL performance and struggling to understand if the underwhelming response to “Break Up Every Night” led to it being nixed as a future single — but then, that doesn’t make any sense, because the Chainsmokers have been receiving mixed reviews for the entire careers, but they’re still releasing singles at an almost alarming rate. And that same person is checking the Chainsmokers’ stats on setlist.fm to determine if they abandoned “Break Up Every Night” the way their label seems to have abandoned it, only to find that, no, it’s their eighth most-played song in concert!

I know this person exists, because this person is me. Admittedly, my own musical tastes and the way in which I choose to spend my time is not enough to prove any particular thesis. But at the same time, I’m not such an outlier than my experience of the Chainsmokers is totally unique. The fact that I care as much as I do proves that anyone is capable of caring as much as I do. There are others like me out there. And if we care this much about the Chainsmokers, then it stands to reason that we could care this much about almost anything.

Everything is interesting. You might think this would mean, paradoxically, that nothing is interesting, but you’d be wrong. What it really means is that nothing is inherently interesting; something only becomes interesting if someone is willing to invest their interest in it. It makes just as much sense to think about the Chainsmokers as it does to think about the Beatles, provided that you think about either of them hard enough.

The One

Memories…Do Not Open begins with the sound of a drink being poured, but it’s a very particular kind of drink, the kind you pour for yourself when you’re long past the point of measuring out shots and have decided to just eyeball it. It’s the kind of drink you pour when, after several hours of mentally torturous back-and-forth, you have finally decided that no, you’re not going out tonight. It’s the drink you pour as a reward for yourself after you send a delicately-worded text your friend, explaining why you’re not coming to their party, even though you promised you would. You need to make it seem like you have a legitimate reason for bailing on them, so you try to be honest — but not so honest that they would be worried about you, because that would mean that they might ask a follow-up question. You might actually have to talk to somebody about what’s going on with you. And if you wanted to do that, you wouldn’t be drinking alone in your apartment.

Because even if you did decide to go out, if you marshaled every last bit of strength within you and forced yourself out the door, dreading the arrival at your destination more and more with every step — then what? The first verse of “The One” makes it clear exactly what would happen: you would smile and nod and joke with your friends, but every second would feel like a nail being jammed into the base of your skull. You would try to hide it, keep up a pleasant appearance and say all the things you’re supposed to say, maybe even lose yourself in conversation for a moment, but sooner or later something would remind you of how you actually feel, and you would literally wince at the painful sensation of falling back into yourself.

You would watch the clock, anxiously awaiting the moment when it would be socially acceptable to leave. You do the math: would it be too obvious if I left at ten? Would they notice that I had just been waiting for the clock to strike double-digits? I got here just before nine, and I need to stay at least two hours, but if I spend half my time hiding in the bathroom or checking my phone in a dark corner of the kitchen, they’ll still act like I wasn’t really there at all, they’ll ask if something is wrong, putting on a big show of compassion, trying to figure out if I’m feeling “okay” — and then this whole thing will have been a complete waste of time.

No, better to just stay home. But even that isn’t the perfect solution, is it? Because there’s one person you can’t avoid, no matter how much you try. Because you owe them a conversation, but Jesus Christ, you’d do anything to avoid that conversation. You’d rather fake your own death and move across the country to start a new life than have the talk that they want you to have.

And you know it’s pathetic, that you can’t even muster up the courage to look them in the eye, but fuck it, you’re drunk, you’re alone, there’s no reason to lie to yourself right now. Maybe that’s just who you are. Maybe you are pathetic.

As long as you’re being honest, you figure you might as well try to explain this to them. So, you try to write a text. Yes, a phone call would be more appropriate, but hey, you’re pathetic, remember? No use pretending that you can give them anything more than this. And anyway, maybe it’ll be for the best. Maybe if you can craft the perfect message — be careful with the length, you don’t want it to get split up and sent to them all shuffled around — then you can make them understand, on some level, why this isn’t working. Maybe you can make them see why you shouldn’t be together, although if they haven’t figured that out for themselves by now, they’re either blind or insane.

But you can’t even do that. You can’t even force your thoughts to cohere for a few lines of text, can’t even shape the whirling vacuum inside of you into something comprehensible for the time it would take to write a single message.

So, you toss your phone aside and leave it face-down as you sink further into your couch, drink in your hand, glass already sweaty with condensation. Maybe you silence your phone before you put it away, or maybe you don’t. Maybe you’re hoping that they’ll be the one who decides to send that long-awaited text. Because they must want out as much as you do. Neither of you are happy, and while you have become reasonably certain that you won’t be happy no matter what happens, at least when you finally burn this thing to the ground, you won’t have someone who depends on you, who needs you to depend on them, and who, worst of all, is always trying to get you to fucking go out and see your friends. And then you will be perfectly at peace, balanced on the razor’s edge of oblivion, alone in your dimly-lit apartment, drinking cheap whiskey in silence.

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.

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?