Month: February 2018

You Owe Me

“You Owe Me” is an uncomfortable song to listen to. But not for the reasons you might think.

Broadly speaking, this is a song about the Chainsmokers and their relationship with the press, but if that were all it was, it wouldn’t bear much discussion. People have been writing songs like “You Owe Me” pretty much since the concept of popular music came into existence. In a sense, it’s understandable, even inevitable: creators draw inspiration from their personal lives, and if you’re a popular musician, a good chunk of your life is spent being publicly scrutinized. That being said, it’s often difficult for non-famous listeners to relate to the struggles of the rich and the famous; there are artists who manage to bridge that divide, but for the most part, complaining about bad press makes you look like a spoiled brat.

Even still, I would argue that the Chainsmokers have better cause than most performers to worry about their relationship to the media. Most musicians writing in this particular sub-genre are responding to years of unwanted attention — for example, “Leave Me Alone” finds the Michael Jackson venting about an entire lifetime of scandal and rumor-mongering. And while Jackson’s treatment by the press is an issue to complex to be properly explored here, I don’t think it’s unfair to say that he certainly provided a lot of material for a hungry press.

The Chainsmokers are no strangers to the tabloids, but when they write about “the papers,” they’re not writing about the National Enquirer or The Sun — I mean, they might be, but not really. They’re really writing about one interview they did for Billboard in 2016, a single article that will define their public persona for years, if not their entire lives. Andrew Taggart and Alex Pall haven’t lived the kind of long, bizarre life that Michael Jackson had when he wrote “Leave Me Alone” — they made a couple of bad jokes over the course of one afternoon, and now everyone thinks they’re awful.

This doesn’t make their lame lyrical swipes at the media any more profound, but it’s worth remembering that these guys know first-hand that one bad interview can change your entire career and possibly your life, and not always for the better. With this in mind, their attempt to brush it all off with the line, “they’re painting but they can’t leave a mark,” is very sad, borderline tragic, and not in a way that seems intentional.

Most of the first verse is pretty unremarkable — though it is worth noting that whenever someone uses the word ‘awesome’ in a pop song, they’re trying to seem fun, quirky and relatable, and I have yet to see it work. But then we get to the chorus, which begins in the same hater-baiting self-pity realm as the rest of the song, but takes a turn into something much more interesting:

You don’t know me
Don’t you think that I get lonely?
It gets dark inside my head
Check my pulse, and if I’m dead, you owe me

Even if you find the subject matter of this song hackneyed and obvious, you have to give the Chainsmokers credit for pushing their premise to the absolute extreme. Every creator who enters the public eye become, in a sense, a commodity. Their work is no longer just art and their personal lives are no longer just experiences: both are fodder for people who make their living in the media. They are used to sell papers, fill airtime, and power the ever-expanding economy of takes currently dominating the online discourse. They’re not human. They’re just content.

In “You Owe Me,” the singer contends that, to these people, even the discovery of his corpse would just be something to write about. More than that, it would be a boon. Think Amy Winehouse, whose untimely death was spun into a minor industry of cautionary tales and an Academy Award-winning documentary. Think Prince or David Bowie, whose deaths generated so much performative weeping and gnashing of teeth that they forever redefined the way we discuss celebrity death. If he died, Andrew Taggart probably wouldn’t get a tribute at the Grammys or a shout-out from President Obama, but plenty of paid writers would cash in by examining his “ironic” death and what his music said about The Age We Live In.

Also, this probably goes without saying, but the chorus (and the song as a whole) makes it clear that the Chainsmokers know what people are writing about them. Even if their friends don’t read the papers, they do, and they know exactly how they’re viewed and discussed. To be frank, it’s a little weird to write about a song that acknowledges why people are writing about it. It’s a little like writing a review of a documentary about myself. It makes me uncomfortable, but not as uncomfortable as what comes next.

If you’re lonely
Don’t you think you’re on your own
When it gets dark inside your head
Check my pulse, and if I’m there, you owe me¹

The second half of the chorus turns on a sly bit of songwriting: the second time Taggart mentions his “pulse,” it’s a musical pun, a play on the kind of thumping, propulsive music he and Pall produce. “Check my (heart) beat” might have gotten the point across more clearly, but it’s easy enough to grasp as it is.

But this slight tweak in the lyrics changes the meaning of the entire song: where the verses are bitter and detached, the chorus is built around a statement that’s mostly empathetic. Whether you’re a self-obsessed twenty-something looking to wallow in your own misery or you just need release and you’re looking for a drop that you can dance to, the Chainsmokers are there for you in your time of need. It would be a nice sentiment if it stopped there, but the Chainsmokers aren’t that kind of band, and they can’t let a positive sentiment like this go by without reminding you that the music you love didn’t just come into existence fully-formed: there’s someone on the other side of it. Art is never a one-way street.

That’s why “You Owe Me” is such a disquieting song, because it lays bare a sense of entitlement that we rarely discuss, but seems fairly self-evident when described: if you listen to a performer’s music and get any sort of positive experience out of it, you, in a sense, owe them. The amount you owe them varies: for a disposable pop song, maybe it’s just $1.98 in the iTunes store, but for a band that got you through your darkest times, it wouldn’t be unusual to say that you owe them your life. And while it’s easy to scoff at the idea that the music of the Chainsmokers could be the basis of someone’s mental and emotional strength, you don’t actually know that it’s not true for at least one person, and possibly many more.

Even putting aside the most extreme examples, there are millions of people who listen to and enjoy the Chainsmokers, and while the standard move for any popular musician is to heap appreciation onto their listeners (“I couldn’t do it without my fans, I owe them everything,” etc., etc.), with “You Owe Me” the Chainsmokers have made it clear that the gratitude ought to run the other way. They’re the ones putting in the work, all you’re doing is listening. Nothing in this world comes for free; eventually, you’re going to have to settle up.

1. Pretty major caveat here: I seem to be the only person who hears the chorus this way. All of the major lyric sites have “if i’m dead, you owe me” for all iterations of the chorus, and you have to dig pretty deep to find it transcribed as “there”. But if it is indeed “dead” both times, that’s an incredibly awkward piece of writing: if it’s dark inside of MY head, why would it matter if someone else was dead? How, in any sense, would that mean that I “owe” them? It’s a little difficult because of how Taggart pronounces words, but hearing the second iteration as “there” is the only thing that makes the chorus make sense.

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Guillermo del Toro and The Chainsmokers, Part 1

At the 75th Annual Golden Globe Awards, Guillermo del Toro was awarded ‘Best Director’ for his work on The Shape of Water, a beautiful film about love in the face of bigotry and the inspiration for a thousand unfunny jokes on Twitter. In his sweetly triumphant acceptance speech, del Toro spoke eloquently about his career and how important movies have been to him, mentioning that on several occasion, they actually saved his life. Of films, del Toro said:

“As directors, these things are not just entries in a filmography. We have made a deal with a particularly inefficient devil that trades three years of our lives for one entry on IMDB. And these things are biography, and they are life.”

Guillermo del Toro is arguing that his films are worth something, that they’re more than just a product made to fill up space on Netflix. It probably goes without saying, but this is certainly true in del Toro’s case. He’s always been beloved in certain circles, but this year he seems to have reached a new level of mainstream attention. His work is being celebrated and understood as the work of a true artist, and his films are being discussed and appreciated in a manner befitting the time and effort he’s put into them.

But it doesn’t always work out that way.

It’s well understood that the majority of artists, including some who equal and even surpass del Toro’s ability, toil in obscurity for their entire lives without ever receiving the attention their work deserves. The phrase “toil in obscurity” exists primarily to describing this exact situation. Ironically, many artists who are now household names fell into this category. Herman Melville forever changed the way novels were written, but Moby Dick sold only a few thousand copies while he was alive. Vincent Van Gogh is among the most well-known painters of all time, but went basically unnoticed until he killed himself. Edgar Allen Poe and Franz Kafka essentially created entire new genres of fiction with their work, but both died unrecognized and poor.

Of course, these examples are, by their very existence, somewhat ill-fitting, because those mentioned did eventually receive the recognition they deserve; it was too late for them to appreciate the newfound recognition, but their work continues to endure. But more common by far is the creator whose obscurity only continues and intensifies after their death. It is impossible to say exactly how many brilliant pieces of art have gone unnoticed by anyone, but the number is probably high enough that it would be overwhelming and depressing even if we somehow had the accurate statistics.

This is not news to anyone who has been paying attention. Every level-headed creative person endeavors under the knowledge that the odds of success are staggeringly low. A massive cloud of failure hangs over us all, ready to swoop down and erase all our efforts from history, like a dust-storm descending on the American midwest or a swarm of locust descending upon the Egyptians. It’s a bad scene.

Social media has changed this, but not by much. Maybe there was a moment, early on, when anyone with the knowledge and foresight to game the still-developing system could launch themselves to stardom. When the internet first gained prominence, it was a new and exciting avenue of self-promotion, but with the new ubiquity of social media, it’s now pretty much the only game in town. If you want people to lay eyes (or ears) on something you’ve made, it has to go online. And now that everyone is online, the novelty is gone and the playing field is even once again (as even as it ever is, I mean), but with a brand-new, additional layer of humiliation that we must endure if we want people to see what we’ve made: likes.

Or retweets. Or comments. Or subscriptions. Whatever form it takes on your platform of choice, it all boils down to a single, ugly transaction, the kind that Guillermo del Toro referenced in his acceptance speech: you pour your heart and soul into something, giving away the best years of your life, and in the best case scenario, your Klout score goes up a few points.

This is what the Chainsmokers are talking about in “Sick Boy,” specifically during the bridge when Andrew Taggart sings “feed yourself on my life’s work/how many likes is my life worth?” Some reviewers glibly dismissed this as a cheap-shot at social media, and while they’re not entirely off-base–Taggart himself clearly has a lot of thoughts on how the internet has changed our concept of ‘fame‘–the placement of this couplet at the climax of a song clearly sung from the perspective of a self-loathing artist hints at a much deeper and much darker question: what, exactly, are we doing all this for?

This simple question is complicated by the fact that the Chainsmokers are the ones posing it (which is the way it usually goes.) Regardless of what their artistic legacy turns out to be, the Chainsmokers are not undiscovered or unrecognized. Even if you dispute the quality of their work, you can’t deny that people think about them. You’re thinking about them right now, in fact. People consume and appreciate their music. But success doesn’t change the math: in return for years of hard work, you get a few record-shaped trophies to hang on your wall. Sure, the money is nice, but money eventually runs out, and at the end, all you’re left with is an entry on the Billboard 100.

“Sick Boy” is a little too concerned with the narrator’s personal psychology to address the central irony of this situation, which is so diabolical that it’s almost funny. The often-terrifying whims of the social media algorithms notwithstanding, the attention and approval that modern-day creators are seeking doesn’t come from a powerful voice on high, it comes from the people around them. Fellow denizens of the internet, many of whom no doubt have something of their own to promote.

To call this devil merely inefficient is an understatement. He is devious and cruel, particularly in the way he exploits our unquestioned love of democracy. There are no more tastemakers, he claims, no more gatekeepers or cultural elite to designate what is and is not worthy. There are only the people around you, people just like you, who decide whether or not what you’ve made is worthy of their time — and, in most cases, they’ll just pass it by. All it costs them is a click, and they can’t even spare that.

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The Chainsmokers Problem

First Variant:

Alex Pall and Andrew Taggart of the Chainsmokers have a public image problem. To be specific: people fucking hate them.

This has little to do with their music, which tends towards the EDM-influenced pop that’s been in vogue since roughly 2011 (thanks for nothing, Calvin Harris), and features lyrics about romantic frustration, self-destructive behavior and an unhealthy obsession with youth. Pretty standard fare for a 21st-century pop performer; hell, pretty standard fare for the entire space of music history. There are lots of reasons to dislike the Chainsmokers’ music, none of them particularly interesting or unique. But they, as people, are disliked primarily for two reasons: their 2014 breakout single “#selfie” and this 2015 interview with Billboard Magazine.

“#selfie” is indefensible. It’s an empty-headed dance-club number featuring a painfully unfunny monologue delivered in the exaggerated cadence of an obnoxious young woman. The central joke — that the act of taking a selfie is symptomatic of vapidity, cluelessness, and all other sorts of negative things that society associates with modern femininity — is so played-out and untrue that it barely warrants discussion. Suffice to say, “#selfie” is a song written by the kind of guys who will claim “satire” in defense of any poorly-received joke, without understanding that satire requires clear intent, an acceptable target, and, most importantly, some element of humor.

It could be argued that “#selfie” is such a terrible song that nothing the Chainsmokers will ever do could possibly make up for it; that it will cast a shadow over their entire career. That’s probably a little harsh for a song that was clearly intended as a cheap, one-off goof, (one that the Chainsmokers themselves have all but disowned) but the song’s uniquely irritating nature and its importance to the group’s career makes it hard to ignore. But it’d be even harder to ignore if the Chainsmokers hadn’t changed direction almost immediately after it was released.

After releasing a few non-starter singles, the duo returned in earnest 18 months after “#selfie” with “Roses,” “Don’t Let Me Down” and “Closer,” three songs of varying quality that nonetheless fulfill the qualification of being actual music, a title “#selfie” never quite attained. Their former musical identity as a couple of obnoxious idiots might have been forgotten if not for their disastrous cover story from the September 2016 issue of Billboard Magazine. The story itself includes many upsettingly indelible details, such as the clarification that the duo’s penises measure a combined 17.34 inches “tip to tip” (a turn of phrase that probably deserves an entire essay of its own), the revelation that Taggart started an investment club at his high school, a probably-apocryphal anecdote about the two of them punching each other’s faces until they drew blood while on the way home from a strip club, and, most famously, Pall’s declaration that “even before success, pussy was number one,” a statement which ranks with John Lennon’s “bigger than Jesus” remark on the list of poorly-thought boasts that almost derailed careers.

The Chainsmokers did not come off well, to say the least. Aside from the vague sexism and unconvincing boastfulness, the story is brimming with unearned confidence so extreme that it played as comedy originally but might seem like a minor tragedy in hindsight, depending on how the arc of the group’s career plays out in the future. For casual listeners, their impression of Taggart and Pall as people will be forever defined by this interview. And, to their credit, the duo seems aware of that. Just six months later, NME ran a feature about the Chainsmokers with the hilariously unconvincing headline “I Promise You, We’re Not Assholes.”

In the article (and the awkward, stutter-filled video that accompanies it), Taggart and Pall seem legitimately concerned about how they came off in the Billboard story. Pall goes out of his way to be diplomatic when speaking to the reporter, and Taggart even drops a halfway-charming line about his obsession with multiband compression. But as damage control, it’s largely unsuccessful — “we were joking” is rarely a convincing defense, and no  heartwarming anecdote about a sick fan can withstand the gruesome power of a statement like “pussy is number one”. But at this point, I don’t know if there exists a pressure-washer strong enough to erase the stain of the Chainsmokers public persona. They could perform a duet with the newly-resurrected Jesus Christ and in the back of my mind I’d still probably be thinking about their penises.

The problem with the Chainsmokers is that you can’t trust a first impression, but you’ll never be able to forget it.

Second Variant:

The weirdest thing about the Chainsmokers’ public image, and perhaps the central contradiction of their existence, is how little it matches their music. The Chainsmokers songs that feature other vocalists are largely interchangeable (“Something Just Like This” mostly just sounds like a Coldplay song and “Don’t Let Me Down” sounds like a Daya song — which is to say, nothing), but the songs where Taggart sings all hold to a single unifying aesthetic. That aesthetic isn’t entirely disconnected from the group’s frat-boy persona, but it’s got almost nothing to do with getting drunk and chasing girls. Okay, actually, it’s got everything to do with getting drunk and chasing girls, but in a doomed, romantic sort of way.

Take, for example, the song “Bloodstream” off of the band’s debut album Memories… Do Not Open, which opens with the lyric “I’ve been drunk three times this week/spent all my money on a fleeting moment,” accompanied by a minor-key piano line that replicates with unnerving accuracy the feeling of accidentally slipping into a week-long bender, the casual kind of self-destructive streak that no one around you notices, because you’re never drinking with the same people two nights in a row. I have no way of proving this, but I’m fairly certain that when the narrator says “I’ve been drunk three times this week,” it’s not even the weekend. It might not even be Wednesday.

The chorus follows a similar track: “I’m fucked up, I’m faded/I’m so complicated/Those things that I said, they were so overrated,” Taggart sings, followed by a drop that does little to dispel the gloomy attitude hanging over the song. Look, these are not fantastic lyrics: they’re simple and more than a little too self-serious. But they paint a picture of a specific situation that the listener can personally relate to. It’s obvious that Taggart (and his co-writers) took this song seriously. This isn’t a follow-up to “#selfie”, dashed off in a few minutes as an easy cash-in. This is a man baring his soul. This is a man who drinks too much, and that’s an issue — and maybe, just maybe, it’s not okay.

And yet, I cannot hear this song without being extremely, constantly aware that Andrew Taggart of The Chainsmokers is the one singing it. And regardless of how accurate it is, when I think of Andrew Taggart, I think of a hard-drinking, hard-living EDM party-bro who got famous off a novelty song so misogynistic that it actually makes me feel sympathetic toward its fictional object of ridicule.

And yet! Here is that same unlikeable person baring his soul to me in a way that I can’t help but find endearing, catchy and, yes, a little relatable — the three hallmarks of a truly good pop song.

Listening to this music, I find myself continuously torn between two distinct but equally distracting beliefs. As a result of their obnoxious public image, every bit of genuine emotion that appears in a song by the Chainsmokers seems either a) cynically fabricated and absolutely false in a way that is extreme even for pop music, or b) surprisingly meaningful in a way that is grossly out of proportion to the actual quality of their music, making it difficult to assess the appropriate response.

The problem with the Chainsmokers is that you can’t trust anything someone says after they’ve been paid to say it.

 

Third Variant:

Thought experiment: picture a Black Sabbath fan. Setting doesn’t matter. Don’t worry about time period, location, anything like that. Just imagine the type of person that would identify as a fan of the classic heavy metal band Black Sabbath.

Easy, right? If I asked you to describe this person, you could probably tell me about the way they dressed and they way they wore their hair. You could even tell me what their personality was like. They might be based on a person you’ve actually met, or they might be a composite based on board stereotypes, but still, the picture is there.

On the other end of the spectrum, picture a Justin Bieber fan. Wait, too easy. Picture an Ed Sheeran fan. You might not be one, and you might not even know one, but based on the type of music he produces and the image he’s cultivated, you probably know what that fan would be like. When you picture an Ed Sheeran concert, it’s not hard to imagine the crowd. Even if it’s tough to describe how they spoke or how they dressed, I bet you could make an educated guess about their race, gender, and amount of disposable income.

You probably know where this is going by now, but let’s go through with it, anyway: try to imagine what a Chainsmokers super-fan would look like. Try to imagine anything about them, anything at all.

Maybe, based on your preconceived notion of who the Chainsmokers are as people, you imagine their fans to be a bunch of brainless fraternity members, the kind of people who study finance during the week and then throw questionable parties on the weekend. Except the Chainsmokers don’t make “party music” — you can dance to it, sure, but it’s not the kind of music that your typical finance bro would reach for, except for the three months during 2014 where they all thought “#selfie” was hilarious.

Okay, so maybe it’s not kegger music, but it still appeals to the EDM set, right? Maybe that’s who you’re picturing: a fist-pumping MDMA enthusiast who goes to week-long parties in the Arizonan desert. A club kid, dancing around with a pair of glow-sticks in their hands, possibly wearing some sort of ridiculous outfit. Except the Chainsmokers are basically ignored by serious fans of the EDM genre, and not without reason: the music they make now is closer to top 40 hit than it is to rave anthem. You’ll still hear the Chainsmokers in nightclubs, but not in those kinds of nightclubs.

By now, with your collection of stereotypes exhausted, you might try to picture a casual Chainsmokers fan, just a single person whose life is, in any small way, defined by their enjoyment of the Chainsmokers. But even that is basically impossible, and it’s impossible for one reason: the Chainsmokers are an incredibly successful band that no one will admit to liking.

For anyone who listened to the radio between the years of 2002 and 2008, this will sound familiar, because it’s the exact same thing that happened to Nickelback. Nickelback were a constant presence on the pop charts for the better part of a decade, and they absolutely dominated rock radio. They had an immediately recognizable sound, and it was difficult to go more than a day at a time without hearing one of their songs. Yet despite their massive popularity, it was impossible during this time to find someone who identified as a Nickelback fan. If you wanted people to know you were serious about music, you were required not only to dislike Nickelback, but to hate everything they represented about modern music and use them as a means to opine about the declining state of humanity in general. Hating them was not just a signifier of being an intelligent person with fully developed tastes, it was a prerequisite.

When critics of the Chainsmokers call them “the Nickelback of EDM,” they think they’re making a point about the commodification of a once-legitimate genre — in Nickelback’s case, this genre is grunge, and in both cases, the genre supposedly being appropriated is of questionable value to begin with. But in fact, these people are only highlighting the absurdity of an immensely popular band (such as Nickelback or the Chainsmokers) having no visible fanbase.

Granted, it might be a little too soon to make this comparison: Nickelback have been around for much longer than the Chainsmokers and they have a much better track record (nine albums over twenty-plus years, all but two of which have gone platinum in multiple countries). But think of it this way: Nickelback is the second-most popular foreign band in U.S. history, right behind the Beatles. They are one of the best-selling, most popular and, arguably, most important rock bands of the 21st century. And yet no one will admit to liking them. If the same is true for the Chainsmokers, then there’s no metric of success that they could meet or exceed at which point it would be socially acceptable for people to admit that they liked them.

Even “#selfie”, a depressingly terrible song, dated and embarrassing from the very moment it was released, hated and disowned by its very creators themselves, was downloaded over 800,000 times in the U.S. alone — but more to the point, the music video has over half a billion views on YouTube. Millions of people voluntarily listened to this song — many of them even spent money so that they could own it and listen to it whenever they wanted. Fucking “#selfie!” “Closer” is the most-streamed song in the history of Spotify and was purchased by nearly three million people. But it’s impossible to imagine anyone who would care enough to defend the band that made it.

How can that be possible? How can a song that is universally hated be beloved by millions? How can two of the least-liked people in modern music be two of the most successful? How many people are lying about liking the Chainsmokers? How many people are lying to themselves?

The real problem with the Chainsmokers is that you can’t trust anyone, ever, about anything.