The most remarkable thing about the video for “#selfie” is how cheap it is. The video, much like the song itself, represents the group’s entry onto the world stage and their absolute creative nadir. For their first act as a band, the Chainsmokers dug themselves into a hole so deep that it resembles a massive crater, one they’ve been trying to climb out of ever since.
There are three main components that make up the “#selfie” video. The first and least interesting is the monologue that makes up the song’s lyrical component, an irritating stream-of-consciousness performed in the bathroom of a dance club by a comically vain young woman. Roughly one-third of the video is taken up with a straightforward adaptation of this dialogue, and it does nothing to alleviate the sickening absence of humor in the original song. It’s exactly what you would imagine when listening to “#selfie”, which is maybe the most damning critique possible.
The second component is footage of crowd of people dancing and having a good time, which appears to all be taken from a single nightclub performance. We mostly see the concert-goers as an incomprehensible blur of brightly-colored clothes, interspersed with a few moments of more intimate footage of Andrew Taggart, Alex Pall and other random attendees (or actresses portraying attendees). Standard stuff for a medium-budget music video, but the weird thing is, very little of this footage seems to come from an actual Chainsmokers concert. The person most prominently playing music is not the either of the Chainsmokers, but EDM superstar and heir to the Benihana restaurant empire, Steve Aoki.
Aoki is the person who discovered the Chainsmokers, and he even released “#selfie” on his own label, so it stands to reason that he’d want to ensure that their first video projected an image of the Taggart and Pall as popular, exciting party boys. But while we can imagine Aoki’s reasoning for essentially letting the Chainsmokers claim his fans as their own, we cannot even speculate to what degree Steve Aoki feel responsible for the creation of this monstrosity, or if he will ever pay for his crimes against humanity.
The third and most prominent component of this video is the flurry of user-submitted photographs — the titular “selfies” — that floods the screen during each iteration of the chorus. These amateur self-portraits were not submitted out of a legitimate passion on the part of the fans or as an organic upswell of support for the song — the Chainsmokers were practically unknown at the time of its release — rather, they were actively cultivated and farmed by ominously-named social-media marketing group TheAudience with the assistance of a light-hearted instructional video.
The problem here isn’t so much the gross, cynical manipulation of social media by a marketing firm co-founded by the ‘Napster’ guy — it’s that all work was done to no real end. Sure, lots of normal people (and a few celebrities) freely allowed their visage to be used as advertising for a novelty EDM single, but no one at any point managed to do anything interesting with all those pictures. There’s no hook, no joke, no twist on anything. It’s just a bunch of selfies. And if you’re trying to make fun of selfies, you should actually find something funny to say about them.
The video for “Kanye” opens with a direct reference to “#selfie”: two self-obsessed young women stand in the mirror while one blathers on about her personal life. It’s not an exact recreation of the “#selfie” video — the women are in a hotel room instead of a club bathroom — but the monologue is lifted directly from the song and the situation is clearly meant to be a similar, if not totally identical.
Only this time, our perspective has shifted away from these young woman, and onto on a young maid who is silently cleaning the floors behind them. The women in the mirror, who were the nearest thing we had in the last video to protagonists, are distant and out-of-focus. We don’t even see their faces. They walk out of the bathroom to continue their conversation and are never seen again.
Meanwhile, the maid changes out of her house-cleaning uniform and into an expensive-looking dress that one of the women has left behind. She then leaves the hotel room and is whisked away to a magical night of fast times and hard living. She visits an extravagant club where Taggart and Pall cameo as old-timey bartenders, then hits up a well-attended pool party in the Hollywood hills, before returning home at the crack of dawn, having apparently achieved the sort of self-actualization-through-partying that exists only in the minds of music video directors.
It’s not surprising that the two women from “#selfie” are consciously dismissed as unimportant — they were objects of ridicule in their first appearance, as well. Nor is it all that unusual that the maid, a character who would go unnoticed in the stories and lives of the kind of people “#selfie” was mocking, would be held up as a more important person, more authentic and worthy of emulation. Cheap romanticization of the working class is a common trope across all media, to the point where it usually comes across as empty and insincere. Yes, it’s nice to see the maid-turned-partygoer display kindness and empathy when she encounters another member of the service industry, but the way she slips the tiara on the waitress’s head reeks of condescension — not altogether surprising when you realize that this video, like the one for “#selfie”, was created by social-media marketing group theAudience.
But the shift in focus in the first scene, and the dismissal of “#selfie,” parallels the shift that the Chainsmokers themselves were already attempting. Neither Taggart nor Pall have hidden the fact that “#selfie” was made as a joke and that its sudden success threw them for a loop — and while they claim to be grateful that it lead more people to discover their music, more recent songs like “Sick Boy” make it clear that they struggle with being best known for their worst song.
It’s hard to say whether Taggart and Pall were making a conscious statement with the opening of “Kanye,” or if the fine folks at theAudience just thought it was a funny joke that would also strengthen the group’s brand, but it makes a statement either way: the Chainsmokers know that you hate “#selfie,” and they want you to know that they hate it just as much.
Let You Go
The first of the group’s four collaborations with director Joe Zohar is also the first video where Taggart and Pall themselves have any significant screen time. With that in mind, it’s impressive how comfortable the two of them seems as actors, portraying what one must assume are lightly fictionalized versions of themselves.
The video opens with Taggart and Pall landing in Los Angeles to visit a woman, portrayed by Rikke Heinecke, who seems to be romantically involved with Pall. For most of the video, the three of them ride around the city in, stopping off at various locales, with Pall and the woman occasionally slipping off to have sex. They visit an abandoned construction site and share drinks from a flask while Taggart spray-paints nearby. They blow bubbles, they smoke weed and watch the sun-set, they get drunk and generally do the sort of things people do when they’re geuinely at ease with one another.
Zohar’s direction, along with the work of the performers, really sells the idea of this loving triumvirate, Pall and Heinecke as a highly affectionate couple, with Taggart joyfully inhabiting the role of third wheel. There are a few hints of an unspoken attraction between Taggart and Heinecke’s character, but nothing too obvious; that is, until the trio finally arrives home at the end of the night and Pall’s girlfriend affectionately invites Taggart to join her and Pall in the bedroom.
After the three of them spend the night together, Taggart and Pall share an awkward, silent ride back to the airport, avoiding eye contact and shuddering at the slightest physical touch. In hindsight, the entire video appears to be a set-up for this punchline, but the vividness with which Zohar depicts the characters’ friendship adds a layer of pathos that wouldn’t be necessary if the whole thing was just a dumb joke, one step removed from a derivative sort of gay-panic humor. Instead of comedy, we are left with ambiguity: one can’t help but wonder what sort of impact this event will have on Taggart and Pall. Is their relationship strong enough to withstand this shared sexual episode? Or will it drive them apart?
With this in mind, the video ends up resembling something like a frat-bro comedy version of Y Tu Mama Tambien. Granted, the comparison isn’t quite perfect: the climax of the video for “Let You Go”, which features the three characters in a variety of kinky and outrageous sexual positions is, shall we say, a bit goofier than a coming-of-age story set against the rise of far-right populism in Mexico. But, despite the apparent efforts of all involved, the similarities still linger, and they make this the most conventionally satisfying of any Chainsmokers videos from this period.
In the second part of the Zohar Quartet, Taggart and Pall wander through a grimy, industrial underworld while an old man with a long, white beard plays an evil piano and dresses like a steampunk version of the devil. In between shots of Taggart and Pall languishing in a dramatically-lit jail cell, the boys have a series of surreal encounters: they find a living woman covered in ice, followed by two filth-encrusted prisoners chained to one another, and finally, a second pair of captives caught in a loving embrace, one without eyes and the other without a mouth. The old man, who stands over a flaming trash can in positively Luciferian manner, is revealed to be some sort of mythic music industry executive, framing the entire escapade as a Faustian tale in which the Chainsmokers sign away their very souls in pursuit of fame and glory.
Interestingly, this video is not available on the group’s official Vevo channel. This could be a simple oversight, but considering that the Chainsmokers Vevo page is so comprehensive that it includes a latin remix of “#selfie” featuring an artist who can only be described as “the poor man’s Pitbull”, that doesn’t seem likely.
There are two possible explanations. The first, and most likely: legal reasons. Watching the video for “Good Intentions,” one can’t help but be reminded of the Saw franchise. From the way Taggart and Pall wake up in the service elevator to the way that the bearded man lurks behind the scenes, the entire video is infused with the same atmosphere as American horror’s most convoluted gore-delivery system.
The biggest giveaway, though, are the grim, unsettling scenarios that the duo encounter during their journey: the woman covered in ice calls to mind the freezer room death from Saw 3, while the people chained together and the “see no evil, hear no evil” prisoners both seem drawn from mausoleum trap that appears in the prologue of Saw 4. And while Zohar and the Chainsmokers have re-appropriated these images to considerably less gruesome means, it still wouldn’t surprise me if they were squeamish about potential retribution from the fine folks at Lions Gate.
The other possibility is that the Chainsmokers encountered a squeamishness of a much more personal variety. The meaning of the Saw-inspired tableaus in the video aren’t entirely clear, but considering the final twist of the Satanic record executive, we can assume these images relate in some way to the group’s career in the music industry. The frozen woman, who still manages to blow kisses at the boys and flirtatiously wiggle her eyebrows despite behind encased in ice, might be a stand-in for the type of woman that Taggart and Pall find drawn to them now that they are famous: seductive yet cold-hearted, the classic “gold-digger” archetype — a figure of immense danger to the nouveau riche. This is a character type that comes loaded with misogynistic assumptions, but it is a recognizable and familiar trope within the story of the video.
Less typical are the two couples that Taggart and Pall discover, both sets bound together in different ways. The first pair they encounter are antagonistic towards each other, straining to escape from their ash-covered prison, but ultimately unable to get away from one another. The second pair regard each other affectionately, existing permanently in a tender moment of physical intimacy, but their love is undercut by the fact that neither of them is, symbolically speaking, a complete person. One of them can see the fullness of the world around them but lacks the means to express themselves, while the other can easily communicate but remains fundamentally unable to comprehend anything outside their own mind.
Considering that the Chainsmokers themselves are a two-person group, it’s not difficult to read into these depictions some sense of their personal anxieties. Even this early in their career, they feel constrained by the realities of their industry: it doesn’t matter if they want to spend time alone or pursue solo projects, because they are legally bound to work together. And even while they still think fondly of one another, each is aware that they are in some way incomplete, that they lack the ability to be part of a fully functional duo, or maybe even to be a whole person on their own.
The implications, even if they are unintentional, are not at all pretty, and it’s easy to imagine why Taggart and Pall would have wanted to put them out of their minds. Though their latter work would grapple with exactly these sort of uncomfortable questions, it seems that the Chainsmokers, at this point, were not yet ready to face the darkness.