The Fifth Chainsmoker

One of the most fascinating things about the Chainsmokers is the way they meaningfully integrate contemporary technology like cell phones and social media into their work. Their interest in this subject stretches all the way back to “#SELFIE”, but that song is, to be generous, a little shallow. It does capture some of the everyday absurdity that comes with maintaining a public image online, but to no real end — aside from mocking its female protagonist for her supposed vanity.

But in the group’s recent work, beginning with Memories… Do Not Open and continuing into their current run of singles, the Chainsmokers have learned to fold these references into their subject matter organically. Their songs casually reference cell phones as modern life’s most ubiquitous device while also addressing the sense of profound alienation that technology can create, and this stylistic evolution would simply not be possible without the work of singer-songwriter Emily Warren.

Warren first collaborated with the Chainsmokers on 2015’s “Until You Were Gone,” but she didn’t actually meet the group in person until they co-wrote “Don’t Let Me Down” (along with Warren’s frequent collaborator Scott Harris¹), the group’s massively successful follow-up to “Roses” that solidified their position as reliable hit-makers. Right away, we can see Warren’s impact on the group in terms of sheer survival. If not for the success of “Don’t Let Me Down,” the second act of the Chainsmokers’ career might have ended prematurely, and the world would have been denied their two most significant contributions to American culture: the song “Closer” and that one Instagram post where Drew is helping Alex with his resistance training.

Even before her collaboration with the Taggart and Pall really started to heat up, Warren was already a proven talent in the music industry, writing songs for Fifth Harmony, Shawn Mendes, James Blunt and many others. Much of this work is very good and most of it is deserving of discussion regarding the creative development of a singular talent, but two songs in particular point the way towards the subject matter she would later explore in-depth: “No Filter” by Britt Nicole and “Phone Down” by DJ duo Lost Kings, featuring vocals from Warren herself.

“No Filter” is a song about two people in a dying relationship who still feel the need to pretend everything is fine. It’s tried and true subject matter for a sad pop song, but Warren gives it a modern touch by framing the couple’s superficial happiness around the pictures they post online. The verses reveal details of the couple’s life (“I think we got the perfect shot/You’d never know at dinner, we didn’t even talk”), while the chorus draws a direct parallel between their personal unhappiness (“And what we let the whole world see/Isn’t really you and me”) and the more broadly relatable issue of the pressure people feel to present a certain type of image online (“We always put a filter on/To try to cover up the flaws”).

It’s an interesting idea, but it ends up being too vague to really connect. The details of the couple’s life, while realistic, lack the specificity needed to be truly compelling, and the song itself, with all due respect to Britt Nicole, ends up being a bit of a drag. But if “No Filter” ends up falling short of its lofty goals, it’s still hard to get too down on it; Warren was addressing a massive, unwieldy topic here, so it’s not surprising that the end result is a bit awkward.

More fun (and far more successful) is “Phone Down,” a song that should resonate with anyone who’s ever had to compete with a cell phone for someone’s attention. Unlike “No Filter,” “Phone Down” doesn’t use cell phones or social media as a metaphor for anything; this is quite literally a song about the frustration of having a quiet, romantic moment ruined by the appearance of a glowing blue screen in your partner’s hand.

Warren is no luddite. This isn’t a song about how we should all toss our phones into the sea and live free from society’s influence; it’s just an acknowledgment that some aspects of modern technology have intruded on our personal lives in unique ways. That it believably builds this story around a dance track with a cathartic hook is a testament to Warren’s talents as both songwriter and performer, two skillets that would prove equally valuable when she collaborated with the Chainsmokers on their debut album.

Emily Warren is the first voice you hear on Memories… Do Not Open, providing background vocals for “The One,” one of four songs on the album that she co-wrote. In addition to providing vocal support on this and three other songs (including “Paris”), Warren uses her writerly instincts to helps Taggart sharpen the self-loathing artistic persona that he’s been developing since “Closer” and contributes lines such as “Let’s go, let’s end this/I delete before I send it/And we can play pretend like we haven’t reached the end yet,” which seamlessly and relatable incorporate cell phone imagery into the narrative of an impending break-up.

Aside from helping set the tone of the entire record and expanding its sonic palette with her own unique voice, Warren’s presence provides a much-needed sense of balance. Since much of the album’s lyrics concern self-destructive men and the women in their lives, it’s incredibly helpful to have Warren singing a song like “My Type” from the point of view of a woman who finds herself inevitably attracted to this very same subset of unreliable partners.

A song like “Honest,” with its morally shady late-night confessions hedged by claims of internal conflict, could not exist without a song like “Don’t Say,” which is explicitly about not accepting these sort of of excuses and features the cutting refrain “Don’t say you’re human/Don’t say it’s not your fault”. If someone finds the pop-emo stylings of Memories distasteful, no one song is going to win them over, but Warren’s presence stretches over more than a third of the album’s run-time and prevents it from being fully consumed by a black hole of self-obsession.

Warren is credited as co-writer on all three singles that the Chainsmoker’s have released in 2018. Her razor-sharp writing instincts are now fully integrated with the group’s surprising musical evolution, producing some of the most unexpected and fascinating songs of the year. Removed from the novelty of its initial release, “Sick Boy” still contains the indelible couplet “Feed yourself on my life’s work/How many likes is my life worth”, an absolutely classic Warren line that scans as mildly clever on its own but is somehow attains great power when sung by an artist who many people would dismiss as disposable. “You Owe Me” is a darkly modern twist on the classic middle-finger-to-critics style of song, and “Everybody Hates Me” is such a perfect encapsulation of the group’s entire aesthetic that it’s hard to imagine where they can even go from here.

The influence of Warren’s artistry extends far beyond her work with Taggart and Pall. She co-wrote the massively popular Dua Lipa song “New Rules” and Charli XCX’s critically-acclaimed single “Boys”, and the work she’s released as a solo performer demonstrates that she’s certainly a performer to watch in her own right. But her ongoing collaboration with the Chainsmokers is a perfect pairing of creators, each of them elevating and expanding the scope of the other’s work. As the group continues their transition from DJ duo to pop stars, Warren is their most consistent and vital collaborator and an irreplaceable talent. If George Martin was the fifth Beatle, then Emily Warren is the fifth Chainsmoker.²

1. Harris, by the way, wrote Stephen Jerzak’s “Party Like You’re Single,” the best bad song that you’ve never heard of.

2. Before you write in: I am aware that this analogy has a major, glaring flaw — namely, that while the Beatles were really a four-person band, the Chainsmokers is “officially” composed of only two people. Your objections are noted and, while a bit pedantic, very much appreciated.

Advertisements

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

w

Connecting to %s