Month: July 2018

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.

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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.