Month: August 2018

Save Yourself

When the Chainsmokers released “Side Effects” last month, I glumly theorized that it might represent a change in direction — a sort of retreat from the creatively risky work the group had been doing earlier this year, back towards the more dependably successful pop-EDM formula of their early days. Any concern that the Chainsmokers are growing conservative is completely obliterated approximately fifty-three seconds into “Save Yourself,” their blistering new collaboration with rising electronic music producer NGHTMRE.

Not only is it light years away from the breezy summer funk of their previous single, it’s unlike any song they’ve released before, an aggressive, crushing wave of bass with the biggest ‘drop’ in a Chainsmokers song since their 2014 collaboration with Tritonal. It’s odd to think that one of the biggest EDM acts in the world had never before fully embraced the trappings of dubstep, and your enjoyment of “Save Yourself” will be largely dependent on your affection towards that oft-reviled genre — personally, my feelings on dubstep are more Key & Peele and less Deadpool 2, but your mileage may vary.

Lyrically, it’s hard to discern exactly what’s going on in “Save Yourself”, but it shares the same sense of undefinable regret as “Somebody” with a more pronounced (yet ultimately bewildering) sense of defiance. But the actual words here aren’t the point; this entire track, from its ominous title and destructive cover art to its punishing drops, all the way to its downright frightening lyric video, is meant to convey a blend of excitement and menace, and it works; NGHTMRE’s unique production style tempered with Taggart’s sense of melody makes this the most viscerally satisfying Chainsmokers song in years, if not ever.

“Save Yourself” isn’t all that strange on its own — given their background in dance music and their energetic live shows, it makes sense that the Chainsmokers would venture into this territory; what’s confusing is that they’ve chosen to do it now. “Side Effects” suggested that the Chainsmokers were hungry for a surefire hit after a lackluster response to their more experimental work in the first half of the year. But “Save Yourself” isn’t a bid for mainstream success; if anything, it’s more niche than the alt-rock stylings of “Sick Boy” or “You Owe Me”. The closest dubstep came to breaking into the mainstream pop charts was Taylor Swift’s “I Knew You Were Trouble,” and that was six years ago.

In fact, the lingering traces of the EDM-pop trend that was instigated by Calvin Harris (with more than a little help from Rihanna) have all but vanished from the charts: scanning the billboard hot 100, there are maybe six songs that still bear traces of that short-lived revolution. A few of those are debatable (even Harris himself has moved in a much different direction with his current music), and only three of them come from producers with enough clout to promote themselves as solo artists — a category that the Chainsmokers themselves once fit neatly into.

When you compare today’s pop scene to the state of the industry when the Chainsmokers first arrived on the scene in 2014, its obvious how disconnected they’ve become from current trends. This isn’t at all unusual — the opposite is much rarer, and when you look at the sort of groups that have managed to stay afloat long past their expiration date, you sometimes start to wonder if it’s even worth it. Nobody wants to end up like Maroon 5, clinging to relevance by their very fingernails, desperately climbing onto the back of whatever new artist they believe can keep them afloat for another two years.

Still, in addition to being artists with their own inscrutable goals and motivations, Taggart and Pall are working musicians who need their product to resonate with as many people as possible in order to make their continued existence financially feasible. Why, then, would they pivot from the darkest, most alienating music they’ve ever made to a big, shiny dance song with a shamelessly pandering music video, then pivot once more back towards a highly-aggressive subgenre of electronic music that is beloved by very few and despised or forgotten by the culture at large?

It’s probably unwise to speculate too much about the group’s intentions, artistic or otherwise, but we’ve come this far, so let’s give it a go: if the Chainsmokers still plan to package every song they’ve released this year into an album (and this is looking more and more like a very big “if”), then we can view this eclectic collection of songs not as a series of missteps and course-corrections, but as a legitimate strategy to capture as much of the market as possible. When this album is completed, it will have at least one song that caters to every possible Chainsmokers fan. People who want to dance to Charlie Puth-esque pop-funk? They’re covered. Rave kids and festival lifers who love flashy DJ sets but want something a little harder than “Don’t Let Me Down?” There’s a song for them, too. Overly precious amateur music critics with a soft spot for self-referential pop songs about anxiety? Hey, how about that?

I would not be surprised to learn that Taggart and Pall are proponents of the Long Tail theory, which (more or less) states that as our culture becomes increasingly fragmented, creators have less of an incentive to produce work for an imagined “mainstream” and would be better off serving the ever-rising number of highly specific niche markets. Massive, all-consuming pop hits like the Chainsmokers’ own “Closer” will more than likely soon be a thing of the past; the speed with which this eventuality comes to pass (and the degree to which it actually occurs) will have an enormous impact on pop culture in the future.

Any band who wants to keep making music into the next decade would do well to abandon all hopes of crossover success and play to their own little corner of the world with extreme fervor. It would seem that the Chainsmokers, two-time one-hit wonders who forever remain one step ahead of cultural annihilation, have chosen to simultaneously target as many little corners as they can. Whether or not they will be ultimately be successful remains to be seen.

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Yellow Square: The Chainsmokers, Twenty-One Pilots & Stan Culture

On July 19th, the Chainsmokers tweeted an image of a yellow square with the caption “Ready for some new music,” followed by a tiger emoji. It was a slightly obtuse way of promoting their next song, particularly for a group that had dropped its most recent singles with very little in the way of build-up, but the meaning was clear. You might expect that most of the people reading this tweet would be fans of the Chainsmokers, and would therefore respond to this announcement with enthusiasm or at least moderate interest — and if one of these people ran a blog where they wrote almost exclusively about the Chainsmokers, you might expect that they would feel a nearly spiritual sense of relief at having something new to discuss.1

If you read the responses to this tweet, however, you’ll see that the tenor of the reaction is overwhelmingly negative. This shouldn’t be all that surprising, considering what a divisive band the Chainsmokers are, but we’re not talking about generalized criticism from the public at large. There are nearly two thousand replies to this tweet, and it isn’t just that most of those people are upset, it’s that they’re all upset about the same thing.

The top reply to the tweet reads as follows: “Then they’re going to release songs named Swimsuit and Rico And The bikers, New album name is gon be called Hench [sic].” This has tweet has received 821 retweets, over 4,500 likes and 37 mostly adulatory replies. It is also completely incomprehensible to roughly 99.9% of the human population.2 To understand this tweet takes both extreme dedication and an arguably misguided sense of curiosity, but doing so brings you a step closer to understanding what might be the driving force of internet culture in 2018.

A closer look at this confusing tweet and the melange of memes and snarky replies that follow reveals that nearly everyone involved in the conversation has some reference, whether in their username or their Twitter avatar, identifying them as fans of the alternative hip-hop/indie rock group Twenty-One Pilots. Twenty-One Pilots is a group currently consisting of two members: lead singer Tyler Joseph and drummer Josh Dun, but the band has existed in some form for nearly ten years. They’ve been intermittently successful throughout their existence, but most people would only know them as the group behind “Stressed Out,” “Ride” and of course “Heathens”, which bears the unique honor of being the least-objectionable song on the Suicide Squad soundtrack.3

“Stressed Out” in particular was a massive hit, a song that clearly struck a chord with a wide array of people who feel besieged by the difficulties of adulthood and modern life, but maybe the most remarkable thing about it is that it’s a multi-platinum pop song that features the chorus “My name is Blurryface and I care what you think.” I can’t imagine what casual listeners made of this refrain, though it clearly didn’t bother anyone enough to stop them from buying the album. Anyone willing to use Google can confirm that “Blurryface,” aside from being the album that featured “Stressed Out” and “Ride,” is the name of a fictional character within the band’s songs that acts as a manifestation of Tyler Joseph’s fears and insecurities.

Blurryface isn’t exactly a concept album, in that there’s no real over-arching storyline or characters to follow, but the band is certainly dedicated their themes and iconography. Throughout the album’s entire release cycle (known by fans as “the Blurryface era”), Joseph and Dun wore coordinated outfits, which in Joseph’s case included bright red socks and black greasepaint that covered his hands and his neck. This is meant to be Joseph’s way of embodying the character of Blurryface, but again, there’s not a precise story being played out across the album; rather, the concepts and images surrounding the music seem designed to invite deeper investment from the listener. A song about feeling anxious and overwhelmed is one thing, but a song like that existing as part of a flesh-out world in which uncomfortable concepts can be engaged with on a semi-fictionalized level? That’s like catnip for burgeoning teenage obsessives. That’s the sort of thing that forms a lifelong bond between fan and artist.

It’s not hard to see why people, especially younger people, have become so invested in Twenty One Pilots.4 There are two reasons, one benign, one slightly more sinister. The first is their aforementioned dedication to iconography and concept: not only does this create a more exciting and involving environment in which fans can experience the group’s music, it lends them an air of artistry that is often missing in massively-successful pop groups.

At the end of the Blurryface era — which was mostly wrapped up with the video for the album’s final single, “Heavydirtysoul”, memorably featuring a flaming car driving down a highway, but didn’t officially end until the final stop of their tour — the band went completely silent on social media for the better part of a year. Imagine what that must be like for a teenager in 2018, someone who had Instagram when they were eight years old. The idea of your favorite artist — hell, any artist — voluntarily shutting themselves off from the world like that? It would seem massive. It would really feel like the end of an era, not just in a band’s promotional cycle, but in your own life. This flair for the dramatic doesn’t quite reach the levels of someone like David Bowie or even Coheed & Cambria (get back to me when Joseph teams up with Peter David to write the Blurryface graphic novel), but it’s just enough to make the group stand out. As a fan, you’re no longer just listening passively listening to music, you’re going on a journey with a group of artists who are giving you work to actively interpret.

That’s the nice reason. The second reason is a little less pleasant, but it requires a lot less explanation: Blurryface is the first full-length album to have every track on it certified gold for the same reason that Eminem is the most successful rapper of all time. Twenty-One Pilots’ music is more stylistically diverse than Eminem’s, but at their core they’re a rap group made up of two upper-middle-class white guys from the Ohio suburbs. They make hip-hop music that is more palatable to racially-anxious white listeners, thereby opening themselves up to a level of success that no black artist could ever reach.

On a certain level, this is not their fault — it would certainly be ridiculous to hold Twenty-One Pilots to account for the deep-seated racism that permeates every facet of American life, and to be fair, they’re not claiming any sort of lived cultural experience outside of their own. But even this honesty can sometimes veer into unpleasant territory: on the song “Lane Boy,” a song about not having your artistic expression limited by the opinions of others, Joseph raps “I wasn’t raised in the hood/but I know a thing or two about pain and darkness,” a skin-crawlingly defensive sentiment that I think is meant to be read as defiant of industry trends5 but mostly has the effect of classifying pain of marginalized people as a subset of the more universal kind of human suffering that can affect anyone, regardless of their background.

In this moment, Joseph has appropriated an art form from another culture as his own and used it to implicitly minimize the very reasons for its existence, and this is to say nothing of the fact that this dude raps this line while walking around in black face-paint that comes up to his fucking chin. I don’t want to think that any of this is intentional — it’s most likely just born of the ignorance that is an inherent product of white privilege — but that doesn’t make it any less insidious.

And but so all this is to say that for a variety of reasons, the Twenty-One Pilots fandom (also known as the Skeleton Clique) is enormous, passionate, and from the beginning of the band’s hiatus in July 2017, exceptionally bored. There are certainly many things that a group of internet-savvy young adults could do with the free time they suddenly had, now that the objection of their obsession had temporarily vanished; perhaps some would even suggest that they try listening to a different band. Well, when the Chainsmokers released “Sick Boy” in January of this year, it became clear the that the Clique was listening, and they did not like what they heard.

Almost as soon as “Sick Boy” was released, the Clique accused the Chainsmokers of ripping off Twenty-One Pilots, and to their credit, it’s not much a reach; both “Sick Boy” and Twenty-One Pilots’ “Heathens” are dark and piano-driven, with distorted vocal harmonies and a thumping beat. We know that the Chainsmokers were looking for a new direction after Memories…Do Not Open, and “Sick Boy” was released nearly eighteen months after “Heathens,” so the timeline certainly checks out, and the fact that the Chainsmokers have never explicitly mentioned Twenty-One Pilots as an influence is certainly suspect.

Also, on a few occasions (most notably in The Chainsmokers: Memories), Andrew Taggart has made reference to the Sick Boy as a character of sorts, one that embodies the many anxieties he was feeling at this point in his career. It’s not enough for a lawsuit — you can’t copyright a vibe — but considering the Chainsmokers have borrowed ideas from other artist before (both openly and not-so-openly), there’s certainly enough evidence to convict them in the dreaded court of public opinion.

That wasn’t the end of it, though. Two months later, when the music video for “Everybody Hates Me” was released, featuring scenes of the Taggart and Pall riding down the road and standing in front of a burning car, the Skeleton Clique once more made their displeasure known. Taking to Twitter in droves, Twenty-One Pilot fans accused the Chainsmokers of ripping off the video for “Heavydirtysoul”, and while you can certainly see where they’re coming from, the evidence is much weaker than it was in the case of “Sick Boy.” Twenty-One Pilots are far from the first band to make a music video featuring a combination of moving cars and flames — off the top of my head, Radiohead’s “Karma Police” and M.I.A.’s “Bad Girls” both use this same imagery to greater effect than either artist — and while both videos were meant to represent the end of an era, the Chainsmokers blowing up a Range Rover, a vehicle they elevated to mythic status in the chorus of “Closer”, is still more clever than Twenty-One Pilots standing near a burning car, the model of which has no significance within their music.

Even still, you could forgive the Clique for being a little over-eager; after all, without any new Twenty-One Pilots content to occupy them, they needed to amuse themselves. But then, on July 11th, Twenty-One Pilots officially ended their hiatus, returning with two new songs (“Jumpsuit” and “Nico & The Niners”), the announcement of a upcoming album, and a first look at the imagery that would be the center of this new era. Whereas red and black were the primary colors of the “Blurryface” era, the iconography of the “Trench” era would be centered around the color yellow — a color which, when it appeared on the Chainsmokers twitter feed one week later would, ironically, make the Clique see red.

We have now, perhaps, come to a place of something close to understanding; understanding why hundreds of terminally-online fans of the band Twenty-One Pilots all descended on a single tweet by the Chainsmokers, accusing them of ripping off their idols simply on the basis of a single yellow block. Primed by one arguably legitimate critique, fueled by a second, less convincing incident, and stirred into a renewed fervor by the return of their favorite band, they all sought to call out a pair of (alleged) imitators for the (probably) imagined crime of wave-riding.

And yet, greater understanding eludes us still — or, I guess I should say, it eludes me. I understand what it is to be a fan of something. I even understand what it is to build a large portion of your identity around your fandom, and even if I didn’t, I wouldn’t have to look far for examples: gamers who spend all of their free time attempting to perfect the fastest route through a particular game, cosplayers who devote untold hours to stitching together costumes so they can pose for pictures in convention halls. These are not things that I myself would ever participate in, but I can see how they bring joy and meaning to the people who do.

What I cannot understand is the drive that some people have to act as foot soldiers in an endless war, defending their idols from anyone who would dare question their perfection. I’m not just talking about the Skeleton Clique; I’m not even just talking about pop music fandom in general, though you don’t have to dig deep to find examples of how destructive those groups can be. I’m talking about anyone who spends a single moment of their precious and finite life trying to clear Woody Allen’s tarnished name, or anyone who decides that a negative review of a comic book movie that they haven’t even seen is cause enough to end a person’s life. I’m talking about the poor, lost souls who troll through Elon Musk’s mentions looking for a chance to defend their billionaire idol. And while I’m at it, I guess I’m also talking about the unbelievable amount of Americans who still support Donald Trump despite there being no reason to do so.

This is Stan6 Culture, idol worship in the 21st century. You can’t hand-wave it away by saying that “fandom has always existed” — as if the internet and social media have not fundamentally changed the way humans interact with one another. You can’t downplay it because “they’re just kids and they’ll grow out of it,” because there is a whole generation of people coming of age online and this is going to be the only world they’ve ever known. And you certainly can’t argue with it, because one day after the Chainsmokers posted the infamous yellow image, they posted a fleshed-out image of their new single’s album art, this one featuring the date ‘7/27’, clearly indicating the song’s release date, and this time they were inundated with attacks by fans of the defunct pop group Fifth Harmony for having the audacity to release a song on the same day that the band was formed.

Because Fifth Harmony once released an album entitled ‘7/27’, one fan claimed that “Fifth harmony invented 7/27 [sic]”, and yes, they were probably joking to some extent, but probably not as much as you think, and even then, it’s not the kind of joke that’s funny.

1. You would be right.

2. This is a rough estimate.

3. “Sucker For Pain” does deserve special mention here for managing to capture the aggressively misbegotten and overstuffed spirit of the movie itself.

4. I’m not just saying this, by the way: no less an authority than the Alternate Press Music Awards (Fueled By Monster) awarded them Most Dedicated Fans in 2017.

5. Even this interpretation is pretty disingenuous: Joseph doesn’t seem to have any problem with the industry trend towards melodic rap groups fronted by white men, but he’s got a problem with the genre’s focus on inner-city distress and urban oppression?

6. For anyone who doesn’t know, “stanning” is the act of being overly obsessed with an artist, person or character. It’s usually self-applied with either a small degree of self-deprecation or a disturbing amount of un-ironic pride.

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.