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.

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