Month: September 2018

This Feeling

I’ll tell you a story before it tells itself

It would be easy for me to say that “This Feeling” sounds like the Chainsmokers trying to combine elements of their two biggest hits with co-writer Emily Warren’s long-running preoccupation with self-destructive romantic relationships; after all, it’s got the male/female duet format of “Closer,” the alt-rock stylings of “Something Just Like This”, and the lyrical themes of… well, “Closer” again, but also “Side Effects,” “All We Know,” “My Type”, etc. The first half of the song (before Taggart’s vocals kick in) could be from any number of contemporary electro-pop songs featuring a strong female vocal, particularly Zedd-produced tracks like “Starving” or “The Middle”, with the latter being especially relevant given that it, like “This Feeling”, re-purposes a country singer into the context of an upbeat dance song. Speaking of which, Kelsea Ballerini is a shrewd choice for a guest vocalist; she’s a proven success within the country-music demographic, a market that has gone entirely untapped by the Chainsmokers to this point. And they’re not the only ones who benefit: as a mainstream artist working within an authenticity-obsessed medium, Ballerini has to perform a delicate dance to remain acceptable to her audience, so appearing on a track where she can completely shed her country-music roots and aim straight for the pop charts is a savvy career move on her part. Every element of “This Feeling” can, if you’re so inclined, be broken down into a series of crass, cynical decision with direct commercial implications, turning the song itself into a mere conglomeration of parts, each one meticulously designed and implemented with the aim of appealing to the widest possible audience of people. The weird thing is that none of that matters and it never will.

I’ll lay out all my reasons, you’ll say that I need help

There’s a reason why this kind of song is popular, and I don’t just mean the type of song produced by Zedd or Clean Bandit or Calvin Harris —  I also mean songs specifically produced by the Chainsmokers themselves: “Something Just Like This” and “Closer” were massive hits for the group, enough to ensure retained cultural presence for two years straight. If the tides of time wash clean everything else the Chainsmokers have ever touched, “Closer” will still be immortalized on whatever form the Time Life collections take thirty years from now, and Coldplay’s co-ownership of “Something Just Like This” ensures that it will be remembered as a least curious footnote in that band’s long, strange career. Here’s a statement that seems self-evident but will be endlessly frustrating to a significant number of people: this popularity means something. No piece of media becomes this successful by accident, as much as that may often seem to be the case. Okay, yes, there are powerful, corporate-run forces in our capitalist society that use their influence to insidiously control the conversation surrounding music (well, there’s mainly just the one), but you know that old saying? About horses, and how you can present an appealing option to them, but you can’t make them do the thing you want them to do unless they actually want to do it? This is what that’s about. Yes. This exact situation.

We all got expectations and sometimes they gone wrong

So, if these songs are all popular for a reason, what is the reason? It’s an obvious answer, so obvious that feels ridiculous, borderline insulting to write it. But there’s really no way around it, so unless we want to waste our time, we might as well put it out there. People like these songs for the same reason they like any song: because it sounds good and it’s fun to listen to. Whatever musical elements make up the song hit the pleasure center of their brain in an appealing way, while the lyrics connect with them on some level. There are other ways to listen to music and analyze its influences, the exact structure of the work, how the artists position themselves culturally, etc., but most of the people who listen to music hear a song and decide whether they like it or not based on how it immediately affects them. To the extent that they consider it critically, all of their thoughts are based on their initial reactions. Critics are not excluded from this, either. It’s impossible to write about music without taking your own enjoyment of it into consideration, and even if you could, why would you want to? Even if every song was really nothing but a group of components dispassionately assembled in a specific order to incite a certain reaction, the reaction would still be the culmination of the entire process. If you could actually hear to a song without experiencing it, it would cease to be the potentially life-altering experience it is now and would become nothing more than an unentertaining chore, a clinical dissection of an object you can’t even see. If music could be accurately criticized, no one would ever listen to it.

But no one listens to me, so I put it in this song

Another weird thing is that everybody already knows this to be true. We are, as a culture, so aware of the disconnect between our experience of music and the objective reality of it that we invented a new term in order to categorize art that we enjoy but simultaneously believe to be unworthy of enjoyment. A “guilty pleasure” is a piece of art that moves your body, your heart, even your soul, but which you feel you must, for some reason, distance yourself from. For various cultural reasons, there are some works that we feel must be held out at arm’s length, separate from ourselves, even as we embrace the effect the work has on us.  But why? It doesn’t work like that the other way around. If you encounter a piece of art that you critically determine to be worthy of praise, yet you yourself remain unmoved by it, you don’t place in a category meant to delegitimize it as a work (or at least you’re not supposed to). In fact, sometimes people will repeatedly expose themselves to a piece of art that they know they’re supposed to like, over and over, just to see if maybe they can trigger a single pleasurable experience. This is a fool’s errand, a life-wasting exercise in masochism, and it has lead to more bad takes than any other cultural practice. We could wipe out every obnoxiously contrarian “But What If It’s Actually Bad”-style think-piece in a week’s time if we stopped fetishizing the outdated idea of an artistic cannon. We’re never going to do this, of course, but it’s worth remembering that we could if we wanted to.

They tell me think with my head,
Not that thing in my chest
They got their hands on my neck this time

Drew Taggart, ever the poet, claims that “This Feeling” is about “being yourself and not giving a fuck what people think about you.” In the song, this is a reference to a romantic relationship, presumably a bad one — there are a few hints in the second verse that things between this couple are not ideal, but for the most part, we don’t get many details about the relationship itself, because the relationship isn’t important. What’s important is that this relationship makes the narrator feel good, while everyone around them insists that they’re making a mistake. The narrator’s response to this is incredibly human and unsurprisingly combative. If you’re being made to feel guilty about something that you experience as unambiguously positive, you essentially have two choices: completely abandon any illusion of agency within your own life and admit that your every decision is controlled by outside forces, or resolve to not give a fuck. This can admittedly be a somewhat imprudent attitude to adopt when navigating the emotional minefield of a romantic relationship — it is entirely possible that a friend who has your best interests in mind can examine your situation from a different point of view and offer up valuable advice. Sometimes, people want you to think with your head because your heart is being stupid. But the same reasoning doesn’t apply to music. After all, has anyone ever been convinced, by any argument of any scope and intelligence, that their favorite band is “actually bad?” Can you imagine what you would think if someone even tried to do that? Even if it was your best friend, the person’s who opinion you value most in the world, you probably wouldn’t give a fuck. Now imagine if it was some bozo writing an online culture magazine.

But you’re the one that I want,
And if that’s really so wrong
Then they don’t know what this feeling is like

“This Feeling” does not present a universally applicable maxim for living a truly fulfilled life. But it doesn’t have to do that; it’s a pop song. All it has to do is keep you entertained for about three minutes. It can be more than that, obviously. A truly exceptional pop song can stay with you for much longer, becoming so intertwined with your own personal experiences and memories that the song becomes a fixture of your life, an beacon of intense emotional power shining throughout the years to mark one single point of pure, iridescent joy. It can also be a neat thing to play at parties, or in your car. Music criticism can be interesting and even enlightening, but no amount of words will ever substitute a single experience like that. I’m not saying that we should stop talking about music altogether; again, even if that were actually a good idea, we’re never going to do it. I’m also not advocating for an anti-intellectual, gut feeling-driven philosophy or attitude, at least not when it comes to important things, like social justice or climate change. All I’m trying to say is: let’s not forget what we’re talking about here. This is a pop song. The entire chorus is the word “yeah” repeated about fifty times. It’s good and it’s fun to listen to, and if you disagree, I don’t give a fuck and I never will.

And I say:
Yeah-eah
Yeah-eah-eah-eah

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The Complete Videos: 2016

Don’t Let Me Down

The video for “Don’t Let Me Down (featuring Daya)” begins with Andrew Taggart and Alex Pall approaching a convertible parked on the side of a winding mountain road. In a series of quick shots, the two of them enter the car, start the engine, and begin to drive down the road, Pall in the driver’s seat, Taggart on the passenger side wearing a pair of enormous earphones, presumably so that he can block out the roar of the wind as it passes by and listen to his favorite song, which is quickly confirmed to be “Don’t Let Me Down” by the Chainsmokers (featuring Daya).

Here we are greeted by the first in a long sequence of questions: why was this very nice vintage convertible sitting seemingly-abandoned by the side of the road? As Pall and Taggart approach it, there is little sense that they are returning to a car they themselves have parked, but we are forced to assume that this car does, in fact, belong to them. But what were they doing outside the car? Since neither of them is carrying a camera, we can assume they weren’t taking pictures of the scenic view — maybe one (or both) of them need simply needed to urinate.

But even if these concerns can be swept aside, we must then grapple with this: why does Taggart think it is socially acceptable to listen to music on his headphones while on a long drive with his friend? The car must not have a working sound system, otherwise the two would simply listen to music together. But instead, Taggart has abandoned Pall to the painful isolation of a long car drive with no music and no one to talk to.

This monstrous betrayal will soon be the least of Taggart’s worries, however, as the video then cuts to a shot of a distressed-looking Daya, wandering through the marsh dressed in all black like an Instagram-ready sorceress of the lowlands. Moments later, she appears on the road, blocking the advance of Taggart and Pall. It’s a strange-enough sight on its own (enough that Taggart takes the drastic step of removing his headphones), but before they can react, four other young women materialize behind Daya and step out to flank her. Taggart and Pall, seemingly unfazed by this flagrant disregard for physics, get out of the car to investigate.

Receiving no answers from the silent phalanx of Snapchat witches, Taggart and Pall return to their car with no clear plan for dealing with this bizarre interruption of their trip, but they’ve barely sat down when something shocking happens: the car begins to move of its own volition, bouncing up and down like as if it were possessed by a set of enchanted hydraulics. And possessed it may be; while the car bucks and lurches, Daya and her coven perform a synchronized dance that looks for all the world like some manner of dark invocation.

The car moves backwards and forwards, seemingly at the whims of Daya and her dastardly cohort of enchantresses. We know not to what end Day has hexed this unbelievably primo automobile, only that she has full commands of its motions. All the while, Taggart and Pall stare on, their faces grim and unreadable. They seem neither shocked nor disturbed, almost as if this encounter was expected, maybe even… foretold?

The dance continues and the ancient machine’s movements grow wilder, threatening at times to fully toss Taggart and Pall from the car, until, impossibly, it happens: as her ritual reaches its climax, the car gives one final heave and Taggart and Pall are flung into the air. Suspended as if by a phantom thread, they float above the car, their expressions twisted into twin masks of shock and awe. Daya looks on as her companions slowly wind down their deadly jig. Her face betrays no feeling of satisfaction or relief, only a lingering sadness.

The video fades out, but only for a moment, before we are treated to a final image of Taggart and Pall, hours after their encounter with Daya, still suspended in the darkened firmament. The forest around them is alive with the sounds of the night, but they remain suspended in time, prisoners of the air, isolated from every other living creature. A cruel fate, yes, but perhaps not an undeserved one.

At the end, the message and meaning of all that’s come before is finally clear. Previous to the opening of the video, Taggart and Pall murdered Daya and transported her corpse in the trunk of their vintage convertible. After abandoning her body by a quiet mountain road, they attempt to return home — Taggat so overcome by guilt that he attempts, futilely, to block out the world with his music — only to encounter her forlorn spirit on the highway, watched over by a family of furious wraiths, ready to enact the only vengeance she can.

Technically, this makes “Don’t Let Me Down” the first (and so far only) murder ballad within the Chainsmokers cannon.

Closer

The “official” music video for “Closer” is notable for two reasons: the first is that even though this video is ostensibly a re-telling of the song’s very clear narrative, it focuses on the sexual activity between the central couple (portrayed by singers Andrew Taggart and Halsey) to such an extent that it becomes unbearably distracting. The two spend so much time writhing around with each other half-naked on top of a bed, either actually kissing or rubbing their faces up against one another, that it becomes impossible to think about anything other than the mechanics of filming these scenes. How long were they in this bed together? How well did they know each other before filming this video? Did they ever feel uncomfortable being so physically intimate and, if so, was there a point where it passed from awkwardness into utter tedium as their shooting day dragged on? Did either of them have bad breath? Things of this nature.

The second reason is that, despite containing the (allegedly) erotic sight of two nubile young performers canoodling, the “official” video has literally a fraction of the views as the lyric video. Directed by frequent collaborator Rory Kramer, this video (or “a Rory Kramer vision”, as the title cards identify it) has 2.1 billion views, while the Dano Cerny-directed second version, released three months later, has just over 276 million. Don’t let the absolutely staggering quantity of those views overwhelm you; while it may seem strange to refer to anything that has been viewed hundreds of millions of times as a ‘failure’, if your audience drops by 90% between installments, it’s hard to frame it as a win.

Now that we’ve got that out of the way: you should absolutely let the staggering quantity of those views overwhelm you. Putting aside the fact that even that 2.1 billion views only ranks it as the twentieth most-viewed video on YouTube, those are still magnificent numbers, and meaningful, too. Because “Closer” was one of the biggest songs of 2016, and while there were certainly plenty of people who threw the lyric video on in the background while their attentions were elsewhere, with over two billion views, it stands to reason that a sizable number of people actually watched the visuals. With that in mind, it’s worth considering how those visuals impact the way those viewers experienced the song.

To put it simply, the narrative of “Closer” the song and the narrative of Kramer’s video (sorry, “vision”) do not match up. The song is about two dysfunctional exes briefly reigniting a failed relationship out of a misplaced sense of nostalgia and overwhelming loneliness, while the lyric video, as much as it can be said to be “about” anything, is about two conventionally attractive young people in an apparently stable relationship reminiscing over some of the good times they’ve had, driving around in their Range Rover and frolicking in various scenic locales.

That’s not necessarily a problem in and of itself — Kramer’s job here was to create some pleasing visuals to play while the lyrics of the song flashed across the screen, and he certainly succeeded in that. What’s disconcerting is that the lyric video isn’t quite different enough from the song’s story to make the contrast as obvious as it should be. Like the song, the video depicts a couple looking back with fondness on the recent past, but skims over the song’s darker implications. If you weren’t paying attention — and again, plenty of this video’s viewers probably weren’t — this video might leave you with the impression that “Closer” is simply a song about nostalgia and being in love. Again, it’s not not about that, but this surface-level reading strips the song of all its drama and turns the chorus from an ironically anthemic statement of purpose into a genuinely romantic statement, completely inverting the songs meaning.

This is, in all likelihood, not something worth losing too much sleep over. There’s no reason to believe that the majority of the Chainsmokers fandom lacks the basic interpretive abilities necessary to understand the song’s intended meaning. But this isn’t really about those people; it’s about the public at large, who have for the most part already left the Chainsmokers in their cultural rearview. These are the people who heard this song on the radio so many times that it lost all meaning, and when they look back on it ten years from now, all they’ll remember is that initial rush of emotion they got when they first watched the video — a video which, on top of its other troubling aspects, promotes the blatantly false notion that the band’s name is spelled “Chainsmokres”.

I mean, come on.

All We Know

Like the more-successful version of the “Closer” video, “All We Know” is yet another “vision” from frequent Chainsmokers collaborator Rory Kramer, and while the video stands as one of the very few unqualified aesthetic successes in the group’s videography, it unfortunately contains a fundamental misalignment between subject and form that ultimately detracts from what might have been a solid entry in the cannon.

The song itself is about the most predictable follow-up to “Closer” that could have been released; lyrically, it displays a slightly more romantic reinterpretation of the themes of the previous song (to the point where it’s easy to imagine this as an epilogue to the story of “Closer”), while musically representing something of a retreat, suggesting a sort of soft alt-rock blend between the styles of “Closer” and “Don’t Let Me Down” while returning to the earlier (and “safer”) tactic of mixing Taggart’s vocals beneath those of a more-polished female singer, a la “Roses”. As a single, it didn’t pull the same numbers as “Closer,” but it was never going to; in hindsight, it seems insane that the Chainsmokers even tried to release another single in 2016.

As for the video, “All We Know” boasts a plot that manages to be both embarrassingly threadbare and crushingly sad; like, sad to the point that you don’t to watch it, or even really think about it. The bulk of the video revolves around footage captured via SnorriCam (also known as a “body-mount” or “the least obnoxious cinematic flourish in Requiem For A Dream”), documenting the story of a man who leaves his apartment after fighting with his girlfriend, meets the Chainsmokers in a liquor store, gets drunk outside a Wendy’s, throws some abandoned furniture into the street, then hitches a ride to the mountains where he watches the sunrise.

The moment that launches this dark night of the soul and sends our protagonist on a drunken sojourn through Los Angeles is handled in such a perfunctory manner that it doesn’t even appear on screen, but if you turn your volume all the way up during the twenty-two seconds of titles that roll over a black screen at the video’s beginning, you can hear the main character speaking to someone over the phone (his brother, I think?) who informs them that his (their?) dad has fallen ill and will probably die soon.

The fact that this incredibly depressing detail is not confirmed at any point during the body of the video (the brief exchange that the main character has with his girlfriend at the beginning is vague enough to suggest anything from a terminal illness to a breakup to a bad day at work) leaves open the possibility that it was a last-minute addition to the video, a cheap and transparent attempt to layer unearned meaning onto what would otherwise be nothing more than a particularly conceptual sizzle reel.

And here’s the thing: this video does look really cool; more than that, it’s an extremely accurately-filmed depiction of how it feels to be publicly drunk in a large urban area  — not so much in the exact details, but in the overall feeling of disorientation, the way you can quickly swing from feeling claustrophobically hemmed in by light and noise on all sides to feeling like the last person left alive on earth. Given the lyrical subject matter of “All We Know”, there was no reason that this video couldn’t have stood on its own without the dying-dad subplot, but we must remember that Rory Kramer is an artist, and the intentions of the artist are, ultimately, inscrutable.