Month: November 2018

The Chainsmokers Made A Song Called “Beach House” and Everybody Freaked Out

For the past year, the Chainsmokers have gone largely unnoticed by the music press. Sure, there were a few stray blog posts when “Sick Boy” was released, and there are some EDM-centric niche-music sites that will always cover them, but for the most part, nobody has been paying too much attention.

All of that changed on Friday morning with the release of the group’s latest single, “Beach House,” a Memories…Do Not Open-era throwback piece of melancholy dance-pop containing one reference (two if you count the title) to widely-acclaimed indie rock group Beach House. People didn’t just notice; to put it frankly, they went nuts. All across the internet, music journalists were falling over themselves to claim that the name of Beach House had been “sullied” and express their horror and disgust that the Chainsmokers would do something as crass and outrageous as, uh, name-check a less popular band.

To understand why this happened, you have to understand that, for most people, the Chainsmokers’ existence can be boiled down to three things: the existence of the song “#SELFIE,” the inescapability of their 2016 single “Closer,” and the infamous Billboard Magazine cover story that made Andrew Taggart and Alex Pall look like assholes. People’s irritation at “#SELFIE” is completely understandable; it’s a truly obnoxious song and such a blight on the band’s existence that they seem to genuinely regret ever releasing it.

But those second two data points are a little more complicated. It’s true that Taggart and Pall come across really, really poorly in that Billboard article, but the truth is that no one would even remember that article it if they hadn’t been forced to hear “Closer” on every mall speaker and car stereo they encountered in the final days of Summer ’16. People become annoyed and eventually resentful when they’re repeatedly exposed to the same song, even if they didn’t have any strong feelings about it originally. When that Billboard article came out, everyone seized upon it as a justification for their frustration: see, it’s not just the song that I don’t like, it’s the people that made the song! They’re just as bad as I hoped they’d be!

If they weren’t already primed to dislike the Chainsmokers, nobody would have cared that they said something obnoxious in an interview. Be honest, when was the last time you actually cared about Billboard Magazine?

In the public imagination, The Chainsmokers basically exist as a blank slate with an aura of douchiness surrounding them. No one really knows who they are, but everyone knows it’s okay to hate them; it’s expected, even, a perquisite opinion that must be demonstrated before you’re allowed to participate in the discourse. This is, I must assume, the one and only reason why the editors of Complex and Rolling Stone have never responded to any of my pitches. Unblock me, you cowards.

Because of their essential blankness, the Chainsmokers hold a unique capability to inspire criticism that does more to expose the personal idiosyncrasies of those writing about them than about the group themselves, and when Taggart and Pall stooped so low as to name-drop universally beloved dream-pop group Beach House, the music press did not disappoint.

Katherine Cusumano of W Magazine suggests adding Beach House to the long list of things the Chainsmokers have “ruined”, a list which in her estimation should include Halsey, as if Halsey were not constantly producing hit singles and did not remain a prominent cultural presence a half-decade into her career. Contrast this with the Chainsmokers, who exist entirely as fodder for snarky music journalists and solipsistic bloggers, and one begins to wonder just how exactly Cusumano believes that Halsey was “ruined.” Perhaps she was especially offended by the spectacle of Halsey’s duet with Taggart at the VMAs, but really, if anyone can watch that video and come away thinking Halsey is the one that looks bad, I honestly don’t know what to say. Halsey is doing fine. She was in A Star Is Born. She finally broke up with G-Eazy. There’s only bright days ahead.

Julian Marszalek, writing the UK’s 20th most-visited music news website, provocatively dubs the Chainsmokers “dance music’s populist equivalent to Donald Trump”, explaining that both Trump and the Chainsmokers “are given to dubious pronouncements and an output based on the lowest common denominator”, as if the most notable thing about Donald Trump is that he acts like a celebrity and not his bald-faced fascism or destructive enabling of Republican policies. The Chainsmokers giving a nod to Beach House is, to Marszalek, “a bit like Trump endorsing CNN as a worthy and reputable news source.” Blimey! Watch out, Dennis Miller, there’s a new king of political zingers in town, and he’s coming straight from across the pond with an absolutely “daft” collection of “critical slings and arrows” to rain upon the Chainsmokers, those would-be dispensers of “arse-clenching platitudes and second-rate chat up lines that would get you laughed out of Love Island and forced through an autotuner just to give it that added dimension of utterly meaningless toss.” You tell ’em, bruv. Also: what is wrong with you?

Randall Colburn of the A.V. Club – hey, did you know that the A.V. Club is still publishing articles? Crazy, right? – refers to the Chainsmokers as “the Alpha Betas of EDM” who make music “to slam nerds into lockers to”. If it weren’t for the unrealistic John Hughes-style depiction of high school on display here, I would be absolutely certain Colburn is reliving the personal trauma of being bullied in high school by electronic music producers, because there is nothing in the Chainsmokers’ music that supports the image of aggressive tormentor he imagines them to be. The music of the Chainsmokers primarily addresses the topics of falling in love, having sex, and being sad, which could be said of nearly every popular music artist in the past century. They don’t even really make music about going out to clubs or any typical frat-guy activities: they made a song with Coldplay, for God’s sake, the least aggressive act to perform at the Super Bowl Half-Time Show since Up With People. And yet Colburn feels enough disgust at the idea of these imaginary Budweiser-swigging jocks that he, like Marszalek, draws a connection between the Chainsmokers and Donald Trump, suggesting that they might be regular visitors to the noxious and conspiratorial sub-reddit r/The_Donald. The Chainsmokers are not simply producers of disposable pop music:  they are trollish enemies of democracy, unscrupulous criminal thugs, and, potentially, political operatives working under the orders of Vladimir Putin.

The centerpiece of this breathless coverage is undoubtedly Jillian Mapes’ piece for Pitchfork, a histrionic piece of high snobbery and psychological projection with the winkingly melodramatic title of “Beach House Are the Chainsmokers’ Type of Thing and I Kind of Want to Die.” In it, Mapes refers to the Chainsmokers as “the AXE Body Spray of modern music,” an insult that only works if the reader is old enough to remember when AXE Body Spray was a cultural touchstone, and accuses the group of “listening to their friends’ Malibu McMansions and calling it music”, which reads like the rough draft for an actual joke.

Unlike Beach House, a band that has “redefined the concept of ‘vibey’ music by honing a specific sound and not striving for mass appeal,” the Chainsmokers are trust-funder frat-boys who work out at Equinox and say things like “bitches be crazy”. Worst of all, they don’t even get Beach House, man – and how could they? Beach House is “music for space travel” that possesses an “intangible blend of moody mystery and the warm glow of nostalgia.” Mapes seems to believe that the closest the Chainsmokers could get to this level of deep understanding is a soundalike Spotify playist of Beach House music they put on when a “quirky” girl comes over, a detail so specifically venomous that there’s no way that exact thing didn’t happen to her in real life.

I don’t want to harp too much on Mapes’ piece – for one, accusing Pitchfork of being elitist is about as played-out as clowning on the Chainsmokers for being a couple of dumb bros – but more importantly, Mapes at least acknowledges the real issue at play, for her and the rest of the writers who spent Friday morning working themselves into an angry froth while attempting to appear aloof: she hates the guys in the Chainsmokers and can’t stand the idea of them liking the same music that she does.

“If you grew up listening to underground music,” she writes, “seeing someone who embodies everything you hate like an indie band you love still has the power to annoy you.” This is a thoroughly relatable emotion, and not just for people who grew up listening to “underground music” (?) – I spent most of my adolescence listening to Billy Joel, Fall Out Boy, and plenty of other acts that aren’t even lame enough to be ironically interesting, and even I know all too well the pain of seeing a sworn enemy attach themselves to a piece of pop culture that I love.

It’s not hard to understand how this happens: if you invest a significant amount of your personal identity into the culture you consume (as is the case for the majority of people who choose to write about music for a living), seeing someone who disgusts you claiming that culture as their own feels like an intrusion upon your identity, like an infection from a foreign contaminant that must be isolated and expelled. It’s a fundamentally juvenile reaction and it makes the ridiculous mistake of attaching a moral dimension to the act of listening to certain bands, but I could never judge someone for falling victim to it, not when that same ugly creature lurks so close to the surface of my own personality – not when I’m sitting here right now, typing a 1,600 word defense of the newest single by the fucking Chainsmokers – but all the same, it’s a little embarrassing to see it coming from people who actually get paid to do this stuff.

Emily Warren: Live at Rough Trade

Emily Warren occupies a unique space within the music industry. She’s spent the last four years as an extremely prolific songwriter, collaborating on high-profile songs with some of the biggest names in pop music and even appearing as a featured performer on several occasions. Her writing is sharp and emotionally insightful, but her strong pop sensibilities always shine through with big, radio-friendly hooks.

At the same time, her debut album Quiet Your Mind, released last month, would be more at home on the alternative charts than almost anything else she’s done. The songs all have the high level of polish you would expect based on her previous work, but the actual content mostly hews closer to indie rock than to anything like “New Rules” or “High Five.” Another unorthodox aspect of her career is her association with the Chainsmokers, a close working relationship that far exceeds her investment in any of the other artist she’s worked with. Warren at times seems to be single-handedly driving the duo’s evolution from faceless EDM producers into a legitimate musical group, one well-written song at a time.

With all this in mind, I had one question going into her concert at Rough Trade in Williamsburg: what was the crowd going to be like? This is something I think before arriving at most concerts, and often the answer turns out almost comically predictable (two highly personal examples: Mountain Goats shows are packed wall to wall with sad young queers, many of whom are likely practicing Wiccans, while Magnetic Fields performances are so completely stacked with bespectacled English majors that I almost felt I was being made fun of), but this one was particularly mysterious, given that Warren’s big-name collaborations combined with her still-nascent solo career make her exact level of fame difficult to discern.

Rough Trade is an intimate venue — the performance space is actually in the rear of an independent record store, but the whole building has those wonderful high ceilings that you can only get on the far outskirts of Brooklyn — but the show sold out so quickly that two further blocks of tickets were opened up in the week leading up to the show. Even as the crowd filled in and I found myself crammed shoulder-to-shoulder with a mass of fans in front of the stage, understanding continued to elude me. Who were all these people? There were easily hundreds of them; surely they couldn’t all be running an obnoxiously self-referential Chainsmokers fan blog.

The short answer, which hit me as soon as Warren began her first number (“Something To Hold On To”) to wild cheers and everyone around me began to sing along, is simple: the audience was filled with people who have, one way or another, come to discover Emily Warren’s music and found something meaningful in it. People who had already fallen in love with the music of Quiet Your Mind and were here to see those songs performed live. In other words: fans.

The longer answer is a bit more complicated, but not in a bad way.

Before we get to that, let me back up: the opening act for the evening was Annika Zee, a Canadian-born multimedia-artist/musician who produces the exact kind of dreamy and atmospheric music that you could imagine being set against a projection of an experimental short film, or serving as the soundtrack for a confusing modern dance performance. Not in a bad way, to be clear: Zee’s music is endlessly intriguing, alternating between soothing soundscapes and controlled chaos. A song built around a simple drum loop and a spacey synth will be suddenly pierced by a confrontational vocal that sets your hair on edge. Again, not in a bad way. Zee also has the sort of casually commanding stage presence that you might expect from an artist who maintains full control of her work, from writing and production all the way down to visuals and cover art.

Warren was similarly at ease on stage, though she brought a more openly giddy energy to her performance. Warren was exceedingly grateful to the audience from almost the first moment, enthusiastically commenting on the size of the crowd and reacting with infectious joy when she realized how many people had already memorized the lyrics to her songs. Backed by a four-person bad, Warren sang every song on Quiet Your Mind, and while there were no notable deviations from the album arrangements, her vocals were given considerably more room to shine than they do on the album.

Warren has a unique voice, powerfully emotive with a sharp edge and crisp annunciation, closer to a jazz crooner than the sort of pop star she usually writes for. It isn’t that her vocals are buried or obscured on record, but even while her lovely falsetto is on full display throughout the album’s eleven tracks, some of her voice’s more interesting qualities remain obscured. My favorite of Warren’s vocal performances is actually “Until You Were Gone,” her first outing with the Chainsmokers, where she burns through the vocal line with an abandon that she’s rarely matched since, letting the edges of her voice fray in a manner that matches the driving force of the music. The quieter tones of Quiet Your Mind suggest that she’s not currently interested in that style of singing, which is fine, but it was still exciting to hear her sing live and be reminded of how bracingly powerful her voice really is.

In what was a real treat for those of us depraved enough to consider ourselves “Top 40 nerds”, Warren performed an acoustic medley of some of the songs she had written for other artists, including “New Rules,” “High Five”, “Capsize,” and, of course, “Don’t Let Me Down.” This was followed shortly thereafter by a full-band performance of her Chainsmokers-assisted summer single, “Side Effects,” which featured a surprise appearance by Andrew Taggart, who danced onto the stage holding two full tequila shots before performing the background vocals during the song’s breakdown. Taggart followed this cameo with a heartfelt speech commemorating Emily’s accomplishments (during which he referred to her as “the third Chainsmoker,” which suggests that I was at least on the right track when I wrote this piece back in April).

It was a show filled with good vibes and affable stage banter, suggesting that Warren was incredibly comfortable with the crowd, for reasons that became clear as the night went on. New York City is Waren’s hometown, so this performance (which she humorously referred to as the second stop in a two-show tour) was a sort of homecoming, and that was reflected in the audience. Aside from the family and VIPs cordoned off in the balcony around the performance space, there were quite a few of Warren’s friends packed into the front of the crowd, a fact to which I was ignorant until several of them joined her onstage for a recreation of the choreography in the “Poking Holes” video.

Undoubtedly, the proximity of so many loved ones contributed to Warren’s comfort on the stage, which transformed even minor errors — choking on the first line of a song, spilling her drink over her setlist, her microphone somehow coming unplugged — into utterly charming moments. It’s a rare pleasure to see an artist perform in their home town; Hanif Abdurraqib once theorized that the anticipation of leaving the concert and getting to fall into their own beds inspires performers to leave it all on the stage. Emily Warren may have been playing with a home field advantage, but the musical skill and engaging stage presence she demonstrated last night were certainly no fluke. Watching a performance like this, one can hardly disagree with Taggart’s prediction that she has plenty of similarly successful shows in her future.