Author: Jason Edwards

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Closer

By any practical method of determining success, “Closer” is a massively popular song, but only one metric points to the reason that it is a truly important song: “Closer” is the third most-played song of all time on Spotify.

Much like chart success, an abnormally high amount of streams doesn’t necessarily signify quality — “rockstar”, Post Malone’s charmless ode to “poppin’ pillies [sic]” currently holds the number ten spot on Spotify’s all-time list, and right at the top is “Shape Of You” by Ed Sheeran, a bafflingly unsexy song about having odorous intercourse after stuffing your face at a Chinese buffet. It is nearly impossible to imagine anyone looking back fondly on either of these songs ten years from now, much less still listening to them — but “Closer” is different. The popularity of “Closer” may be driven by the same factors that continually push Justin Bieber’s underwhelming singles to the top of the charts, but the song itself is striking, unique and emotionally resonant in a way that will ensure it remains relevant long after the era it typified has passed.

Spotify is a relatively new platform for music distribution and the majority of its users fall between the ages of 18 and 34; broadly speaking, the people who determine a song’s popularity on Spotify fall under the generational demographic of “millennial,” a much-abused term that is nonetheless a useful signifier.

We can therefor reasonably determine that “Closer” is a song that connected with millennials to a high degree, but that hardly makes it special or worthy of praise — again, Ed Sheeran. Still, “Closer” is unusual among the other most-streamed song on Spotify because, broadly speaking, it’s not a song you can dance to. It’s not a song about having a good time or living in the moment or anything else that would make it suitable for a party playlist thrown together by a casual music listener. It’s a lyrically dense narrative about two former lovers reconnecting after several years apart. If people (specifically, millennials) are connecting with this song, it’s because they relate to the story being told.

The key to making something feel universally relatable is, somewhat paradoxically, to ground it in highly specific details that lend the story a degree of verisimilitude. Andrew Taggart and co-writer Shaun Frank sprinkle the verses of “Closer” with small-but-believable character notes, such as the couple’s shared love of a Blink-182 (particularly one song whose name escapes them both) or an off-handed reference to one character’s drinking problem (which is probably a lot worse than he’s willing to admit). This sharp writing, combined with the very different but equally distinctive singing styles of Taggart and guest vocalist Halsey, creates a strong impression of two unique characters telling the same story from separate points-of-view; but, as is usually the case, the chorus is really what takes it to the next level.

In lieu of a more straightforward account of the couple’s re-ignited passion, the chorus spills out in a series of images that paint an impressionistic picture of two young people living a semi-transient life in 21st century America. Both of them seem to be dissatisfied with their place in life — details are sparse regarding the character voiced by Taggart, but what little we get is buried under enough layers of self-deception to suggest a deep-seated angst–but it’s the female partner, portrayed by Halsey, that gets the most vivid description.

She drives a car that was purchased for her by her parents, suggesting the sort of privilege and unearned wealth that are among the negative associates usually hurled at millennials — but she also stole mattress from her roommate, a crime so specific and unglamorous hat there’s no way it was committed out of anything other than sheer need. Her parents may be rich, but her life is such a mess that she can’t afford her own bed, much less a new car, and she’s bouncing around from one city to another, completely unmoored from any job or personal relationship that might hold her in one place.

This specific situation is unfamiliar to large swaths of American youth in a variety of ways, but the feeling it conveys is universal, particularly to the millennials. The characters in this song were born into a life where they were promised unlimited success, only to find when they came of age that the deck was heavily stacked against them. Yes, they’ve made some mistakes of their own — the ill-conceived hook-up that forms the basis of the song’s narrative seems like only the latest in a long list of poor decisions — but their flaws only serve to make them more relatable. They’re not angelic ciphers undone by the cruelties of fate, they’re real people struggling against a world that seems to see-saws wildly between indifference and outright malice.

We live in a society where public figures would rather paint an entire generation as lazy and entitled than take a moment to examine whether rampant under-employment and widespread malaise are the result of something more systemic; hearing a pop song that even glancingly acknowledges that reality is cathartic, and when that message is paired with the even more universally-relatable feelings that come after the end of a romantic relationship, the reason behind this song’s massive popularity seems pretty clear.

This brings us to the song’s central refrain, “We ain’t never getting older,” which functions as a sort of lyrical rorschach test: if you’re feeling uncharitable towards the characters in the song (or the people who wrote it the song, or the people you imagine enjoying it), you can dismiss this sentiment as wishful thinking, a painfully naive sentiment that could only come from a couple of drunk twenty-somethings high on the false immortality of youth. And if that’s how you feel, you’re (sort of) missing the point. This lyric is meant to be meaningless and empty, because it reflects the inner life of two characters who feel that their lives lack meaning.

This isn’t the satire defense, wherein someone writes a dumb pop song, only to backpedal and claim that they were actually making fun of dumb pop songs — Jewel pulled this move in a spectacular fashion, but Halsey herself deserves honorable mention for “New Americana” — it’s perfectly clear that we’re not meant to hear the refrain and scoff at its foolishness. The Chainsmokers and Halsey are simply acknowledging the inherent contradiction of all songs that glorify youth: it feels great to be young, but it can’t last forever.

The giddy rush of youth is infectious, but it eventually runs out. All the stuff that seemed fun and cool starts to look ridiculous and a little sad as you mature. Everybody knows this — even people in their early twenties can look back on their teen years and shake their heads in embarrassment. It’s ridiculous to assert that the writers of this song, or even the people in it, don’t understand this. The refrain is a concise and anthemic encapsulation of the self-defeating yet irresistible battle cry of youth. It strikes the perfect balance, allowing us to feel the same addictive feelings of immortality as the characters in the song, while never letting us forget that what they’re feeling is ultimately a fantasy.

“Closer” is about two people choosing to live in the moment, but the song’s final contradiction is that the moment they were living in was objectively terrible. Not just for the characters in the song; “Closer” was released in summer 2016, in the midst of a politically and socially tumultuous period that, unbeknownst to anyone of us, would only become more unhinged as the year drew to a close. Trying to escape from a world that doesn’t make sense, while desperately avoid the knowledge that it’s going to be even worse tomorrow; is there a feeling that better captures America in 2016?

“Closer” will forever be a song of its time, but that’s okay; that’s what pop songs are supposed to be. When music historians or future filmmakers are looking for a song that symbolizes our present era, they’ll turn to this song; but more importantly, so will the people who lived through it. In that way, this song will live forever, suspended for eternity in a state of perpetual youth. What a terrible fate; what a beautiful, terrible fate.

The Same Old Dance: 3OH!3 & The Perils of Over-Analysis

Not long ago I came to the realization that, as of this year, 3OH!3’s second album is a full decade old. At first, this flash of understanding induced little more than a momentarily flinch, just one more drop in a endless cascade of reminders that I am slowly beginning to age out of relevance. But the longer I dwelled on it, the more it began to trouble me.

After further reflecting on the ten years that have passed since 3OH!3 released Want and stepped onto the world stage, I was determined to re-evaluate what originally drew me to their music. Because I was obsessed with 3OH!3. This obsession didn’t last longer than a few months, but I was deeply committed to it. In my pre-torrent days, I was forced to download their album one track at a time from LimeWire or KaZaa — I don’t remember which one I was using in 2008 — and I pieced it together with care and dedication, even snagging a low-fidelity file of “Tapp,” the album’s abrasive instrumental intro track. I spent more time thinking about this band than anyone living outside the Denver area code that was their namesake.

3OH!3’s popularity was the single biggest accomplishment of anyone associated with the aborted alt-rock spin-off “crunkcore,” a genre that combined all the least attractive elements of emo, hip-hop and EDM into a musical movement that feels, in hindsight, like the musical embodiment of an embarrassing yearbook photo.

Crunkcore bands invariably wore the sort of dark, bang-centric hairstyle that you’ll recognize if you had a MySpace account or attended a rock concert any time during George W. Bush’s second term. They had the intense, in-your-face attitudes of white people ironically appropriating rap lingo, and when they sang (which was rare) they all sounded like the guy from Panic! At The Disco on his worst day. They had their appeal, but none them made anything you could feel good about listening to unless you were under the age of fourteen.

It wasn’t the style of 30H3’s music or their frat-bro personas that captivated me, though; I listened to their music for the moments when the braggadocious facade would crumble and the lyrics would turn introspective and self-critical. These moments were often brief and disorienting, starkly emotional and honest in comparison to the machismo-fueled party anthems that dominated the album. The drum and bass would fade away, replaced by mellow piano chords and a sense that, at the center of all this hedonistic excess and noise, there was an emptiness that couldn’t be filled.

The second song on Want, “PunkBitch”, is seemingly designed to annoy from the title onward. The music is aggressive, with loud, buzzing synths blasting over a skittering, third-rate trap beat, while the brain-dead lyrics are shouted with a Lil Jon affect that stops just short of being a full-on Dave Chapelle sketch.

There seems, briefly, to be a suggestion that all this is meant to be funny: “When I come up in the club, I’m talkin’ mad shit/Come up in the club, I’m ‘bout to get my ass kicked,” indicates, if not a firm grasp of irony, then at least a modicum of self-awareness. But if this is supposed to be a joke, the punchline never comes; not in this song, not in any of the songs afterwards. There are times when the duo’s delivery is positively Sandbergian, but this is not Lonely Island. This isn’t even LMFAO.

But after two iterations of the hook (“We datin’ mad models/And poppin’ mad bottles tonight”), the song shifts gears completely. Over a stripped-down version of the beat, 3OH!3 sings an inscrutable but identifiably regretful bridge, before a new refrain kicks in:

You put my picture in a box it was the one inside your locket
What happened to the keys that used to jingle in your pocket?
Your fingers say to come, but your eyes say I should stop it
If I regret all I’ve done I would be trapped inside that locket

It’s not much on the page. It probably wouldn’t be much to hear now, if you’d never heard it before. But the first time I listened to this song, this second refrain captured my thoughts to the degree that I can still recite it from memory. I have had those words bouncing around my head for nearly one-third of my time on earth.

In the context of what I expected to be a mindless and catchy song built around recycled hype-man dialogue, these words seemed almost poetic in their obscurity. We have no idea who the narrator is addressing here, nor do we know the significance of the jangling keys that echo in the halls of his mind, or exactly why this locket is powerfully symbolic to him. If you squint, it suggests that the all the partying and poor behavior of the first two verses is a response to the end of a relationship, but the details remain just out of reach. We know that the narrator has a complex inner life, but any deeper understanding of his motivations are withheld from us.

There are other examples: the ballad “Still Around” alludes to the destruction of Sodom & Gomorrah and directly addresses the issue of mortality, while “Colorado Sunrise” devotes an entire song to a celebration of the protagonist’s self-destructive lifestyle while acknowledging the moments of romance and even beauty that can still exist with in it. The lyrics of “I Can’t Do It Alone” are almost explicit in their depiction of barely-restrained heartbreak and misery hidden behind a veil of what you could charitably call “light misogyny”.

 

Even in “Don’t Trust Me”, the band’s single biggest hit, the obnoxious refrain of “don’t trust a ho/never trust a ho” is affixed with the dependent clause, “‘cause a ho won’t trust me” — once again seeming to imply that this raucous and unsavory lifestyle is in response to a perceived slight or abandonment. It doesn’t make the members of 3OH!3 seem more likable, but it does make them seem damaged in an interesting way — or, at least, damaged in a way that might be interesting if you took the time to really consider it.

Perhaps you see where I’m going with this.

None of us is entirely free from ourselves; we are all, in our own way, slave to the patterns that we have developed autonomously or had instilled in us. A key aspect of emotional maturity is the willingness to examine one’s own behavior, so as to learn more about oneself and, hopefully, break free from our harmful cyclical behaviors. So please, give it the full weight of your consideration when I say with absolute sincerity that I do not believe the Chainsmokers to be the 3OH!3 of 2018.

Even if you believe both groups to be of comparable quality — I do not, but you might disagree — their approach to music is blatantly different. 3OH!3 has never altered their lyrical style or attempted to expand the scope of their songwriting: ten years on, they’re still writing dumb-yet-catchy pop-rap songs about cheating on their girlfriends. By the release of their third album, Streets Of Gold, any trace of soul or inner conflict had been scrubbed neatly away, and they’ve never looked back.

And while their lyrics have gotten sharper and their music has become noticeably less grating, they’re still adolescent enough to build a chorus around the phrase, “If our shit’s so bad, why’s your sister trying to fuck us?”, a lyric that scans as funny at first, until you imagine it being written on Facebook by your high school friend that’s been trying to get his music career off the ground since ‘06. 3OH!3 is that high school friend, on a generational scale — while the rest of us moved away, 3OH!3 stayed in their hometown and never stopped acting like teenagers.

The Chainsmokers have released their share of bad songs, but it would dishonest to say that they haven’t evolved at least a bit: they went from novelty songs about social media to nostalgic love songs to solipsistic piano-pop to an ongoing critique of fame in the time of Instagram. The Chainsmokers may have gotten famous for one terrible song, but 3OH!3 is the band the Chainsmokers would be if they never stopped making “#SELFIE.”

Importantly, 3OH!3 isn’t a band to be enjoyed in posterity. It will be impossible, and already is for many of us, to look back on 3OH!3’s music and feel anything but mild-to-moderate shame. The Chainsmokers, on the other hand, have devoted a good chunk of their career to making songs intended to evoke the feelings of nostalgia, thus ensuring that their music will trigger an even stronger dose of those feelings when you encounter it years later.

Your mileage may vary as to how successful they were — except for “Closer.” “Closer” is unimpeachable, a song that perfectly captured the feeling of the time in which it was made. It may not make it onto any greatest-hits compilations, but when you hear “Closer” twelve years from now, you will wince and clutch your chest — but not in an entirely unpleasant way — and you will think, “oh my God, 2016 was such a fucking long time ago.”

That may not be much. But it’s more than you can say for 3OH!3.

Somebody

While it’s not an overt departure from the group’s established style, “Somebody” represents a minor but critical shift in how the Chainsmokers utilize their guest vocalists. In the past, any performer featured on a Chainsmokers song either dominated the entire track (“Something Just Like This,” “Don’t Let Me Down”), had their vocals mixed in with Taggart’s (“Roses,” “All We Know”) or functioned as back-up singers (“Paris,” “The One”). The biggest exception is “Closer,” which was structured as a more classically styled duet between two performers who come together to sing the chorus. “Somebody” marks the first time that the Chainsmokers have deployed a guest vocalist in the manner of a typical pop performer: Taggart performs the verses but hands the chorus over to Drew Love, the same way a rapper might recruit a singer for an attempted cross-over hit.

This tells us a few things. The first and most obvious is that the Chainsmokers consider themselves performers with their own particular style (or “brand,” if you must) which must be present in some form throughout all of their songs, and Taggart’s vocals are a part of that brand. Taggart and Pall are currently attempting to move away from their identity as producers, so it makes sense that they would follow the same rules as any other pop star. Ariana Grande or Jason DeRulo would never release a single from which their own voices were completely absent; even Pitbull, who famously contributed about 20% of the vocals to his hit “Hey Baby”, still makes his presence felt, even if he only appears briefly.

The second thing that we can glean from this decision is a subtle dash of humility, a rare quality in the world of the Chainsmokers. By handing the song’s chorus off to a singer with a more powerful and expressive voice than his own, Taggart is, on some level, admitting that there are things he cannot do as a vocalist. This is bad news for fans of Schadenfreude, people who only care about the Chainsmokers when they can watch them totally botch a performance on live television, but it’s good news for fans of the band’s music or anyone interested their ongoing creative evolution. Drew Love’s appearance demonstrates that Taggart will not stretch himself too far beyond his limits, and that both he and Pall are still aware of how working with a guest vocalist can open up new possibilities for their music.

After “Somebody”, it’s not impossible to imagine the Chainsmokers releasing another song like “Something Just Like This”, where their own creative identity is partially or completely subsumed by another performer — but unless they score another name as big as Coldplay, it doesn’t seem likely.

Lyrically, “Somebody” is a song about the false promise of happiness that comes with success and the ongoing struggle to not succumb to devastation once you discover it was all an illusion. The song’s subject matter is unsurprising  in our current cultural moment, where the spiritual emptiness of fame is an expected, even formulaic subject matter for any artist who wants to develop a critique of modern life. But until “Somebody,” Taggart and Pall had yet to release this sort of song, and now that they have, it adds yet another dimension to their current artistic project.

Ever since the Chainsmokers dropped “Sick Boy” and revealed that they are, for lack of a better term, “pulling an 808s & Heartbreak” (also known as “going full Drake”), it’s been only a matter of time before we got a song like “Somebody”. “Sick Boy,” their first single of 2018, was more a declaration of intent than a fully formed creative statement. “You Owe Me” was a modern take on critics and fandom; “Everybody Hates Me” was specifically about the pressures of being famous in the digital age. “Somebody,” on the other hand, tackles the timeless signifiers of success: “fancy cars, crowded bars and supermodels.” The song addresses the dangers of entering into a world where your every wish is attended to, and how the addiction to that kind of lifestyle can corrupt and consume a person’s sense of self.

Interestingly, the Chainsmokers seem mostly unworried with regards to the moral rot or emotional turmoil that fame can bring; rather, their primary concern is the loss of the individual identity. You can hear this in the refrain, “I don’t really like anybody/So don’t tell me I’m like anybody else”; the narrator is deeply anxious about are losing themselves to this new world, and he responds to that feeling with aimless, unfocused aggression. This behavior is consistent with the psychological concept of ‘displacement’, wherein the subject is unable to confront or process the actual source of their distress and often ends up scapegoating another person or group of people. In this case, the singer is scared and angry about the possibility is losing his personality (and, perhaps, his soul) to these new temptations, but he ends up directing this aggression outward, towards the people he believes have already succumb to the hazards of worldliness. He may say “I don’t really like anybody,” but really, he doesn’t like himself.

This much is obvious when Taggart sings, seemingly in second-person, “You should’ve known better/than to listen to your heart again.” At first, this line scans as another lyric about a failed relationship. But when read in conjunction with the chorus, it becomes clear that the singer is referring to the morally questionable choices he has made in this new world of material pleasures. The heart — or, rather, the part of the mind driven by sentimental notions of goodness and love — the thing that we often rely upon as a morally sound guide through this confusing and dangerous world, might in fact be the thing that lead us astray to begin with. It is, to put it lightly, a disquieting notion, and among the most chillingly dark lyrics that the Chainsmokers have produced to date.

The Fifth Chainsmoker

One of the most fascinating things about the Chainsmokers is the way they meaningfully integrate contemporary technology like cell phones and social media into their work. Their interest in this subject stretches all the way back to “#SELFIE”, but that song is, to be generous, a little shallow. It does capture some of the everyday absurdity that comes with maintaining a public image online, but to no real end — aside from mocking its female protagonist for her supposed vanity.

But in the group’s recent work, beginning with Memories… Do Not Open and continuing into their current run of singles, the Chainsmokers have learned to fold these references into their subject matter organically. Their songs casually reference cell phones as modern life’s most ubiquitous device while also addressing the sense of profound alienation that technology can create, and this stylistic evolution would simply not be possible without the work of singer-songwriter Emily Warren.

Warren first collaborated with the Chainsmokers on 2015’s “Until You Were Gone,” but she didn’t actually meet the group in person until they co-wrote “Don’t Let Me Down” (along with Warren’s frequent collaborator Scott Harris¹), the group’s massively successful follow-up to “Roses” that solidified their position as reliable hit-makers. Right away, we can see Warren’s impact on the group in terms of sheer survival. If not for the success of “Don’t Let Me Down,” the second act of the Chainsmokers’ career might have ended prematurely, and the world would have been denied their two most significant contributions to American culture: the song “Closer” and that one Instagram post where Drew is helping Alex with his resistance training.

Even before her collaboration with the Taggart and Pall really started to heat up, Warren was already a proven talent in the music industry, writing songs for Fifth Harmony, Shawn Mendes, James Blunt and many others. Much of this work is very good and most of it is deserving of discussion regarding the creative development of a singular talent, but two songs in particular point the way towards the subject matter she would later explore in-depth: “No Filter” by Britt Nicole and “Phone Down” by DJ duo Lost Kings, featuring vocals from Warren herself.

“No Filter” is a song about two people in a dying relationship who still feel the need to pretend everything is fine. It’s tried and true subject matter for a sad pop song, but Warren gives it a modern touch by framing the couple’s superficial happiness around the pictures they post online. The verses reveal details of the couple’s life (“I think we got the perfect shot/You’d never know at dinner, we didn’t even talk”), while the chorus draws a direct parallel between their personal unhappiness (“And what we let the whole world see/Isn’t really you and me”) and the more broadly relatable issue of the pressure people feel to present a certain type of image online (“We always put a filter on/To try to cover up the flaws”).

It’s an interesting idea, but it ends up being too vague to really connect. The details of the couple’s life, while realistic, lack the specificity needed to be truly compelling, and the song itself, with all due respect to Britt Nicole, ends up being a bit of a drag. But if “No Filter” ends up falling short of its lofty goals, it’s still hard to get too down on it; Warren was addressing a massive, unwieldy topic here, so it’s not surprising that the end result is a bit awkward.

More fun (and far more successful) is “Phone Down,” a song that should resonate with anyone who’s ever had to compete with a cell phone for someone’s attention. Unlike “No Filter,” “Phone Down” doesn’t use cell phones or social media as a metaphor for anything; this is quite literally a song about the frustration of having a quiet, romantic moment ruined by the appearance of a glowing blue screen in your partner’s hand.

Warren is no luddite. This isn’t a song about how we should all toss our phones into the sea and live free from society’s influence; it’s just an acknowledgment that some aspects of modern technology have intruded on our personal lives in unique ways. That it believably builds this story around a dance track with a cathartic hook is a testament to Warren’s talents as both songwriter and performer, two skillets that would prove equally valuable when she collaborated with the Chainsmokers on their debut album.

Emily Warren is the first voice you hear on Memories… Do Not Open, providing background vocals for “The One,” one of four songs on the album that she co-wrote. In addition to providing vocal support on this and three other songs (including “Paris”), Warren uses her writerly instincts to helps Taggart sharpen the self-loathing artistic persona that he’s been developing since “Closer” and contributes lines such as “Let’s go, let’s end this/I delete before I send it/And we can play pretend like we haven’t reached the end yet,” which seamlessly and relatable incorporate cell phone imagery into the narrative of an impending break-up.

Aside from helping set the tone of the entire record and expanding its sonic palette with her own unique voice, Warren’s presence provides a much-needed sense of balance. Since much of the album’s lyrics concern self-destructive men and the women in their lives, it’s incredibly helpful to have Warren singing a song like “My Type” from the point of view of a woman who finds herself inevitably attracted to this very same subset of unreliable partners.

A song like “Honest,” with its morally shady late-night confessions hedged by claims of internal conflict, could not exist without a song like “Don’t Say,” which is explicitly about not accepting these sort of of excuses and features the cutting refrain “Don’t say you’re human/Don’t say it’s not your fault”. If someone finds the pop-emo stylings of Memories distasteful, no one song is going to win them over, but Warren’s presence stretches over more than a third of the album’s run-time and prevents it from being fully consumed by a black hole of self-obsession.

Warren is credited as co-writer on all three singles that the Chainsmoker’s have released in 2018. Her razor-sharp writing instincts are now fully integrated with the group’s surprising musical evolution, producing some of the most unexpected and fascinating songs of the year. Removed from the novelty of its initial release, “Sick Boy” still contains the indelible couplet “Feed yourself on my life’s work/How many likes is my life worth”, an absolutely classic Warren line that scans as mildly clever on its own but is somehow attains great power when sung by an artist who many people would dismiss as disposable. “You Owe Me” is a darkly modern twist on the classic middle-finger-to-critics style of song, and “Everybody Hates Me” is such a perfect encapsulation of the group’s entire aesthetic that it’s hard to imagine where they can even go from here.

The influence of Warren’s artistry extends far beyond her work with Taggart and Pall. She co-wrote the massively popular Dua Lipa song “New Rules” and Charli XCX’s critically-acclaimed single “Boys”, and the work she’s released as a solo performer demonstrates that she’s certainly a performer to watch in her own right. But her ongoing collaboration with the Chainsmokers is a perfect pairing of creators, each of them elevating and expanding the scope of the other’s work. As the group continues their transition from DJ duo to pop stars, Warren is their most consistent and vital collaborator and an irreplaceable talent. If George Martin was the fifth Beatle, then Emily Warren is the fifth Chainsmoker.²

1. Harris, by the way, wrote Stephen Jerzak’s “Party Like You’re Single,” the best bad song that you’ve never heard of.

2. Before you write in: I am aware that this analogy has a major, glaring flaw — namely, that while the Beatles were really a four-person band, the Chainsmokers is “officially” composed of only two people. Your objections are noted and, while a bit pedantic, very much appreciated.

Review Reviews: Memories… Do Not Open

Pitchfork

Review: The Chainsmokers, Memories… Do Not Open

“Despite the preponderance of sad piano across the album, the Chainsmokers remain preening arena hams who make videos that look like Maxim spreads.”

A remarkably sober evaluation from an image-obsessed tastemaker best known for pretentious writing, Pitchfork’s review of Memories… Do Not Open is a fair and balanced attempt to place this album in a larger cultural context. Since they abandoned the grating, self-involved type of criticism that was their house style in the early days, this sort of birds-eye contextualization is now the apparent goal of every review that Pitchfork publishes. And they’ve gotten quite good at it: in just two short paragraphs, longtime music critic and professional DJ Philip Sherburne effectively tracks the progression of the Chainsmokers’ music from mindless party jams toward “slower tempos, slinky melodies, and songs about bruised feelings,” a mix of legitimate evolution and cynical marketing that he deems “a canny move.”

Sherburne’s biggest problem with the album is that it’s neither fun enough to live up to the band’s reputation as EDM’s most hate-able party bros, nor deep enough to justify the shift towards more introspective songwriting. He accuses the album of “toggling between cheap thrills and bitter recriminations with all the emotional stakes of a drunken beach fight caught on Snapchat,” which is exactly the sort of culturally-relevant critical slam-dunk that Pitchfork was built for. But it’s far from the only Classic Pitchfork moment in the review: Sherburne describes the closing track “Last Day Alive” as “the musical equivalent of a poster of fighter jets,” which is hilarious, surprising, and the sort of dead-on analogy that can’t be written  without a deep understanding of the music being discussed.

Only a truly pedantic reading of this review could uncover anything seriously obnoxious. But even when Sherburne off-handedly mentions the number of credited writers on the album (in an attempt to casually discredit the group’s artistry) or, in his conclusion, implies that the Chainsmokers don’t deserve an in-depth critical reading because their songs are too popular, it’s still hard to hold it against him. If Pitchfork had reviewed this album fifteen years ago, it would have been next-level insufferable, like their review of Jimmy Eat World’s Bleed American or any of their obnoxiously self-impressed ‘concept’ reviews. Pitchfork hasn’t lost their cultural cachet in recent years, but they’ve shifted their focus towards writing that is legitimately useful in today’s over-saturated musical marketplace.  Whether they helped initiate the move away from narcissistic music criticism or merely sniffed the shifting winds, it was, you might say, a canny move.

Spin

You Know Exactly What The Chainsmokers’ Memories… Do Not Open Sounds Like

“Taggart took a star turn on ‘Closer,’ the smash hit that briefly dressed the Chainsmokers up as the Postal Service, and is just about the only singer you hear on ‘Paris,’ the new smash hit that dresses the Chainsmokers up as the Chainsmokers dressed up as the Postal Service.”

Jordan Sargent opens his review of Memories… Do Not Open by invoking Bob Dylan, an outrageous decision clearly intended to catch the eye. The comparison between Dylan’s transition to a more rock-inspired sound and the Chainsmokers’ own creative evolution, as over-the-top as it is, could be an interesting starting point for a discussion, but ultimately, Sargent doesn’t justify this opening salvo with any particular insight. Unfortunately, this pattern of a joke feinting towards insight but failing to deliver is repeated throughout the review, which leans heavily on snark at the expense of any actual in-depth criticism.

The article’s thesis, and the one kernel of genuine musical criticism, is tucked away in the third paragraph, where Sargent claims that the Chainsmokers have a single, unchanging musical template, variations of which they repeat across the entire album. Considering the obvious similarities between their break-out hit “Closer” and the content of Memories… Do Not Open, it’s a fair criticism, and one that could be explored further. Sargent, however, undercuts this potential almost immediately, as he attempts to elucidate his main point: “The Chainsmokers have one song… that one song is that same sort of morose piano ballad refashioned for whatever wave of EDM we’re currently in, the one where the drops are more often like coos into your ear than bashes over your head. (Some people call this ‘future bass.’ I dunno.)”

Sargent’s casual dismissal of an entire sub-genre, is, one supposes, meant to be funny, particularly to the kind of person who reflexively laughs at what they consider the over-classification of music. But in reality, to boldly claim your lack of interest in the genre of music you are currently discussing suggest intellectual laziness or a lack of curiosity. But even a brief glance at his work confirms that Sargent is, typically, a knowledgeable and enthusiastic consumer of music.

This leaves us with only one possible explanation: because of the Chainsmokers’ status as widely-accepted targets of public ridicule, Sargent legitimately didn’t feel the need to critically examine their music in a manner that might illuminate their popularity (aside from a few half-hearted references to Taggart as a boy-next-door type). Instead, he wasted his time joking about the group’s awkward appearance on SNL and building tortured, half-clever metaphors around the group’s name, all in a misguided attempt to stunt on two guys who may already qualify as the most stunted-upon dudes in music. Some people call this “clever.” I dunno.

The New York Times

The Chainsmokers Find That Pop Is an Awkward Fit

“In the ecosystem in which the Chainsmokers have thrived — big-festival dance music and the pop that derives from its distillation — the album is a meaningless concept, and the album format underscores both this duo’s weaknesses and strengths.”

The New York Times just can’t help itself. Even in an article written with precision and clarity by longtime music critic Jon Caramanica about the two goofiest members of a scene that was, in Caramanica’s own words, “designed for ecstatic release, but also one that was easily parodied,” the Times, as a self-styled pillar of integrity in a chaotic world, must craft every article with the aim of being the final word on any particular topic, the be-all end-all for the rest of recorded time. For this reason, Caramanica must, regardless of his own feelings, begin his review of Memories… Do Not Open with the absolutely Biblical lede, “From the beginning, the Chainsmokers knew dance music was a joke.”

Caramanica, to his credit, doesn’t devote much time to the already well-covered issue of the Chainsmokers’ public persona, and instead looks at how their individual success reflects the state of pop music as a whole. This is perhaps too grandiose of a framework to hang on twelve songs about being drunk and sad sung over “the musical equivalent of bringing an amiable golden retriever along for an unhurried jog.” Still, it’s hard to argue with Caramanica’s claim that the pop-chart dance-music explosion turned out to be nothing but means by which to expand pop’s sonic palette to include the rhythms of EDM. Although, it’s hard to imagine what the alternative to this “long con” could have been: a complete abolishment of the Billboard Hot 100 and the ultimate ascension of the Dance Club Songs chart? One shudders to think.

On the whole, the Times review is competent and insightful, applauding the Chainsmokers for attempting something new but critiquing the ways in which they fall short of their ambitions. The article is sprinkled with the bite-size critical nuggets that often fill these sort of pieces: Taggart is “a capable but unexciting singer”; the tempo moves at “something more than a slog but less than a gallop”; the best songs on the album have “an emotional texture the others grasp for futilely”; a less-successful effort is “a twinkle with no diamond.”

And yet, for all the capable writing on display, it’s hard to ignore how futile the whole thing feels. Caramanica himself highlights how much of dance music is driven by irresistible feelings of build and release, primal physical and emotional sensations that have almost nothing to do with what you read in the ‘Arts & Leisure’ section of the New York Times. If you already understand the music, you don’t need a review, and if you need to read a review, you’ll never understand the music. In this ecosystem, the album review is a meaningless concept, and the review format underscores both Caramanica’s strengths and weaknesses. In the end, there’s just not that much to talk about.

The One: A Modern Love Story

The One: A Modern Love Story is a jukebox musical with a book by Andrew Michael Green, based on the songs of The Chainsmokers. It premiered at Chicago’s Northlight Theatre in 2019 and was then produced Off-Broadway in March 2020. Since then it has had numerous productions both in the United States and internationally.

The story explores a five-year relationship between Jonathan Wagner, an up-and-coming electronic music DJ, and Katie Hawthorne, a struggling writer from a wealthy family. The show is structured so that the point of view shifts between the two leads with each song. While other ensemble members appear on-stage to portray minor characters and provide vocal support, there are no other named characters in the show, and Jonathan and Katie only sing together during three songs.

‘The One’ was inspired by Green’s failed marriage to Florence McTierney. McTierney threatened legal action on the grounds the story of the musical represented her relationship with Green too closely, and Green changed the song “#SELFIE” to “It Won’t Kill Ya” in order to reduce the similarity between the character Katie and McTierney.

Synopsis

Act I

In the bustling metropolis of Tuscon, Jonathan has recently dropped out of college to pursue his dreams as a DJ. One night, he and his friends visit a popular club, to scope out the competition, blow off some steam, hook up with girls, and generally enjoy another in a long line of exciting, adrenaline-fueled nights out. (“Last Night Alive”). At the same club, Katie is out with her friends, celebrating her birthday and her recent graduation. She is immediately attracted to Jonathan and spends the night dancing with him (“It Won’t Kill Ya”).

The two share an immediate connection, but eventually get separated and lose track of each other as the night goes on. At home, Katie finds Jonathan by searching through all the selfies that were posted from the club that night. Jonathan invites her to watch him perform the next week.

The next week, the two of them reunite at the same club. Jonathan is excited for the performance, which he believes will be a major step for his career, but his spirits are crushed when his set is cancelled and his time slot is given to a more successful rival. He gets drunk and tells Katie how empty and confused he feels about where his life is going. (“Bloodstream”). Katie, who feels similarly directionless after leaving college, is moved by Jonathan’s honesty and finds herself even more attracted to him. The two of them go home together, and decide to begin a relationship. (“Inside Out”).

Jonathan discovers that Katie is a struggling writer and convinces her to pursue her passion, while Katie encourages Jonathan to start producing his own songs.  Inspired by Katie’s words, Jonathan releases his first original song (“Something Just Like This”), which quickly becomes a moderate success.

Katie struggles to find readership for her writing, and begins posting photos of her wealthy family’s extravagant purchases on her Instagram. Though she is successful in attracting more views, she still feels insecure in her relationship with Jonathan (“Wake Up Alone”). Jonathan, not being used to the ups and downs of a serious relationship, reacts with frustration at her perceived instability (“Break Up Every Night”), frustration that is not helped by his heavy drinking.

As the stress builds, Katie begins to question the healthiness of her relationship to Jonathan, but eventually realizes that the very things that make him unreliable are the reasons she is attracted to him (“My Type”). Katie’s parents begin hounding her to take a job in the family business, threatening to take away her allowance and access to the fancy things that she uses to build an online audience. In response, Katie uses the majority of her savings on an extended trip to France for her and Jonathan. While overseas, the two of them affirm their love and experience a rare moment of peace, re-committing themselves to one another (“Paris”).

Back in the states, Jonathan and Katie move into an apartment together. Katie takes a low-paying job as a kindergarten teacher, while Jonathan accepts an offer to tour the country as part of a big-name EDM show. Katie expresses reservations at the idea of being apart for several months, which frustrates Jonathan. The two have an argument before he departs. While he’s gone, Katie struggles with living on her own and trying to write while holding a job (“Don’t Let Me Down”). On the road, Jonathan faces temptation along with his new success (“Honest”).

One morning, Katie receives a call from Jonathan. He confesses to being unfaithful to Katie and tries to apologize, but Katie chooses to end their relationship (“Don’t Say”). Jonathan returns home to find their apartment empty. As the curtain falls, we see him sitting alone on their bed, the only thing Katie didn’t take with her.

Act II

Four years have passed. As the curtain rises, Jonathan is still sitting alone on the bed, but in a much nicer apartment. He has moved to Phoenix and has become a well-known DJ and producer. In spite of his success, he spends much of his time drinking alone and isolating himself, sabotaging any potential romantic relationship before it can develop into something serious (“The One”).

Katie, having bounced around the country for several years, is now living in New York City. She is back in school once more, putting herself through her Master’s program with odd jobs and part-time work. She is at the end of yet another failed relationship, causing her to realize that she has developed the same self-destructive habits she was once attracted to (“New York City”).

Struggling to deal with the pressures of fame, Jonathan finds himself feeling trapped and nostalgic for his old life. He feels disillusioned with dance music and longs to make something real. One night, Jonathan writes and records a plaintive guitar ballad about his relationship with Katie (“Young”) and releases it online, to instantaneous and almost universal mockery and derision.

Katie has had no contact with Jonathan since they broke up, and does her best not to think about him at all. One of her friends, knowing that she used to date him, sends her a link to his new song, thinking she’ll find it hilarious. In spite of its raw, amateurish quality–or maybe because of it–Katie is moved by the song, and finds herself reminiscing about the good times she had with Jonathan (“Until You Were Gone”).

Jonathan has gone from mildly famous to to nationwide laughing stock and finds himself even more distressed than before. When he travels to New York City to play his first show since the release of “Young,” he feels the pressure of everyone’s opinions weighing on him (“Everybody Hates Me”).

Nearing the end of grad school, Katie begins to feel overwhelmed with the idea of once again having no direction in her life. She goes out dancing to clear her mind (“Erase”), only to find herself at the very show that Jonathan is DJing. They spot each other during the show and meet up afterwards. They spend the night together, reliving the highs of their old relationship and rehashing the same arguments that drove them apart (“Closer”).

In the morning, Jonathan wakes up to find that he is alone. He wanders the streets in a daze, confused by the experience, but eventually realizes how much better his life was when he was with Katie (“Let You Go”). Katie, while still unsure of how healthy her relationship with Jonathan is, feels more alive than she has in the years since they split up, and fantasizes about beginning again with him.

In the end, Jonathan and Katie re-unite. While they remain unsure about their futures, together or apart, they decide that the bond they share is too powerful to ignore, and commit to staying together forever — or, at least, as long as they can stand it (“All We Know.”)

Music

The musical style draws on a number of musical genres, including pop, EDM, indie rock, synth-pop, EDM, progressive house, and EDM. The orchestration consists of piano, guitar, electric bass, drums, and anywhere between two sets of turntables (in the Chicago production) and eighteen (in the second off-Broadway production, which took place at the McKittrick Hotel).

Musical Numbers

“Last Night Alive” – Jonathan
“It Won’t Kill Ya” – Katie
“Bloodstream” – Jonathan
“Inside Out” – Katie
“Something Just Like This” – Jonathan
“Wake Up Alone” – Katie
“Break Up Every Night” – Jonathan
“My Type” – Katie
“Paris” – Jonathan & Katie
“Don’t Let Me Down” – Katie
“Honest” – Jonathan
“Don’t Say” – Katie

“The One” – Jonathan
“New York City” – Katie
“Young” – Jonathan
“Until You Were Gone” – Katie
“Everybody Hates Me” – Jonathan
“Erase” – Katie
“Closer” – Jonathan & Katie
“Let You Go” – Jonathan
“Roses” – Katie
“All We Know” – Jonathan & Katie

Original Casts

Character Chicago (2019) Off-Broadway (2020) Off-Broadway (2021) Film Adaptation (2024) West End (2028)
Jonathan Wagner Mike Faist Brandon Uranowitz Jeremy Jordan Daniel Huttlestone
Katherine “Katie” Hawthorne Emily Skeggs Adrienne Warren Annaleigh Ashford Anna Kendrick Sydney Lucas

Film Adaptation
Main article: The One: A Modern Love Story (film)

In November 2022, Columbia Pictures announced that they had acquired the rights to adapt the musical as a feature film, with Joe Zohar set to direct. Zohar initially cast Andrew Taggart and Halsey as Jonathan and Katie respectively, citing their performances in the video for “Closer” as proof that they could carry the film. Problems arose almost immediately, with many press outlets questioning the wisdom of casting untested actors in such prominent roles, while sources inside the studio claimed that the two singers were “a bit much”.

In December 2022, Taggart and Halsey both left the production, each claiming separate but concurrent scheduling issues. Less than one week later, Jeremy Jordan and Anna Kendrick were cast in the lead roles. When asked why he chose to cast actors that were at least twenty years older than the characters they were portraying, Zohar responded that “it just seemed like the obvious choice.” Jordan and Kendrick have never spoken openly about their work on the film.

The film was released on April 12, 2024, to near-universal disinterest.

Everybody Hates Me

(or: The Chainsmokers Problem, Fourth Variant)

To truly understand the Chainsmokers, you can’t think about music — you have to think about Twitter.

If you spend any time at all on Twitter, you’ve no doubt encountered a certain type of popular tweet: tweets made not by people who are otherwise famous, or by people who are known for making successful tweets. These are tweets by everyday, regular folk that are well-written, clever, or relatable enough to rack up re-tweets into the tens of thousands and likes into the half-millions. A witty, well-timed comment that momentarily launches an unknown account into the spotlight.

If you recognize this type of tweet, you are no doubt familiar with the type of tweet that usually follows it: the pivot. The moment when the originator of the popular tweet discovers that the countless eyes of the internet have fallen upon them. The way Twitter is designed, clicking on a tweet automatically displays the replies to that tweet, with replies by the writer of the original tweet sorted to the top. Because of this system, the author is left with an opportunity to amplify their voice, an opportunity that many find too tempting to resist.

Sometimes the pivot is as an innocent as a request for the reader to follow the author’s twitter account, maybe with the added benefit of a “follow-for-follow” arrangement. A slightly more cynical and/or financially-conscious tweeter might offer to retweet products or personal advertisements on their page in exchange for monetary compensation. The most popular response, so blatant and so uniquely contemporary that it spawned a minor meme, is the posting of the author’s SoundCloud page as a means to further promote his or her music — said music usually consisting of ambient chill-wave synthesizer loops or hip-hop beats crassly named after more popular artists (“Future type-beat,” “Drake-type beat,” “Fetty Wap type-beat”).

No matter how it’s used, the pivot has become a common element of the online experience, and a particularly immediate example of how social media has altered our construction of “fame.” Because of the way that content spreads, something that would have been totally ignored in previous eras — say, a cheap novelty dance song about a minor pop-culture phenomenon — can be passed around by like-minded people to the point that it becomes legitimately successful, regardless of whether or not it was any good to begin with. More often than not, that’s exactly the point: someone who posts a popular tweet doesn’t really care about the artistic merits of what they’re doing — they just want attention, and a chance to heave themselves into the spotlight.

It seems crass, and it usually is, but really: can you blame them? Do you really know what you would do if you got famous overnight (even if it was “only” internet famous)? What if the reason that you’re famous isn’t so great? What if it’s actually shameful?

Of the three songs that the Chainsmokers have released in 2018, “Everybody Hates Me” does the best job of articulating band’s current modus operandi: examining the perils of social media culture and modern-day celebrity, told by two people who are especially qualified to do it. Whereas “Sick Boy” was a bit gloomy and self-centered and “You Owe Me” was too glib to sell its darker subject matter, “Everybody Hates Me” splits it right down the middle. The verses offer a shockingly reflective and measured list of complaints about the life of someone who has become suddenly famous in the age of quote-unquote viral content, while the chorus repurposes an old meme based on the opening lines of Macklemore’s “Thrift Shop”, a novelty crossover hit that, in its own way, is just as obnoxious as “#SELFIE”. That the Chainsmokers (and co-writer Emily Warren) would utilize a played-out Vine joke in order to express their own inner turmoil is such an obviously pandering gesture to surface-level internet culture that it speeds right past ‘cliché’ and loops back around to ‘brilliant.’

While some of the lyrics are directly tied to the struggles of the wildly famous and super-successful (“poor me, I made it”), many of the sentiments expressed by the singer could belong to anyone who is even a little uncomfortable with the prominence of social media — which would be, at a low estimation, only almost everyone. “I’m a product of the internet” is true for all of us, but is doubly true for Andrew Taggart, the person singing it: his existence as a musician, as a product, is only possible due to the internet. But while most of us didn’t get famous off of a meme disguised as a song, nearly all of us have left a less-than-respectable paper-trail. Whether it’s an old LiveJournal, an offensive joke told at a press junket, a screen-cap of a misbegotten tweet, or a particularly unfortunate interview with Billboard Magazine, everyone’s got something floating around out there that they’re not ready to account for. Anyone who’s taken a public stance on anything knows the feeling behind the lyric “Why do I still have to mean everything I ever said?” It doesn’t matter if you change your mind, walk it back or  delete every trace of what you said from existence; the Wayback Machine is always gonna be there, and your greatest mistakes will always be single click away.

“I post a picture of myself ‘cause I’m lonely/Everyone knows what I look like/not even one of them knows me” — sung by anyone else, this line would seem so obvious, so preachy, that it would land with all the impact of an after-school special. But it’s fascinating when it’s sung by the man who wrote “#SELFIE”, who apparently needed a full four years and the help of a co-writer to condense the sentiment “it’s not healthy to be obsessed your own profile picture” from a three-minute sad-trombone-noise of a joke into a punchy three lines. Also: even though that line might scan as cheesy, it is no doubt a sentiment that many people will find relatable, particularly young people, people who entered middle school with an Instagram account and were already bored with SnapChat before you even knew it existed.

By drawing this line from the uber-relatable everyday pitfalls of a casually publicized existence to the crushing pressures of a life spent stumbling through scandals and dodging paparazzi, Taggart and Warren force us to consider how similar those two modes of existence have become. The Chainsmokers are two rich white men who spend their lives flying around the world with their gang of young and attractive friends. But if you imagine their entire career happening in the string of replies below a popular tweet, it doesn’t seem all that far off. It seems almost relatable.

“Everybody Hates Me” is a song that couldn’t be made by someone without a moderate streak of self-loathing. The Chainsmokers are living the dream, but they’re still at least a little ashamed of themselves. But should they be? They caught a lucky break and decided to ride it out for as long as they could. They’ve gotten further off of their moment in the spotlight than most people do: even if someone catches a few new followers off a funny tweet, the rest of the world moves on in the amount of time it takes to press ‘like,’ leaving the author with one minor achievement and string of embarrassing follow-ups.

But if the same thing happened to you, if you had a chance to make your voice heard, can you really say you wouldn’t use it? Maybe you’d try to further your own career and achieve your dreams of artistic legitimacy, or maybe you’d just try to make some money by selling retweets. You might think you wouldn’t act so shamelessly, but that’s only because you’ve never been in that situation. If you woke up internet famous, can you really say what your next move would be?

The problem with the Chainsmokers is that you can’t ever really know yourself.

The Complete Videos, 2014 – 2015: Part 2

Roses

Released a full eighteen months after “#SELFIE”, “Roses” elicited a reaction of equal parts admiration and bewilderment. Society simply was not prepared for a song by the Chainsmokers that was not just listenable, but downright enjoyable. To this day, it remains one of the few Chainsmokers songs that can be enjoyed completely guilt-free. It stands apart, not just as a song in the Chainsmokers discography, but as a singularly fascinating objet d’art, a radio-friendly crossover jam that holds within it a nearly endless list of contradictions. It’s a second hit song by a band that immediately destined to languish as one-hit wonders. It’s completely divorced from most people’s image of the Chainsmokers, but it’s the first song where either of them contributes vocals, the first step towards establishing themselves as pop stars. It was, in a way, the most important moment of the group’s career, but it stands totally removed from the controversy and criticism that have dogged them their entire careers.

As if in acknowledgement of the song’s paradoxical nature, the Chainsmokers produced two separate videos for “Roses.” The first video, shot by future “You Owe Me” director Rory Kramer, is a video travelogue of the duo on tour in Europe. Sharply edited to fit the song’s chill-yet-upbeat vibe and shot with an eye for the quieter moments of a long overseas trip, it accomplishes its modest goal with a skill that calls to mind Joe Zohar’s work on the video for “Let You Go”: it makes the Chainsmokers seem fun to hang out with.

This is not to say that Taggart and Pall are, in reality, unpleasant to be around; nor is meant to excuse the less-than-admirable things they’ve said and done. But when you see the two of them jumping between the twin beds in their tiny hotel room, or having a glue-fight with their friends, or just quietly sticking their heads out the window of a car while they ride through a foreign city, it’s hard to work up any serious ire. And while their off-stage antics have never reached loathsome heights (depths?) as did those of Justin Bieber, it’s not surprising that Bieber hired Rory Kramer to be his full-time videographer shortly after “Roses” was filmed: if he can make the Chainsmokers look good, he can make anyone look good.

The second video is unique in its own way: it is the first, and thus far the only Chainsmokers video in which neither member of the group appears on-screen (though the lead actor, Scott Lyon, looks like what might happen if you merged Taggart and Pall together with some sort of facial compositing software). It’s almost as if they made the first video, focused solely on them and their trans-continental exploits, in order to purge their essence from this video, which, like the song itself, succeeds because of how it subverts our expectations of what the Chainsmokers can do as a group.

Directed by Andrew Roberts and James Zwadlo (working under the moniker “Impossible Brief”), the “Roses” video features a woman (Callie Roberts) caught in an ambiguous but clearly loving on-again/off-again relationship with a visiting man. We see them spend time together, relaxing on a couch and smoking weed before having sex. It’s more or less a straightforward adaptation of the song’s lyrics, with one unique touch: interspersed between the narrative scenes is footage of Roberts dancing in a nondescript space, illuminated by a ghostly spotlight.

The second video, much like the first, is a simple concept greatly enhanced by the quality of the song. But the visuals here do a better job of matching the audio. The video, like the song, has a straightforward, almost swaggering quality that is anchored by a sense of vulnerability and longing. The shots of Roberts dancing communicate the emotion that would otherwise be missing from the more muted narrative sections — and there’s one truly sublime shot of Roberts floating through the air that almost reaches the heights of magical realism. 

There is, technically, a third video for “Roses,” in which the Chainsmokers enlist an Uber driver to play the song for his passengers, all of them singing along in what is, if not a legal infringement on the work of James Corden, then at least highly derivative. And while there’s not much to say about this video, it’s worth noting because, taken with the other two videos, one really gets a sense that someone — the Chainsmokers themselves, or maybe their label — was hedging their bets. “Roses” was a turning point for the band, and by producing three distinct videos with totally different styles and purposes, they were doing their best to make sure that people heard it. And, I mean, hey. It worked.

Waterbed

Believe it or not, “Waterbed” is the first truly awful Chainsmokers video. “#SELFIE” was lazy and obnoxious, but it lacked the ambition necessary to be a true failure. Joe Zohar returns as director, seemingly determined to completely undo the creative goodwill he built up in his previous two videos.

Things start off promisingly, with Taggart laid up with a broken leg while a party rages on outside, while he has only an iPad and an adorable puppy to keep him company. Pall stops by to check on him, but his sympathy only extends so far, and he abandons his friend to pursue hedonistic excess. At this point, the video is set to follow the same track as the Simpsons episode “Bart Of Darkness,” itself a parody of the film Rear Window. Taggart decides to attach a GoPro to his canine friend, and for a moment it seems like we might get an entertaining twist on the perils of voyeurism in the modern age — like Disturbia, with a cute dog — but then Taggart, in order to explain the dog’s mission, displays several crude drawings of women with exaggerated sexual characteristics. After this point, things quickly go downhill.

The fact that the main character of this video attaches a camera to his dog for the purpose of ogling women does not necessarily make it irredeemably awful, but the whole situation plays out in the worst possible way. Basically, Zohar uses this premise as an excuse to film as many butts as possible, then justifies it by awkwardly inserting the image of a dog onto the footage, without the slightest attempt at verisimilitude. Again, the cheapness of the visual effect is not the problem here, but the gross objectification of women — and, to be honest, the wasting of a perfectly cute dog.

The video ends as it must, with the poor dog, overcome by the same animal lust that motivates its owner, launching itself through the air to hump an unsuspecting woman’s leg. In the process, the dog causes Pall to take a nasty tumble, resulting in him breaking his leg as well. In the end, Taggart and Pall are consigned to the same bed, bickering as the dog watches on from across the room, and humanity suffers the minor but deeply-felt pain of another blow to our collective dignity.

Until You Were Gone

Zohar’s final collaboration with the Chainsmokers is less actively distasteful than his work on “Waterbed,” but it comes from the same school of misogynistic hackery. The premise is clearly executed but very basic and more than a little creepy: Taggart and Pall, along with guest stars Chad Cisneros and David Reed of the electronic music duo Tritonal, all develop a crush on the same SoulCycle instructor, portrayed by actual SoulCycle instructor Karyn Nesbit. After lusting over her during a class, the four men obsess over her in ways that range from “awkward dork creepy” to “serial-killer creepy”.

Taggart and Pall both engage in some light stalking, following the instructor after the class in order to bump into her and continue their ogling, while Cisneros and Reed hold up in their rooms and stare worshipfully at photos of her. The humor is meant to come from how foolish the four of them look, and, blessedly, the video doesn’t reward any of their upsetting behavior, as their instructor ends the video in the arms of her boyfriend while the four DJs walk away defected. If you could ignore the toxic implications of unwanted male attention being portrayed as laughable or even charming, the whole thing might play as innocent fun, if not for the way Zohar’s camera lingers over the instructor’s body, engaging in the sort of music video objectification that’s so widespread it’s become almost subliminal.

Despite the plot of the video centering around the hilarious misadventures of four American DJs, nearly half of the runtime is given over to another, less clearly defined joke, the entirety of which seems to be: “SoulCycle is hard.” This is likely the result of the video’s genesis as an extended piece of product placement for the almost cultish spin-class service. The Chainsmokers are not the only pop musicians to partner with SoulCycle in recent years — many artists have guest-hosted classes that double as listening parties for their new music — but they are, as of now, the only ones that have extended that partnership into a full-length music video.

For more on this subject, check out this interview that SoulCycle did with the Chainsmokers to promote the video’s release. There are a lot of bizarre touches to this interview; for one, it wasn’t posted online until the video was almost nine months old. Instead of indicating which one of the Chainsmokers was answering the questions, the editors have credited them as a single entity, one that ends every single sentence with an exclamation point. It’s entirely possible that the Chainsmokers do, in fact, answer all interview questions in complete synchronicity and with unnecessary enthusiasm. But it seems just as likely that this entire project, from conception all the way to this promotional interview buried on the ‘Community’ section of the SoulCycle website, was produced by a machine that can only approximate the actions of real-life humans.

Could this be the soundtrack to an experience you’ve had in real life?
Hahaha, it definitely could be. We don’t know a single person who hasn’t had some real life experience that could help them relate to this, whether a relationship or even an experience with summer camp!

Did anything surprise you about the shoot?
Haha not us, but the extras 100 percent! We don’t think they knew when they came on as extras that they were going to be required to actually cycle for seven hours! By the end of the day, everyone was dead!

What was your favorite part of the shoot?
Well, besides essentially getting a free indoor cycling class for 8 hours, it was just great to hang around there! Everyone is so cool! The amazing SoulCycle team is a large part of why this all worked out so well!

Well, like they say: it’s all up there on the screen.

The Complete Videos, 2014 – 2015: Part 1

#SELFIE

The most remarkable thing about the video for “#selfie” is how cheap it is. The video, much like the song itself, represents the group’s entry onto the world stage and their absolute creative nadir. For their first act as a band, the Chainsmokers dug themselves into a hole so deep that it resembles a massive crater, one they’ve been trying to climb out of ever since.

There are three main components that make up the “#selfie” video. The first and least interesting is the monologue that makes up the song’s lyrical component, an irritating stream-of-consciousness performed in the bathroom of a dance club by a comically vain young woman. Roughly one-third of the video is taken up with a straightforward adaptation of this dialogue, and it does nothing to alleviate the sickening absence of humor in the original song. It’s exactly what you would imagine when listening to “#selfie”, which is maybe the most damning critique possible.

The second component is footage of crowd of people dancing and having a good time, which appears to all be taken from a single nightclub performance. We mostly see the concert-goers as an incomprehensible blur of brightly-colored clothes, interspersed with a few moments of more intimate footage of Andrew Taggart, Alex Pall and other random attendees (or actresses portraying attendees). Standard stuff for a medium-budget music video, but the weird thing is, very little of this footage seems to come from an actual Chainsmokers concert. The person most prominently playing music is not the either of the Chainsmokers, but EDM superstar and heir to the Benihana restaurant empire, Steve Aoki.

who, indeed

Aoki is the person who discovered the Chainsmokers, and he even released “#selfie” on his own label, so it stands to reason that he’d want to ensure that their first video projected an image of the Taggart and Pall as popular, exciting party boys. But while we can imagine Aoki’s reasoning for essentially letting the Chainsmokers claim his fans as their own, we cannot even speculate to what degree Steve Aoki feel responsible for the creation of this monstrosity, or if he will ever pay for his crimes against humanity.

The third and most prominent component of this video is the flurry of user-submitted photographs — the titular “selfies” — that floods the screen during each iteration of the chorus. These amateur self-portraits were not submitted out of a legitimate passion on the part of the fans or as an organic upswell of support for the song — the Chainsmokers were practically unknown at the time of its release — rather, they were actively cultivated and farmed by ominously-named social-media marketing group TheAudience with the assistance of a light-hearted instructional video.

The problem here isn’t so much the gross, cynical manipulation of social media by a marketing firm co-founded by the ‘Napster’ guy — it’s that all work was done to no real end. Sure, lots of normal people (and a few celebrities) freely allowed their visage to be used as advertising for a novelty EDM single, but no one at any point managed to do anything interesting with all those pictures. There’s no hook, no joke, no twist on anything. It’s just a bunch of selfies. And if you’re trying to make fun of selfies, you should actually find something funny to say about them.

Kanye

The video for “Kanye” opens with a direct reference to “#selfie”: two self-obsessed young women stand in the mirror while one blathers on about her personal life. It’s not an exact recreation of the “#selfie” video — the women are in a hotel room instead of a club bathroom — but the monologue is lifted directly from the song and the situation is clearly meant to be a similar, if not totally identical.

Only this time, our perspective has shifted away from these young woman, and onto on a young maid who is silently cleaning the floors behind them. The women in the mirror, who were the nearest thing we had in the last video to protagonists, are distant and out-of-focus. We don’t even see their faces. They walk out of the bathroom to continue their conversation and are never seen again.

Meanwhile, the maid changes out of her house-cleaning uniform and into an expensive-looking dress that one of the women has left behind. She then leaves the hotel room and is whisked away to a magical night of fast times and hard living. She visits an extravagant club where Taggart and Pall cameo as old-timey bartenders, then hits up a well-attended pool party in the Hollywood hills, before returning home at the crack of dawn, having apparently achieved the sort of self-actualization-through-partying that exists only in the minds of music video directors.

artistry

It’s not surprising that the two women from “#selfie” are consciously dismissed as unimportant — they were objects of ridicule in their first appearance, as well. Nor is it all that unusual that the maid, a character who would go unnoticed in the stories and lives of the kind of people “#selfie” was mocking, would be held up as a more important person, more authentic and worthy of emulation. Cheap romanticization of the working class is a common trope across all media, to the point where it usually comes across as empty and insincere. Yes, it’s nice to see the maid-turned-partygoer display kindness and empathy when she encounters another member of the service industry, but the way she slips the tiara on the waitress’s head reeks of condescension — not altogether surprising when you realize that this video, like the one for “#selfie”, was created by social-media marketing group theAudience.

But the shift in focus in the first scene, and the dismissal of “#selfie,” parallels the shift that the Chainsmokers themselves were already attempting. Neither Taggart nor Pall have hidden the fact that “#selfie” was made as a joke and that its sudden success threw them for a loop — and while they claim to be grateful that it lead more people to discover their music, more recent songs like “Sick Boy” make it clear that they struggle with being best known for their worst song.

It’s hard to say whether Taggart and Pall were making a conscious statement with the opening of “Kanye,” or if the fine folks at theAudience just thought it was a funny joke that would also strengthen the group’s brand, but it makes a statement either way: the Chainsmokers know that you hate “#selfie,” and they want you to know that they hate it just as much.

Let You Go

The first of the group’s four collaborations with director Joe Zohar is also the first video where Taggart and Pall themselves have any significant screen time. With that in mind, it’s impressive how comfortable the two of them seems as actors, portraying what one must assume are lightly fictionalized versions of themselves.

The video opens with Taggart and Pall landing in Los Angeles to visit a woman, portrayed by Rikke Heinecke, who seems to be romantically involved with Pall. For most of the video, the three of them ride around the city in, stopping off at various locales, with Pall and the woman occasionally slipping off to have sex. They visit an abandoned construction site and share drinks from a flask while Taggart spray-paints nearby. They blow bubbles, they smoke weed and watch the sun-set, they get drunk and generally do the sort of things people do when they’re geuinely at ease with one another.

ot3

Zohar’s direction, along with the work of the performers, really sells the idea of this loving triumvirate, Pall and Heinecke as a highly affectionate couple, with Taggart joyfully inhabiting the role of third wheel. There are a few hints of an unspoken attraction between Taggart and Heinecke’s character, but nothing too obvious; that is, until the trio finally arrives home at the end of the night and Pall’s girlfriend affectionately invites Taggart to join her and Pall in the bedroom.

After the three of them spend the night together, Taggart and Pall share an awkward, silent ride back to the airport, avoiding eye contact and shuddering at the slightest physical touch. In hindsight, the entire video appears to be a set-up for this punchline, but the vividness with which Zohar depicts the characters’ friendship adds a layer of pathos that wouldn’t be necessary if the whole thing was just a dumb joke, one step removed from a derivative sort of gay-panic humor. Instead of comedy, we are left with ambiguity: one can’t help but wonder what sort of impact this event will have on Taggart and Pall. Is their relationship strong enough to withstand this shared sexual episode? Or will it drive them apart?

With this in mind, the video ends up resembling something like a frat-bro comedy version of Y Tu Mama Tambien. Granted, the comparison isn’t quite perfect: the climax of the video for “Let You Go”, which features the three characters in a variety of kinky and outrageous sexual positions is, shall we say, a bit goofier than a coming-of-age story set against the rise of far-right populism in Mexico. But, despite the apparent efforts of all involved, the similarities still linger, and they make this the most conventionally satisfying of any Chainsmokers videos from this period.

Good Intentions

In the second part of the Zohar Quartet, Taggart and Pall wander through a grimy, industrial underworld while an old man with a long, white beard plays an evil piano and dresses like a steampunk version of the devil. In between shots of Taggart and Pall languishing in a dramatically-lit jail cell, the boys have a series of surreal encounters: they find a living woman covered in ice, followed by two filth-encrusted prisoners chained to one another, and finally, a second pair of captives caught in a loving embrace, one without eyes and the other without a mouth. The old man, who stands over a flaming trash can in positively Luciferian manner, is revealed to be some sort of mythic music industry executive, framing the entire escapade as a Faustian tale in which the Chainsmokers sign away their very souls in pursuit of fame and glory.

Interestingly, this video is not available on the group’s official Vevo channel. This could be a simple oversight, but considering that the Chainsmokers Vevo page is so comprehensive that it includes a latin remix of “#selfie” featuring an artist who can only be described as “the poor man’s Pitbull”, that doesn’t seem likely.

There are two possible explanations. The first, and most likely: legal reasons. Watching the video for “Good Intentions,” one can’t help but be reminded of the Saw franchise. From the way Taggart and Pall wake up in the service elevator to the way that the bearded man lurks behind the scenes, the entire video is infused with the same atmosphere as American horror’s most convoluted gore-delivery system.

The biggest giveaway, though, are the grim, unsettling scenarios that the duo encounter during their journey: the woman covered in ice calls to mind the freezer room death from Saw 3, while the people chained together and the “see no evil, hear no evil” prisoners both seem drawn from mausoleum trap that appears in the prologue of Saw 4. And while Zohar and the Chainsmokers have re-appropriated these images to considerably less gruesome means, it still wouldn’t surprise me if they were squeamish about potential retribution from the fine folks at Lions Gate.

twin peaks: the return (2017)

The other possibility is that the Chainsmokers encountered a squeamishness of a much more personal variety. The meaning of the Saw-inspired tableaus in the video aren’t entirely clear, but considering the final twist of the Satanic record executive, we can assume these images relate in some way to the group’s career in the music industry. The frozen woman, who still manages to blow kisses at the boys and flirtatiously wiggle her eyebrows despite behind encased in ice, might be a stand-in for the type of woman that Taggart and Pall find drawn to them now that they are famous: seductive yet cold-hearted, the classic “gold-digger” archetype — a figure of immense danger to the nouveau riche. This is a character type that comes loaded with misogynistic assumptions, but it is a recognizable and familiar trope within the story of the video.

Less typical are the two couples that Taggart and Pall discover, both sets bound together in different ways. The first pair they encounter are antagonistic towards each other, straining to escape from their ash-covered prison, but ultimately unable to get away from one another. The second pair regard each other affectionately, existing permanently in a tender moment of physical intimacy, but their love is undercut by the fact that neither of them is, symbolically speaking, a complete person. One of them can see the fullness of the world around them but lacks the means to express themselves, while the other can easily communicate but remains fundamentally unable to comprehend anything outside their own mind.

Considering that the Chainsmokers themselves are a two-person group, it’s not difficult to read into these depictions some sense of their personal anxieties. Even this early in their career, they feel constrained by the realities of their industry: it doesn’t matter if they want to spend time alone or pursue solo projects, because they are legally bound to work together. And even while they still think fondly of one another, each is aware that they are in some way incomplete, that they lack the ability to be part of a fully functional duo, or maybe even to be a whole person on their own.

The implications, even if they are unintentional, are not at all pretty, and it’s easy to imagine why Taggart and Pall would have wanted to put them out of their minds. Though their latter work would grapple with exactly these sort of uncomfortable questions, it seems that the Chainsmokers, at this point, were not yet ready to face the darkness.

Good Karaoke

In 2017, the Chainsmokers appeared as the musical guests on the April 8 episode of Saturday Night Live. Their performance was only marginally better than their disastrous showing at the 2016 VMAs — Andrew Taggart’s singing voice is flat, his stage presence straddles the line between nonexistent and awkward, and the only suggestion of live instrumentation comes from obvious mixing errors and some dissonant, unfamiliar sounds that pop up in the middle of the tracks.

But these things are only problems if you judge this appearance as a normal live performance by a musical act. Instead, try this: look into Taggart’s eyes right before he starts singing. You’ll see a hesitation familiar to anyone who has attended a bachelorette party or drunkenly wandered through a resort on a Sunday night. The only honest way to evaluate the Chainsmokers’ SNL appearance is to think of it as karaoke — and by those standards, it’s pretty damn good.

Karaoke follows a different set of rules than most kinds of public performance. Enthusiasm takes precedence over talent. Even though karaoke is ostensibly an activity built around singing, the performer doesn’t actually need to know how to sing. The magic of karaoke is that it’s all-inclusive, with no barrier to entry. If you have the physical ability and the mental fortitude the approach the microphone, you have all the tools you need to command the stage.

Because of this, the criteria for success are wildly different — in karaoke, a performance by an untrained vocalist can be absolutely thrilling. Watching someone bring forth the fullness of their limited vocal ability, drawing on a deep and hidden passion to sell a song on the strength of pure conviction; that sort of experience can lift the mood of an entire bar, and make a room full of drunken strangers into an ecstatic audience.

You can only bend the rules so far, though. It’s empowering to watch an amateur crooner live the truth, but the flip-side is almost unbearable. You don’t want to see anyone struggle. Schadenfreude has no place in a karaoke bar. You don’t want to see that look of panic when a singer realizes they’ve chosen a song that’s completely out of their range, and they’re up in front of everyone without a back-up plan. They’re more or less imprisoned on that stage for the next three-to-five minutes, and all you can do is cringe along with them and applaud politely after their sentence has been served.

This is more or less how it feels to watch Chainsmokers performing “Paris” on SNL — which is strange, considering that they wrote the song themselves. Theoretically, Taggart should be familiar enough with ‘Paris’ that there are no surprises, no vocal challenges he is unable to overcome. But watching him perform, you don’t get the feeling that he’s prepared for this, at all. He wanders around the stage, visibly struggling to imbue his words with any sort of feeling. His (and our) only respite comes from co-writer and back-up singer Emily Warren, who bears some weight of the vocal burden, but her effortless delivery only highlights how much trouble Taggart is having.

In karaoke, this sort of unbalanced duet is usually the result of someone haphazardly picking a song to perform with their friend, only to discover that the distribution of the vocals is much less even than expected. One of them spends the entire performance standing off to the side, singing a couple of lines every other verse, while the unwitting lead singer awkwardly shrugs at them from center stage. This is why it’s best not to get too experimental with group numbers — don’t pick “Roses” by Outkast just because your friend knows the entire Big Boi verse if you’re not sure you can live up to Andre 3000’s unique vocals on the chorus. Poo-ooo-ooo, indeed.

“Break Up Every Night” is significantly less embarrassing, but it’s still not perfect: the sudden, unnecessary modulations in Taggart’s voice throughout the performance are the classic giveaway of someone trying unsuccessfully to switch between octaves in the hopes of salvaging their performance. And Taggart’s breath control is remarkably poor, which becomes apparent whenever he tries to shake things up and over-exerts himself. But still, “Break Up Every Night” is an up-tempo song with few held notes and a bratty pop-punk energy, so it doesn’t ask for anything that Taggart can’t provide.

Besides an adequate vocal, the main thing that Taggart brings to the song is energy. It’s not the energy of a seasoned performer — in between a couple of flashy, clearly pre-planned moments, he bounces awkwardly around the stage with no real goal or direction. But because no one could mistake Taggart’s dance moves for choreography, it becomes clear that he’s engaging with the song in an authentic, unrehearsed way, complete with exactly the sort of faux-rock-star posturing that can really win the crowd over. If someone leapt off of a drum set onto the stage at a karaoke bar, they’d be a legend — provided they weren’t immediately escorted from the premises.

Maybe you’re still not convinced. Maybe you find Taggart’s unpolished performance to be embarrassing instead of charming. “He can’t sing,” you might say, “and he shouldn’t be up there in front of everyone.” If that’s the case, consider this: in order to be a truly great karaoke performer, you actually can’t be a good singer.

I will grant you that this rule seems counter-intuitive. Shouldn’t it be inspirational to attend an event designed for amateur singing and see someone really knock one out of the park? Isn’t this the reason that people watch American Idol? In theory, yes — though, really, when’s the last time you heard anyone talk about American Idol? In practice, it’s exhilarating to see an unassuming bar-goer emerge from the crowd and absolutely slay a performance of Prince’s “Kiss.” But the reality is far more complex, and it gets right at the heart of why people even do karaoke in the first place.

There are a number of reasons why a person might want to do karaoke: you’re at the birthday party of a particularly extroverted friend, or you found a great deal on tequila shots, or maybe you just lost a bet. But we mostly do it because we have an innate, underfed need to perform. Not everyone possesses this need, but it’s more common than we might think. And because most people don’t have an outlet for this kind of creative energy, they have little practice. So it stands to reason that most karaoke performances are technically lackluster: the people who need karaoke don’t have a normal outlet for this pent-up energy.

But what does this say about karaoke performers who have talent, who are so obviously skilled that you can identify them as trained, semi-professional singers as soon as they open their mouths? It’s impressive, to be sure, and it’s almost always a pleasant surprise at first. But even still, there’s something a little off-putting about it. Even as you applaud the person’s dazzling vocal ability and obvious performing chops, you can feel a low-grade depression settling in your chest.

It doesn’t matter how joyous the song or how innocuous the context, watching a truly skilled singer do karaoke suggests something like a minor tragedy: a person who has devoted their lives to the performing arts but still lacks the proper outlet. The professional and artistic success they pursue remains painfully out of reach, so they’re forced to look for it elsewhere, and they end up in a room full of amateurs, out-classing everyone around them but still coming up empty.

It’s not a crime to be over-qualified at karaoke. It doesn’t make things unfair or unbalanced; in the rare situation where karaoke is performed competitively, the stakes are so comically low that bringing in a ringer isn’t worth the trouble. But karaoke should be a joyous, life-affirming experience, and there’s nothing uplifting about a person who wants more out of their life but just can’t seem to find it.

Say this for The Chainsmokers: they might be failing upwards, but they’re still moving up. Watching them perform karaoke on a national level might make you angry, but it doesn’t make you sad.