Music

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.

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Siren

Three Ways To Write About ‘Siren’ by The Chainsmokers & Aazar

1. If the whiplash-inducing shift from the apocalyptic trap-bass fever dream of “Save Yourself” to the country-inflected of “This Feeling” suggested that the Chainsmokers are courting multiple audiences simultaneously, the sudden pivot back to “Siren” confirms it. They’ve always kept one foot planted firmly on either side of the pop/EDM divide, but they used to be forced to split the difference within individual songs: large swaths of their debut album, Memories…Do Not Open, felt like attempts to graft a pop sensibility onto an EDM sound, or vice-versa. The resulting soupy mixture of dreary, world-weary lyrics and mid-tempo beats produced an album that even Drew Taggart has referred to as “unfinished”, and while the first half of 2018 saw the group pursuing a sharper, more interesting version of the same songwriting style, it clearly wasn’t working well enough for them (or possibly their management), because ever since “Side Effects”, they’ve been devoting entire songs to either one style or the other. It’s brilliant, in a way: even if they never again reach “Closer” heights of mainstream popularity, by playing to the EDM crowd in a way they really haven’t in years, the Chainsmokers can build an audience who will stick by them in the long-term, regardless of how well their pop singles perform on the top 40. So I could have written about “Siren” as a piece of marketing, but nobody except me (and possibly Adam Alpert) would find that interesting.

2. It would be silly and maybe even a little embarrassing for me to pretend that “Siren” doesn’t sound a whole lot like “Save Yourself.” The formula is practically identical: a collaboration between the Chainsmokers and an electronic music producer with almost no public presence outside the EDM scene, built around two long instrumental passages, stitched together by a couple of melodic passages and vocals from Taggart himself. The biggest difference between the two songs is their respective “drops”, that oft-fetishized moment of climactic release that features so prominently in modern dance music. Whereas the drops in “Save Yourself” varied in tempo and drew from a variety of aggressive textures, the drop in “Sirens” is built around a repetitive burst of synth that sounds more like a clucking chicken than any siren that I’ve ever heard. Which isn’t to say there’s nothing here to recommend: the drop is still plenty of fun, and the vocal sample at the beginning is a nice touch, as are the strings that feature prominently in the song’s second half. There’s just not enough to differentiate this song from “Save Yourself” to the untrained ear, but as I mentioned above, the untrained ear is not the target for this song: this song is an offering to the true bass-heads, the kind of people who will read the previous paragraph and work themselves into a frenzy over my perceived ignorance. So I could have written about “Siren” as a piece of music, but basically no one would want to read that, and those that would want to read it still wouldn’t have enjoyed it.

3.

Three weeks down,
but you’re on the mend —
You swear that you’re free from the passenger seat
As we drive through the night,
’til it starts again:
You blame it on me ’cause you’re three pills deep in

I tell myself I love the silence, but maybe I just wanna hear the sounds of the siren

I tell myself I love the silence
But maybe I just want to hear
the sounds of the sirens

If you’ve never heard “Siren” before — and, if you’re reading this, the odds are that you haven’t — take a second to read over these lyrics. Do you find them striking at all? If you encountered them outside of their actual context, how do you think you’d feel about them? If you read them as a poem, would you like it? What if you read them as a Raymond Carver story? Alright, maybe that’s too grandiose — what about a passage in a Bret Easton Ellis novel? Does that seem like a better fit? Because when I listen to “Siren,” that’s what I hear: a piece of flash fiction, that captures a single moment in a much longer and very sad story that we’ll never know the end of. There are several things that could be triggering this reaction in me — the deep-seated psychosis that would lead me to devote an entire year to thinking about the Chainsmokers, for one, or perhaps the mental deterioration that I’ve experienced as a result of putting that ridiculous plan into action. But I do believe this song is unique within the band’s catalog. Only a few other Chainsmokers songs have devoted this much detail to an actual narrative, most notably “Closer” and “Paris”, but unlike those songs, “Siren” never resolves into any grand statement or meaningful refrain. The lyrics leave us in a place of quiet discomfort and uncertainty, as the narrator sits in a car with their ailing companion, content to let the sounds of the city outside his window fill the space because the idea of starting another conversation is too painful. We don’t know exactly what the relationship is between these two or how damaged it is or if it’s even going to survive this car ride. We’re left with only the music to carry us forward, and the fact that we don’t get any new lyrics after the first minute only enhances the feeling that what we’re hearing is not exactly a song, but a piece of storytelling with musical accompaniment. We’re forced to discern our own meaning from the lyrics, an act for which there is not typically room within a song by the Chainsmokers. So I could have written about “Siren” as what it really is, to me, anyway: one of the best short stories I’ve encountered this year. And yes, that would have been ridiculous. But that’s why I did it.

The Roommate From ‘Closer’ Makes A Phone Call To Her Best Friend, or: The Continuing Adventures Of Jess And Nicole

Nicole, 26, is walking through Prospect Park in Brooklyn, NY, holding the leashes of four separate dogs, when her phone begins to ring. Upon hearing the ringtone (“Ignition [Remix]” by R. Kelly), she knows exactly who is calling, so she answers.

NICOLE: Hey, bitch.

JESS: Nicole? It’s Jess.

NICOLE: Uh, yeah, I know it’s you. That’s why I said, “hey, bitch.” Do you think I just answer the phone like that all the time?

JESS: What? No, I don’t think that. Listen–

NICOLE: Just so you know, I’ve got a bunch of dogs with me right now, so if I lose you, it’s… well, I guess it won’t be a reception thing, but if one of the dogs tries to run away, or something, I might have to hang up.

JESS: I get it. I just–

NICOLE: This whole thing is such bullshit. I thought when I signed up for this stupid dog-walking app I’d get paid to hang out with a bunch of cute dogs, but all I get are these huge, slobbering idiots who want to fight every other dog they see. Yeah, that’s right, Brutus, I’m talking about you. What? You got a problem with that?

JESS: That sucks. So–

NICOLE: Wait, why are you calling me right now? I didn’t miss our weekly Skype call, did I?

JESS: No, that’s on Saturday.

NICOLE: Oh, hey, do you think we could change it to Sunday this week? I’ve got a callback for an audition on Saturday.

JESS: Oh, really? Congrats.

NICOLE: Thanks! It’s for Midsummer Night’s Dream, again. Which, like, ugh. And it’s in Jersey, so that’s a shitty fucking commute, if I get it. But I had an audition last week that I’m still waiting to hear back from, it sounds like it’s gonna be really cool. It’s an all-female production of Zoo Story and–

JESS: Nicole!

NICOLE: What?

JESS: Can you shut up for, like, one second, so I can tell you why I’m calling?

NICOLE: Wow, spicy.

JESS: Sorry. It’s been a shitty two days.

NICOLE: Aw, Jess. Go on, tell me what happened.

JESS: It’s Becca.

NICOLE: Becca C?

JESS: Yeah, Becca C. Who else would it be?

NICOLE: Well, it could have been Becca K.

JESS: I don’t live with Becca K, though. I live with Becca C. Or, I used to.

NICOLE: Wait, used to?

JESS: So. Two days ago, I spent the night at Terry’s place.

NICOLE: Oh, how’s that going, by the way?

JESS: Ehh. I’ll tell you on Sunday.

NICOLE: Oh, can we do Sunday morning, though? I have a shift at the restaurant in the afternoon.

JESS: Nicole. Focus.

NICOLE: Right! Sorry.

JESS: I wake up Thursday morning and I head back over to our place, and it’s still early — like, eight A.M. And I pull into the apartment complex, and I see right away that Becca’s car isn’t there. And, like, that’s weird, right? Because Becca doesn’t ever get up before ten. Eleven, if she’s been out drinking. Which… she usually is.

NICOLE: Did she go out on Wednesday?

JESS: I left the apartment at eight P.M., and she was still wearing her sweatpants.

NICOLE: Yeah, but… sometimes she doesn’t get ready to go until like, after nine, right?

JESS: True. But only if she’s done her hair ahead of time. And you wanna know what the state of her hair was, when I left the apartment?

NICOLE: Bun?

JESS: Top bun.

NICOLE: Oof.

JESS: Yeah. She wasn’t going anywhere. And plus, she had been putting out this sort of, like, weird energy all day? I mean, she had been watching The Office since I got home from work, which is not unusual, but she didn’t seem very into it. It as like she had something on her mind.

NICOLE: Brutus! God damn it, if you don’t leave her alone, I will choke you! I will choke you out!

JESS: Just talking to myself here.

NICOLE: No! I’m sorry! I’m listening. Becca was acting weird.

JESS: It wasn’t just weird — I know what weird Becca is like. This was different. So, when I pull into the parking lot the next morning and don’t see her car, my first thought is, oh! She’s finally doing what she said she was gonna do six months ago, she’s going to meet with an academic advisor at the University and see about re-starting her Masters program.

NICOLE: Didn’t she complain about that program, like, all the time? Would you really want that?

JESS: It’d be better than her lying around the apartment all day, doing nothing, complaining about her parents.

NICOLE: Oh, God, never mind. I just remembered what it’s like to hear Becca talk about her parents. I almost forgot.

JESS: I never got that luxury. You’re so lucky.

NICOLE: Hashtag blessed!

JESS: (laughing) Shut up. So, when I got into the apartment, something felt really wrong, like, right away. Like something was different. I couldn’t figure out what it was, but it felt so weird that I decided to check on Becca really quick. I go to knock on her bedroom door, but then I see that it’s not even closed. I push it open the rest of the way, and you know what I see?

NICOLE: What?

JESS: Nothing.

NICOLE: Nothing?

JESS: Nothing! The room was totally empty! Becca cleared out all of her shit and left literally in the middle of the night.

NICOLE: Are you serious? She didn’t leave a note or anything?

JESS: Nothing. I tried texting her, calling her. No response.

NICOLE: That’s so fucking weird.

JESS: Yeah, but here’s the thing: she didn’t just take all of her shit. When I went back into the living room, I realized why it felt so weird in there. Because a bunch of my shit was missing.

NICOLE: She stole your shit?

JESS: She stole my shit! She took my big lamp, she took a bunch of my books, she took my ukelele–

NICOLE: The ukelele I got you for your birthday?

JESS: Yeah!

NICOLE: That bitch!

JESS: She cleared out about half my bottles of liquor. She took all of my How I Met Your Mother DVDs.

NICOLE: Even season nine?

JESS: Even season nine.

NICOLE: Oh my god, who is she?

JESS: Nicole. That’s not even the worst of it. You know what else she took?

NICOLE: What?

JESS: My mattress.

NICOLE: Your mattress? She stole your mattress?

JESS: She stole my mattress.

NICOLE: Like, she took it right out of your room?

JESS: No, no — the mattress she had in her room was actually mine. When we first moved in, she asked if we could switch because the mattress she had was too soft for her to sleep on, and I was like, sure, I don’t care, let’s trade.

NICOLE: Oh. Well… do you think maybe she forgot that you switched? And she just thought she was taking her own mattress?

JESS: No! Because the first mattress she had, the one that ended up in my room? That was my mattress, too.

NICOLE: Wait, so, Becca’s parents are like, super-rich, and not only did she not have her own mattress when you guys moved in together, but she took yours with her when she left?

JESS: Yes.

NICOLE: What a fucking psycho.

JESS: Hey, don’t say that. It’s offensive.

NICOLE: To who? Psychos?

JESS: Well… yeah. But you’re not supposed to say ‘psycho’ any more.

NICOLE: You’re right. But, like… what other word is there? How else would you even describe that behavior?

JESS: That’s not even the worst of it. The mattress that she stole? I was actually borrowing it from my aunt and uncle. They gave it to me for free, I just had to promise I’d have it back before their son finished college and needed it for his apartment, and I said, sure, because I thought by then Becca would have gotten her shit together to a high enough degree that she would at least be able to buy her own fucking mattress.

NICOLE: Do you know when your cousin is moving in to his apartment?

JESS: Yeah, next month.

NICOLE: Jesus! This is so completely fucked. Like, I knew Becca had problems, but she literally robbed you and disappeared. Who even does that? Who steals a fucking mattress?

JESS: And now I have to pay for a replacement mattress. I’m out at least six-hundred dollars, not even counting all the rest of the shit she stole.

NICOLE: Wait. Wait, hold on. Do we know for sure that Becca took all that stuff?

JESS: Nicole–

NICOLE: Oh! What if someone broke into your apartment last night? And they took all your stuff, and then–

JESS: Nicole, calm down, Becca’s not… dead, or kidnapped, or whatever.

NICOLE: How do you know?

JESS: Have you been on Instagram today?

NICOLE: I’m trying to do this thing where I don’t check it until I’ve done at least one productive thing, because you know I used to check it right when I woke up? And not just Insta, I would check Facebook and Twitter, too — and Snapchat, when that was still a thing — and first of all, it was making me super anxious, because the world is so fucked that you can’t read the news without having it fuck up your whole day, and second it was, like, a huge time suck, right at the beginning of the day, when I should be getting up and jogging or doing meal prep, or… whatever.

JESS: So, that’s a ‘no’?

NICOLE: Yeah! No.

JESS: Well, Becca posted an update to her story just one hour ago.

NICOLE: Oh, shit. Where was she?

JESS: According to the location tag she used, she’s somewhere in the middle of the Nebraska.

NICOLE: What the fuck.

JESS: There were two posts. The first one was just a picture of a corn field or some shit —

NICOLE: What filter did she use?

JESS: …

NICOLE: Sorry.

JESS: And there was a caption, and I quote: “Start spreadin’ the news.”

NICOLE: “Spreadin’?” Like, with an apostrophe and everything?

JESS: Do you know what that is?

NICOLE: It’s fucking gross is what it is.

JESS: No, Nicole, that’s the first line of that song. “New York, New York?”

NICOLE: Wait. Wait. No, that can’t… wait. Are you sure?

JESS: Do you know what the second update was?

NICOLE: A selfie?

JESS: Yeah, of course.

NICOLE: Of course.

JESS: Nicole. This bitch was parked by the side of the road, sitting on the hood of her ugly-ass broken-down Range Rover, flashing the peace sign, with the caption, “I’m leavin’ today.”

NICOLE: Jess, stop.

JESS: And you know what was strapped to her roof?

NICOLE: No.

JESS: My fucking mattress.

NICOLE: Becca is driving from Boulder to New York City with your mattress strapped to the roof of her car?

JESS: Yah.

NICOLE: Jess, I… I don’t even know what to say. This is the crazi–this is the most bizarre thing I have ever heard. How could–oh, fuck.

JESS: What?

NICOLE: It’s Brutus, he’s trying to fight another dog. HEY, IDIOT, CALM DOWN! What? No, sir, no, I wasn’t talking to you, I was talking to the dog. What? Well, no, he’s not MY dog, listen, I–

JESS: Nicole?

NICOLE: I’m sorry, Jess, I gotta go real quick.

JESS: Yeah, sure.

NICOLE: Talk to you Sunday?

JESS: Talk to you Sunday.

NICOLE: Cool. Jesus Christ, your fucking mattress — BRUTUS IF YOU DO NOT GET YOUR NOSE OUT OF THAT MAN’S CROTCH RIGHT NOW NOW YOU ARE GOING HOME IN A BODY BAG, I SWEAR TO GOD.

The Complete Videos: 2016

Don’t Let Me Down

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Closer

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

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

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

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

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

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

I mean, come on.

All We Know

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

1. You would be right.

2. This is a rough estimate.

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

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

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

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

The Chainsmokers: Memories

To call The Chainsmokers: Memories a ‘documentary’ is a stretch. Though the opening titles bill it as “a film by John Sands,” there is little about the form and the content of Memories to differentiate it from a web series. Initially, it was indeed released as a series of twenty four chapters, with each chapter ranging between one and five minutes in length, following The Chainsmokers as they embarked on a nationwide arena tour in 2017. While Memories mostly sticks to this central premise, there are few attempts to build continuity between the chapters or to draw out any larger, more interesting story from the events depicted, and while the whole project is well shot and sharply edited, in the end it mostly resembles the sort of behind-the-scenes bonus feature often found on special edition DVDs.

For example: one entire episode is devoted entirely to footage of a guest appearance by Florida Georgia Line, who join the Chainsmokers onstage to perform “Last Day Alive.” During the course of this episode, the only thing we learn is that Drew Taggart considers the members of Florida Georgia Line to be “fun-loving guys” who make great music and are “always down to just rock out.” The episode before that is a mere fifty-three seconds and features the group’s videographer Rory Kramer recounting the thoroughly unimpressive story of how he met Taggart and Pall. Another episode documents a bizarre moment on tour wherein the Chainsmokers crash a high school prom, which is about as awkward as it sounds but only half as fascinating.

Some chapters feature interviews with friends and family of Taggart and Pall, which ostensibly offer a new perspective on the group and their origins but mostly exist as an excuse to share pictures of teenage Drew with a mohawk and coax adulatory quotes out of industry titans such as Chris Martin and Zedd. The most insightful of these quotes comes from Mr. Coldplay himself, concerning those who would challenge the legitimacy of what the Chainsmokers have accomplished:

“To say that DJs who make music aren’t musicians is to assume that all instruments had finished being invented in the 19th century. When the harpsichord was overtaken by the piano, no one said “oh everyone who writes music on the piano is an idiot.” So, in the same way, you get people like Drew, who they… they play the computer, like an instrument.”

“Insightful” here being a relative term. Thanks, Chris.

The closest that The Chainsmokers: Memories comes to any sort of arc is the slow physical and mental disintegration of Taggart and Pall over the course of their grueling sixty-day tour, and the differences in how the two of them are affected goes a long way towards demonstrating their unique personalities and roles within the band.

Apart from general exhaustion, the greatest setback Pall suffers is a broken rib, which he receives during a drunken wrestling match that breaks out on his birthday. The fact that Pall’s birthday party results in the formation of a ersatz fight club, along with the fact that this event is viewed as an inevitability by everyone who witnesses it, is perhaps the single strongest evidence provided by Memories in support of the widely-accepted idea that the Chainsmokers are a couple of empty-headed aggro frat boys. If the goal of Memories is to humanize Taggart and Pall, then this moment is its greatest failure, making the two of them seem unpleasant and almost obnoxious to be around.

On the other hand, what we see of Taggart’s struggles with self-esteem and depression are humanizing, and they come close to being full-on endearing. Taggart has made no secret of the fact that he’s not a singer by trade, and Memories is likewise transparent about this, showing Taggart struggling during multiple lessons with his vocal coach. As the tour wears on and Taggart’s voice begins to suffer, we see his confidence falter and self-doubt begin to creep in — the latter made literal in an agonizing scene wherein a doctor inserts a long tube-shaped camera through Taggart’s nasal passages in order to examine his vocal chords. This, in turn, leads to genuinely sweet moment where Taggart reveals his intense fear of needles and the camera operator offers to hold his hand — an offer that Taggart accepts with none of the self-consciousness you might expect.

The most interesting stuff in Memories involves Taggart and Pall reacting to their critics, occasionally in real time: in one sequence, someone behind the camera hands Taggart a cell phone so he can read a negative review. He gets a few lines in before chuckling and exclaiming, “damn, dude, this guy’s pissed.”

But it’s not all laughter: when Taggart concedes that there are some criticisms he agrees with, a look of real disappointment crosses his face, a rare vulnerable moment demonstrating that no matter how you may feel about the Chainsmokers, they do see themselves as artists, and as such, they feel the same frustration that any creative person feels when they don’t reach their own standards. When Taggart calls their first album “rushed” and reveals that he considers it unfinished, it’s a bracing moment of honesty from one half of a duo that is often painted as tragically egotistical.

Not all such moments are quite as refreshing, though; some are downright uncomfortable. Both Taggart and Pall complain about being treated unfairly by critics, specifically by the author of the famous Billboard cover story that solidified the duo’s public image in most people’s minds. Staring dead-eyed into the camera, Pall ominously claims that the this particular journalist “stole” a moment from them during what should have been the peak of their career, repeatedly insisting that everything they said in that interview was taken out of context and used against them.

Aside from a few stray comments, the Chainsmokers seem less bitter about their critics than honestly perplexed. At one point, Taggart describes the surreal feeling of having people criticize your entire body of work while you have the number one song in the country. While that sentiment may come off as a humble-brag in any other context, when Taggart says it, he seems to genuinely be grappling with what he sees as a major contradiction. Anyone who has ever experienced self-doubt should be able to empathize with his crestfallen realization that no amount of financial success will be enough to quiet his critics, both external and internal.

It’s not a new issue — performers, even successful ones, have been subject to harsh criticism for at least as long as music and language have existed — but Taggart and Pall face a unique challenge in having achieved fame in an era where all criticism is easily accessible, from thoughtful, printed journalism to anonymous Twitter comments. The amount of criticism they receive is probably no different than it would have been in a different era, but it’s all so much more immediate now. It would take them less than a minute of googling to find a slew of people passionately arguing against not only their continued relevance but their very existence.

In what is by far the most affecting moment in the entire series, Taggart opens up on his struggles with depression, and how it intersected with his seemingly perfect existence:

“We fucking lied. We never show how hard we’ve worked to get to where we are now. We just post about us DJing in front of huge crowds and having fun with our friends, which we do a lot, but there is a really hard dark side to this that you just don’t see. I was depressed for the first time in my life during the most exciting part of our career… and I didn’t really realize I was depressed until I wasn’t.”

Taggart’s comment may seem to fly in the face of some widely-accepted ideas about depression, but it’s maybe one of the most insightful comments on the subject I’ve ever heard from a non-professional. Even if it seems clear in hindsight, it can be difficult to recognize depression in the moment, particularly if you have a limited understanding of how it manifests. Being cushioned, as Taggart was in this time, from the more menial and unpleasant aspects of day-to-day living, would only make it harder to comprehend whatever symptoms he experienced; if you spend every day of your life living your dreams, what does it mean if you’re still not happy? What does it mean if you actually feel worse than you did before?

If you live a normal life wherein you are fully vulnerable to the million little pains and disappointments of everyday existence, at least you have some sort of context to understand your darker thoughts. What’s more, you don’t have anyone in your life whose entire job is to keep you in a perpetual state of anesthetized satisfaction. While you or I might lack the privileges that come with a life like Taggart’s, this is one situation where, strange as it may seem, we actually have an advantage.

But in spite of some minor revelations and the occasional moment of honesty, there’s a constant feeling of artifice hanging over the entirety of Memories. This isn’t surprising or even necessarily damning; this entire project is basically the video version of a puff piece, meant to give the illusion of a look into the lives of Taggart and Pall. The fact that it doesn’t offer any earth-shattering insight is part of the design, and it would be dishonest to criticize the work based on a standard to which it clearly does not aspire.

The unfortunate truth, however, is that that same sense of artificiality begins to seep into the band as well, mostly due to a single anecdote from early on in the series, related by Pall and his longtime manager Adam Alpert. While you would be forgiven for believing that the Chainsmokers came into existence as a collaboration between Pall and Taggart, the truth is that Pall was DJing with another person (Rhett Bixler) under that name for at least three years. It was only after Alpert began to represent Pall that Bixler left the band and Taggart came onboard to fill the vacancy. In the group’s own words, this led to an arrangement wherein Pall began teaching Taggart how to DJ while Taggart taught Pall how to produce.

This story is not some closely-guarded secret. To paraphrase John Darnielle, it happened in 2012; it’s on their wikipedia page. Yet, hearing it in Memories was the first time I had cause to consider it in the larger context of the Chainsmokers’ entire existence. This is not an artistic pairing that bore the fruit of creative collaboration — I mean, it is that, in the sense that the duo’s entire existing discography is a result of their partnership. But the brand of the Chainsmokers existed long before Taggart began producing songs under that name. Indeed, the mildly successful status of their extant brand is the only reason Apert and Pall even reached out to Taggart at all. To put it bluntly, Taggart was, originally, a mere second body, summoned forth to fill a pre-assigned role because, hey, if you booked the Chainsmokers, you expect two guys to show up.

It shouldn’t be a problem that Pall worked with someone else before he met Taggart; hell, even the Beatles cycled through two extraneous members before finalizing their ranks. It also shouldn’t be a problem that Pall wanted to capitalize on the success he had found under the Chainsmokers moniker, rather than start an entirely new group. Building a fanbase is difficult, and it’s hard to begrudge him holding onto the relatively benign advantage of name recognition. None of this should be a problem.

But there’s something about the cumulative effect of all twenty-four chapters of The Chainsmokers: Memories that makes it a problem. The glossy frivolousness of the entire project combined with the impression it gives of Pall as a shrewd and somewhat boorish businessman contrasted with the relatively tender spirit and still-evolving artistry of Taggart makes the group’s entire career seem suspect. Was “#SELFIE” really a joke song that went viral as a fluke, or was it a carefully executed attempt to capture the success of similar hits like “Harlem Shake?” Is Taggart’s expanded role as singer and frontman a genuine example of artistic growth and risk-taking, or a calculated move to solidify the group’s artistic identity without relying on guest performers? Are the lyrics about self-doubt and identity in the group’s new songs an honest examination of their personal struggles, or simply a crass way of expanding their audience by playing off of our universal anxieties? And does knowing the answer to any of these questions change anything if you still enjoy their music?

The problem with The Chainsmokers: Memories isn’t that you can’t tell what’s real and what’s fake; it’s the fact that, in the end, it doesn’t even matter.

Side Effects

“Side Effects” is such a radical departure from everything the Chainsmokers have been doing this year that it suggests a major shift in their current strategy. It originally seemed that Taggart and Pall planned to release one song a month for the entire year, but it’s been three full months since their previous single “Somebody”, which made only a minor impact on the charts. Of the four songs they released between January and April, “Sick Boy” has been the most successful, and even that hasn’t come anywhere near the group’s past hits.

The underwhelming performance of the group’s recent singles might be the reasoning behind the stylistic pivot of “Side Effects.” “Side Effects” is the first of their 2018 singles where Andrew Taggart does not perform lead vocals and the first not to address the subjects that have become the band’s primary thematic concerns: the negative effects of social media, the dangers of fame, and the way those things intersect in modern times. Instead, “Side Effects” is a self-consciously fun and breezy “summer bop” with highly relatable lyrics and none of the darkness that has accompanied their previous four songs.

While it lacks the bracing honesty and weirdness of something like “Everybody Hates Me,” “Side Effects” does make for a fine piece of mid-summer pop-funk with a sprinkling of classic house style. The strutting, bass-heavy instrumental bears more than a passing resemblance to the recent output of one Charles Otto Puth Jr., but (hopefully) not enough to draw the ire of his most ravenous fans — “Sick Boy” lifted some stylistic elements from a few songs by Twenty One Pilots and that band’s cultish followers still haven’t shut up about it.

Lyrically, frequent co-writer Emily Warren revisits the subject matter of previous songs like “Don’t Say” and “My Type,” tirelessly reporting on the intoxicating ups and downs of being attracted to someone who you know you shouldn’t be with. If the lyrics are lacking in the deliciously anti-social and specifically modern barbs of this era’s previous singles (“how many likes is my life worth,” “I don’t really like anybody,” etc.), it’s only because the subject matter is so much more conventional.

“Conventional” in this case is not necessarily a negative — everyone involved in the production and writing of this song knows exactly how to deliver a solid dance track, and Warren gives her best vocal performance on a Chainsmokers song since “Until You Were Gone”. If “Side Effects” had been released between “All We Know” and “Setting Fires” it would rank as one of the most straight-up enjoyable songs the band has ever released. The only problem with this song is the potential future it suggests for the Chainsmokers, one that is considerably less interesting than the direction they seemed to be heading in.

If their recently singles failed to perform as well as expected, it only makes sense that the Chainsmokers — or, more likely, someone at Columbia records — would want to alter their approach. It would be a shame if “Side Effects” marks the end of the era that began with “Sick Boy,” forcing the Chainsmokers to retreat into a style that has paid such high dividends in the past, churning out pop-EDM with generic lyrics sung by a roster of faceless indie performers (and, occasionally, Chris Martin), but it wouldn’t be surprising. The folks at Columbia don’t have any reason to care that the Chainsmokers were just coming into their own as musicians and developing a unique identity within a space that few other acts could occupy; all that matters to them is that the boys can keep churning out hits, and once you put up numbers like they did with “Closer,” it’s awfully hard to go back.

There is, however, a more charitable interpretation of this song’s existence: namely, that Taggart and Pall wanted to give their long-term collaborator and friend Emily Warren a proper spotlight on one of their singles, now that they’ve established their own identity and no longer feel pressured to consign her to ‘uncredited guest vocals’ as they did om “Paris.” It would take a bit of naivete to believe this version of events, but that doesn’t place it entirely outside the realm of possibility.

Really, we won’t be able to fully understand the philosophy of “Side Effects” until we hear what the Chainsmokers release next — which, in all likelihood, is dependent on what the general reaction is to “Side Effects.” Meaning that, even if you enjoy this song (as I do), you can’t help but feel a little gross about what it represents. It’s a complicated situation — exactly the sort of thing that the Chainsmokers used to write songs about.