Music

Finishing The Closer Review

I’d just finished writing the ‘Closer’ review. I laid down on my bed and fell into a deep sleep and when I awoke, I believed I’d told a lie.

Not on purpose, though. When I wrote about why millennials responded so strongly to ‘Closer’, I was trying to be honest — even as I buried it under enough qualifiers to disguise the fact that I was essentially calling it “the soundtrack of a generation.”¹ My point didn’t center on any specific event within the song’s narrative; rather, I was arguing that the general impression of life conveyed by the lyrics clearly resonated with a lot of people, and that the song owes much of its remarkable success to that resonance.

But how could I be honest about this song’s lyrical content without mentioning the fact that I have never experienced anything even remotely similar to the central narrative? The primary romantic relationship of my life began when I was a teenager and, precluding any serious catastrophe, will continue until roughly the time that I am dead. I have never and will never hook up with a financially destitute ex-lover after a chance encounter at a hotel bar. I don’t think I’m unique in this regard — out of the millions of people who have deliberately listened to ‘Closer,’ it is unlikely that all of them have gone through the identical experience — but the facts of my life are so dissimilar from the situation depicted in this song that it would probably bear mention, if I were being totally honest.

I knew I was lying when I wrote about that part of the song. But I didn’t have a choice. It’s already difficult enough to convince people to read something that you wrote on the internet; it would be nearly impossible to do so if you opened every bit of writing with a lengthy disclosure about your personal life. I don’t think it was necessarily wrong to hold back that bit of personal detail, but that’s not the issue here. The issue is: does it matter? Is the fact that ‘Closer’ resonates with my despite my experiential disconnect with the subject matter proof of the song’s genius? Or does my entire argument collapse if the idea of ‘relatability’ is undermined, rendering the entire discussion meaningless?

Also central to the thesis of my ‘Closer’ review was the inherent magic of youth and the unavoidable tragedy of its ending. I wasn’t being totally disingenuous — there is, after all, a reason why many people look back nostalgically on their adolescence. Youth has its advantages: many parts of life still feel exciting and new, the world seems full of possibilities, and physical decrepitude is a distant idea. But my personal experience of being young is that, quite frankly, it blows.

I spent the majority of my teenage years emotionally and mentally distressed for reasons that were unknowable to me. Every aspect of my life was governed by rules that seemed antithetical to my well-being. The endless possibilities of the world left me paralyzed in a near-constant state of anxiety and I felt disconnected from my own body in a way that caused no end of distress. And in the grand scheme of things, I was actually doing very well. I lived a life of privilege and opportunity that would have seemed absolutely foreign to other people my age. Societal currents and purely random chance conspire to rob many people of the carefree, wonder-filled youth that our culture promises them.²

The magic and wonder of youth is a highly subjective concept, accessible only to a rare few. For many others, myself included, the experience of youth is better captured by the unreleased Mountain Goats song, “You Were Cool”:

It’s good to be young, but let’s not kid ourselves
It’s better to pass on through those years and come out the other side
With our hearts still beating
Having stared down demons
Come back breathing

Even when I was trying to be honest, I addressed my true feelings only glancingly, such as my one-line digression about the lyric “I drink too much and that’s an issue, but I’m okay.” I singled this lyric out as a particularly insightful character note, but neglected to mention that it’s also one of the truest pieces of songwriting that I’ve ever heard.

This attitude, more than any grandiose carpe diem-type sentiments about living in the moment, best captures my experience of being young. I can think of dozens of people — myself included — who have acknowledged that their relationship to alcohol is toxic, enough so that it has negatively impacted their life, only to casually shrug it off because they haven’t descended into full-fledged alcoholism. This is privilege only afforded to the young, people with enough freedom to get absolutely obliterated on a regular basis and not totally disrupt their lives. This single, wonderfully observant detail was enough for this song to win me over, and yet I barely mentioned it in my review; not because I was embarrassed by it, but because it would have felt out of place within the argument I was constructing.

Once again, I don’t think it was wrong to do this. But it certainly wasn’t honest.

Reading over the Closer review, I don’t hate it. I’m sure there are things I could have done better if I’d spent more time on it, but I set a strict timeline for publication and I wanted to stick to it. And even if I had found a way to seamlessly integrate all the information I’ve laid out here into the original article, that would only be a cosmetic change. There’s something else bothering me, something that runs deeper than a few personal details. Something at the bottom of all of this that just doesn’t seem right. A bigger lie than any of the other ones I told. And I’m not sure what it is.³

Maybe it has something to do with the last line — or, I suppose, the “kicker”, if you want to be technical — a last-minute flourish that I only later came to realize was directly lifted from the title of The Decemberists’ 2015 album What a Terrible World, What a Beautiful World. But it could just as easily have come from any overwrought piece of criticism I’ve absorbed over the past decade.

If I had to guess, I’d say that there’s probably an article buried deep in the archives of Pitchfork.com with the exact same ending. For several years, Pitchfork was my only source of music journalism and was, to my underdeveloped collegiate mind, the only objective arbiter of musical taste. If I made the mistake of enjoying an album that wasn’t rated about a 7.0, I had to perform a series of increasingly complex mental gymnastics to justify it to myself.

This borderline-pathological compulsion to legitimize my own taste was especially tiring, considering my longtime obsession with pop music and how much mental energy I devoted to it. I did eventually break free from my slavish devotion to whatever the editors of Pitchfork deigned to label the Best New Music, but not before I had constructed an elaborate critical framework around my own enjoyment, to the point where I couldn’t enjoy a song by a widely-maligned EDM duo without exploding that pleasure out into an inherently ridiculous long-term writing project.

Hypothetically speaking, I mean.

1: Again, my goal here was not to obfuscate my point, which is essentially very simple, but to avoid the sort of obvious and hackneyed writing that would cause any potential reader to wrinkle their nose in disgust. I think this is understandable.

2: It should go without saying that my sociological analysis here is extremely under-developed, but to honest, I have more personal reservations about this paragraph that dwarf any other concerns.

3: That is not wholly true.

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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.