I’ll tell you a story before it tells itself
It would be easy for me to say that “This Feeling” sounds like the Chainsmokers trying to combine elements of their two biggest hits with co-writer Emily Warren’s long-running preoccupation with self-destructive romantic relationships; after all, it’s got the male/female duet format of “Closer,” the alt-rock stylings of “Something Just Like This”, and the lyrical themes of… well, “Closer” again, but also “Side Effects,” “All We Know,” “My Type”, etc. The first half of the song (before Taggart’s vocals kick in) could be from any number of contemporary electro-pop songs featuring a strong female vocal, particularly Zedd-produced tracks like “Starving” or “The Middle”, with the latter being especially relevant given that it, like “This Feeling”, re-purposes a country singer into the context of an upbeat dance song. Speaking of which, Kelsea Ballerini is a shrewd choice for a guest vocalist; she’s a proven success within the country-music demographic, a market that has gone entirely untapped by the Chainsmokers to this point. And they’re not the only ones who benefit: as a mainstream artist working within an authenticity-obsessed medium, Ballerini has to perform a delicate dance to remain acceptable to her audience, so appearing on a track where she can completely shed her country-music roots and aim straight for the pop charts is a savvy career move on her part. Every element of “This Feeling” can, if you’re so inclined, be broken down into a series of crass, cynical decision with direct commercial implications, turning the song itself into a mere conglomeration of parts, each one meticulously designed and implemented with the aim of appealing to the widest possible audience of people. The weird thing is that none of that matters and it never will.
I’ll lay out all my reasons, you’ll say that I need help
There’s a reason why this kind of song is popular, and I don’t just mean the type of song produced by Zedd or Clean Bandit or Calvin Harris — I also mean songs specifically produced by the Chainsmokers themselves: “Something Just Like This” and “Closer” were massive hits for the group, enough to ensure retained cultural presence for two years straight. If the tides of time wash clean everything else the Chainsmokers have ever touched, “Closer” will still be immortalized on whatever form the Time Life collections take thirty years from now, and Coldplay’s co-ownership of “Something Just Like This” ensures that it will be remembered as a least curious footnote in that band’s long, strange career. Here’s a statement that seems self-evident but will be endlessly frustrating to a significant number of people: this popularity means something. No piece of media becomes this successful by accident, as much as that may often seem to be the case. Okay, yes, there are powerful, corporate-run forces in our capitalist society that use their influence to insidiously control the conversation surrounding music (well, there’s mainly just the one), but you know that old saying? About horses, and how you can present an appealing option to them, but you can’t make them do the thing you want them to do unless they actually want to do it? This is what that’s about. Yes. This exact situation.
We all got expectations and sometimes they gone wrong
So, if these songs are all popular for a reason, what is the reason? It’s an obvious answer, so obvious that feels ridiculous, borderline insulting to write it. But there’s really no way around it, so unless we want to waste our time, we might as well put it out there. People like these songs for the same reason they like any song: because it sounds good and it’s fun to listen to. Whatever musical elements make up the song hit the pleasure center of their brain in an appealing way, while the lyrics connect with them on some level. There are other ways to listen to music and analyze its influences, the exact structure of the work, how the artists position themselves culturally, etc., but most of the people who listen to music hear a song and decide whether they like it or not based on how it immediately affects them. To the extent that they consider it critically, all of their thoughts are based on their initial reactions. Critics are not excluded from this, either. It’s impossible to write about music without taking your own enjoyment of it into consideration, and even if you could, why would you want to? Even if every song was really nothing but a group of components dispassionately assembled in a specific order to incite a certain reaction, the reaction would still be the culmination of the entire process. If you could actually hear to a song without experiencing it, it would cease to be the potentially life-altering experience it is now and would become nothing more than an unentertaining chore, a clinical dissection of an object you can’t even see. If music could be accurately criticized, no one would ever listen to it.
But no one listens to me, so I put it in this song
Another weird thing is that everybody already knows this to be true. We are, as a culture, so aware of the disconnect between our experience of music and the objective reality of it that we invented a new term in order to categorize art that we enjoy but simultaneously believe to be unworthy of enjoyment. A “guilty pleasure” is a piece of art that moves your body, your heart, even your soul, but which you feel you must, for some reason, distance yourself from. For various cultural reasons, there are some works that we feel must be held out at arm’s length, separate from ourselves, even as we embrace the effect the work has on us. But why? It doesn’t work like that the other way around. If you encounter a piece of art that you critically determine to be worthy of praise, yet you yourself remain unmoved by it, you don’t place in a category meant to delegitimize it as a work (or at least you’re not supposed to). In fact, sometimes people will repeatedly expose themselves to a piece of art that they know they’re supposed to like, over and over, just to see if maybe they can trigger a single pleasurable experience. This is a fool’s errand, a life-wasting exercise in masochism, and it has lead to more bad takes than any other cultural practice. We could wipe out every obnoxiously contrarian “But What If It’s Actually Bad”-style think-piece in a week’s time if we stopped fetishizing the outdated idea of an artistic cannon. We’re never going to do this, of course, but it’s worth remembering that we could if we wanted to.
They tell me think with my head,
Not that thing in my chest
They got their hands on my neck this time
Drew Taggart, ever the poet, claims that “This Feeling” is about “being yourself and not giving a fuck what people think about you.” In the song, this is a reference to a romantic relationship, presumably a bad one — there are a few hints in the second verse that things between this couple are not ideal, but for the most part, we don’t get many details about the relationship itself, because the relationship isn’t important. What’s important is that this relationship makes the narrator feel good, while everyone around them insists that they’re making a mistake. The narrator’s response to this is incredibly human and unsurprisingly combative. If you’re being made to feel guilty about something that you experience as unambiguously positive, you essentially have two choices: completely abandon any illusion of agency within your own life and admit that your every decision is controlled by outside forces, or resolve to not give a fuck. This can admittedly be a somewhat imprudent attitude to adopt when navigating the emotional minefield of a romantic relationship — it is entirely possible that a friend who has your best interests in mind can examine your situation from a different point of view and offer up valuable advice. Sometimes, people want you to think with your head because your heart is being stupid. But the same reasoning doesn’t apply to music. After all, has anyone ever been convinced, by any argument of any scope and intelligence, that their favorite band is “actually bad?” Can you imagine what you would think if someone even tried to do that? Even if it was your best friend, the person’s who opinion you value most in the world, you probably wouldn’t give a fuck. Now imagine if it was some bozo writing an online culture magazine.
But you’re the one that I want,
And if that’s really so wrong
Then they don’t know what this feeling is like
“This Feeling” does not present a universally applicable maxim for living a truly fulfilled life. But it doesn’t have to do that; it’s a pop song. All it has to do is keep you entertained for about three minutes. It can be more than that, obviously. A truly exceptional pop song can stay with you for much longer, becoming so intertwined with your own personal experiences and memories that the song becomes a fixture of your life, an beacon of intense emotional power shining throughout the years to mark one single point of pure, iridescent joy. It can also be a neat thing to play at parties, or in your car. Music criticism can be interesting and even enlightening, but no amount of words will ever substitute a single experience like that. I’m not saying that we should stop talking about music altogether; again, even if that were actually a good idea, we’re never going to do it. I’m also not advocating for an anti-intellectual, gut feeling-driven philosophy or attitude, at least not when it comes to important things, like social justice or climate change. All I’m trying to say is: let’s not forget what we’re talking about here. This is a pop song. The entire chorus is the word “yeah” repeated about fifty times. It’s good and it’s fun to listen to, and if you disagree, I don’t give a fuck and I never will.
And I say: