Pop Music

Bloodstream

How many times in one week is too many times to be drunk? Asking for a friend.

The Chainsmokers pose this question at the outset of “Bloodstream,” a slow, contemplative track from their debut album Memories…Do Not Open. It’s a question that hangs over the whole song: the chorus features the refrain “I’m fucked up, I’m faded,” the second verse opens with with a lyrical parallel between binge drinking and depression — even the song’s title is an oblique reference to the narrator’s blood alcohol content.

It’s an interesting question, but several things about it remain unclear. First of all: what is the issue here, exactly? The song’s somber tone and the artlessly self-excoriating lyrics suggest that the narrator is doing something wrong by drinking to excess on three nights out of seven, but is the problem that he wants to get drunk too often? Or is the problem that he has the means by which to get drunk too often? More succinctly: is this an issue of desire or ability?

Based on the lyrics, it would be easy to assume that the narrator’s desire to drink away his troubles is the real concern. He shows a good deal of dissatisfaction with his life, from the troubling disconnect between his wants and his needs (“I thought I don’t need that much/I guess I was out of touch”) all the way down to his living situation (“Things were sweet three months ago/When I was living how I wanted, on my own”).

In the chorus, he expresses frustration towards himself (“I’m so complicated”), demonstrating the sort of soul-baring self-hatred that can only be attained through years of practice or through one night of emotionally irresponsible alcohol consumption. The narrator regrets the things that he’s said and the way they were taken, regarding them as “overrated”, i.e., not worthy of the attention that has been directed towards them.

There is a potential for redemption suggested in this dismissal of his past actions — apologize for what you’ve done, acknowledge that you can do better, and the problem is solved. But something holds him back and prevents him from doing the one thing that would make his life better. He stands by his words: “But I meant it/Yeah, I really fucking meant it.” Is this pride? Or just the result of a prominent self-destructive streak?

To address the question of ability, we must look outside the song’s lyrics and to the words of the artists themselves. In their track-by-track breakdown of Memories…Do Not Open originally published on Facebook on the eve of the album’s release, the Chainsmokers had this to say about “Bloodstream”:

In the year that we spent writing this album, a lot changed. We experienced fame for the first time. It wasn’t what we expected. After years of being relatively unknown, all of a sudden people were commenting on everything we did from what we wore to what we tweeted. The feeling of being taken out of context and misrepresented in the media weighed heavily on us. While the song represents the frustration in dealing with our newfound attention it also touches on relationship. We are often criticized for being “party boys” in what seems to be an attempt to discredit our artistry, when in fact, our partying has led to some of our most sobering song writing moments. We wrote this song at 4am in London after one of our shows at Brixton. Bloodstream is about the acceptance of who we are from ourselves.

Obviously, there’s a lot to unpack here: the defensive scare-quotes around “party boys,” the faulty syntax of “it also touches on relationship” and the confounding assertion that this song is about “the acceptance of who we are from ourselves.” But for now, let’s take a step back and consider what this tells us about the song as a whole.

With the added context that comes from the image of an early-morning post-concert writing session, we can understand that “Bloodstream” is actually about the struggle to come to terms with newfound fame and attention. Andrew Taggart and Alex Pall feel their actions and words are overly scrutinized by the media and, as a form of self-medication, they have taken to overindulgence of alcohol.

As strange as it may seem, in order to understand this song we must put aside any concerns we have about whether or not Taggart and Pall’s actions are worthy of criticism. Because regardless of whether one is right or wrong, one still feels the stress of criticism in the same way. And in times of great stress, even when it’s not the most sensible option, it’s only natural to reach for something that will numb and temporarily disintegrate those painful feelings.

The unique aspect to this situation is that Taggart and Pall are well-paid musicians working in the public eye. They have a career that affords them a certain lifestyle, and this lifestyle affords them the ability to get drunk nearly as often as they want. They have the funds and the free time to binge drink between shows (and, potentially, before and during shows) and feel little consequence to these choices, whereas someone working a more typical nine-to-five job might see their performance and reputation suffer if they show up to work hungover multiple times in the same week.

In the end, “Bloodstream” tells a tale as old as time, or at least nearly that old: the exceptional pressures and unique opportunities of life inside the entertainment industry enable those within the profession to pursue their self-destructive tendencies to the furthest end. When viewed through this context, keeping in mind the tragic fates that have befallen other musicians with substance abuse problems, the idea of getting drunk a little too often seems almost quaint in comparison, and  not especially deserving of any serious self-interrogation.

For the rest of us, though, it’s still an open question.

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Break Up Every Night

At first glance, there’s not a lot to say about “Break Up Every Night,” the second track on Memories…Do Not Open; it’s a catchy, fast-paced song that utilizes the style of pop-punk and mid-2000’s alt-rock to deliver a deeply silly (and mildly offensive) story about a relationship between two unstable young people. In the context of the album, it’s rare burst of energy among a group of tracks that can sometimes blend together. Looking at it critically, it’s difficult to find anything to engage with. Even still, I find it interesting, but what I find more interesting is the fact that I find it interesting.

For example: “Break Up Every Night” represents the biggest — and perhaps only — creative gamble on the album. Unlike most of the songs here, it doesn’t seem reverse-engineered from the DNA of their runaway hit “Closer”, nor does it cast the Chainsmokers as semi-anonymous producers backing better-known artists. “Break Up Every Night” actually demonstrates the group’s willingness to experiment. Granted, the group’s attempt to step outside of their comfort zone is simply adjusting their style to resemble that of a radio-ready indie-pop band — but it shows an interest in growth or, at the very least, an attempt to reach out beyond their current audience.

Or rather, it would show that, if “Break Up Every Night” had been a single. Five songs — nearly half the tracks on the album — were released to radio, but “Break Up Every Night” was not. An odd choice, given the song’s obvious aspirations towards crossover appeal, but not entirely unheard of, particularly in the age of digital streaming, when any single track can potentially break free of an album and climb the iTunes charts unbidden.

But the lack of radio support seems a bit stranger when you consider that “Break Up Every Night” was co-written by songwriting/production team Captain Cuts, a three-man collective closely affiliated with radio-ready indie-pop bands GroupLove and Walk The Moon. It’s not hard to imagine a label executive pairing up Captain Cuts with the Chainsmokers in the hopes of recreating the success of “Tongue Tied” or “Shut Up And Dance” — in fact, considering the pressure that they must have been feeling to score another hit, it would be surprising if that didn’t happen.

The situation becomes a bit stranger, however, when you consider that Captain Cuts then recruited their lesser-known associates from the indie band Smallpools. Despite having nearly all of their music produced by a trio of known hit makers, Smallpools remain basically unknown. It’s difficult, then, to imagine what could be the benefit of tossing three more cooks into the already overflowing proverbial broth of this song.

Throw in the standard credits for Andrew Taggart on songwriting and Alex Pall on production (along with DJ Swivel, who receives a co-production credit on the entire album) and you end up with nine credited songwriters all working on a song that landed the coveted second track on the Chainsmokers debut album (a track number usually reserved for lead singles) and was then completely forgotten about.

This is certainly a lot of information, but none of it is very interesting. One could argue that it is always worthwhile to consider the amount of effort that goes into the music that most people consider “disposable,” but that’s only interesting on a grand scale. When you break it down to a case-by-case basis (particularly when discussing a band that is widely dismissed or disparaged), any larger point grows fuzzy and indefinable; the whole thing starts to feel like trivia. But trivia only matters if it relates to something that people care about. Star Wars trivia is interesting. Trivia about the Rolling Stones is interesting. Trivia that revolves around the creative minds behind a 2017 Neon Trees single is… I’m not even sure what it is. But it’s not interesting.

And yet, somebody does care. Somebody is out there right now, poring over the Wikipedia page for Memories…Do Not Open and puzzling over the fact that a song with a small army of talent behind it was performed once on Saturday Night Live and then forgotten forever. And that same person is reading reviews of that same SNL performance and struggling to understand if the underwhelming response to “Break Up Every Night” led to it being nixed as a future single — but then, that doesn’t make any sense, because the Chainsmokers have been receiving mixed reviews for the entire careers, but they’re still releasing singles at an almost alarming rate. And that same person is checking the Chainsmokers’ stats on setlist.fm to determine if they abandoned “Break Up Every Night” the way their label seems to have abandoned it, only to find that, no, it’s their eighth most-played song in concert!

I know this person exists, because this person is me. Admittedly, my own musical tastes and the way in which I choose to spend my time is not enough to prove any particular thesis. But at the same time, I’m not such an outlier than my experience of the Chainsmokers is totally unique. The fact that I care as much as I do proves that anyone is capable of caring as much as I do. There are others like me out there. And if we care this much about the Chainsmokers, then it stands to reason that we could care this much about almost anything.

Everything is interesting. You might think this would mean, paradoxically, that nothing is interesting, but you’d be wrong. What it really means is that nothing is inherently interesting; something only becomes interesting if someone is willing to invest their interest in it. It makes just as much sense to think about the Chainsmokers as it does to think about the Beatles, provided that you think about either of them hard enough.

The One

Memories…Do Not Open begins with the sound of a drink being poured, but it’s a very particular kind of drink, the kind you pour for yourself when you’re long past the point of measuring out shots and have decided to just eyeball it. It’s the kind of drink you pour when, after several hours of mentally torturous back-and-forth, you have finally decided that no, you’re not going out tonight. It’s the drink you pour as a reward for yourself after you send a delicately-worded text your friend, explaining why you’re not coming to their party, even though you promised you would. You need to make it seem like you have a legitimate reason for bailing on them, so you try to be honest — but not so honest that they would be worried about you, because that would mean that they might ask a follow-up question. You might actually have to talk to somebody about what’s going on with you. And if you wanted to do that, you wouldn’t be drinking alone in your apartment.

Because even if you did decide to go out, if you marshaled every last bit of strength within you and forced yourself out the door, dreading the arrival at your destination more and more with every step — then what? The first verse of “The One” makes it clear exactly what would happen: you would smile and nod and joke with your friends, but every second would feel like a nail being jammed into the base of your skull. You would try to hide it, keep up a pleasant appearance and say all the things you’re supposed to say, maybe even lose yourself in conversation for a moment, but sooner or later something would remind you of how you actually feel, and you would literally wince at the painful sensation of falling back into yourself.

You would watch the clock, anxiously awaiting the moment when it would be socially acceptable to leave. You do the math: would it be too obvious if I left at ten? Would they notice that I had just been waiting for the clock to strike double-digits? I got here just before nine, and I need to stay at least two hours, but if I spend half my time hiding in the bathroom or checking my phone in a dark corner of the kitchen, they’ll still act like I wasn’t really there at all, they’ll ask if something is wrong, putting on a big show of compassion, trying to figure out if I’m feeling “okay” — and then this whole thing will have been a complete waste of time.

No, better to just stay home. But even that isn’t the perfect solution, is it? Because there’s one person you can’t avoid, no matter how much you try. Because you owe them a conversation, but Jesus Christ, you’d do anything to avoid that conversation. You’d rather fake your own death and move across the country to start a new life than have the talk that they want you to have.

And you know it’s pathetic, that you can’t even muster up the courage to look them in the eye, but fuck it, you’re drunk, you’re alone, there’s no reason to lie to yourself right now. Maybe that’s just who you are. Maybe you are pathetic.

As long as you’re being honest, you figure you might as well try to explain this to them. So, you try to write a text. Yes, a phone call would be more appropriate, but hey, you’re pathetic, remember? No use pretending that you can give them anything more than this. And anyway, maybe it’ll be for the best. Maybe if you can craft the perfect message — be careful with the length, you don’t want it to get split up and sent to them all shuffled around — then you can make them understand, on some level, why this isn’t working. Maybe you can make them see why you shouldn’t be together, although if they haven’t figured that out for themselves by now, they’re either blind or insane.

But you can’t even do that. You can’t even force your thoughts to cohere for a few lines of text, can’t even shape the whirling vacuum inside of you into something comprehensible for the time it would take to write a single message.

So, you toss your phone aside and leave it face-down as you sink further into your couch, drink in your hand, glass already sweaty with condensation. Maybe you silence your phone before you put it away, or maybe you don’t. Maybe you’re hoping that they’ll be the one who decides to send that long-awaited text. Because they must want out as much as you do. Neither of you are happy, and while you have become reasonably certain that you won’t be happy no matter what happens, at least when you finally burn this thing to the ground, you won’t have someone who depends on you, who needs you to depend on them, and who, worst of all, is always trying to get you to fucking go out and see your friends. And then you will be perfectly at peace, balanced on the razor’s edge of oblivion, alone in your dimly-lit apartment, drinking cheap whiskey in silence.

Somebody (Rory Kramer Vision)

1. You Should’ve Known Better

It is difficult to feel sympathy for people who are rich and famous. This is not entirely bad; the gross imbalance of wealth and power in our society is the cause of our greatest problems and will remain so until the current social order is entirely restructured — a process that will be further delayed if we choose to emphasize the well-being of powerful people.

If we become too attached to the image of powerful people as ordinary human beings with problems similar to our own, we run the risk of excusing them their many transgressions in a way that can easily morph into hero-worship. For an example of this phenomenon, just take a look at any of the people who follow tech mogul/idiot savant/billionaire union-buster Elon Musk on Twitter, and how they rise up to his defense whenever his character is questioned.

All this is not to say there is no value in the act of empathizing with powerful people. Going back to the roots of dramatic storytelling in Greek tragedy, the audience was expected to sympathize with a great person, a figure of immense stature, who is brought low by an all-too-human flaw.

There are many reasons why we might be compelled to sympathize with the people who rule us — the connection between Elon Musk stans and the innate human need to believe that our caretakers are without flaw is probably deserving of more attention that I can give it here — but the most basic one is that in many ways, a powerful person’s life is not unlike our own. They have strengths and weaknesses and they experience conflicts, but because their actions carry greater weight, their lives have the potential for larger, more exciting conflict — all the better to engage the audience and demonstrate the themes of the story. To draw a very rough connection, it’s the reason why people find a battle between Batman and Superman more exciting than a debate about the nature of power and the correct application of justice, or even a similar story played out between two average, non-powerful men.

In theory, anyway.

Besides all that, there are practical concerns: if we deny ourselves the ability to empathize with people just because they’re rich and famous, we are categorically eliminating the work of any artist who has written about themselves after experiencing success. Everything Bruce Springsteen wrote about the struggle of working-class Americans after 1973 is no longer meaningful. Or Bob Dylan, if that’s more your speed. Anything that Stephen King wrote where the main character is a famous writer? All of that’s gone, too, including The Shining. Same goes for any millionaire Wesleyan graduates who write musicals with obvious self-insert main characters rapping about how they’re young, scrappy and/or hungry.

And the artist doesn’t have to be a national best-seller for this to apply; nearly any band successful enough to release an album and tour behind it, or a writer successful enough to have a book published and advertised, or an artist who has an entire room in a major gallery devoted to their work — any of these people has already reached a level of success most of us will never know. This doesn’t excuse the sort of laziness or creative solipsism that can convince an artist that it’s a good idea to write something like Lunar Park or “Hotel California”. But if the art is good enough to engender empathy and make us feel a connection with the creator, it doesn’t matter how much money they have.

2. I Don’t Really Like Anybody

Rick & Morty is a good show with an extremely unpleasant fan base. This is an uncontroversial claim that could apply to probably 99% of all intellectual properties, yet it still has the potential to alienate a significant portion of the people reading this or at least raise several questions about the tastes of the person making it. This is unfortunate, but not entirely unwarranted.

Like any piece of fiction marketed toward young white men, Rick & Morty has collected within its fandom a number of garden-variety misogynists and minor-league hate mongers. A brief glance at any of the largest Rick & Morty fan pages on Facebook will net you a wide array of bigoted, unpleasant comments and attempts at humor.

The widely held image of Rick & Morty fans as a group of unpleasant and entitled man-children was solidified in the wake of McDonald’s brief resurrection of the Szechuan chicken nugget sauce referenced in the show’s third season. This well-intentioned promotional stunt lead to an embarrassingly impassioned outcry from fans of the show when it was discovered that not enough sauce had been supplied to participating McDonald’s locations. The immature and disruptive behavior on display that day was an embarrassment not only to anyone who had ever enjoyed Rick & Morty, but to anyone with even a modicum of self-awareness. But even before the events of October 7th, 2017, there was already a pervasive sense that Rick & Morty fans were condescending faux-intellectuals who confused the show’s “edgy” humor for philosophical insight — there was a meme all about it, and everything.

It would be wrong to say the show’s content has no connection to the unpalatable portions of its fan base; any time you depict a nihilistic asshole as the badass, ultra-capable center of the universe, you run the risk of glamorizing them, even if your intent was the opposite (see also: Fight Club). But Rick & Morty is better than its reputation as chum for the MRA crowd suggests. It has a unique comedic voice and is endlessly clever in its utilization and subversion of classic science fiction tropes — and, yes, there is an episode where the main character turns himself into a pickle, but it’s really a lot more entertaining than you might think if your only point of reference is the most obnoxious person in your college dorm shouting “I’m Pickle Rick!” at all hours of the night.

Even though Rick & Morty’s main virtue is an abundance of wit, the show occasionally demonstrates ambitions beyond merely being clever and reaches for genuine pathos. In what is probably the show’s greatest single moment, Morty’s sister, Summer, has just learned something that causes her to question her place in the universe. When Morty’s attempts to calm her down fail initially, he reveals that her actual brother is dead and that he, the Morty we have followed throughout the entire show, is actually from a parallel universe.

This is surprising for the audience because it confirms a significant piece of continuity within a show that, until this point, seemed to play fast and loose with the idea of it — but it’s affecting emotionally because it allows Summer to put her existential crisis into perspective. Being faced with this example of the underlying chaos and nonsense at the heart of the universe doesn’t allow her to realize her place in the world, but what it does do is better: through realizing that she has no place in the universe, Summer is able to take ownership of her life, put aside the looming questions of fate and purpose, and simply enjoy herself.

A theoretical ‘good fan’ of Rick & Morty might take from this a lesson that would ease their anxiety and allow them a bit of peace in a world that can often be painful and confusing. It’s unfortunate that many fans have instead taken from the show the lesson that it’s cool to be a mean genius who lives a life removed from consequence, but it’s not exactly surprising.

3. The Only Thing That I Can’t Afford

The Chainsmokers recently released a second music video for their single “Somebody”, directed by their friend and frequent collaborator Rory Kramer. The main portion of the video is a lo-fi travelogue similar to the one Kramer created for “Roses”, interspersed with quotations that, to be frank, read like they came straight off of somebody’s Pinterest vision board.

At the end of the video, once the song has finished playing, Kramer settles on a single shot of Andrew Taggart as he discusses the song’s underlying theme.

Being able to discern what’s real and what’s not in a world that is seemingly… everything seems to be real, but… it’s tough to discern what is and what isn’t.

I don’t feel like I’ve lost myself thanks to the people I’ve surrounded myself in, but I’m very conscious of the fact… losing yourself is a relative term, I guess, because you have a preconceived notion of what losing yourself means but it could happen in a completely different way than you see coming.

And I think trying to keep perspective on everything, and, you know, the relative unimportance of your existence, is kind of comforting. So, yeah. I try to think about that stuff.

Watch Rick and Morty, it really helps.

While Taggart speaks, a large portion of “Desiderata” by Max Ehrmann appears on-screen, which makes sense aesthetically — how else to end a video full of devotional affirmations than with a deep in the source of all self-help texts — but seems somewhat at odds with what Taggart is actually saying, particularly the line, “You are a child of the universe no less than the trees and the stars; you have a right to be here.”

Andrew Taggart lives the kind of life most of us can only imagine. The benefits of his lifestyle are numerous and should not be discounted, but the drawbacks are worthy of consideration, as well. It’s not hard to imagine Taggart relating to Ehrmann’s description of life as primarily being “noise and haste”, considering that he is contractually obligated to fly around the world and play loud music for aggressively inebriated crowds. A famous life is a life of privilege, but it’s also, as Ehrmann says, a life of “fatigue and loneliness.”

And yet, the sentiment Taggart expresses in the video has less in common with Ehrmann’s suggestion to be “at peace with God” than with Rick & Morty’s insistence that you be at peace with what is, essentially, the absence of God. In referencing Rick & Morty while invoking the idea of finding comfort in the relative unimportance of your existence, Taggart is talking about finding peace through a sort of gentle nihilism. He has adapted the philosophical implications of insignificance to not only allow him freedom from the ever-present pressures of his unique life, but to also incorporate the necessity of treating your friends well and holding on to your own moral code.

Andrew Taggart is a rich white man who earns obscene amounts of money playing dance music, but at least he can appreciate the content of his favorite show in a way that enriches his life. At least he knows how to be a good fan. And even if the things he sings about in “Somebody” seem irrelevant to the majority of his listeners on a surface level, at least there is something in his music that can, potentially, add meaning to their lives.

And as for the bad fan? The solipsistic narcissist who only believes in his own version of truth? That leeches off the people around him and pursues his own personal ends under the guise of righteousness? The person who watches Rick & Morty and dreams of being cool and smart enough to fly around the galaxy having crazy adventures and not caring who he he hurts?

Well, the less said about him, the better.

On Youth

The Chainsmokers are closely tied to the concept of youth. The most obvious reason for this is also the most depressing: these are the guys that made “#SELFIE,” and “#SELFIE” is about taking pictures of yourself, which is, apparently, something that only young people do. This in itself is enough to cement the connection in the mind of any hack culture writer, but the band’s association with youth runs much deeper than that.

The Chainsmokers, at least in theory, make music that falls under the banner of EDM (Electronic Dance Music). EDM is about chasing a temporary high; it’s the music of day-long festivals and all-night parties and it focuses on visceral excitement as opposed to depth. Rightly or wrongly, these are things that most people associate with being young. Beyond that, however, the idea of being young is central to the lyrical identity of the band and features as a recurring concept within their music — and their take on it is a lot darker than you might expect.

“Closer” remains, with one aforementioned exception, the song most people associate with the Chainsmokers, and it seems, on a surface level, to glorify the experience of being young — the refrain, “we ain’t never getting older” is certainly not a thing that anyone over the age of thirty would ever say, at least not out loud. But if the characters in the song are still within the realm of the young, then they’re right on the precipice of leaving it behind; they’re looking back on a time where they were more carefree and unafraid to pursue what they wanted. While the song as a whole is more about nostalgia than it is about actually being young, that focus on nostalgia implicitly defines youth as a time worthy of being looked back upon fondly.

Though lacking in the lyrical depth of “Closer,” “Last Day Alive” does attempt to paint a picture of what it is to be young. This is accomplished through an unceasing barrage of insipid lyrics about the magic of youth that would be more at home on a dorm-room wall than in a song. The blame for that falls at least partly on featured vocalists and credited co-writers Florida Georgia Line, whose clumsy hands can be felt all over lyrics such as “Now or never/It’s now or never,” “Twisted up in adolescence… feel alive and dangerous,” and the axiomatic line, “the night is young and we are young.” Not poetry, by any means — hell, even Nate Ruess would give these lyrics another pass — but it clearly communicates an idea: youth is a dramatic and confusing but ultimately an exciting period, where life-altering events of great importance can happen any time.

But a closer reading of both those songs reveals darker undercurrents. While the verses seem to celebrate youth, the chorus of “Last Day Alive” works as both a rallying cry and a warning. “Run into the bright lights most nights/Now or never/Always and forever, the last day alive.” Divorced from the high-energy music that accompanies them, these lyrics seem to depict an unending cycle of empty hedonism and depression. The idea of living without regrets, even for a single night, certainly has its appeal, but what sordid situation would drive a person to pursue that way of life every night? It might be empowering to, as Tim McGraw would say, live like you were dying, but what are the physical and emotional consequences of actually living each day like you won’t see tomorrow? There’s a name for that kind of philosophy: it’s called nihilism.

“Closer,” for all its nostalgia, takes a far from romanticized view of its characters. Not only are they both miserable and poor, there’s no suggestion that their reunion will alleviate their suffering or restore even a bit of their youthful grandeur. This song is not about the rekindling of a lost love, it’s about an all-caps BAD IDEA casual hook-up between two lost souls. Honesty, the two characters in this song don’t even seem to like each other all that much. One gets the impression that they feel almost compelled to have sex with one another, either because of their undeniable sexual chemistry or an unhealthy attachment to the past. Possibly both.

“Paris” is the closest the Chainsmokers have actually come to making a song about the power of youth, with its lyrics about youthful defiance paired with a sort of musical pseudo-glamor. But even at their most anthemic, the Chainsmokers can’t help but let darkness creep into every corner of their music.

The first sentiment we hear from either of the song’s doomed lovers is a pained combination of substance abuse and fatalism. “If I could take this in a shot right now/I don’t think that we could work this out” does not exactly fit within the theme of Love Conquers All. It seems to suggest that once this illicit vacation has ended, both parties and the love they share will be crushed by reality.  The couple in “Paris” are only together because they’re hiding from some set of ill-defined consequences and they’re struggling even to hold on to what little happiness they’ve found.

The song’s refrain. “If we go down then we go down together,” initially reads as defiance in the face of adversity, but Taggart’s subdued vocal style and the downbeat instrumentation make the fall from grace seems almost pre-ordained. The only sliver of hope lies at the end of the chorus: “let’s show them we are better,” a sworn oath to go down fighting that does little to inspire. Failure is inevitable. The best these two people can hope for is to fail in a manner that demonstrates character and proves that they’ve been underestimated for the entirety of their brief lives. But don’t hold your breath.

Perhaps the key to unravelling this theme lies in the appropriately named “Young,” an album track (and mildly successful single) from Memories… Do Not Open. “Young” almost entirely eschews any EDM stylings, aside from a brief burst of synth after the chorus that sounds more like lip-service to the idea of the Chainsmokers as a band you can dance to. “Young” is a plaintive semi-ballad sung mainly over an acoustic guitar, with lyrics that catalogue the numerous miseries in the lives of two young lovers.

Darker even than “Paris,” “Young” offers almost no hope and absolutely no suggestion that all of this pain and struggle is anywhere near worth it. Everything these two people do leads to dysfunction and/or destruction. They fight constantly and they have to sneak around just to see each other, all the while hoping that their love will carry them through to better times — but even this feels perfunctory: “maybe we can go from this” is hardly a grand romantic statement. But even that small bit of hope is snatched away by the end of the song.

I’m calling you up, you tell me it’s over
You say what you want
But it’s hard when you’re young

This final refrain efficiently captures the frustration and longing that comes with youth. Even if your intentions are good and your feelings are genuine, it’s not always enough to tame the confusion and pain that churn ceaselessly within you. The song’s ultimate moral, “It’s hard when you’re young,” is, perhaps, a bit simplistic, but it’s also honest in the way only a very simple statement can be, and it’s certainly backed up by the rest of the lyrics.

In the song’s most striking image, the narrator crashes his partner’s car and then engages in a late-night shouting match with their father that almost turns violent. Who can look at this pathetic, dismal state of affairs and say that young love is beautiful? Who can say that being young is anything but hard?

A Brief Conversation Between Two Women Who Are Out For The Night With The Narrator Of “#SELFIE”

“Hey, Jess?”

“What?”

“Can I ask you something?”

“What?”

“I said, can I ask you something?”

“Did you say something? I can’t hear you! The music’s too loud!”

“Sorry! I’ll just, uh. Hold on… there, is that better? Can you hear me now?”

“Yeah! Oh, you smell really nice.”

“Oh my God, thank you! I finally switched back to antiperspirant. I know it’s supposed to, like, give you cancer, or whatever? But deodorant’s just not strong enough. It always wears off as soon as I start sweating, and then all my clothes just reek of b.o., and then it’s like, oh, sorry, did you want to wear that shirt twice before doing laundry? Not gonna happen. God, I bet I just stank so bad the past few weeks, right? But you just didn’t say anything? It’s okay, you can tell me now.

“No, I didn’t think you smelled bad.”

“Really? You mean that?”

“Yeah! I would tell you if you did.”

“That means so much to me. Really! I hate when people won’t tell you shit like that. Friends, I mean. I get why strangers wouldn’t tell you, but if someone’s your friend, they should be looking out for you, right?”

“Nicole?”

“What?”

“What did you want to ask me?”

“Oh, yeah… what do you think’s going on with Becca?”

“Which Becca? Becca K?”

“No, not Becca K! Ugh. No, Becca C! OUR Becca!”

“What do you mean, going on with her? I didn’t notice anything.”

“Really? Nothing at all? Not even when she was talking about Jason for like ten straight minutes? And then she made us take like twenty different selfies with her before we could go to the bathroom? And then, even after she finally got a selfie she liked, she took it down after like five minutes because it didn’t get enough likes, and we had to take a whole NEW selfie while we were in line for the bathroom?”

“What’s so weird about that?”

“Well, first of all, if she was just going to take a selfie while we were in line for the bathroom, couldn’t she have just done that to begin with? Like, if taking a selfie while we wait in line for the bathroom is an option, shouldn’t we have just gotten in line for the bathroom and then–”

“I get it.”

“That didn’t seem weird to you?”

“No. Becca’s always like that. You know she’s, like, addicted to Instagram.”

“Well, yeah, I mean, so am I. Like, I’m on there way too much.”

“Ugh, me too. It’s so addictive!”

“I know! But it just makes me feel so bad about myself. You know what I did, though? I turned off all the color on my phone. So it’s all in black-and-white now! It’s supposed to make it, like, less addictive, or something. I don’t really know how it’s supposed to work.”

“Was that all? About Becca?”

“I forgot what I was saying.”

“You said she was acting weird.”

“Oh, right. She is acting weird! She made us do a bunch of shots!”

“Becca loves shots. You love shots, too!”

“Yeah, tequila shots. But all of a sudden she’s making us do shots of vodka, like we’re fucking nineteen years old again.”

“Oh my God, do you remember Burnett’s?”

“Oh, my God. Don’t. Don’t.”

“Remember that pink lemonade flavor they had? And how we would store it in the freezer?”

“Jess, stop! I’m gonna throw up!”

“That’s exactly what you said the last time we had Burnett’s!”

“Shut up! You’re so stupid!”

“That’s exactly what I said to you the last time we had Burnett’s!”

“Ugh! You’re so stupid! I love you.”

“Oh my God, are they playing ‘Summertime Sadness’ again?

“Yes!”

“Damn, is something wrong with the DJ? Are they, like, still here? Or is it just on repeat?”

“Honestly? I don’t care. I fucking love ‘Summertime Sadness,’ I would listen to it a thousand times if I could.”

“You know what? Same! This song so good.”

“I know! It’s such a bop.”

“Ew, don’t call it that.”

“What? A bop?”

“Yeah, don’t call it a bop.”

“Why not?”

“Because it’s … I don’t know, it’s like…”

“What? ‘Rachet?'”

“Ew!”

“I know! Since when does Becca talk like that? Like, I get it, it was weird that that guy was sleeping in the club, but like…”

“I don’t think he was sleeping, I think he was just passed out.”

“Same thing, right?”

“No, I think Becca was saying that he was, like, homeless or something? But I think he just drank too much, because they had to carry him out by his arms and legs. I think I heard an ambulance outside, too. I wonder if he’s alright.”

“Oh my God! Wait, stop, you’re getting me distracted. Becca!”

“What about her?”

“Okay, so even if you don’t think Becca’s acting weird at all, like, taking a thousand selfies and talking about Jason all night and doing a bunch of shots and basically just acting like she’s on coke, if nothing about that seems weird to you, I still have one question.”

“Yeah?”

“Where the fuck is she?”

“What do you mean? She was just… oh.”

“No, seriously, where is she?”

“Oh. Shit.”

“Right? That’s what I’m saying.”

“Alright, hold on, wait, let me think for a second. We got up to dance, and she asked us if we knew anyone else here, and we were like….”

“No, definitely not.”

“Right, right. And then… oh! She got a text from Jason!

“Yeah! And she asked us if she should go home with him.”

“And we were like, no definitely not.”

“Definitely not, yeah.”

“Like, ever.”

“Ever ever.”

“And then she said she was just gonna go talk to him. And said that Jason was still with that other girl, the one with the cheetah print top? So you tried to stop Becca from going over there.”

“Yeah, I like, grabbed her by the back of the neck, or whatever.”

“You were like a, a fucking female lion, picking up her cub!”

“God, it just, it feels that way sometimes, you know?”

“And after a minute, she said, fine, I won’t go over to Jason’s table, but I’m gonna go outside and smoke a cigarette. And you were like, wait a sec, I’ll come with you.”

“But then ‘Summertime Sadness’ came on, and I was like, oh man, I love this song–”

“Such a good song.”

“Right? It’s just so good, I gotta move, I gotta get out on the floor and dance.”

“And by the time the song was over, she’d already gone outside.”

“Oh my God, Jess.”

“What?”

“Look! Over there, Jason’s table!”

“Jason’s not there anymore.”

“Yeah. Exactly.”

“But Becca’s not there anymore either.”

“Yeah. Exactly.”

“Oh… oh. Wait. You know who else isn’t there?”

“That girl! The one who was hanging out with Jason all night! The one in the cheetah print!”

“So, you don’t think…”

“Becca went home with Jason… and that girl in the cheetah print?”

“Oh.”

“Oh.”

“…”

“…”

“Nice!”

“Holy shit, go Becca!”

“Yeah, oh my God! Get it!”

“That’s why I love Becca, she just does shit like that, you know?”

“Yeah, I love it. It’s so modern, you know?”

“Yeah, like, I didn’t want her to go home with just Jason, ‘cause he’s, like, a total loser? But I love that she just, like, walked over there and was like, hey, bam, check it out, both of you, I’m laying it down, here’s what we’re gonna do.”

“I really respect that. She knows what she wants. It’s inspiring, really, and it’s… you know what it is? It’s empowering.”

“Yeah! It’s weird, but, like, that sort of thing, like, super feminist, now. And I love that she feels like she can share that part of her life with us, you know? It’s really touching.”

“I love Becca.”

“Me too.”

“Oh my God, is that–”

“‘Summertime Sadness!'”

“Yes! I love this song!”

“Me too! I hope they never stop playing it. It’s such a–”

“Don’t.”

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.