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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

1. You would be right.

2. This is a rough estimate.

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

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

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

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

Advertisements

The Chainsmokers: Memories

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Side Effects

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.

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.