alex pall

The Complete Videos: 2016

Don’t Let Me Down

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Closer

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

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

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

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

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

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

I mean, come on.

All We Know

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

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

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

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

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

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

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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.

Everybody Hates Me

(or: The Chainsmokers Problem, Fourth Variant)

To truly understand the Chainsmokers, you can’t think about music — you have to think about Twitter.

If you spend any time at all on Twitter, you’ve no doubt encountered a certain type of popular tweet: tweets made not by people who are otherwise famous, or by people who are known for making successful tweets. These are tweets by everyday, regular folk that are well-written, clever, or relatable enough to rack up re-tweets into the tens of thousands and likes into the half-millions. A witty, well-timed comment that momentarily launches an unknown account into the spotlight.

If you recognize this type of tweet, you are no doubt familiar with the type of tweet that usually follows it: the pivot. The moment when the originator of the popular tweet discovers that the countless eyes of the internet have fallen upon them. The way Twitter is designed, clicking on a tweet automatically displays the replies to that tweet, with replies by the writer of the original tweet sorted to the top. Because of this system, the author is left with an opportunity to amplify their voice, an opportunity that many find too tempting to resist.

Sometimes the pivot is as an innocent as a request for the reader to follow the author’s twitter account, maybe with the added benefit of a “follow-for-follow” arrangement. A slightly more cynical and/or financially-conscious tweeter might offer to retweet products or personal advertisements on their page in exchange for monetary compensation. The most popular response, so blatant and so uniquely contemporary that it spawned a minor meme, is the posting of the author’s SoundCloud page as a means to further promote his or her music — said music usually consisting of ambient chill-wave synthesizer loops or hip-hop beats crassly named after more popular artists (“Future type-beat,” “Drake-type beat,” “Fetty Wap type-beat”).

No matter how it’s used, the pivot has become a common element of the online experience, and a particularly immediate example of how social media has altered our construction of “fame.” Because of the way that content spreads, something that would have been totally ignored in previous eras — say, a cheap novelty dance song about a minor pop-culture phenomenon — can be passed around by like-minded people to the point that it becomes legitimately successful, regardless of whether or not it was any good to begin with. More often than not, that’s exactly the point: someone who posts a popular tweet doesn’t really care about the artistic merits of what they’re doing — they just want attention, and a chance to heave themselves into the spotlight.

It seems crass, and it usually is, but really: can you blame them? Do you really know what you would do if you got famous overnight (even if it was “only” internet famous)? What if the reason that you’re famous isn’t so great? What if it’s actually shameful?

Of the three songs that the Chainsmokers have released in 2018, “Everybody Hates Me” does the best job of articulating band’s current modus operandi: examining the perils of social media culture and modern-day celebrity, told by two people who are especially qualified to do it. Whereas “Sick Boy” was a bit gloomy and self-centered and “You Owe Me” was too glib to sell its darker subject matter, “Everybody Hates Me” splits it right down the middle. The verses offer a shockingly reflective and measured list of complaints about the life of someone who has become suddenly famous in the age of quote-unquote viral content, while the chorus repurposes an old meme based on the opening lines of Macklemore’s “Thrift Shop”, a novelty crossover hit that, in its own way, is just as obnoxious as “#SELFIE”. That the Chainsmokers (and co-writer Emily Warren) would utilize a played-out Vine joke in order to express their own inner turmoil is such an obviously pandering gesture to surface-level internet culture that it speeds right past ‘cliché’ and loops back around to ‘brilliant.’

While some of the lyrics are directly tied to the struggles of the wildly famous and super-successful (“poor me, I made it”), many of the sentiments expressed by the singer could belong to anyone who is even a little uncomfortable with the prominence of social media — which would be, at a low estimation, only almost everyone. “I’m a product of the internet” is true for all of us, but is doubly true for Andrew Taggart, the person singing it: his existence as a musician, as a product, is only possible due to the internet. But while most of us didn’t get famous off of a meme disguised as a song, nearly all of us have left a less-than-respectable paper-trail. Whether it’s an old LiveJournal, an offensive joke told at a press junket, a screen-cap of a misbegotten tweet, or a particularly unfortunate interview with Billboard Magazine, everyone’s got something floating around out there that they’re not ready to account for. Anyone who’s taken a public stance on anything knows the feeling behind the lyric “Why do I still have to mean everything I ever said?” It doesn’t matter if you change your mind, walk it back or  delete every trace of what you said from existence; the Wayback Machine is always gonna be there, and your greatest mistakes will always be single click away.

“I post a picture of myself ‘cause I’m lonely/Everyone knows what I look like/not even one of them knows me” — sung by anyone else, this line would seem so obvious, so preachy, that it would land with all the impact of an after-school special. But it’s fascinating when it’s sung by the man who wrote “#SELFIE”, who apparently needed a full four years and the help of a co-writer to condense the sentiment “it’s not healthy to be obsessed your own profile picture” from a three-minute sad-trombone-noise of a joke into a punchy three lines. Also: even though that line might scan as cheesy, it is no doubt a sentiment that many people will find relatable, particularly young people, people who entered middle school with an Instagram account and were already bored with SnapChat before you even knew it existed.

By drawing this line from the uber-relatable everyday pitfalls of a casually publicized existence to the crushing pressures of a life spent stumbling through scandals and dodging paparazzi, Taggart and Warren force us to consider how similar those two modes of existence have become. The Chainsmokers are two rich white men who spend their lives flying around the world with their gang of young and attractive friends. But if you imagine their entire career happening in the string of replies below a popular tweet, it doesn’t seem all that far off. It seems almost relatable.

“Everybody Hates Me” is a song that couldn’t be made by someone without a moderate streak of self-loathing. The Chainsmokers are living the dream, but they’re still at least a little ashamed of themselves. But should they be? They caught a lucky break and decided to ride it out for as long as they could. They’ve gotten further off of their moment in the spotlight than most people do: even if someone catches a few new followers off a funny tweet, the rest of the world moves on in the amount of time it takes to press ‘like,’ leaving the author with one minor achievement and string of embarrassing follow-ups.

But if the same thing happened to you, if you had a chance to make your voice heard, can you really say you wouldn’t use it? Maybe you’d try to further your own career and achieve your dreams of artistic legitimacy, or maybe you’d just try to make some money by selling retweets. You might think you wouldn’t act so shamelessly, but that’s only because you’ve never been in that situation. If you woke up internet famous, can you really say what your next move would be?

The problem with the Chainsmokers is that you can’t ever really know yourself.

The Complete Videos, 2014 – 2015: Part 1

#SELFIE

The most remarkable thing about the video for “#selfie” is how cheap it is. The video, much like the song itself, represents the group’s entry onto the world stage and their absolute creative nadir. For their first act as a band, the Chainsmokers dug themselves into a hole so deep that it resembles a massive crater, one they’ve been trying to climb out of ever since.

There are three main components that make up the “#selfie” video. The first and least interesting is the monologue that makes up the song’s lyrical component, an irritating stream-of-consciousness performed in the bathroom of a dance club by a comically vain young woman. Roughly one-third of the video is taken up with a straightforward adaptation of this dialogue, and it does nothing to alleviate the sickening absence of humor in the original song. It’s exactly what you would imagine when listening to “#selfie”, which is maybe the most damning critique possible.

The second component is footage of crowd of people dancing and having a good time, which appears to all be taken from a single nightclub performance. We mostly see the concert-goers as an incomprehensible blur of brightly-colored clothes, interspersed with a few moments of more intimate footage of Andrew Taggart, Alex Pall and other random attendees (or actresses portraying attendees). Standard stuff for a medium-budget music video, but the weird thing is, very little of this footage seems to come from an actual Chainsmokers concert. The person most prominently playing music is not the either of the Chainsmokers, but EDM superstar and heir to the Benihana restaurant empire, Steve Aoki.

who, indeed

Aoki is the person who discovered the Chainsmokers, and he even released “#selfie” on his own label, so it stands to reason that he’d want to ensure that their first video projected an image of the Taggart and Pall as popular, exciting party boys. But while we can imagine Aoki’s reasoning for essentially letting the Chainsmokers claim his fans as their own, we cannot even speculate to what degree Steve Aoki feel responsible for the creation of this monstrosity, or if he will ever pay for his crimes against humanity.

The third and most prominent component of this video is the flurry of user-submitted photographs — the titular “selfies” — that floods the screen during each iteration of the chorus. These amateur self-portraits were not submitted out of a legitimate passion on the part of the fans or as an organic upswell of support for the song — the Chainsmokers were practically unknown at the time of its release — rather, they were actively cultivated and farmed by ominously-named social-media marketing group TheAudience with the assistance of a light-hearted instructional video.

The problem here isn’t so much the gross, cynical manipulation of social media by a marketing firm co-founded by the ‘Napster’ guy — it’s that all work was done to no real end. Sure, lots of normal people (and a few celebrities) freely allowed their visage to be used as advertising for a novelty EDM single, but no one at any point managed to do anything interesting with all those pictures. There’s no hook, no joke, no twist on anything. It’s just a bunch of selfies. And if you’re trying to make fun of selfies, you should actually find something funny to say about them.

Kanye

The video for “Kanye” opens with a direct reference to “#selfie”: two self-obsessed young women stand in the mirror while one blathers on about her personal life. It’s not an exact recreation of the “#selfie” video — the women are in a hotel room instead of a club bathroom — but the monologue is lifted directly from the song and the situation is clearly meant to be a similar, if not totally identical.

Only this time, our perspective has shifted away from these young woman, and onto on a young maid who is silently cleaning the floors behind them. The women in the mirror, who were the nearest thing we had in the last video to protagonists, are distant and out-of-focus. We don’t even see their faces. They walk out of the bathroom to continue their conversation and are never seen again.

Meanwhile, the maid changes out of her house-cleaning uniform and into an expensive-looking dress that one of the women has left behind. She then leaves the hotel room and is whisked away to a magical night of fast times and hard living. She visits an extravagant club where Taggart and Pall cameo as old-timey bartenders, then hits up a well-attended pool party in the Hollywood hills, before returning home at the crack of dawn, having apparently achieved the sort of self-actualization-through-partying that exists only in the minds of music video directors.

artistry

It’s not surprising that the two women from “#selfie” are consciously dismissed as unimportant — they were objects of ridicule in their first appearance, as well. Nor is it all that unusual that the maid, a character who would go unnoticed in the stories and lives of the kind of people “#selfie” was mocking, would be held up as a more important person, more authentic and worthy of emulation. Cheap romanticization of the working class is a common trope across all media, to the point where it usually comes across as empty and insincere. Yes, it’s nice to see the maid-turned-partygoer display kindness and empathy when she encounters another member of the service industry, but the way she slips the tiara on the waitress’s head reeks of condescension — not altogether surprising when you realize that this video, like the one for “#selfie”, was created by social-media marketing group theAudience.

But the shift in focus in the first scene, and the dismissal of “#selfie,” parallels the shift that the Chainsmokers themselves were already attempting. Neither Taggart nor Pall have hidden the fact that “#selfie” was made as a joke and that its sudden success threw them for a loop — and while they claim to be grateful that it lead more people to discover their music, more recent songs like “Sick Boy” make it clear that they struggle with being best known for their worst song.

It’s hard to say whether Taggart and Pall were making a conscious statement with the opening of “Kanye,” or if the fine folks at theAudience just thought it was a funny joke that would also strengthen the group’s brand, but it makes a statement either way: the Chainsmokers know that you hate “#selfie,” and they want you to know that they hate it just as much.

Let You Go

The first of the group’s four collaborations with director Joe Zohar is also the first video where Taggart and Pall themselves have any significant screen time. With that in mind, it’s impressive how comfortable the two of them seems as actors, portraying what one must assume are lightly fictionalized versions of themselves.

The video opens with Taggart and Pall landing in Los Angeles to visit a woman, portrayed by Rikke Heinecke, who seems to be romantically involved with Pall. For most of the video, the three of them ride around the city in, stopping off at various locales, with Pall and the woman occasionally slipping off to have sex. They visit an abandoned construction site and share drinks from a flask while Taggart spray-paints nearby. They blow bubbles, they smoke weed and watch the sun-set, they get drunk and generally do the sort of things people do when they’re geuinely at ease with one another.

ot3

Zohar’s direction, along with the work of the performers, really sells the idea of this loving triumvirate, Pall and Heinecke as a highly affectionate couple, with Taggart joyfully inhabiting the role of third wheel. There are a few hints of an unspoken attraction between Taggart and Heinecke’s character, but nothing too obvious; that is, until the trio finally arrives home at the end of the night and Pall’s girlfriend affectionately invites Taggart to join her and Pall in the bedroom.

After the three of them spend the night together, Taggart and Pall share an awkward, silent ride back to the airport, avoiding eye contact and shuddering at the slightest physical touch. In hindsight, the entire video appears to be a set-up for this punchline, but the vividness with which Zohar depicts the characters’ friendship adds a layer of pathos that wouldn’t be necessary if the whole thing was just a dumb joke, one step removed from a derivative sort of gay-panic humor. Instead of comedy, we are left with ambiguity: one can’t help but wonder what sort of impact this event will have on Taggart and Pall. Is their relationship strong enough to withstand this shared sexual episode? Or will it drive them apart?

With this in mind, the video ends up resembling something like a frat-bro comedy version of Y Tu Mama Tambien. Granted, the comparison isn’t quite perfect: the climax of the video for “Let You Go”, which features the three characters in a variety of kinky and outrageous sexual positions is, shall we say, a bit goofier than a coming-of-age story set against the rise of far-right populism in Mexico. But, despite the apparent efforts of all involved, the similarities still linger, and they make this the most conventionally satisfying of any Chainsmokers videos from this period.

Good Intentions

In the second part of the Zohar Quartet, Taggart and Pall wander through a grimy, industrial underworld while an old man with a long, white beard plays an evil piano and dresses like a steampunk version of the devil. In between shots of Taggart and Pall languishing in a dramatically-lit jail cell, the boys have a series of surreal encounters: they find a living woman covered in ice, followed by two filth-encrusted prisoners chained to one another, and finally, a second pair of captives caught in a loving embrace, one without eyes and the other without a mouth. The old man, who stands over a flaming trash can in positively Luciferian manner, is revealed to be some sort of mythic music industry executive, framing the entire escapade as a Faustian tale in which the Chainsmokers sign away their very souls in pursuit of fame and glory.

Interestingly, this video is not available on the group’s official Vevo channel. This could be a simple oversight, but considering that the Chainsmokers Vevo page is so comprehensive that it includes a latin remix of “#selfie” featuring an artist who can only be described as “the poor man’s Pitbull”, that doesn’t seem likely.

There are two possible explanations. The first, and most likely: legal reasons. Watching the video for “Good Intentions,” one can’t help but be reminded of the Saw franchise. From the way Taggart and Pall wake up in the service elevator to the way that the bearded man lurks behind the scenes, the entire video is infused with the same atmosphere as American horror’s most convoluted gore-delivery system.

The biggest giveaway, though, are the grim, unsettling scenarios that the duo encounter during their journey: the woman covered in ice calls to mind the freezer room death from Saw 3, while the people chained together and the “see no evil, hear no evil” prisoners both seem drawn from mausoleum trap that appears in the prologue of Saw 4. And while Zohar and the Chainsmokers have re-appropriated these images to considerably less gruesome means, it still wouldn’t surprise me if they were squeamish about potential retribution from the fine folks at Lions Gate.

twin peaks: the return (2017)

The other possibility is that the Chainsmokers encountered a squeamishness of a much more personal variety. The meaning of the Saw-inspired tableaus in the video aren’t entirely clear, but considering the final twist of the Satanic record executive, we can assume these images relate in some way to the group’s career in the music industry. The frozen woman, who still manages to blow kisses at the boys and flirtatiously wiggle her eyebrows despite behind encased in ice, might be a stand-in for the type of woman that Taggart and Pall find drawn to them now that they are famous: seductive yet cold-hearted, the classic “gold-digger” archetype — a figure of immense danger to the nouveau riche. This is a character type that comes loaded with misogynistic assumptions, but it is a recognizable and familiar trope within the story of the video.

Less typical are the two couples that Taggart and Pall discover, both sets bound together in different ways. The first pair they encounter are antagonistic towards each other, straining to escape from their ash-covered prison, but ultimately unable to get away from one another. The second pair regard each other affectionately, existing permanently in a tender moment of physical intimacy, but their love is undercut by the fact that neither of them is, symbolically speaking, a complete person. One of them can see the fullness of the world around them but lacks the means to express themselves, while the other can easily communicate but remains fundamentally unable to comprehend anything outside their own mind.

Considering that the Chainsmokers themselves are a two-person group, it’s not difficult to read into these depictions some sense of their personal anxieties. Even this early in their career, they feel constrained by the realities of their industry: it doesn’t matter if they want to spend time alone or pursue solo projects, because they are legally bound to work together. And even while they still think fondly of one another, each is aware that they are in some way incomplete, that they lack the ability to be part of a fully functional duo, or maybe even to be a whole person on their own.

The implications, even if they are unintentional, are not at all pretty, and it’s easy to imagine why Taggart and Pall would have wanted to put them out of their minds. Though their latter work would grapple with exactly these sort of uncomfortable questions, it seems that the Chainsmokers, at this point, were not yet ready to face the darkness.

Good Karaoke

In 2017, the Chainsmokers appeared as the musical guests on the April 8 episode of Saturday Night Live. Their performance was only marginally better than their disastrous showing at the 2016 VMAs — Andrew Taggart’s singing voice is flat, his stage presence straddles the line between nonexistent and awkward, and the only suggestion of live instrumentation comes from obvious mixing errors and some dissonant, unfamiliar sounds that pop up in the middle of the tracks.

But these things are only problems if you judge this appearance as a normal live performance by a musical act. Instead, try this: look into Taggart’s eyes right before he starts singing. You’ll see a hesitation familiar to anyone who has attended a bachelorette party or drunkenly wandered through a resort on a Sunday night. The only honest way to evaluate the Chainsmokers’ SNL appearance is to think of it as karaoke — and by those standards, it’s pretty damn good.

Karaoke follows a different set of rules than most kinds of public performance. Enthusiasm takes precedence over talent. Even though karaoke is ostensibly an activity built around singing, the performer doesn’t actually need to know how to sing. The magic of karaoke is that it’s all-inclusive, with no barrier to entry. If you have the physical ability and the mental fortitude the approach the microphone, you have all the tools you need to command the stage.

Because of this, the criteria for success are wildly different — in karaoke, a performance by an untrained vocalist can be absolutely thrilling. Watching someone bring forth the fullness of their limited vocal ability, drawing on a deep and hidden passion to sell a song on the strength of pure conviction; that sort of experience can lift the mood of an entire bar, and make a room full of drunken strangers into an ecstatic audience.

You can only bend the rules so far, though. It’s empowering to watch an amateur crooner live the truth, but the flip-side is almost unbearable. You don’t want to see anyone struggle. Schadenfreude has no place in a karaoke bar. You don’t want to see that look of panic when a singer realizes they’ve chosen a song that’s completely out of their range, and they’re up in front of everyone without a back-up plan. They’re more or less imprisoned on that stage for the next three-to-five minutes, and all you can do is cringe along with them and applaud politely after their sentence has been served.

This is more or less how it feels to watch Chainsmokers performing “Paris” on SNL — which is strange, considering that they wrote the song themselves. Theoretically, Taggart should be familiar enough with ‘Paris’ that there are no surprises, no vocal challenges he is unable to overcome. But watching him perform, you don’t get the feeling that he’s prepared for this, at all. He wanders around the stage, visibly struggling to imbue his words with any sort of feeling. His (and our) only respite comes from co-writer and back-up singer Emily Warren, who bears some weight of the vocal burden, but her effortless delivery only highlights how much trouble Taggart is having.

In karaoke, this sort of unbalanced duet is usually the result of someone haphazardly picking a song to perform with their friend, only to discover that the distribution of the vocals is much less even than expected. One of them spends the entire performance standing off to the side, singing a couple of lines every other verse, while the unwitting lead singer awkwardly shrugs at them from center stage. This is why it’s best not to get too experimental with group numbers — don’t pick “Roses” by Outkast just because your friend knows the entire Big Boi verse if you’re not sure you can live up to Andre 3000’s unique vocals on the chorus. Poo-ooo-ooo, indeed.

“Break Up Every Night” is significantly less embarrassing, but it’s still not perfect: the sudden, unnecessary modulations in Taggart’s voice throughout the performance are the classic giveaway of someone trying unsuccessfully to switch between octaves in the hopes of salvaging their performance. And Taggart’s breath control is remarkably poor, which becomes apparent whenever he tries to shake things up and over-exerts himself. But still, “Break Up Every Night” is an up-tempo song with few held notes and a bratty pop-punk energy, so it doesn’t ask for anything that Taggart can’t provide.

Besides an adequate vocal, the main thing that Taggart brings to the song is energy. It’s not the energy of a seasoned performer — in between a couple of flashy, clearly pre-planned moments, he bounces awkwardly around the stage with no real goal or direction. But because no one could mistake Taggart’s dance moves for choreography, it becomes clear that he’s engaging with the song in an authentic, unrehearsed way, complete with exactly the sort of faux-rock-star posturing that can really win the crowd over. If someone leapt off of a drum set onto the stage at a karaoke bar, they’d be a legend — provided they weren’t immediately escorted from the premises.

Maybe you’re still not convinced. Maybe you find Taggart’s unpolished performance to be embarrassing instead of charming. “He can’t sing,” you might say, “and he shouldn’t be up there in front of everyone.” If that’s the case, consider this: in order to be a truly great karaoke performer, you actually can’t be a good singer.

I will grant you that this rule seems counter-intuitive. Shouldn’t it be inspirational to attend an event designed for amateur singing and see someone really knock one out of the park? Isn’t this the reason that people watch American Idol? In theory, yes — though, really, when’s the last time you heard anyone talk about American Idol? In practice, it’s exhilarating to see an unassuming bar-goer emerge from the crowd and absolutely slay a performance of Prince’s “Kiss.” But the reality is far more complex, and it gets right at the heart of why people even do karaoke in the first place.

There are a number of reasons why a person might want to do karaoke: you’re at the birthday party of a particularly extroverted friend, or you found a great deal on tequila shots, or maybe you just lost a bet. But we mostly do it because we have an innate, underfed need to perform. Not everyone possesses this need, but it’s more common than we might think. And because most people don’t have an outlet for this kind of creative energy, they have little practice. So it stands to reason that most karaoke performances are technically lackluster: the people who need karaoke don’t have a normal outlet for this pent-up energy.

But what does this say about karaoke performers who have talent, who are so obviously skilled that you can identify them as trained, semi-professional singers as soon as they open their mouths? It’s impressive, to be sure, and it’s almost always a pleasant surprise at first. But even still, there’s something a little off-putting about it. Even as you applaud the person’s dazzling vocal ability and obvious performing chops, you can feel a low-grade depression settling in your chest.

It doesn’t matter how joyous the song or how innocuous the context, watching a truly skilled singer do karaoke suggests something like a minor tragedy: a person who has devoted their lives to the performing arts but still lacks the proper outlet. The professional and artistic success they pursue remains painfully out of reach, so they’re forced to look for it elsewhere, and they end up in a room full of amateurs, out-classing everyone around them but still coming up empty.

It’s not a crime to be over-qualified at karaoke. It doesn’t make things unfair or unbalanced; in the rare situation where karaoke is performed competitively, the stakes are so comically low that bringing in a ringer isn’t worth the trouble. But karaoke should be a joyous, life-affirming experience, and there’s nothing uplifting about a person who wants more out of their life but just can’t seem to find it.

Say this for The Chainsmokers: they might be failing upwards, but they’re still moving up. Watching them perform karaoke on a national level might make you angry, but it doesn’t make you sad.

You Owe Me

“You Owe Me” is an uncomfortable song to listen to. But not for the reasons you might think.

Broadly speaking, this is a song about the Chainsmokers and their relationship with the press, but if that were all it was, it wouldn’t bear much discussion. People have been writing songs like “You Owe Me” pretty much since the concept of popular music came into existence. In a sense, it’s understandable, even inevitable: creators draw inspiration from their personal lives, and if you’re a popular musician, a good chunk of your life is spent being publicly scrutinized. That being said, it’s often difficult for non-famous listeners to relate to the struggles of the rich and the famous; there are artists who manage to bridge that divide, but for the most part, complaining about bad press makes you look like a spoiled brat.

Even still, I would argue that the Chainsmokers have better cause than most performers to worry about their relationship to the media. Most musicians writing in this particular sub-genre are responding to years of unwanted attention — for example, “Leave Me Alone” finds the Michael Jackson venting about an entire lifetime of scandal and rumor-mongering. And while Jackson’s treatment by the press is an issue to complex to be properly explored here, I don’t think it’s unfair to say that he certainly provided a lot of material for a hungry press.

The Chainsmokers are no strangers to the tabloids, but when they write about “the papers,” they’re not writing about the National Enquirer or The Sun — I mean, they might be, but not really. They’re really writing about one interview they did for Billboard in 2016, a single article that will define their public persona for years, if not their entire lives. Andrew Taggart and Alex Pall haven’t lived the kind of long, bizarre life that Michael Jackson had when he wrote “Leave Me Alone” — they made a couple of bad jokes over the course of one afternoon, and now everyone thinks they’re awful.

This doesn’t make their lame lyrical swipes at the media any more profound, but it’s worth remembering that these guys know first-hand that one bad interview can change your entire career and possibly your life, and not always for the better. With this in mind, their attempt to brush it all off with the line, “they’re painting but they can’t leave a mark,” is very sad, borderline tragic, and not in a way that seems intentional.

Most of the first verse is pretty unremarkable — though it is worth noting that whenever someone uses the word ‘awesome’ in a pop song, they’re trying to seem fun, quirky and relatable, and I have yet to see it work. But then we get to the chorus, which begins in the same hater-baiting self-pity realm as the rest of the song, but takes a turn into something much more interesting:

You don’t know me
Don’t you think that I get lonely?
It gets dark inside my head
Check my pulse, and if I’m dead, you owe me

Even if you find the subject matter of this song hackneyed and obvious, you have to give the Chainsmokers credit for pushing their premise to the absolute extreme. Every creator who enters the public eye become, in a sense, a commodity. Their work is no longer just art and their personal lives are no longer just experiences: both are fodder for people who make their living in the media. They are used to sell papers, fill airtime, and power the ever-expanding economy of takes currently dominating the online discourse. They’re not human. They’re just content.

In “You Owe Me,” the singer contends that, to these people, even the discovery of his corpse would just be something to write about. More than that, it would be a boon. Think Amy Winehouse, whose untimely death was spun into a minor industry of cautionary tales and an Academy Award-winning documentary. Think Prince or David Bowie, whose deaths generated so much performative weeping and gnashing of teeth that they forever redefined the way we discuss celebrity death. If he died, Andrew Taggart probably wouldn’t get a tribute at the Grammys or a shout-out from President Obama, but plenty of paid writers would cash in by examining his “ironic” death and what his music said about The Age We Live In.

Also, this probably goes without saying, but the chorus (and the song as a whole) makes it clear that the Chainsmokers know what people are writing about them. Even if their friends don’t read the papers, they do, and they know exactly how they’re viewed and discussed. To be frank, it’s a little weird to write about a song that acknowledges why people are writing about it. It’s a little like writing a review of a documentary about myself. It makes me uncomfortable, but not as uncomfortable as what comes next.

If you’re lonely
Don’t you think you’re on your own
When it gets dark inside your head
Check my pulse, and if I’m there, you owe me¹

The second half of the chorus turns on a sly bit of songwriting: the second time Taggart mentions his “pulse,” it’s a musical pun, a play on the kind of thumping, propulsive music he and Pall produce. “Check my (heart) beat” might have gotten the point across more clearly, but it’s easy enough to grasp as it is.

But this slight tweak in the lyrics changes the meaning of the entire song: where the verses are bitter and detached, the chorus is built around a statement that’s mostly empathetic. Whether you’re a self-obsessed twenty-something looking to wallow in your own misery or you just need release and you’re looking for a drop that you can dance to, the Chainsmokers are there for you in your time of need. It would be a nice sentiment if it stopped there, but the Chainsmokers aren’t that kind of band, and they can’t let a positive sentiment like this go by without reminding you that the music you love didn’t just come into existence fully-formed: there’s someone on the other side of it. Art is never a one-way street.

That’s why “You Owe Me” is such a disquieting song, because it lays bare a sense of entitlement that we rarely discuss, but seems fairly self-evident when described: if you listen to a performer’s music and get any sort of positive experience out of it, you, in a sense, owe them. The amount you owe them varies: for a disposable pop song, maybe it’s just $1.98 in the iTunes store, but for a band that got you through your darkest times, it wouldn’t be unusual to say that you owe them your life. And while it’s easy to scoff at the idea that the music of the Chainsmokers could be the basis of someone’s mental and emotional strength, you don’t actually know that it’s not true for at least one person, and possibly many more.

Even putting aside the most extreme examples, there are millions of people who listen to and enjoy the Chainsmokers, and while the standard move for any popular musician is to heap appreciation onto their listeners (“I couldn’t do it without my fans, I owe them everything,” etc., etc.), with “You Owe Me” the Chainsmokers have made it clear that the gratitude ought to run the other way. They’re the ones putting in the work, all you’re doing is listening. Nothing in this world comes for free; eventually, you’re going to have to settle up.

1. Pretty major caveat here: I seem to be the only person who hears the chorus this way. All of the major lyric sites have “if i’m dead, you owe me” for all iterations of the chorus, and you have to dig pretty deep to find it transcribed as “there”. But if it is indeed “dead” both times, that’s an incredibly awkward piece of writing: if it’s dark inside of MY head, why would it matter if someone else was dead? How, in any sense, would that mean that I “owe” them? It’s a little difficult because of how Taggart pronounces words, but hearing the second iteration as “there” is the only thing that makes the chorus make sense.