andrew taggart

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.

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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.

The Chainsmokers Problem

First Variant:

Alex Pall and Andrew Taggart of the Chainsmokers have a public image problem. To put it concisely: people fucking hate them.

This has little to do with their music, which tends towards the EDM-influenced pop that’s been in vogue since roughly 2011 (thanks for nothing, Calvin Harris), and features lyrics about romantic frustration, self-destructive behavior and an unhealthy obsession with youth. Pretty standard fare for a 21st-century pop performer; hell, pretty standard fare for the entire space of music history. There are lots of reasons to dislike the Chainsmokers’ music, none of them particularly interesting or unique. But they, as people, are disliked primarily for two reasons: their 2014 breakout single “#selfie” and this 2015 interview with Billboard Magazine.

“#selfie” is indefensible. It’s an empty-headed dance-club number featuring a painfully unfunny monologue delivered in the exaggerated cadence of an obnoxious young woman. The central joke — that the act of taking a selfie is symptomatic of vapidity, cluelessness, and all other sorts of negative things that society associates with modern femininity — is so played-out and untrue that it barely warrants discussion. Suffice to say, “#selfie” is a song written by the kind of guys who will claim “satire” in defense of any poorly-received joke, without understanding that satire requires clear intent, an acceptable target, and, most importantly, some element of humor.

It could be argued that “#selfie” is such a terrible song that nothing the Chainsmokers will ever do could possibly make up for it; that it will cast a shadow over their entire career. That’s probably a little harsh for a song that was clearly intended as a cheap, one-off goof, (one that the Chainsmokers themselves have all but disowned) but the song’s uniquely irritating nature and its importance to the group’s career makes it hard to ignore. But it’d be even harder to ignore if the Chainsmokers hadn’t changed direction almost immediately after it was released.

After releasing a few non-starter singles, the duo returned in earnest 18 months after “#selfie” with “Roses,” “Don’t Let Me Down” and “Closer,” three songs of varying quality that nonetheless fulfill the qualification of being actual music, a title “#selfie” never quite attained. Their former musical identity as a couple of obnoxious idiots might have been forgotten if not for their disastrous cover story from the September 2016 issue of Billboard Magazine. The story itself includes many upsettingly indelible details, such as the clarification that the duo’s penises measure a combined 17.34 inches “tip to tip” (a turn of phrase that probably deserves an entire essay of its own), the revelation that Taggart started an investment club at his high school, a probably-apocryphal anecdote about the two of them punching each other’s faces until they drew blood while on the way home from a strip club, and, most famously, Pall’s declaration that “even before success, pussy was number one,” a statement which ranks with John Lennon’s “bigger than Jesus” remark on the list of poorly-thought boasts that almost derailed careers.

The Chainsmokers did not come off well, to say the least. Aside from the vague sexism and unconvincing boastfulness, the story is brimming with unearned confidence so extreme that it played as comedy originally but might seem like a minor tragedy in hindsight, depending on how the arc of the group’s career plays out in the future. For casual listeners, their impression of Taggart and Pall as people will be forever defined by this interview. And, to their credit, the duo seems aware of that. Just six months later, NME ran a feature about the Chainsmokers with the hilariously unconvincing headline “I Promise You, We’re Not Assholes.”

In the article (and the awkward, stutter-filled video that accompanies it), Taggart and Pall seem legitimately concerned about how they came off in the Billboard story. Pall goes out of his way to be diplomatic when speaking to the reporter, and Taggart even drops a halfway-charming line about his obsession with multiband compression. But as damage control, it’s largely unsuccessful — “we were joking” is rarely a convincing defense, and no  heartwarming anecdote about a sick fan can withstand the gruesome power of a statement like “pussy is number one”. But at this point, I don’t know if there exists a pressure-washer strong enough to erase the stain of the Chainsmokers public persona. They could perform a duet with the newly-resurrected Jesus Christ and in the back of my mind I’d still probably be thinking about their penises.

The problem with the Chainsmokers is that you can’t trust a first impression, but you’ll never be able to forget it.

Second Variant:

The weirdest thing about the Chainsmokers’ public image, and perhaps the central contradiction of their existence, is how little it matches their music. The Chainsmokers songs that feature other vocalists are largely interchangeable (“Something Just Like This” mostly just sounds like a Coldplay song and “Don’t Let Me Down” sounds like a Daya song — which is to say, nothing), but the songs where Taggart sings all hold to a single unifying aesthetic. That aesthetic isn’t entirely disconnected from the group’s frat-boy persona, but it’s got almost nothing to do with getting drunk and chasing girls. Okay, actually, it’s got everything to do with getting drunk and chasing girls, but in a doomed, romantic sort of way.

Take, for example, the song “Bloodstream” off of the band’s debut album Memories… Do Not Open, which opens with the lyric “I’ve been drunk three times this week/spent all my money on a fleeting moment,” accompanied by a minor-key piano line that replicates with unnerving accuracy the feeling of accidentally slipping into a week-long bender, the casual kind of self-destructive streak that no one around you notices, because you’re never drinking with the same people two nights in a row. I have no way of proving this, but I’m fairly certain that when the narrator says “I’ve been drunk three times this week,” it’s not even the weekend. It might not even be Wednesday.

The chorus follows a similar track: “I’m fucked up, I’m faded/I’m so complicated/Those things that I said, they were so overrated,” Taggart sings, followed by a drop that does little to dispel the gloomy attitude hanging over the song. Look, these are not fantastic lyrics: they’re simple and more than a little too self-serious. But they paint a picture of a specific situation that the listener can personally relate to. It’s obvious that Taggart (and his co-writers) took this song seriously. This isn’t a follow-up to “#selfie”, dashed off in a few minutes as an easy cash-in. This is a man baring his soul. This is a man who drinks too much, and that’s an issue — and maybe, just maybe, it’s not okay.

And yet, I cannot hear this song without being extremely, constantly aware that Andrew Taggart of The Chainsmokers is the one singing it. And regardless of how accurate it is, when I think of Andrew Taggart, I think of a hard-drinking, hard-living EDM party-bro who got famous off a novelty song so misogynistic that it actually makes me feel sympathetic toward its fictional object of ridicule.

And yet! Here is that same unlikeable person baring his soul to me in a way that I can’t help but find endearing, catchy and, yes, a little relatable — the three hallmarks of a truly good pop song.

Listening to this music, I find myself continuously torn between two distinct but equally distracting beliefs. As a result of their obnoxious public image, every bit of genuine emotion that appears in a song by the Chainsmokers seems either a) cynically fabricated and absolutely false in a way that is extreme even for pop music, or b) surprisingly meaningful in a way that is grossly out of proportion to the actual quality of their music, making it difficult to assess the appropriate response.

The problem with the Chainsmokers is that you can’t trust anything someone says after they’ve been paid to say it.

 

Third Variant:

Thought experiment: picture a Black Sabbath fan. Setting doesn’t matter. Don’t worry about time period, location, anything like that. Just imagine the type of person that would identify as a fan of the classic heavy metal band Black Sabbath.

Easy, right? If I asked you to describe this person, you could probably tell me about the way they dressed and they way they wore their hair. You could even tell me what their personality was like. They might be based on a person you’ve actually met, or they might be a composite based on board stereotypes, but still, the picture is there.

On the other end of the spectrum, picture a Justin Bieber fan. Wait, too easy. Picture an Ed Sheeran fan. You might not be one, and you might not even know one, but based on the type of music he produces and the image he’s cultivated, you probably know what that fan would be like. When you picture an Ed Sheeran concert, it’s not hard to imagine the crowd. Even if it’s tough to describe how they spoke or how they dressed, I bet you could make an educated guess about their race, gender, and amount of disposable income.

You probably know where this is going by now, but let’s go through with it, anyway: try to imagine what a Chainsmokers super-fan would look like. Try to imagine anything about them, anything at all.

Maybe, based on your preconceived notion of who the Chainsmokers are as people, you imagine their fans to be a bunch of brainless fraternity members, the kind of people who study finance during the week and then throw questionable parties on the weekend. Except the Chainsmokers don’t make “party music” — you can dance to it, sure, but it’s not the kind of music that your typical finance bro would reach for, except for the three months during 2014 where they all thought “#selfie” was hilarious.

Okay, so maybe it’s not kegger music, but it still appeals to the EDM set, right? Maybe that’s who you’re picturing: a fist-pumping MDMA enthusiast who goes to week-long parties in the Arizonan desert. A club kid, dancing around with a pair of glow-sticks in their hands, possibly wearing some sort of ridiculous outfit. Except the Chainsmokers are basically ignored by serious fans of the EDM genre, and not without reason: the music they make now is closer to top 40 hit than it is to rave anthem. You’ll still hear the Chainsmokers in nightclubs, but not in those kinds of nightclubs.

By now, with your collection of stereotypes exhausted, you might try to picture a casual Chainsmokers fan, just a single person whose life is, in any small way, defined by their enjoyment of the Chainsmokers. But even that is basically impossible, and it’s impossible for one reason: the Chainsmokers are an incredibly successful band that no one will admit to liking.

For anyone who listened to the radio between the years of 2002 and 2008, this will sound familiar, because it’s the exact same thing that happened to Nickelback. Nickelback were a constant presence on the pop charts for the better part of a decade, and they absolutely dominated rock radio. They had an immediately recognizable sound, and it was difficult to go more than a day at a time without hearing one of their songs. Yet despite their massive popularity, it was impossible during this time to find someone who identified as a Nickelback fan. If you wanted people to know you were serious about music, you were required not only to dislike Nickelback, but to hate everything they represented about modern music and use them as a means to opine about the declining state of humanity in general. Hating them was not just a signifier of being an intelligent person with fully developed tastes, it was a prerequisite.

When critics of the Chainsmokers call them “the Nickelback of EDM,” they think they’re making a point about the commodification of a once-legitimate genre — in Nickelback’s case, this genre is grunge, and in both cases, the genre supposedly being appropriated is of questionable value to begin with. But in fact, these people are only highlighting the absurdity of an immensely popular band (such as Nickelback or the Chainsmokers) having no visible fanbase.

Granted, it might be a little too soon to make this comparison: Nickelback have been around for much longer than the Chainsmokers and they have a much better track record (nine albums over twenty-plus years, all but two of which have gone platinum in multiple countries). But think of it this way: Nickelback is the second-most popular foreign band in U.S. history, right behind the Beatles. They are one of the best-selling, most popular and, arguably, most important rock bands of the 21st century. And yet no one will admit to liking them. If the same is true for the Chainsmokers, then there’s no metric of success that they could meet or exceed at which point it would be socially acceptable for people to admit that they liked them.

Even “#selfie”, a depressingly terrible song, dated and embarrassing from the very moment it was released, hated and disowned by its very creators themselves, was downloaded over 800,000 times in the U.S. alone — but more to the point, the music video has over half a billion views on YouTube. Millions of people voluntarily listened to this song — many of them even spent money so that they could own it and listen to it whenever they wanted. Fucking “#selfie!” “Closer” is the most-streamed song in the history of Spotify and was purchased by nearly three million people. But it’s impossible to imagine anyone who would care enough to defend the band that made it.

How can that be possible? How can a song that is universally hated be beloved by millions? How can two of the least-liked people in modern music be two of the most successful? How many people are lying about liking the Chainsmokers? How many people are lying to themselves?

The real problem with the Chainsmokers is that you can’t trust anyone, ever, about anything.