Closer

Finishing The Closer Review

I’d just finished writing the ‘Closer’ review. I laid down on my bed and fell into a deep sleep and when I awoke, I believed I’d told a lie.

Not on purpose, though. When I wrote about why millennials responded so strongly to ‘Closer’, I was trying to be honest — even as I buried it under enough qualifiers to disguise the fact that I was essentially calling it “the soundtrack of a generation.”¹ My point didn’t center on any specific event within the song’s narrative; rather, I was arguing that the general impression of life conveyed by the lyrics clearly resonated with a lot of people, and that the song owes much of its remarkable success to that resonance.

But how could I be honest about this song’s lyrical content without mentioning the fact that I have never experienced anything even remotely similar to the central narrative? The primary romantic relationship of my life began when I was a teenager and, precluding any serious catastrophe, will continue until roughly the time that I am dead. I have never and will never hook up with a financially destitute ex-lover after a chance encounter at a hotel bar. I don’t think I’m unique in this regard — out of the millions of people who have deliberately listened to ‘Closer,’ it is unlikely that all of them have gone through the identical experience — but the facts of my life are so dissimilar from the situation depicted in this song that it would probably bear mention, if I were being totally honest.

I knew I was lying when I wrote about that part of the song. But I didn’t have a choice. It’s already difficult enough to convince people to read something that you wrote on the internet; it would be nearly impossible to do so if you opened every bit of writing with a lengthy disclosure about your personal life. I don’t think it was necessarily wrong to hold back that bit of personal detail, but that’s not the issue here. The issue is: does it matter? Is the fact that ‘Closer’ resonates with my despite my experiential disconnect with the subject matter proof of the song’s genius? Or does my entire argument collapse if the idea of ‘relatability’ is undermined, rendering the entire discussion meaningless?

Also central to the thesis of my ‘Closer’ review was the inherent magic of youth and the unavoidable tragedy of its ending. I wasn’t being totally disingenuous — there is, after all, a reason why many people look back nostalgically on their adolescence. Youth has its advantages: many parts of life still feel exciting and new, the world seems full of possibilities, and physical decrepitude is a distant idea. But my personal experience of being young is that, quite frankly, it blows.

I spent the majority of my teenage years emotionally and mentally distressed for reasons that were unknowable to me. Every aspect of my life was governed by rules that seemed antithetical to my well-being. The endless possibilities of the world left me paralyzed in a near-constant state of anxiety and I felt disconnected from my own body in a way that caused no end of distress. And in the grand scheme of things, I was actually doing very well. I lived a life of privilege and opportunity that would have seemed absolutely foreign to other people my age. Societal currents and purely random chance conspire to rob many people of the carefree, wonder-filled youth that our culture promises them.²

The magic and wonder of youth is a highly subjective concept, accessible only to a rare few. For many others, myself included, the experience of youth is better captured by the unreleased Mountain Goats song, “You Were Cool”:

It’s good to be young, but let’s not kid ourselves
It’s better to pass on through those years and come out the other side
With our hearts still beating
Having stared down demons
Come back breathing

Even when I was trying to be honest, I addressed my true feelings only glancingly, such as my one-line digression about the lyric “I drink too much and that’s an issue, but I’m okay.” I singled this lyric out as a particularly insightful character note, but neglected to mention that it’s also one of the truest pieces of songwriting that I’ve ever heard.

This attitude, more than any grandiose carpe diem-type sentiments about living in the moment, best captures my experience of being young. I can think of dozens of people — myself included — who have acknowledged that their relationship to alcohol is toxic, enough so that it has negatively impacted their life, only to casually shrug it off because they haven’t descended into full-fledged alcoholism. This is privilege only afforded to the young, people with enough freedom to get absolutely obliterated on a regular basis and not totally disrupt their lives. This single, wonderfully observant detail was enough for this song to win me over, and yet I barely mentioned it in my review; not because I was embarrassed by it, but because it would have felt out of place within the argument I was constructing.

Once again, I don’t think it was wrong to do this. But it certainly wasn’t honest.

Reading over the Closer review, I don’t hate it. I’m sure there are things I could have done better if I’d spent more time on it, but I set a strict timeline for publication and I wanted to stick to it. And even if I had found a way to seamlessly integrate all the information I’ve laid out here into the original article, that would only be a cosmetic change. There’s something else bothering me, something that runs deeper than a few personal details. Something at the bottom of all of this that just doesn’t seem right. A bigger lie than any of the other ones I told. And I’m not sure what it is.³

Maybe it has something to do with the last line — or, I suppose, the “kicker”, if you want to be technical — a last-minute flourish that I only later came to realize was directly lifted from the title of The Decemberists’ 2015 album What a Terrible World, What a Beautiful World. But it could just as easily have come from any overwrought piece of criticism I’ve absorbed over the past decade.

If I had to guess, I’d say that there’s probably an article buried deep in the archives of Pitchfork.com with the exact same ending. For several years, Pitchfork was my only source of music journalism and was, to my underdeveloped collegiate mind, the only objective arbiter of musical taste. If I made the mistake of enjoying an album that wasn’t rated about a 7.0, I had to perform a series of increasingly complex mental gymnastics to justify it to myself.

This borderline-pathological compulsion to legitimize my own taste was especially tiring, considering my longtime obsession with pop music and how much mental energy I devoted to it. I did eventually break free from my slavish devotion to whatever the editors of Pitchfork deigned to label the Best New Music, but not before I had constructed an elaborate critical framework around my own enjoyment, to the point where I couldn’t enjoy a song by a widely-maligned EDM duo without exploding that pleasure out into an inherently ridiculous long-term writing project.

Hypothetically speaking, I mean.

1: Again, my goal here was not to obfuscate my point, which is essentially very simple, but to avoid the sort of obvious and hackneyed writing that would cause any potential reader to wrinkle their nose in disgust. I think this is understandable.

2: It should go without saying that my sociological analysis here is extremely under-developed, but to honest, I have more personal reservations about this paragraph that dwarf any other concerns.

3: That is not wholly true.

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Closer

By any practical method of determining success, “Closer” is a massively popular song, but only one metric points to the reason that it is a truly important song: “Closer” is the third most-played song of all time on Spotify.

Much like chart success, an abnormally high amount of streams doesn’t necessarily signify quality — “rockstar”, Post Malone’s charmless ode to “poppin’ pillies [sic]” currently holds the number ten spot on Spotify’s all-time list, and right at the top is “Shape Of You” by Ed Sheeran, a bafflingly unsexy song about having odorous intercourse after stuffing your face at a Chinese buffet. It is nearly impossible to imagine anyone looking back fondly on either of these songs ten years from now, much less still listening to them — but “Closer” is different. The popularity of “Closer” may be driven by the same factors that continually push Justin Bieber’s underwhelming singles to the top of the charts, but the song itself is striking, unique and emotionally resonant in a way that will ensure it remains relevant long after the era it typified has passed.

Spotify is a relatively new platform for music distribution and the majority of its users fall between the ages of 18 and 34; broadly speaking, the people who determine a song’s popularity on Spotify fall under the generational demographic of “millennial,” a much-abused term that is nonetheless a useful signifier.

We can therefor reasonably determine that “Closer” is a song that connected with millennials to a high degree, but that hardly makes it special or worthy of praise — again, Ed Sheeran. Still, “Closer” is unusual among the other most-streamed song on Spotify because, broadly speaking, it’s not a song you can dance to. It’s not a song about having a good time or living in the moment or anything else that would make it suitable for a party playlist thrown together by a casual music listener. It’s a lyrically dense narrative about two former lovers reconnecting after several years apart. If people (specifically, millennials) are connecting with this song, it’s because they relate to the story being told.

The key to making something feel universally relatable is, somewhat paradoxically, to ground it in highly specific details that lend the story a degree of verisimilitude. Andrew Taggart and co-writer Shaun Frank sprinkle the verses of “Closer” with small-but-believable character notes, such as the couple’s shared love of a Blink-182 (particularly one song whose name escapes them both) or an off-handed reference to one character’s drinking problem (which is probably a lot worse than he’s willing to admit). This sharp writing, combined with the very different but equally distinctive singing styles of Taggart and guest vocalist Halsey, creates a strong impression of two unique characters telling the same story from separate points-of-view; but, as is usually the case, the chorus is really what takes it to the next level.

In lieu of a more straightforward account of the couple’s re-ignited passion, the chorus spills out in a series of images that paint an impressionistic picture of two young people living a semi-transient life in 21st century America. Both of them seem to be dissatisfied with their place in life — details are sparse regarding the character voiced by Taggart, but what little we get is buried under enough layers of self-deception to suggest a deep-seated angst–but it’s the female partner, portrayed by Halsey, that gets the most vivid description.

She drives a car that was purchased for her by her parents, suggesting the sort of privilege and unearned wealth that are among the negative associates usually hurled at millennials — but she also stole mattress from her roommate, a crime so specific and unglamorous hat there’s no way it was committed out of anything other than sheer need. Her parents may be rich, but her life is such a mess that she can’t afford her own bed, much less a new car, and she’s bouncing around from one city to another, completely unmoored from any job or personal relationship that might hold her in one place.

This specific situation is unfamiliar to large swaths of American youth in a variety of ways, but the feeling it conveys is universal, particularly to the millennials. The characters in this song were born into a life where they were promised unlimited success, only to find when they came of age that the deck was heavily stacked against them. Yes, they’ve made some mistakes of their own — the ill-conceived hook-up that forms the basis of the song’s narrative seems like only the latest in a long list of poor decisions — but their flaws only serve to make them more relatable. They’re not angelic ciphers undone by the cruelties of fate, they’re real people struggling against a world that seems to see-saws wildly between indifference and outright malice.

We live in a society where public figures would rather paint an entire generation as lazy and entitled than take a moment to examine whether rampant under-employment and widespread malaise are the result of something more systemic; hearing a pop song that even glancingly acknowledges that reality is cathartic, and when that message is paired with the even more universally-relatable feelings that come after the end of a romantic relationship, the reason behind this song’s massive popularity seems pretty clear.

This brings us to the song’s central refrain, “We ain’t never getting older,” which functions as a sort of lyrical rorschach test: if you’re feeling uncharitable towards the characters in the song (or the people who wrote it the song, or the people you imagine enjoying it), you can dismiss this sentiment as wishful thinking, a painfully naive sentiment that could only come from a couple of drunk twenty-somethings high on the false immortality of youth. And if that’s how you feel, you’re (sort of) missing the point. This lyric is meant to be meaningless and empty, because it reflects the inner life of two characters who feel that their lives lack meaning.

This isn’t the satire defense, wherein someone writes a dumb pop song, only to backpedal and claim that they were actually making fun of dumb pop songs — Jewel pulled this move in a spectacular fashion, but Halsey herself deserves honorable mention for “New Americana” — it’s perfectly clear that we’re not meant to hear the refrain and scoff at its foolishness. The Chainsmokers and Halsey are simply acknowledging the inherent contradiction of all songs that glorify youth: it feels great to be young, but it can’t last forever.

The giddy rush of youth is infectious, but it eventually runs out. All the stuff that seemed fun and cool starts to look ridiculous and a little sad as you mature. Everybody knows this — even people in their early twenties can look back on their teen years and shake their heads in embarrassment. It’s ridiculous to assert that the writers of this song, or even the people in it, don’t understand this. The refrain is a concise and anthemic encapsulation of the self-defeating yet irresistible battle cry of youth. It strikes the perfect balance, allowing us to feel the same addictive feelings of immortality as the characters in the song, while never letting us forget that what they’re feeling is ultimately a fantasy.

“Closer” is about two people choosing to live in the moment, but the song’s final contradiction is that the moment they were living in was objectively terrible. Not just for the characters in the song; “Closer” was released in summer 2016, in the midst of a politically and socially tumultuous period that, unbeknownst to anyone of us, would only become more unhinged as the year drew to a close. Trying to escape from a world that doesn’t make sense, while desperately avoid the knowledge that it’s going to be even worse tomorrow; is there a feeling that better captures America in 2016?

“Closer” will forever be a song of its time, but that’s okay; that’s what pop songs are supposed to be. When music historians or future filmmakers are looking for a song that symbolizes our present era, they’ll turn to this song; but more importantly, so will the people who lived through it. In that way, this song will live forever, suspended for eternity in a state of perpetual youth. What a terrible fate; what a beautiful, terrible fate.