EDM

Save Yourself

When the Chainsmokers released “Side Effects” last month, I glumly theorized that it might represent a change in direction — a sort of retreat from the creatively risky work the group had been doing earlier this year, back towards the more dependably successful pop-EDM formula of their early days. Any concern that the Chainsmokers are growing conservative is completely obliterated approximately fifty-three seconds into “Save Yourself,” their blistering new collaboration with rising electronic music producer NGHTMRE.

Not only is it light years away from the breezy summer funk of their previous single, it’s unlike any song they’ve released before, an aggressive, crushing wave of bass with the biggest ‘drop’ in a Chainsmokers song since their 2014 collaboration with Tritonal. It’s odd to think that one of the biggest EDM acts in the world had never before fully embraced the trappings of dubstep, and your enjoyment of “Save Yourself” will be largely dependent on your affection towards that oft-reviled genre — personally, my feelings on dubstep are more Key & Peele and less Deadpool 2, but your mileage may vary.

Lyrically, it’s hard to discern exactly what’s going on in “Save Yourself”, but it shares the same sense of undefinable regret as “Somebody” with a more pronounced (yet ultimately bewildering) sense of defiance. But the actual words here aren’t the point; this entire track, from its ominous title and destructive cover art to its punishing drops, all the way to its downright frightening lyric video, is meant to convey a blend of excitement and menace, and it works; NGHTMRE’s unique production style tempered with Taggart’s sense of melody makes this the most viscerally satisfying Chainsmokers song in years, if not ever.

“Save Yourself” isn’t all that strange on its own — given their background in dance music and their energetic live shows, it makes sense that the Chainsmokers would venture into this territory; what’s confusing is that they’ve chosen to do it now. “Side Effects” suggested that the Chainsmokers were hungry for a surefire hit after a lackluster response to their more experimental work in the first half of the year. But “Save Yourself” isn’t a bid for mainstream success; if anything, it’s more niche than the alt-rock stylings of “Sick Boy” or “You Owe Me”. The closest dubstep came to breaking into the mainstream pop charts was Taylor Swift’s “I Knew You Were Trouble,” and that was six years ago.

In fact, the lingering traces of the EDM-pop trend that was instigated by Calvin Harris (with more than a little help from Rihanna) have all but vanished from the charts: scanning the billboard hot 100, there are maybe six songs that still bear traces of that short-lived revolution. A few of those are debatable (even Harris himself has moved in a much different direction with his current music), and only three of them come from producers with enough clout to promote themselves as solo artists — a category that the Chainsmokers themselves once fit neatly into.

When you compare today’s pop scene to the state of the industry when the Chainsmokers first arrived on the scene in 2014, its obvious how disconnected they’ve become from current trends. This isn’t at all unusual — the opposite is much rarer, and when you look at the sort of groups that have managed to stay afloat long past their expiration date, you sometimes start to wonder if it’s even worth it. Nobody wants to end up like Maroon 5, clinging to relevance by their very fingernails, desperately climbing onto the back of whatever new artist they believe can keep them afloat for another two years.

Still, in addition to being artists with their own inscrutable goals and motivations, Taggart and Pall are working musicians who need their product to resonate with as many people as possible in order to make their continued existence financially feasible. Why, then, would they pivot from the darkest, most alienating music they’ve ever made to a big, shiny dance song with a shamelessly pandering music video, then pivot once more back towards a highly-aggressive subgenre of electronic music that is beloved by very few and despised or forgotten by the culture at large?

It’s probably unwise to speculate too much about the group’s intentions, artistic or otherwise, but we’ve come this far, so let’s give it a go: if the Chainsmokers still plan to package every song they’ve released this year into an album (and this is looking more and more like a very big “if”), then we can view this eclectic collection of songs not as a series of missteps and course-corrections, but as a legitimate strategy to capture as much of the market as possible. When this album is completed, it will have at least one song that caters to every possible Chainsmokers fan. People who want to dance to Charlie Puth-esque pop-funk? They’re covered. Rave kids and festival lifers who love flashy DJ sets but want something a little harder than “Don’t Let Me Down?” There’s a song for them, too. Overly precious amateur music critics with a soft spot for self-referential pop songs about anxiety? Hey, how about that?

I would not be surprised to learn that Taggart and Pall are proponents of the Long Tail theory, which (more or less) states that as our culture becomes increasingly fragmented, creators have less of an incentive to produce work for an imagined “mainstream” and would be better off serving the ever-rising number of highly specific niche markets. Massive, all-consuming pop hits like the Chainsmokers’ own “Closer” will more than likely soon be a thing of the past; the speed with which this eventuality comes to pass (and the degree to which it actually occurs) will have an enormous impact on pop culture in the future.

Any band who wants to keep making music into the next decade would do well to abandon all hopes of crossover success and play to their own little corner of the world with extreme fervor. It would seem that the Chainsmokers, two-time one-hit wonders who forever remain one step ahead of cultural annihilation, have chosen to simultaneously target as many little corners as they can. Whether or not they will be ultimately be successful remains to be seen.

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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.