Emily Warren

The Fifth Chainsmoker

One of the most fascinating things about the Chainsmokers is the way they meaningfully integrate contemporary technology like cell phones and social media into their work. Their interest in this subject stretches all the way back to “#SELFIE”, but that song is, to be generous, a little shallow. It does capture some of the everyday absurdity that comes with maintaining a public image online, but to no real end — aside from mocking its female protagonist for her supposed vanity.

But in the group’s recent work, beginning with Memories… Do Not Open and continuing into their current run of singles, the Chainsmokers have learned to fold these references into their subject matter organically. Their songs casually reference cell phones as modern life’s most ubiquitous device while also addressing the sense of profound alienation that technology can create, and this stylistic evolution would simply not be possible without the work of singer-songwriter Emily Warren.

Warren first collaborated with the Chainsmokers on 2015’s “Until You Were Gone,” but she didn’t actually meet the group in person until they co-wrote “Don’t Let Me Down” (along with Warren’s frequent collaborator Scott Harris¹), the group’s massively successful follow-up to “Roses” that solidified their position as reliable hit-makers. Right away, we can see Warren’s impact on the group in terms of sheer survival. If not for the success of “Don’t Let Me Down,” the second act of the Chainsmokers’ career might have ended prematurely, and the world would have been denied their two most significant contributions to American culture: the song “Closer” and that one Instagram post where Drew is helping Alex with his resistance training.

Even before her collaboration with the Taggart and Pall really started to heat up, Warren was already a proven talent in the music industry, writing songs for Fifth Harmony, Shawn Mendes, James Blunt and many others. Much of this work is very good and most of it is deserving of discussion regarding the creative development of a singular talent, but two songs in particular point the way towards the subject matter she would later explore in-depth: “No Filter” by Britt Nicole and “Phone Down” by DJ duo Lost Kings, featuring vocals from Warren herself.

“No Filter” is a song about two people in a dying relationship who still feel the need to pretend everything is fine. It’s tried and true subject matter for a sad pop song, but Warren gives it a modern touch by framing the couple’s superficial happiness around the pictures they post online. The verses reveal details of the couple’s life (“I think we got the perfect shot/You’d never know at dinner, we didn’t even talk”), while the chorus draws a direct parallel between their personal unhappiness (“And what we let the whole world see/Isn’t really you and me”) and the more broadly relatable issue of the pressure people feel to present a certain type of image online (“We always put a filter on/To try to cover up the flaws”).

It’s an interesting idea, but it ends up being too vague to really connect. The details of the couple’s life, while realistic, lack the specificity needed to be truly compelling, and the song itself, with all due respect to Britt Nicole, ends up being a bit of a drag. But if “No Filter” ends up falling short of its lofty goals, it’s still hard to get too down on it; Warren was addressing a massive, unwieldy topic here, so it’s not surprising that the end result is a bit awkward.

More fun (and far more successful) is “Phone Down,” a song that should resonate with anyone who’s ever had to compete with a cell phone for someone’s attention. Unlike “No Filter,” “Phone Down” doesn’t use cell phones or social media as a metaphor for anything; this is quite literally a song about the frustration of having a quiet, romantic moment ruined by the appearance of a glowing blue screen in your partner’s hand.

Warren is no luddite. This isn’t a song about how we should all toss our phones into the sea and live free from society’s influence; it’s just an acknowledgment that some aspects of modern technology have intruded on our personal lives in unique ways. That it believably builds this story around a dance track with a cathartic hook is a testament to Warren’s talents as both songwriter and performer, two skillets that would prove equally valuable when she collaborated with the Chainsmokers on their debut album.

Emily Warren is the first voice you hear on Memories… Do Not Open, providing background vocals for “The One,” one of four songs on the album that she co-wrote. In addition to providing vocal support on this and three other songs (including “Paris”), Warren uses her writerly instincts to helps Taggart sharpen the self-loathing artistic persona that he’s been developing since “Closer” and contributes lines such as “Let’s go, let’s end this/I delete before I send it/And we can play pretend like we haven’t reached the end yet,” which seamlessly and relatable incorporate cell phone imagery into the narrative of an impending break-up.

Aside from helping set the tone of the entire record and expanding its sonic palette with her own unique voice, Warren’s presence provides a much-needed sense of balance. Since much of the album’s lyrics concern self-destructive men and the women in their lives, it’s incredibly helpful to have Warren singing a song like “My Type” from the point of view of a woman who finds herself inevitably attracted to this very same subset of unreliable partners.

A song like “Honest,” with its morally shady late-night confessions hedged by claims of internal conflict, could not exist without a song like “Don’t Say,” which is explicitly about not accepting these sort of of excuses and features the cutting refrain “Don’t say you’re human/Don’t say it’s not your fault”. If someone finds the pop-emo stylings of Memories distasteful, no one song is going to win them over, but Warren’s presence stretches over more than a third of the album’s run-time and prevents it from being fully consumed by a black hole of self-obsession.

Warren is credited as co-writer on all three singles that the Chainsmoker’s have released in 2018. Her razor-sharp writing instincts are now fully integrated with the group’s surprising musical evolution, producing some of the most unexpected and fascinating songs of the year. Removed from the novelty of its initial release, “Sick Boy” still contains the indelible couplet “Feed yourself on my life’s work/How many likes is my life worth”, an absolutely classic Warren line that scans as mildly clever on its own but is somehow attains great power when sung by an artist who many people would dismiss as disposable. “You Owe Me” is a darkly modern twist on the classic middle-finger-to-critics style of song, and “Everybody Hates Me” is such a perfect encapsulation of the group’s entire aesthetic that it’s hard to imagine where they can even go from here.

The influence of Warren’s artistry extends far beyond her work with Taggart and Pall. She co-wrote the massively popular Dua Lipa song “New Rules” and Charli XCX’s critically-acclaimed single “Boys”, and the work she’s released as a solo performer demonstrates that she’s certainly a performer to watch in her own right. But her ongoing collaboration with the Chainsmokers is a perfect pairing of creators, each of them elevating and expanding the scope of the other’s work. As the group continues their transition from DJ duo to pop stars, Warren is their most consistent and vital collaborator and an irreplaceable talent. If George Martin was the fifth Beatle, then Emily Warren is the fifth Chainsmoker.²

1. Harris, by the way, wrote Stephen Jerzak’s “Party Like You’re Single,” the best bad song that you’ve never heard of.

2. Before you write in: I am aware that this analogy has a major, glaring flaw — namely, that while the Beatles were really a four-person band, the Chainsmokers is “officially” composed of only two people. Your objections are noted and, while a bit pedantic, very much appreciated.

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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 2

Roses

Released a full eighteen months after “#SELFIE”, “Roses” elicited a reaction of equal parts admiration and bewilderment. Society simply was not prepared for a song by the Chainsmokers that was not just listenable, but downright enjoyable. To this day, it remains one of the few Chainsmokers songs that can be enjoyed completely guilt-free. It stands apart, not just as a song in the Chainsmokers discography, but as a singularly fascinating objet d’art, a radio-friendly crossover jam that holds within it a nearly endless list of contradictions. It’s a second hit song by a band that immediately destined to languish as one-hit wonders. It’s completely divorced from most people’s image of the Chainsmokers, but it’s the first song where either of them contributes vocals, the first step towards establishing themselves as pop stars. It was, in a way, the most important moment of the group’s career, but it stands totally removed from the controversy and criticism that have dogged them their entire careers.

As if in acknowledgement of the song’s paradoxical nature, the Chainsmokers produced two separate videos for “Roses.” The first video, shot by future “You Owe Me” director Rory Kramer, is a video travelogue of the duo on tour in Europe. Sharply edited to fit the song’s chill-yet-upbeat vibe and shot with an eye for the quieter moments of a long overseas trip, it accomplishes its modest goal with a skill that calls to mind Joe Zohar’s work on the video for “Let You Go”: it makes the Chainsmokers seem fun to hang out with.

This is not to say that Taggart and Pall are, in reality, unpleasant to be around; nor is meant to excuse the less-than-admirable things they’ve said and done. But when you see the two of them jumping between the twin beds in their tiny hotel room, or having a glue-fight with their friends, or just quietly sticking their heads out the window of a car while they ride through a foreign city, it’s hard to work up any serious ire. And while their off-stage antics have never reached loathsome heights (depths?) as did those of Justin Bieber, it’s not surprising that Bieber hired Rory Kramer to be his full-time videographer shortly after “Roses” was filmed: if he can make the Chainsmokers look good, he can make anyone look good.

The second video is unique in its own way: it is the first, and thus far the only Chainsmokers video in which neither member of the group appears on-screen (though the lead actor, Scott Lyon, looks like what might happen if you merged Taggart and Pall together with some sort of facial compositing software). It’s almost as if they made the first video, focused solely on them and their trans-continental exploits, in order to purge their essence from this video, which, like the song itself, succeeds because of how it subverts our expectations of what the Chainsmokers can do as a group.

Directed by Andrew Roberts and James Zwadlo (working under the moniker “Impossible Brief”), the “Roses” video features a woman (Callie Roberts) caught in an ambiguous but clearly loving on-again/off-again relationship with a visiting man. We see them spend time together, relaxing on a couch and smoking weed before having sex. It’s more or less a straightforward adaptation of the song’s lyrics, with one unique touch: interspersed between the narrative scenes is footage of Roberts dancing in a nondescript space, illuminated by a ghostly spotlight.

The second video, much like the first, is a simple concept greatly enhanced by the quality of the song. But the visuals here do a better job of matching the audio. The video, like the song, has a straightforward, almost swaggering quality that is anchored by a sense of vulnerability and longing. The shots of Roberts dancing communicate the emotion that would otherwise be missing from the more muted narrative sections — and there’s one truly sublime shot of Roberts floating through the air that almost reaches the heights of magical realism. 

There is, technically, a third video for “Roses,” in which the Chainsmokers enlist an Uber driver to play the song for his passengers, all of them singing along in what is, if not a legal infringement on the work of James Corden, then at least highly derivative. And while there’s not much to say about this video, it’s worth noting because, taken with the other two videos, one really gets a sense that someone — the Chainsmokers themselves, or maybe their label — was hedging their bets. “Roses” was a turning point for the band, and by producing three distinct videos with totally different styles and purposes, they were doing their best to make sure that people heard it. And, I mean, hey. It worked.

Waterbed

Believe it or not, “Waterbed” is the first truly awful Chainsmokers video. “#SELFIE” was lazy and obnoxious, but it lacked the ambition necessary to be a true failure. Joe Zohar returns as director, seemingly determined to completely undo the creative goodwill he built up in his previous two videos.

Things start off promisingly, with Taggart laid up with a broken leg while a party rages on outside, while he has only an iPad and an adorable puppy to keep him company. Pall stops by to check on him, but his sympathy only extends so far, and he abandons his friend to pursue hedonistic excess. At this point, the video is set to follow the same track as the Simpsons episode “Bart Of Darkness,” itself a parody of the film Rear Window. Taggart decides to attach a GoPro to his canine friend, and for a moment it seems like we might get an entertaining twist on the perils of voyeurism in the modern age — like Disturbia, with a cute dog — but then Taggart, in order to explain the dog’s mission, displays several crude drawings of women with exaggerated sexual characteristics. After this point, things quickly go downhill.

The fact that the main character of this video attaches a camera to his dog for the purpose of ogling women does not necessarily make it irredeemably awful, but the whole situation plays out in the worst possible way. Basically, Zohar uses this premise as an excuse to film as many butts as possible, then justifies it by awkwardly inserting the image of a dog onto the footage, without the slightest attempt at verisimilitude. Again, the cheapness of the visual effect is not the problem here, but the gross objectification of women — and, to be honest, the wasting of a perfectly cute dog.

The video ends as it must, with the poor dog, overcome by the same animal lust that motivates its owner, launching itself through the air to hump an unsuspecting woman’s leg. In the process, the dog causes Pall to take a nasty tumble, resulting in him breaking his leg as well. In the end, Taggart and Pall are consigned to the same bed, bickering as the dog watches on from across the room, and humanity suffers the minor but deeply-felt pain of another blow to our collective dignity.

Until You Were Gone

Zohar’s final collaboration with the Chainsmokers is less actively distasteful than his work on “Waterbed,” but it comes from the same school of misogynistic hackery. The premise is clearly executed but very basic and more than a little creepy: Taggart and Pall, along with guest stars Chad Cisneros and David Reed of the electronic music duo Tritonal, all develop a crush on the same SoulCycle instructor, portrayed by actual SoulCycle instructor Karyn Nesbit. After lusting over her during a class, the four men obsess over her in ways that range from “awkward dork creepy” to “serial-killer creepy”.

Taggart and Pall both engage in some light stalking, following the instructor after the class in order to bump into her and continue their ogling, while Cisneros and Reed hold up in their rooms and stare worshipfully at photos of her. The humor is meant to come from how foolish the four of them look, and, blessedly, the video doesn’t reward any of their upsetting behavior, as their instructor ends the video in the arms of her boyfriend while the four DJs walk away defected. If you could ignore the toxic implications of unwanted male attention being portrayed as laughable or even charming, the whole thing might play as innocent fun, if not for the way Zohar’s camera lingers over the instructor’s body, engaging in the sort of music video objectification that’s so widespread it’s become almost subliminal.

Despite the plot of the video centering around the hilarious misadventures of four American DJs, nearly half of the runtime is given over to another, less clearly defined joke, the entirety of which seems to be: “SoulCycle is hard.” This is likely the result of the video’s genesis as an extended piece of product placement for the almost cultish spin-class service. The Chainsmokers are not the only pop musicians to partner with SoulCycle in recent years — many artists have guest-hosted classes that double as listening parties for their new music — but they are, as of now, the only ones that have extended that partnership into a full-length music video.

For more on this subject, check out this interview that SoulCycle did with the Chainsmokers to promote the video’s release. There are a lot of bizarre touches to this interview; for one, it wasn’t posted online until the video was almost nine months old. Instead of indicating which one of the Chainsmokers was answering the questions, the editors have credited them as a single entity, one that ends every single sentence with an exclamation point. It’s entirely possible that the Chainsmokers do, in fact, answer all interview questions in complete synchronicity and with unnecessary enthusiasm. But it seems just as likely that this entire project, from conception all the way to this promotional interview buried on the ‘Community’ section of the SoulCycle website, was produced by a machine that can only approximate the actions of real-life humans.

Could this be the soundtrack to an experience you’ve had in real life?
Hahaha, it definitely could be. We don’t know a single person who hasn’t had some real life experience that could help them relate to this, whether a relationship or even an experience with summer camp!

Did anything surprise you about the shoot?
Haha not us, but the extras 100 percent! We don’t think they knew when they came on as extras that they were going to be required to actually cycle for seven hours! By the end of the day, everyone was dead!

What was your favorite part of the shoot?
Well, besides essentially getting a free indoor cycling class for 8 hours, it was just great to hang around there! Everyone is so cool! The amazing SoulCycle team is a large part of why this all worked out so well!

Well, like they say: it’s all up there on the screen.