Halsey

The Chainsmokers Made A Song Called “Beach House” and Everybody Freaked Out

For the past year, the Chainsmokers have gone largely unnoticed by the music press. Sure, there were a few stray blog posts when “Sick Boy” was released, and there are some EDM-centric niche-music sites that will always cover them, but for the most part, nobody has been paying too much attention.

All of that changed on Friday morning with the release of the group’s latest single, “Beach House,” a Memories…Do Not Open-era throwback piece of melancholy dance-pop containing one reference (two if you count the title) to widely-acclaimed indie rock group Beach House. People didn’t just notice; to put it frankly, they went nuts. All across the internet, music journalists were falling over themselves to claim that the name of Beach House had been “sullied” and express their horror and disgust that the Chainsmokers would do something as crass and outrageous as, uh, name-check a less popular band.

To understand why this happened, you have to understand that, for most people, the Chainsmokers’ existence can be boiled down to three things: the existence of the song “#SELFIE,” the inescapability of their 2016 single “Closer,” and the infamous Billboard Magazine cover story that made Andrew Taggart and Alex Pall look like assholes. People’s irritation at “#SELFIE” is completely understandable; it’s a truly obnoxious song and such a blight on the band’s existence that they seem to genuinely regret ever releasing it.

But those second two data points are a little more complicated. It’s true that Taggart and Pall come across really, really poorly in that Billboard article, but the truth is that no one would even remember that article it if they hadn’t been forced to hear “Closer” on every mall speaker and car stereo they encountered in the final days of Summer ’16. People become annoyed and eventually resentful when they’re repeatedly exposed to the same song, even if they didn’t have any strong feelings about it originally. When that Billboard article came out, everyone seized upon it as a justification for their frustration: see, it’s not just the song that I don’t like, it’s the people that made the song! They’re just as bad as I hoped they’d be!

If they weren’t already primed to dislike the Chainsmokers, nobody would have cared that they said something obnoxious in an interview. Be honest, when was the last time you actually cared about Billboard Magazine?

In the public imagination, The Chainsmokers basically exist as a blank slate with an aura of douchiness surrounding them. No one really knows who they are, but everyone knows it’s okay to hate them; it’s expected, even, a perquisite opinion that must be demonstrated before you’re allowed to participate in the discourse. This is, I must assume, the one and only reason why the editors of Complex and Rolling Stone have never responded to any of my pitches. Unblock me, you cowards.

Because of their essential blankness, the Chainsmokers hold a unique capability to inspire criticism that does more to expose the personal idiosyncrasies of those writing about them than about the group themselves, and when Taggart and Pall stooped so low as to name-drop universally beloved dream-pop group Beach House, the music press did not disappoint.

Katherine Cusumano of W Magazine suggests adding Beach House to the long list of things the Chainsmokers have “ruined”, a list which in her estimation should include Halsey, as if Halsey were not constantly producing hit singles and did not remain a prominent cultural presence a half-decade into her career. Contrast this with the Chainsmokers, who exist entirely as fodder for snarky music journalists and solipsistic bloggers, and one begins to wonder just how exactly Cusumano believes that Halsey was “ruined.” Perhaps she was especially offended by the spectacle of Halsey’s duet with Taggart at the VMAs, but really, if anyone can watch that video and come away thinking Halsey is the one that looks bad, I honestly don’t know what to say. Halsey is doing fine. She was in A Star Is Born. She finally broke up with G-Eazy. There’s only bright days ahead.

Julian Marszalek, writing the UK’s 20th most-visited music news website, provocatively dubs the Chainsmokers “dance music’s populist equivalent to Donald Trump”, explaining that both Trump and the Chainsmokers “are given to dubious pronouncements and an output based on the lowest common denominator”, as if the most notable thing about Donald Trump is that he acts like a celebrity and not his bald-faced fascism or destructive enabling of Republican policies. The Chainsmokers giving a nod to Beach House is, to Marszalek, “a bit like Trump endorsing CNN as a worthy and reputable news source.” Blimey! Watch out, Dennis Miller, there’s a new king of political zingers in town, and he’s coming straight from across the pond with an absolutely “daft” collection of “critical slings and arrows” to rain upon the Chainsmokers, those would-be dispensers of “arse-clenching platitudes and second-rate chat up lines that would get you laughed out of Love Island and forced through an autotuner just to give it that added dimension of utterly meaningless toss.” You tell ’em, bruv. Also: what is wrong with you?

Randall Colburn of the A.V. Club – hey, did you know that the A.V. Club is still publishing articles? Crazy, right? – refers to the Chainsmokers as “the Alpha Betas of EDM” who make music “to slam nerds into lockers to”. If it weren’t for the unrealistic John Hughes-style depiction of high school on display here, I would be absolutely certain Colburn is reliving the personal trauma of being bullied in high school by electronic music producers, because there is nothing in the Chainsmokers’ music that supports the image of aggressive tormentor he imagines them to be. The music of the Chainsmokers primarily addresses the topics of falling in love, having sex, and being sad, which could be said of nearly every popular music artist in the past century. They don’t even really make music about going out to clubs or any typical frat-guy activities: they made a song with Coldplay, for God’s sake, the least aggressive act to perform at the Super Bowl Half-Time Show since Up With People. And yet Colburn feels enough disgust at the idea of these imaginary Budweiser-swigging jocks that he, like Marszalek, draws a connection between the Chainsmokers and Donald Trump, suggesting that they might be regular visitors to the noxious and conspiratorial sub-reddit r/The_Donald. The Chainsmokers are not simply producers of disposable pop music:  they are trollish enemies of democracy, unscrupulous criminal thugs, and, potentially, political operatives working under the orders of Vladimir Putin.

The centerpiece of this breathless coverage is undoubtedly Jillian Mapes’ piece for Pitchfork, a histrionic piece of high snobbery and psychological projection with the winkingly melodramatic title of “Beach House Are the Chainsmokers’ Type of Thing and I Kind of Want to Die.” In it, Mapes refers to the Chainsmokers as “the AXE Body Spray of modern music,” an insult that only works if the reader is old enough to remember when AXE Body Spray was a cultural touchstone, and accuses the group of “listening to their friends’ Malibu McMansions and calling it music”, which reads like the rough draft for an actual joke.

Unlike Beach House, a band that has “redefined the concept of ‘vibey’ music by honing a specific sound and not striving for mass appeal,” the Chainsmokers are trust-funder frat-boys who work out at Equinox and say things like “bitches be crazy”. Worst of all, they don’t even get Beach House, man – and how could they? Beach House is “music for space travel” that possesses an “intangible blend of moody mystery and the warm glow of nostalgia.” Mapes seems to believe that the closest the Chainsmokers could get to this level of deep understanding is a soundalike Spotify playist of Beach House music they put on when a “quirky” girl comes over, a detail so specifically venomous that there’s no way that exact thing didn’t happen to her in real life.

I don’t want to harp too much on Mapes’ piece – for one, accusing Pitchfork of being elitist is about as played-out as clowning on the Chainsmokers for being a couple of dumb bros – but more importantly, Mapes at least acknowledges the real issue at play, for her and the rest of the writers who spent Friday morning working themselves into an angry froth while attempting to appear aloof: she hates the guys in the Chainsmokers and can’t stand the idea of them liking the same music that she does.

“If you grew up listening to underground music,” she writes, “seeing someone who embodies everything you hate like an indie band you love still has the power to annoy you.” This is a thoroughly relatable emotion, and not just for people who grew up listening to “underground music” (?) – I spent most of my adolescence listening to Billy Joel, Fall Out Boy, and plenty of other acts that aren’t even lame enough to be ironically interesting, and even I know all too well the pain of seeing a sworn enemy attach themselves to a piece of pop culture that I love.

It’s not hard to understand how this happens: if you invest a significant amount of your personal identity into the culture you consume (as is the case for the majority of people who choose to write about music for a living), seeing someone who disgusts you claiming that culture as their own feels like an intrusion upon your identity, like an infection from a foreign contaminant that must be isolated and expelled. It’s a fundamentally juvenile reaction and it makes the ridiculous mistake of attaching a moral dimension to the act of listening to certain bands, but I could never judge someone for falling victim to it, not when that same ugly creature lurks so close to the surface of my own personality – not when I’m sitting here right now, typing a 1,600 word defense of the newest single by the fucking Chainsmokers – but all the same, it’s a little embarrassing to see it coming from people who actually get paid to do this stuff.

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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.