music reviews

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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Dispatches from the Mainstream, 3/15/2013

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Justin Bieber – Beauty And A Beat (feat. Nicki Minaj)

Justin Bieber: human meme. YouTube comments punching bag. Fixation of ironic alt-lit poets. This enigmatic figure known as “the Biebs” has loomed large in our culture for years now, but I’d wager that most people who make jokes about Justin—ie, lazy comedians and jerks—probably never heard one of his songs. Now, the freedom to dismiss things with no basis in fact or personal experience is your right as an American, but maybe we shouldn’t make it a habit to disparage a sixteen-year-old boy just because he’s effeminate and has money.

Anyway, “Boyfriend” marked something of a turning point: people started actually listening to Bieber’s music, and it seems like we all collectively decided that yeah, he was alright. There are still a few troglodytes holding Bieber up as an example of “how modern music is terrible” but we need to ignore those people until they wither away and die or just until they find a new pop star to hate. Hey, have you guys heard of Austin Mahone?

One thing that may have helped Bieber out is, well, puberty. He had the pleasant voice of a choirboy when he first showed up, and unfortunately, he had the charisma to match. These days, he’s at least learned to project a little personality, which helps him out a lot on “Beauty And A Beat”. The song is pretty generic modern-day R&B, dubstep breaks and all, enough that you might think any other singer would fit just as well. But you need someone with an air of innocence in order for these lyrics to work. “Body rock,” “party like it’s 3012”, even the titular line—a play on “Beauty & The Beast” that doesn’t make any sense—would be unforgivable clunkers on a Justin Timberlake record. Hell, they would even stick out on a Trey Songz record.

Nicki Minaj, who also lives on the razor’s edge between real person and living joke, does fine here, though her verse is most notable for the uncomfortable line about drugging Bieber and having sex with him when his girlfriend isn’t around. Just look at how awkward that moment is in the video. Oh, the video is fun, too. The found-footage conceit is silly, but the pseudo-handheld look really works. It’s almost like you’re actually there, partying with the Biebs himself! Gee, wouldn’t that be nice? Actually hanging out with Justin Bieber? Siiiiiiiigh.

Wait, what were talking about? 

Nicki Minaj – The Boys (feat. Cassie)

Speaking of Ms. Minaj, a few months ago she dropped her best song since  “Super Bass.” Minaj has a unique position in pop music, partially because she markets herself as a singer as much as she does a rapper. I don’t mind her actual singing—it’s the definition of serviceable—but I’m disappointed whenever she drops a single that neglects her rapping abilities. Minaj is wasted on slick dance numbers like “Starships” or “Pound The Alarm”. Give her something she can really sink her teeth into and she’ll usually impress. The beat on “The Boys” is perfectly suited to her aesthetic—booming, clacking, but with a bit of weirdness in the form of a bee-like synth squeaking around in the background.

The chorus is unique: Cassie’s dead-eyed and robotic delivery gives way to Nicki’s whining rap (and what appears to be a “Technologic” reference), until the whole beat drops out and is replaced by a gentle acoustic guitar that sounds like it’s from a whole different song—which it is—and Cassie gently croons one of the most sarcastic hooks in recent rap history. Then we’re right back at Nicki’s frantic rapping, which gets pitch-shifted for the double-time final verse but mostly stands on its own without even a single bit of hash-tag rap. A Nicki Minaj verse with punch lines that aren’t delivered after an awkward pause? Yep, believe it, it’s happening. She just came through with the Six, like her name was Blossom! What! I don’t even GET that reference!

But this is more than just a good rap song: this single holds the potential to revive Cassie’s career. I don’t know what happened to her after “Me & U,” but I hope this isn’t the last we’ve seen of her. I mean, how cool does she look in this video? Can she just be back now? Can we do that? Attention world: bring back Cassie. Specifically, bring back the deeply bitter, blazer-wearing Cassie with dyed, slicked-back hair. That would be just great.

Lil Wayne – Love Me (feat. Future & Drake)

Enough girl power–let’s move onto some really uncomfortable misogyny.

The video is required viewing for this discussion, because without it, all we’ve got is late-period Lil Wayne killing time between skateboarding sessions over a synth-based Mike WiLL made it beat. The only interesting part of this song is the all-too-brief appearance by Future, who still has the sort of “lovable oddball” energy that Wayne had years ago. Lyrically, we’ve got your typical anti-woman hip-hop tropes: we’ve got good bitches and bad bitches, and we only care about these women until we’re done having sex with them. Of course, it’s not our fault, no: we simply can’t treat these hoes like ladies; they’ve had way too much sex for that. I mean, what are they thinking?

But the video really elevates (lowers?) the experience to a higher level of objectification. Plenty of rap videos feature women as unspeaking symbols of success and sexual ability, but how many rap videos literally turn the women into animals and put them in cages? The whole theme of the video is vaguely occult—at least enough to bait some Illuminati conspiracy theorists—but it’s not coherent enough to even offer an explanation for why the women are all Dr. Moreau-esque abominations. But this is a rap video, so we don’t really need an explanation, and isn’t that sad? An artist in a different field could actually lose their career over something as tacky as this.

I usually deflect criticisms of violence and sexism in rap by comparing the genre to a good crime movie: you enjoy the abhorrent content not for its own sake, but because of the presentation. I don’t like Reservoir Dogs because a guy gets his ear chopped off, I like it because a guy get his ear chopped off while the villain dances around to a peppy Dylan-esque pop song. Lil Wayne used to be like those guys who make the Crank movies: distilling a whole genre down to a few bizarre images and spitting them out at a blinding speed. These days, Lil Wayne is more like Gerard Butler: appearing in a series of dull projects that present sex and violence in such a variety of bland and awful ways that you just feel gross when it’s all over.

Dispatches From The Mainstream: 2/15/2013

Kelly Clarkson – Catch My Breath

Kelly Clarkson is weirdly likeable. We should be resistant to her, because her entire career is non-organic and extremely forced. But I guess we love her because we picked her. You might even say that Kelly Clarkson is the last thing our country agreed on. The very next season of American Idol was beset with controversy about homophobia and missing votes. And even when someone actually does win American Idol these days, do we give them a career? Sometimes we do, but sometimes we end up with Taylor Hicks. Yeah, I said it.

I like Kelly Clarkson so much that I’m disappointed in myself whenever I don’t enjoy her current single, but I couldn’t stand “Stronger (What Doesn’t Kill You).” I’m no minimalist, but that junk was too noisy. The chorus was like the inside of a car factory. That entire album was kind of wash for singles, really: “Mr. Know It All” was a slightly less annoying version of “Just The Way You Are” by Bruno Mars–but only slightly–and do you even remember “Dark Side?” I do, and I’m not too happy about it. I guess that was Kelly’s “unlistenable, non-catchy chorus” phase.

“Catchy My Breath” succeeds by dialing it back a little bit: “Stronger” was exhausting before the first verse even started, but this song uses a repetitive melody to great effect. The construction of the chorus is great, too: it’s simple and it gives Clarkson a chance to show off her fantastic voice. “Catch My Breath” also has that same life-affirming, in-your-face, no-screw-YOU power that “Stronger” had, but with a wider appeal—hey, people who aren’t escaping a toxic relationship need anthems, too! Just sayin’.

Rihanna feat. Future – Loveeeeeee Song

Rihanna’s music has always had a streak of unsentimental iciness. Maybe it’s because her voice doesn’t allow her to sound truly nurturing or emotional or any other stuff that codes as “feminine,” but there’s always been an air of hardness about her. Then in 2009 she went through some seriously bad stuff and put out Rated R, an album that channeled the darkness of her life into some of the most aggressive music ever to be put out by a pop diva. There aren’t a lot of MALE R&B stars that make music that aggressive.

Since then she’s gone back and forth between “dark” Rihanna and a more conventionally “feminine” role, ping-ponging between the two several times over the course of a single album. For example, “We Found Love” & “You da One” appeared on the same disc as “Talk That Talk,” “Cockiness” and—ugh—“Birthday Cake”. Unapologetic is no different, opening up with the aggressive and sonically unpleasant “Phresh Out The Runway,” switching back to love-struck-Rihanna for “Diamonds” then whipping around to “Pour It Up,” which sounds like it was pitched to about twenty different male artists before Rihanna snatched it up. Put it this way: when a female singer is talking about “strippers going up and down that pole,” you are dealing with some binary-breaking business.

“Loveeeeeee Song” is a more subtle inversion of gender norms than “Pour It Up,” but it’s more interesting because it pairs the a-typically aggressive Rihanna with Future, a rapper best known for his love of autotune and his unusual sensitivity. On the hook, Future pleads openly for “love and affection” without a hint of bravado or ego. In the verses, Rihanna plays a more guarded role, tossing out sexy come-ons and promising to “lay you down.” Not only is it one of the few listenable songs on Unapologetic, it’s a noteworthy pop song. Not because of how unusual it is, but because of how close it is to a normal Top-40 duet between a man and a woman. All Rihanna and Future did was trade places.

The Band Perry – “Better Dig Two”

I haven’t checked in with The Band Perry since “If I Die Young,” a song that was so poorly written I had trouble believing that the writer was almost 30 years old. Kimberly Perry is the first adult woman I’ve known whose death fantasies can rival those of a teenage LiveJournal user. Especially annoying was the winking bridge, with the lyrics, “maybe then you’ll hear the songs I’ve been singing/funny when you’re dead, how people start listening.” Not only is that a remarkably dull observation, it sounds like it belongs in a totally different song.

“Better Dig Two” wasn’t written by any of the band-members Perry, but it sure fits their lyrical style, right down to the fixation on white wedding dresses as a symbol of purity. The title and the music promise a much darker story than what we get–to me, it harkens back to that scene in A Fistful of Dollars when Clint Eastwood tells the guy how many coffins to build. So cool. Anyway, the chorus of “Better Dig Two” describes a woman who would rather die than go on living without her husband… but then the verses hint at a darker meaning to the titular phrase. She vaguely threatens to either kill herself or kill herself and her husband, which would be an interesting direction to go in if the song could just commit to it.

Other crimes include use of the contraction “I is”—as in, “I’s gonna love you till I’s dead”—and a jarring reference to meth in the middle of a song that otherwise sounds like it was written sixty years ago. The music is a step-up from “If I Die Young”, with handclaps and creepy banjo on the verses, and those electric guitars that take us right back into pop-country territory aren’t totally unwelcome. This is a muddled song that could be a fun little bit of darkness if the lyrics had gotten a second draft.