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.