Somebody

Somebody (Rory Kramer Vision)

1. You Should’ve Known Better

It is difficult to feel sympathy for people who are rich and famous. This is not entirely bad; the gross imbalance of wealth and power in our society is the cause of our greatest problems and will remain so until the current social order is entirely restructured — a process that will be further delayed if we choose to emphasize the well-being of powerful people.

If we become too attached to the image of powerful people as ordinary human beings with problems similar to our own, we run the risk of excusing them their many transgressions in a way that can easily morph into hero-worship. For an example of this phenomenon, just take a look at any of the people who follow tech mogul/idiot savant/billionaire union-buster Elon Musk on Twitter, and how they rise up to his defense whenever his character is questioned.

All this is not to say there is no value in the act of empathizing with powerful people. Going back to the roots of dramatic storytelling in Greek tragedy, the audience was expected to sympathize with a great person, a figure of immense stature, who is brought low by an all-too-human flaw.

There are many reasons why we might be compelled to sympathize with the people who rule us — the connection between Elon Musk stans and the innate human need to believe that our caretakers are without flaw is probably deserving of more attention that I can give it here — but the most basic one is that in many ways, a powerful person’s life is not unlike our own. They have strengths and weaknesses and they experience conflicts, but because their actions carry greater weight, their lives have the potential for larger, more exciting conflict — all the better to engage the audience and demonstrate the themes of the story. To draw a very rough connection, it’s the reason why people find a battle between Batman and Superman more exciting than a debate about the nature of power and the correct application of justice, or even a similar story played out between two average, non-powerful men.

In theory, anyway.

Besides all that, there are practical concerns: if we deny ourselves the ability to empathize with people just because they’re rich and famous, we are categorically eliminating the work of any artist who has written about themselves after experiencing success. Everything Bruce Springsteen wrote about the struggle of working-class Americans after 1973 is no longer meaningful. Or Bob Dylan, if that’s more your speed. Anything that Stephen King wrote where the main character is a famous writer? All of that’s gone, too, including The Shining. Same goes for any millionaire Wesleyan graduates who write musicals with obvious self-insert main characters rapping about how they’re young, scrappy and/or hungry.

And the artist doesn’t have to be a national best-seller for this to apply; nearly any band successful enough to release an album and tour behind it, or a writer successful enough to have a book published and advertised, or an artist who has an entire room in a major gallery devoted to their work — any of these people has already reached a level of success most of us will never know. This doesn’t excuse the sort of laziness or creative solipsism that can convince an artist that it’s a good idea to write something like Lunar Park or “Hotel California”. But if the art is good enough to engender empathy and make us feel a connection with the creator, it doesn’t matter how much money they have.

2. I Don’t Really Like Anybody

Rick & Morty is a good show with an extremely unpleasant fan base. This is an uncontroversial claim that could apply to probably 99% of all intellectual properties, yet it still has the potential to alienate a significant portion of the people reading this or at least raise several questions about the tastes of the person making it. This is unfortunate, but not entirely unwarranted.

Like any piece of fiction marketed toward young white men, Rick & Morty has collected within its fandom a number of garden-variety misogynists and minor-league hate mongers. A brief glance at any of the largest Rick & Morty fan pages on Facebook will net you a wide array of bigoted, unpleasant comments and attempts at humor.

The widely held image of Rick & Morty fans as a group of unpleasant and entitled man-children was solidified in the wake of McDonald’s brief resurrection of the Szechuan chicken nugget sauce referenced in the show’s third season. This well-intentioned promotional stunt lead to an embarrassingly impassioned outcry from fans of the show when it was discovered that not enough sauce had been supplied to participating McDonald’s locations. The immature and disruptive behavior on display that day was an embarrassment not only to anyone who had ever enjoyed Rick & Morty, but to anyone with even a modicum of self-awareness. But even before the events of October 7th, 2017, there was already a pervasive sense that Rick & Morty fans were condescending faux-intellectuals who confused the show’s “edgy” humor for philosophical insight — there was a meme all about it, and everything.

It would be wrong to say the show’s content has no connection to the unpalatable portions of its fan base; any time you depict a nihilistic asshole as the badass, ultra-capable center of the universe, you run the risk of glamorizing them, even if your intent was the opposite (see also: Fight Club). But Rick & Morty is better than its reputation as chum for the MRA crowd suggests. It has a unique comedic voice and is endlessly clever in its utilization and subversion of classic science fiction tropes — and, yes, there is an episode where the main character turns himself into a pickle, but it’s really a lot more entertaining than you might think if your only point of reference is the most obnoxious person in your college dorm shouting “I’m Pickle Rick!” at all hours of the night.

Even though Rick & Morty’s main virtue is an abundance of wit, the show occasionally demonstrates ambitions beyond merely being clever and reaches for genuine pathos. In what is probably the show’s greatest single moment, Morty’s sister, Summer, has just learned something that causes her to question her place in the universe. When Morty’s attempts to calm her down fail initially, he reveals that her actual brother is dead and that he, the Morty we have followed throughout the entire show, is actually from a parallel universe.

This is surprising for the audience because it confirms a significant piece of continuity within a show that, until this point, seemed to play fast and loose with the idea of it — but it’s affecting emotionally because it allows Summer to put her existential crisis into perspective. Being faced with this example of the underlying chaos and nonsense at the heart of the universe doesn’t allow her to realize her place in the world, but what it does do is better: through realizing that she has no place in the universe, Summer is able to take ownership of her life, put aside the looming questions of fate and purpose, and simply enjoy herself.

A theoretical ‘good fan’ of Rick & Morty might take from this a lesson that would ease their anxiety and allow them a bit of peace in a world that can often be painful and confusing. It’s unfortunate that many fans have instead taken from the show the lesson that it’s cool to be a mean genius who lives a life removed from consequence, but it’s not exactly surprising.

3. The Only Thing That I Can’t Afford

The Chainsmokers recently released a second music video for their single “Somebody”, directed by their friend and frequent collaborator Rory Kramer. The main portion of the video is a lo-fi travelogue similar to the one Kramer created for “Roses”, interspersed with quotations that, to be frank, read like they came straight off of somebody’s Pinterest vision board.

At the end of the video, once the song has finished playing, Kramer settles on a single shot of Andrew Taggart as he discusses the song’s underlying theme.

Being able to discern what’s real and what’s not in a world that is seemingly… everything seems to be real, but… it’s tough to discern what is and what isn’t.

I don’t feel like I’ve lost myself thanks to the people I’ve surrounded myself in, but I’m very conscious of the fact… losing yourself is a relative term, I guess, because you have a preconceived notion of what losing yourself means but it could happen in a completely different way than you see coming.

And I think trying to keep perspective on everything, and, you know, the relative unimportance of your existence, is kind of comforting. So, yeah. I try to think about that stuff.

Watch Rick and Morty, it really helps.

While Taggart speaks, a large portion of “Desiderata” by Max Ehrmann appears on-screen, which makes sense aesthetically — how else to end a video full of devotional affirmations than with a deep in the source of all self-help texts — but seems somewhat at odds with what Taggart is actually saying, particularly the line, “You are a child of the universe no less than the trees and the stars; you have a right to be here.”

Andrew Taggart lives the kind of life most of us can only imagine. The benefits of his lifestyle are numerous and should not be discounted, but the drawbacks are worthy of consideration, as well. It’s not hard to imagine Taggart relating to Ehrmann’s description of life as primarily being “noise and haste”, considering that he is contractually obligated to fly around the world and play loud music for aggressively inebriated crowds. A famous life is a life of privilege, but it’s also, as Ehrmann says, a life of “fatigue and loneliness.”

And yet, the sentiment Taggart expresses in the video has less in common with Ehrmann’s suggestion to be “at peace with God” than with Rick & Morty’s insistence that you be at peace with what is, essentially, the absence of God. In referencing Rick & Morty while invoking the idea of finding comfort in the relative unimportance of your existence, Taggart is talking about finding peace through a sort of gentle nihilism. He has adapted the philosophical implications of insignificance to not only allow him freedom from the ever-present pressures of his unique life, but to also incorporate the necessity of treating your friends well and holding on to your own moral code.

Andrew Taggart is a rich white man who earns obscene amounts of money playing dance music, but at least he can appreciate the content of his favorite show in a way that enriches his life. At least he knows how to be a good fan. And even if the things he sings about in “Somebody” seem irrelevant to the majority of his listeners on a surface level, at least there is something in his music that can, potentially, add meaning to their lives.

And as for the bad fan? The solipsistic narcissist who only believes in his own version of truth? That leeches off the people around him and pursues his own personal ends under the guise of righteousness? The person who watches Rick & Morty and dreams of being cool and smart enough to fly around the galaxy having crazy adventures and not caring who he he hurts?

Well, the less said about him, the better.

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Somebody

While it’s not an overt departure from the group’s established style, “Somebody” represents a minor but critical shift in how the Chainsmokers utilize their guest vocalists. In the past, any performer featured on a Chainsmokers song either dominated the entire track (“Something Just Like This,” “Don’t Let Me Down”), had their vocals mixed in with Taggart’s (“Roses,” “All We Know”) or functioned as back-up singers (“Paris,” “The One”). The biggest exception is “Closer,” which was structured as a more classically styled duet between two performers who come together to sing the chorus. “Somebody” marks the first time that the Chainsmokers have deployed a guest vocalist in the manner of a typical pop performer: Taggart performs the verses but hands the chorus over to Drew Love, the same way a rapper might recruit a singer for an attempted cross-over hit.

This tells us a few things. The first and most obvious is that the Chainsmokers consider themselves performers with their own particular style (or “brand,” if you must) which must be present in some form throughout all of their songs, and Taggart’s vocals are a part of that brand. Taggart and Pall are currently attempting to move away from their identity as producers, so it makes sense that they would follow the same rules as any other pop star. Ariana Grande or Jason DeRulo would never release a single from which their own voices were completely absent; even Pitbull, who famously contributed about 20% of the vocals to his hit “Hey Baby”, still makes his presence felt, even if he only appears briefly.

The second thing that we can glean from this decision is a subtle dash of humility, a rare quality in the world of the Chainsmokers. By handing the song’s chorus off to a singer with a more powerful and expressive voice than his own, Taggart is, on some level, admitting that there are things he cannot do as a vocalist. This is bad news for fans of Schadenfreude, people who only care about the Chainsmokers when they can watch them totally botch a performance on live television, but it’s good news for fans of the band’s music or anyone interested their ongoing creative evolution. Drew Love’s appearance demonstrates that Taggart will not stretch himself too far beyond his limits, and that both he and Pall are still aware of how working with a guest vocalist can open up new possibilities for their music.

After “Somebody”, it’s not impossible to imagine the Chainsmokers releasing another song like “Something Just Like This”, where their own creative identity is partially or completely subsumed by another performer — but unless they score another name as big as Coldplay, it doesn’t seem likely.

Lyrically, “Somebody” is a song about the false promise of happiness that comes with success and the ongoing struggle to not succumb to devastation once you discover it was all an illusion. The song’s subject matter is unsurprising  in our current cultural moment, where the spiritual emptiness of fame is an expected, even formulaic subject matter for any artist who wants to develop a critique of modern life. But until “Somebody,” Taggart and Pall had yet to release this sort of song, and now that they have, it adds yet another dimension to their current artistic project.

Ever since the Chainsmokers dropped “Sick Boy” and revealed that they are, for lack of a better term, “pulling an 808s & Heartbreak” (also known as “going full Drake”), it’s been only a matter of time before we got a song like “Somebody”. “Sick Boy,” their first single of 2018, was more a declaration of intent than a fully formed creative statement. “You Owe Me” was a modern take on critics and fandom; “Everybody Hates Me” was specifically about the pressures of being famous in the digital age. “Somebody,” on the other hand, tackles the timeless signifiers of success: “fancy cars, crowded bars and supermodels.” The song addresses the dangers of entering into a world where your every wish is attended to, and how the addiction to that kind of lifestyle can corrupt and consume a person’s sense of self.

Interestingly, the Chainsmokers seem mostly unworried with regards to the moral rot or emotional turmoil that fame can bring; rather, their primary concern is the loss of the individual identity. You can hear this in the refrain, “I don’t really like anybody/So don’t tell me I’m like anybody else”; the narrator is deeply anxious about are losing themselves to this new world, and he responds to that feeling with aimless, unfocused aggression. This behavior is consistent with the psychological concept of ‘displacement’, wherein the subject is unable to confront or process the actual source of their distress and often ends up scapegoating another person or group of people. In this case, the singer is scared and angry about the possibility is losing his personality (and, perhaps, his soul) to these new temptations, but he ends up directing this aggression outward, towards the people he believes have already succumb to the hazards of worldliness. He may say “I don’t really like anybody,” but really, he doesn’t like himself.

This much is obvious when Taggart sings, seemingly in second-person, “You should’ve known better/than to listen to your heart again.” At first, this line scans as another lyric about a failed relationship. But when read in conjunction with the chorus, it becomes clear that the singer is referring to the morally questionable choices he has made in this new world of material pleasures. The heart — or, rather, the part of the mind driven by sentimental notions of goodness and love — the thing that we often rely upon as a morally sound guide through this confusing and dangerous world, might in fact be the thing that lead us astray to begin with. It is, to put it lightly, a disquieting notion, and among the most chillingly dark lyrics that the Chainsmokers have produced to date.