The Chainsmokers

Who Do You Love?

5 Seconds Of Summer are a boy band masquerading as a rock group: four cute white guys who sing generic love songs that teenage girls can imagine to be about themselves. Like all boy bands, their actual music comes a distant second to the parasocial relationship they seek the develop with their listeners, and their specific gimmick (all four members play their own instruments) is notable only in the way it invites comparison to the Monkees, who at least had the decency to hate themselves.

Their first batch of songs sounded like One Direction for budding rockists, but they quickly moved on to faux-rebellious Good Charlotte knock-offs before making a brief foray into socialist anthems that sound like Disney Channel bumper musical and finally settling on dreary, bloodless power-ballads that sound like nothing. An adult (or a more discerning teenager) encountering them for the first time would find them anywhere between mediocre and mildly irritating, yet they inspire the sort of slavish devotion reserved for serfs in Medieval Europe and sixteen-year-olds who use Twitter.

The Chainsmokers are ostensibly an EDM duo who have produced a handful of crossover pop hits, but they are more likely a deep-cover PSYOP meant to drive me insane and/or activate my programming as part of a Soviet sleeper cell — only time will tell. The Chainsmokers have collaborated with a lot of vocalists over the course of their career, but the majority of them are either up-and-coming singers just about to hit it big (what up Daya, what up Halsey) or unknowns who immediately retreat back into obscurity (shout-out Rozes, Waterbed, Victoria Zaro).

The new Chainsmokers song, “Who Do You Love (feat. 5 Seconds Of Summer)”, represents a break from the duo’s recent output in a few ways. For starters, it’s the first song they’ve released in nearly two years without any vocals from Drew – even “Side Effects,” Emily Warren’s moment in the spotlight, had him Drew’s voice buried somewhere in mix. But more importantly, “Who Do You Love” marks only the third time in their career that the Chainsmokers have worked with someone who was undeniably more famous than them. At first glance, this might not seem so strange – what group of self-respecting up-and-coming DJs with aspirations towards alt-rock stardom wouldn’t jump at the chance to raise their profile? It’s not difficult to see what the Chainsmokers stand to gain from these collaborations – but it’s a little harder to understand what, exactly, the other party stands to gain from doing a song with the guys who made “#SELFIE”?

That 5 Seconds Of Summer would want to work with the Chainsmokers makes a certain kind of cosmic sense: as we all know, the Chainsmokers rose to prominence off the back of a novelty song so firmly planted in the cultural milieu of the mid-2010’s that parents across the world will someday face the scorn of their collective offspring when the next generation discovers that we were lame enough to make this song a hit – that is, if the next generation isn’t totally wiped out by the impending climate apocalypse.

5 Seconds Of Summer, on the other hand, first became famous by performing passable acoustic covers of pop songs in their poorly-lit bedrooms. Both groups harnessed a sort of specifically online energy that didn’t exist five years prior, and they couldn’t have existed without it. If I were eschatologically inclined, I would say that their coming together is a momentous event, laden with mystical signs and portents, so indicative of shifting cultural tides that it potentially heralds the end of the world as we know it – but in reality, the only omen of that kind was the IPCC’s report stating that we only have twelve years to radically reduce emissions before the damage we’ve done to our planet becomes irreversible.

Sorry. That was the last one, I promise.

It would be easy enough to accept the party line on why the Chainsmokers and 5 Seconds Of Summer decided to work together – that they’re friends who have been looking for an opportunity to collaborate and finally found a song that worked – were it not for one small detail. It’s easy to miss, unless you comb over the song’s credits and spot the presence of an additional producer: one Warren “Oak” Felder, a songwriter and producer whose best known work, aside from his numerous collaborations with Kehlani and Alessia Cara, is “Sorry Not Sorry” by Demi Lovato, a transparently cynical attempt to play off a piece of internet slang that was already dated in 2017 which is, nonetheless, a pretty fun song.

In fact, in spite of the differences in mood and lyrical content, “Sorry Not Sorry” sounds surprisingly similar to “Who Do You Love”. The tempo is the same, the distorted piano in the opening verses are the same, as are the synth stabs in the chorus – even the multi-layered singing of the 5SOS boys resembles the call-and-response background vocals on “Sorry”. In fact, aside from the acoustic guitar/EDM drop in the chorus, there is very little in the new Chainsmokers song that bears the mark of the Chainsmokers themselves, especially considering that 5SOS have plenty of songs featuring acoustic guitar and the drop is, even by Chainsmokers standards, pretty light. To put it bluntly, if you are at all familiar with Felder’s work, it is easy to listen to this song and wonder just how much work the Chainsmokers actually did.

Before we go any further, I should get this on the record: I have never worked in the music industry in any capacity and have an extremely limited amount of knowledge regarding the songwriting and production process. My lack of understanding with regards to musical theory should be obvious by the fact that I have now spent a full year of my life thinking and writing about the Chainsmokers, but it still bears mentioning that I am not qualified to discern what elements of “Who Do You Love” were provided by the Chainsmokers and which were provided by 5SOS or by Warren Oak, and even if I could, that would not account for the mysterious and often untraceable process of artistic collaboration. I am only qualified to speak as an informed listener, but even with those scant qualifications, I can say with some confidence that 5 Seconds Of Summer and Warren Oak could have created this song, or a song so similar to this one as to be indistinguishable, entirely on their own. The question then, is: why didn’t they?

You could certainly argue that working with the Chainsmokers grants 5SOS some added exposure – after all, I hadn’t seriously thought about them for nearly four years, and now here I am, poisoning my brain by reading the comments on their YouTube videos. And it’s true that 5SOS have never scored a number-one single in America. But they’re still putting out multi-Platinum records five years after their debut, and they’re even more successful in their home country of Australia. They’re doing better than ever, honestly. Their career didn’t need a shot in the arm, and it certainly didn’t require them to take a gamble like collaborating with the Chainsmokers, two guys whose most recent album-release strategy backfired so dramatically that I’m willing to bet plenty of people don’t even realize it happened. Simply put, it’s hard to see what 5SOS had to gain. So, again: why?

You might ask the same question about Coldplay, who two years ago collaborated with the Chainsmokers to produce the inescapable “Something Just Like This”, a thoroughly decent song that features an utterly confused retelling of Greek history. Coldplay, after all, is one of the biggest rock bands of the twenty-first century, who have managed to stay afloat for twenty years in spite of massively changing trends within the music industry, both commercially and creatively. Does a band like that really have any need for two people whose public image is built entirely around one embarrassing interview in Billboard Magazine?

Well: yes and no. While it is true that Coldplay has been around a lot longer than the Chainsmokers, they’ve maintained that longevity partially by collaborating with other artists, whether they be seasoned pop producers like Stargate on “Adventure Of A Lifetime,” or people who were still in middle school when “Yellow” dropped, like Rihanna on “Princess of China” or Avicii on “A Sky Full Of Stars” — the band’s first foray into EDM. In 2016, they even benefited from the residual glow of Beyonce after she provided guest vocals on “Hymn For The Weekend” and mercifully allowed them to stand next to her during the Super Bowl Halftime Show.

With this in mind, we can see the loose outline of how “Something Just Like This” came together: in late 2016, the Chainsmokers had a couple of real hits under their belt, including the massively successful “Closer”, all built around a slick mix of EDM and alternative rock sounds. Coldplay had themselves done decent numbers experimenting with that exact blend of musical styles. Considering it this way, it seems so calculated as to be almost cynical, but hey – you don’t get to where Coldplay is without playing the angles.

But this still leaves one question, the same on that has plagued me for what now feels like untold aeons: why the Chainsmokers? Surely there were other electronic music artists who would be willing to work with a group like Coldplay. Surely Chris Martin and co. would rather lend their name to a more established performer like Calvin Harris, Diplo, Zedd – hell, Avicii had already worked with them twice. Was he just too busy in late 2016 to make time for them? Seriously, Coldplay made a song with Beyonce and didn’t even give her a featured credit, but they were willing to split lead billing with these guys?

I believe there is an answer to this question. But as a wise man once said, to understand the future, we have to go back in time — and in this case, that means going all the way back to 2012, when actress and singer Priyanka Chopra tried to break in to the American music scene.

The average American probably knows about as much about Priyanka Chopra as they do about 5 Seconds Of Summer. They recognize the name, and they might be able to name one or two things either of them have done, but unless they’re well-versed in each artists’ respective genres, they might not realize just how important they are. The difference is, 5SOS are a culturally dominant force within the world of teenage girls and Priyanka Chopra is a culturally dominant force within the world of people who live in India.

In 2000, Chopra was crowned the winner of the Miss World 2000 beauty pageant and parlayed her newfound fame into a career as one of the biggest names in Indian cinema. She’s won awards, she’s started her own charity foundation, she’s hosted the Indian version of Fear Factor, she’s written over fifty columns for the Hindustan Times (circulation 993,645 daily — about double that of the New York Post!), and lest we pass over this fact too quickly, when she was eighteen years old she won an award for being the most attractive woman in the world. Momentarily setting aside the ethical considerations of bestowing this dubious title upon a teenager, we can safely say that Chopra has lived a highly accomplished life.

In 2012, with assistance from her overseas manager and co-founder of DesiHits Universal Anjula Acharia-Bath, Chopra began developing a musical career in the U.S. Her first attempt was an upbeat and cheery pop number called “In My City”, a song co-developed by and featuring the Once And Future Black Eyed Pea, will.i.a.m. This was to be her big crossover moment, and on paper it seemed like as sure thing: one of the era’s most reliable hit-makers teaming up with one of the world’s most popular female entertainers to extol the many joys of being in and/or from a city.

Listening to it now, “In My City” transports me back to that dark period in America’s history where will.i.am held complete sway over the pop charts. For those who weren’t there, let me assure you that it was a truly grisly time. You never knew when will.i.am might strike — you could be innocently enjoying the work of Flo-Rida or Ke$ha or Usher, only for will.i.am to suddenly appear and kill your buzz with an insultingly lazy rap verse. For a brief time, we even entrusted Britney Spears’ entire career to his foul and capricious whims. We should all be punished for that; it is my belief that some day, somehow, we will.

Priyanka Chopra certainly paid the price for putting her trust in will.i.a.m: despite a record-breaking opening week in India and a stateside debut during a primetime slot on something called the NFL Network(?), “In My City” failed to chart in America, netting only 5,000 downloads from the iTunes store in its first week. You can imagine the frustration of Chopra, Acharia-Bath, and all their advocates at Sony Music Group. You only get one chance to make a first impression, after all—and in this case, that impression was a flashy and overtly commercial pop song that completely failed to hit the mark. Twelve years of hard work were jeopardized and a seemingly untapped well of potential for overseas success evaporated in an instant. So, Priyanka Chopra did what anyone in her situation would do: she made a song with the Chainsmokers.

Of course, this was before the idea of “making a song with the Chainsmokers” even existed – in fact, this was about as early as person could possibly have even tried to make a song with the Chainsmokers. Now, the timeline is a little fuzzy here, but based on statements made in various interviews, we can safely say that Alex Pall and Andrew Taggart first began working together as The Chainsmokers in late October or very early November 2012, having been introduced to one another by manager Adam Alpert, future CEO of Disrupter Records (which, like DesiHits, was tightly connected to Sony’s music division). And we can say with no question that their song “Erase”, featuring vocals from Priyanka Chopra, was first released to the internet on November 13, 2012. We know because this was the date it was first posted on the Chainsmokers’ SoundCloud account and, as a matter of fact, it was the first track they ever posted.

I’ve thought about this a lot, more than is healthy for any semi-functioning human adult. I’ve scrolled through pages upon pages of Indian-language culture writing, shoddily translated by my Internet browser, trying to uncover something, anything about the story behind this song. The best lead I’ve come across in all my research is the discovery that Steve Stoute, producer/entrepreneur/author and advisory board member of DesiHits, seeks legal advice from the same team of lawyers as Adam Alpert, the man who created the Chainsmokers as we knew them today. And if anyone from the Chainsmokers’ management team is reading this, please know that all this research was done ironically and therefore does not constitute a breach of privacy or grounds for a cease and desist letter/restraining order.

My theory – and, again, please remember that I have no idea what I’m talking about – is this: after the failure of “In My City”, Chopra and her team realized they couldn’t release another big pop song, so they sought a new approach, one that would allow Chopra to enter the American music scene through a different route. Alpert, learning of this conundrum through some mutual acquaintances, saw an opportunity to boost his new clients and called in a few favors to do so, maybe even sweetening the pot by suggesting that this would be a more interesting, edgy and low-stakes approach to advancing Chopra’s musical career. Go underground, essentially – get into the public consciousness through the clubs. And what could be more underground than working with two guys who have literally never released a song?

This explanation is not perfect. In some ways, it raises further concerns, like: can you really picture this recording session? Drew and Alex, two people who have known each other for all of a week, maybe two, in the studio with Priyanka fucking Chopra, laying down some incredibly tacky synth line for her to sing over – it sounds impossibly surreal. And the question of the timing is so bizarre that it conjures up potential conspiracy theories: did the Chainsmokers even exist before Adam Alpert realized that Chopra had a need they could fill? Is it possible the Chainsmokers were formed for the sole reason of recording and releasing “Erase?” It’s unlikely, but it doesn’t seem that much more unlikely than the alternative.

But in a real way, none of this actually matters. The result is the same: Chopra was a performer who wanted to release a song that was different from her previous work. It’s essentially the exact move that Coldplay made with “Something Just Like This” – the only difference being that Coldplay had fifteen years of music behind them while Chopra had about two months. The same can even be said of 5SOS. “Who Do You Love” is the most overtly pop-centric song they’ve ever recorded. They don’t want to be a pop band any more than Coldplay wanted to be an EDM band or Priyanka Chopra wanted to be the modern-day Do. All these people wanted to step outside of their established musical domain without sacrificing their core identity, so they made a song that didn’t really count as “theirs” — after all, this was a song by the Chainsmokers, so if people didn’t like it, the featured artist had plausible deniability.

This strategy doesn’t always work out the same way: Coldplay kept themselves relevant for another year, while Priyanka Chopra’s big break in America eventually came in the form of the TV show Quantico — although she did release a few more singles, including one pretty good collaboration with Pitbull. It still remains to be seen how “Who Do You Love” will impact 5SOS’s career, but as for the Chainsmokers, it’s already charting better than most of the the stuff that they put out last year. It is also, for what it’s worth, an impossibly catchy song that I like more than anything else I’ve heard from 5 Seconds Of Summer. But in the end, what matters is that everyone involved got what they wanted: to try something new without putting their own identity at stake — to protect their brand. And really, what more can any of us ask for?

Oh, I don’t know, maybe a plan to address climate change that actually sets goals and outlines a course of action instead of whatever non-binding half-measure that Chuck Schumer and the rest of the Democratic leadership are currently planning to introduce?

Alright — that was the last one.

Hope

You used to look down on cult members, people who fell under the spell of a charismatic leader and allowed themselves to be deceived and taken advantage of, but now you see that it’s not so simple. Therapy has been good for you; it’s given you insight into your own mind and improved your ability to recognize destructive patterns in your life, but it’s not magic. Some things will still catch you off guard. You used to spend half of your day on Tumblr, soaking up the rhetoric that passed for social justice in a medium where all anyone ever does is post. You learned the rules of problematic behavior and the arbitrary categories that allowed people to determine which millionaires we should feel good about liking and which millionaires we should feel bad about liking, and in the midst of all this you wondered how, how could anyone support someone who had done or said so many awful things? Even later, when you began to emerge from this hazy dreamland and re-orient yourself to the practical problems of the world, you clung to this indignation: surely if you found yourself faced with the realization that someone you knew had committed these sort of awful acts, you would be brave enough to denounce them, to stop supporting them. This, as it turns out, was not true. It was another lie, a way to put yourself apart from the people you quietly disparaged and disregarded. You didn’t lie to yourself on purpose, and you try to remember that throughout your life you have, by and large, been doing your best to respond to situations in an appropriate way given what you knew and understood at the time — again, therapy — but this does not mean you should ignore the reality of what happened. You used to gawk at the unenlightened masses and their capacity for self-delusion, the sheer cognitive dissonance of their beliefs driving you at times to fury. You couldn’t understand how people could hold on to two fully contradictory ideas at the same time, especially when it was hurting them or the people around them. How could you? You were young and you had not lived a real life, so you hadn’t yet seen how the simple process of survival can twist you into an unrecognizable shape. You understood the psychology of abuse, but in a dry, detached, and ultimately useless way that prevented you from recognizing signs of it in your own life. You knew, on some level, always, that love was not always a beautiful salve for a broken world, that it could be destructive, could obscure the truth, but you didn’t really believe it. You didn’t see how love could lead you into that proverbial white and soundless place and keep you there for years and years, could force you to hold two different realities in your head, never touching and never challenging one another. This is because, frankly, you didn’t want to believe the truth, that someone you trusted could do something awful, again and again. You wanted to believe that in some version of the world where abuser and abused could both be telling the truth. You thought it was love that bound you to both these people, long after you should have shut one of them out of your life. But that wasn’t love, that wasn’t love. That was just

The Top 10 Chainsmokers Songs Of 2018

10. Somebody (feat. Drew Love)

“Beach House” was singled out (by critics and by the group themselves) as the most obvious Memories… Do Not Open-style throwback of the Sick Boy era, but “Somebody” is the only Chainsmokers song of 2018 that truly captures the dreary sameness that plagued the worst parts of the group’s debut. Actually, it’s even a bit worse; at least something like “Bloodstream” was fully committed to depicting its narrator’s drunken self-loathing in a vividly specific (if self-obsessed) way. “Somebody”, on the other hand, is overloaded with meaningless “being a rock star is hard” platitudes that have been clichéd since 1973. Yes, yes, you wanted to be famous because you thought it would be awesome and now you are famous and it is awesome, but the problem is that it’s a little too awesome and now you feel kind of guilty about how insanely awesome your life — it’s such a common story! Who among us can’t relate to a down-to-earth emotion like the exhaustion triggered by overexposure to expensive alcohol and fancy cars? The only nugget of a decent lyrical idea here (“I don’t really like anybody/So don’t tell me I’m like anybody”) clearly comes straight from the pen of co-writer Emily Warren, and everyone involved seems to know it’s the best part of the song because Taggart repeats it during every verse and then, when it comes time to sing a bridge, gives up and repeats it two more times. Well done, everybody. Really stellar work, just… just amazing.

9. Siren (feat. Aazar)

When I previously wrote about this song, I was gripped by a mania that caused me to refer to as “the best short story I’ve read all year” — a statement which, like basically all criticism, says more about the writer than it does about the work itself — and while I can’t excuse that flagrant abuse of the english language, I can theorize that maybe my intense and/or delirious fixation on the song’s lyrics was inspired by a need to avoid thinking about this actual music. The most glaring problem here is that the sound of the drop — the thing that the entire lyric conceit of the song is based around, that Taggart dramatically builds up to during the chorus — in no way resembles a siren. What it does sound like is a chicken. An aggressively clucking chicken, sure, but not one you could, like, dance to, or anything. And even if you weren’t interested in dancing, is there any reason you’d want to subject yourself to this harsh, repetitive sound? This is nothing against trap music or dubstep or any other variant of EDM that involves aggressive, unpleasant noise that is impossible to dance to — catch me down at the number 4 spot for more on this — but even within this particular subgenre, there has to be a limit on what sort of nonsense we’re expected to endure.

8. You Owe Me

An enjoyably dark song that finds the Chainsmokers fully embracing their aspirations to be an alternative rock band with bitchin’ EDM drops, this is the sort of song that “Sick Boy” (the first single of 2018) seemed to promise for this album cycle. The problem is in the particulars. One problem: the limp and empty-headed “fuck the haters” verses don’t quite live up to the bitter condemnations of the chorus; the sarcastic use of the word “awesome” reeks of mid-2000’s internet humor, and references to “the papers” are weirdly anachronistic in a band that’s always embraced modern technology in their songwriting. Another problem: for all the improvement he’s shown since “Closer”, Taggart still doesn’t quite have the voice to sell this sort of venom, and it’s not necessarily his range that’s teh problem. His diction is all over the place here, to the point where many amateur music critics were confused about whether or not the second iteration of the chorus changed the word “dead” to “there,” altering the meaning and, some would argue, improving the song drastically.

7. Beach House

Speaking of Taggart’s voice — and being as I am also a person with a serviceable-at-best voice that nevertheless loves to sing, this is a topic I have a lot of thoughts on — his biggest problem has always been that he’s working in the wrong genre. Taggart voice isn’t the best fit for the type of shiny and polished radio-friendly pop that his band produces — which is why he sounds so much more at home among the jagged, unpolished chaos of “Save Yourself” — but if you heard someone like him singing in a confessional, literary indie-rock band, something like Okkervil River or even Neutral Milk Hotel, it wouldn’t be out of place at all. It would scan as authentic; it might actually make you like him more. I don’t expect Andrew Taggart to usurp John Darnielle’s place in the indie rock canon any time soon, but “Beach House” seems like a good example of what we can expect when Taggart inevitably grows tired with being “one of the #SELFIE guys” and releases a solo record: lots of electronic flourishes, but with a hook built around lightly strummed guitars and nakedly romantic lyrics. He’s still got room to grow as a writer — he’ll need to drop any references to red pills, for one — but “Beach House,” even though its a sonic rehash of “Youth” from Memories…Do Not Open, suggests what path that growth might follow. Also, you can tell from the way he sings on this and a bunch of other Sick Boy songs that he just learned how to belt and it’s really endearing.

6. Hope (feat. Winona Oak)

For a while, the Chainsmokers were the sort of producer act whose songs were defined entirely by their guest vocalist. Most of the time, this was a good thing: “Let You Go,” “Roses”, and even “Waterbed” are competently-made tracks undeniably elevated by the person singing over them. Yes, sometimes this strategy resulted in with the heavily-processed cheese of “Good Intentions” or the utter blandness of “New York City,” a song I have unsuccessfully tried to force myself to like on multiple occasions, but for the most part, you can see why folks like Diplo or David Guetta or Benny Blanco leave the singing the professionals. But there is another path, a path walked by a man who was born under the name Adam Richard Wiles but who deemed himself ‘Calvin Harris’ because he deemed it “a bit more racially ambiguous” (yikes) — the path of the producer who (sometimes) sings on their own songs. The Chainsmokers chose to walk this path and, for the most part, they’ve never looked back. While I personally have no problem with Taggart’s voice – the unpolished quality of his vocals is the thing that fueled my initial obsession with Memories…Do Not Open – and while only the least generous among us would deny that he has improved in the past two years, it’s hard to ignore that “Hope” would be a lot better without him.

The music itself, based around what is either a xylophone or possibly a marimba, is a unusually evocative (for the Chainsmokers themselves and for EDM-pop as a genre) and the vocals from Swedish singer-songwriter Winona Oak (who possesses a deep, smoky voice and an extremely powerful jaw) threaten to push this song over the line into the rarified realm of the genuinely good Chainsmokers songs, the type of song that I can play at a party without being made fun of. And the lyrics aren’t bad, either! Building a song around the idea of hope as a counterpoint to love, positioning hope as a negative, harmful thing – all that is very interesting. But Taggart just feels out of place. His vocals aren’t mixed with the same inventiveness as Oak’s, and the narrative of the song doesn’t really support a second perspective the way “Closer” does. I understand the impulse to have Drew’s voice on every song, from a branding perspective and an artistic perspective – and I support both! – but this shouldn’t have been a duet. Still sounds cool, though.

5. This Feeling (feat. Kelsea Ballerini)

Sure, this is basically “Closer” with the rough edges sanded away — no offhanded mentions of budding alcoholism or references to beloved pop-punk songs, just a lot of posturing about being true to yourself in the face of judgement from your friends (judgement which is probably either imagined or completely justified). And yes, it’s a little suspicious that the Chainsmokers built a dance-pop song around a country artist just months after their esteemed colleague Zedd scored a major hit by doing the same thing with “The Middle.” And yeah, the song is troublingly emblematic of the cynical strategy that the band embraced in the second half of 2018, after their new darker material failed to chart and they seemed to be embracing every style they thought might net them another “Paris”-level success. But if you put all that aside, it’s a solid little pop song, it’s another entry in the all-too-short list of decent karaoke duets, and most importantly, it passes the Weezer Test; named in honor of the famously inconsistent band’s post-2000’s singles, the Weezer Test requires you to ask yourself one question: “If this song were performed by a band that I had never heard of before, would I like it?” Songs that pass this test include: “This Is Such A Pity”, “Feels Like Summer”, and, of course, “This Feeling.”

4. Save Yourself (feat. NGHTMRE)

Forget about the fact that featured guest producer NGHTMRE is probably responsible for at least 80% of this song, and forget about the fact that, despite the subtle distinction between trap and bass music, this sounds like the kind of thing that even hack comedy writers stopped making fun of three years ago – well, not all of them – and please consider the fact that this song absolutely fucking goes. The three distinct drops in between the ominous-yet-vaguely-inspirational verses all match each other for intensity but are distinct enough that they don’t all blend together. This is powerful, aggressive music, the kind of thing that makes you want to do a high-intensity workout or tear a sink out of the wall or reorganize your entire apartment. You know: wild shit. I don’t know how you would dance to this, but I would love to find out and immediately start doing it at every concert I go to, unless the appropriate form of movement is moshing, in which case I will stand anxiously at the edge of the pit, nodding with admiration but slowly edging towards the wall of the venue.

3. Sick Boy

Folks, let us not mince words here: this is song is a bit silly. It’s hard to ignore the goofiness of the verses, with all that borderline-nonsensical talk about the east and west side of America. The central rhyme (“They say that I am the sick boy/easy to say when you don’t take the risk, boy”) is kind of hilarious both for its sloppy construction and for the implication that being one of the Chainsmokers is in any way a “risk”. Really, the whole idea of the guys who made “#SELFIE” doing a big, dramatic and dark song about depression and narcissism in the Internet age is inherently silly – and yet, the first time I heard this song, it blew me away. It had such an impact on me that I ended up devoting a year to writing about this band and trying to figure out exactly what it was about this song that had such a massive impact on me. And I have come to realize that the very silliness that turned so many people off is exactly why the song works for me.

It’s ridiculous to think that a band so widely regarded as shallow, superficial and obnoxious could say anything insightful about the human condition, but I remain steadfast in my belief that the bridge of this song (“feed yourself on my life’s work/how many likes is my life worth”) is a genuinely clever lyric that gets at something very real about the way that an algorithmically-defined need for content sucks the life out of those who attempt to feed it. Maybe it’s just me; maybe, in order to get anything out of “Sick Boy”, you have to be so terminally online that you will search the lyrics of any slightly unusual pop song for hidden meanings. Even if that’s true, it doesn’t matter. Even if I were the only person in the world who liked this song, it wouldn’t matter, for the three minutes I’m listening to this song, as far as my experience is concerned, I am the only person in the world. Maybe that sounds silly or even a little solipsistic, but hey, three minutes isn’t a long time; it’s definitely not enough time to worry about shit like that.

2. Side Effects (feat. Emily Warren)

Emily Warren’s noble-yet-quixotic quest to legitimize the Chainsmokers remains a source of much fascination to me, so much so that this November I travelled all the way to the other end of the G train (local humor! we love it!) to see her perform. It’s hard to tell what she’s getting out if, aside from a steady paycheck – Warren once said that she and the Chainsmokers have never written a song together that didn’t get released, a statement that either demonstrates the efficiency of their collaborative process or reveals just how hard up Taggart and Pall are for decent songs. And while it is also hard to ignore the feeling that Warren will someday give a devastating tell-all interview about her time with the band so disturbing that it will force me to douse this entire blog with gasoline, for the time being, their partnership seems marked by creativity and respect.

In a just world, “Side Effects” would have been the group’s most successful song since “Paris” – in the awful hell-scented fleshworld we inhabit, it petered out just below “Sick Boy”, which is odd, and not just because of the shamelessly click-baiting video featuring one of the stars of the inexplicably popular Riverdale. When considering how some songs would be received critically if they weren’t associated with the endlessly toxic Chainsmokers brand, “Side Effects” surpasses even “This Feeling” and “Hope” to enters the realm of the Truly Good Pop Song With No Qualifiers Necessary, a song so undeniably decent that even though it was produced by the Chainsmokers, I would be completely unashamed to play this song for friends and family alike. Not to be a downer, but if this song can’t break the Chainsmokers out of the commercial tailspin they’ve been in since 2017, I’m not sure what could.

1. Everybody Hates Me

Pop music, maybe more so than any other art form, is meant to be universal. This is by and large a good thing, and accounts for much of my fascination with the genre; what could be more interesting than a near-universal musical language? But sometimes, the overwhelming need to appeal and relate to as many people as possible can stifle creativity, or, even worse, make the whole medium feel totally artificial. I know that Drake, Ed Sheeran and Taylor Swift all experience the same heartbreaks and joys as the rest of humanity because they are all (allegedly) human as well, but really, we don’t have that much in common. The average day of a normal, non-famous person might have some superficial similarities to the average day of a pop star, but their existence is in many ways incomprehensible to someone like me.

All this is to say that, while I may roll my eyes at something like Bob Seger’s “Turn The Page” or audibly groan every time I remember that Post Malone has a song literally called “Rich And Sad”, I actually really like it when rich and famous musicians make songs about how rich and famous they are. One of my favorite examples in the past few years is Future’s verse from Maroon 5’s “Cold,” which cuts through the aggressively bland and unspecific lyrics of the rest of the song with the revelation that Future’s arguments with his beau got so heated that he actually had to stop hiring drivers for his expensive cars because he was so embarrassed by the things she was saying. That’s a perfect, almost novelistic detail about a lifestyle I will never experience, and I’ll remember it long after the sound of Adam Levine’s nasal droning has finally left my mind. This is why “Everybody Hates Me” is the best Chainsmokers song of 2018, and possibly the best song they have ever released: because it’s a song about becoming famous off a novelty song based around a dumb internet joke only to find yourself turning into a dumb internet joke. It’s a song about the perils of smart-phone addiction and internet brain poisoning written by someone who is painfully aware that their livelihood couldn’t exist without both of those things. It is, simply put, a song that only the Chainsmokers could have made. And that is beautiful.

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.

Siren

Three Ways To Write About ‘Siren’ by The Chainsmokers & Aazar

1. If the whiplash-inducing shift from the apocalyptic trap-bass fever dream of “Save Yourself” to the country-inflected of “This Feeling” suggested that the Chainsmokers are courting multiple audiences simultaneously, the sudden pivot back to “Siren” confirms it. They’ve always kept one foot planted firmly on either side of the pop/EDM divide, but they used to be forced to split the difference within individual songs: large swaths of their debut album, Memories…Do Not Open, felt like attempts to graft a pop sensibility onto an EDM sound, or vice-versa. The resulting soupy mixture of dreary, world-weary lyrics and mid-tempo beats produced an album that even Drew Taggart has referred to as “unfinished”, and while the first half of 2018 saw the group pursuing a sharper, more interesting version of the same songwriting style, it clearly wasn’t working well enough for them (or possibly their management), because ever since “Side Effects”, they’ve been devoting entire songs to either one style or the other. It’s brilliant, in a way: even if they never again reach “Closer” heights of mainstream popularity, by playing to the EDM crowd in a way they really haven’t in years, the Chainsmokers can build an audience who will stick by them in the long-term, regardless of how well their pop singles perform on the top 40. So I could have written about “Siren” as a piece of marketing, but nobody except me (and possibly Adam Alpert) would find that interesting.

2. It would be silly and maybe even a little embarrassing for me to pretend that “Siren” doesn’t sound a whole lot like “Save Yourself.” The formula is practically identical: a collaboration between the Chainsmokers and an electronic music producer with almost no public presence outside the EDM scene, built around two long instrumental passages, stitched together by a couple of melodic passages and vocals from Taggart himself. The biggest difference between the two songs is their respective “drops”, that oft-fetishized moment of climactic release that features so prominently in modern dance music. Whereas the drops in “Save Yourself” varied in tempo and drew from a variety of aggressive textures, the drop in “Sirens” is built around a repetitive burst of synth that sounds more like a clucking chicken than any siren that I’ve ever heard. Which isn’t to say there’s nothing here to recommend: the drop is still plenty of fun, and the vocal sample at the beginning is a nice touch, as are the strings that feature prominently in the song’s second half. There’s just not enough to differentiate this song from “Save Yourself” to the untrained ear, but as I mentioned above, the untrained ear is not the target for this song: this song is an offering to the true bass-heads, the kind of people who will read the previous paragraph and work themselves into a frenzy over my perceived ignorance. So I could have written about “Siren” as a piece of music, but basically no one would want to read that, and those that would want to read it still wouldn’t have enjoyed it.

3.

Three weeks down,
but you’re on the mend —
You swear that you’re free from the passenger seat
As we drive through the night,
’til it starts again:
You blame it on me ’cause you’re three pills deep in

I tell myself I love the silence, but maybe I just wanna hear the sounds of the siren

I tell myself I love the silence
But maybe I just want to hear
the sounds of the sirens

If you’ve never heard “Siren” before — and, if you’re reading this, the odds are that you haven’t — take a second to read over these lyrics. Do you find them striking at all? If you encountered them outside of their actual context, how do you think you’d feel about them? If you read them as a poem, would you like it? What if you read them as a Raymond Carver story? Alright, maybe that’s too grandiose — what about a passage in a Bret Easton Ellis novel? Does that seem like a better fit? Because when I listen to “Siren,” that’s what I hear: a piece of flash fiction, that captures a single moment in a much longer and very sad story that we’ll never know the end of. There are several things that could be triggering this reaction in me — the deep-seated psychosis that would lead me to devote an entire year to thinking about the Chainsmokers, for one, or perhaps the mental deterioration that I’ve experienced as a result of putting that ridiculous plan into action. But I do believe this song is unique within the band’s catalog. Only a few other Chainsmokers songs have devoted this much detail to an actual narrative, most notably “Closer” and “Paris”, but unlike those songs, “Siren” never resolves into any grand statement or meaningful refrain. The lyrics leave us in a place of quiet discomfort and uncertainty, as the narrator sits in a car with their ailing companion, content to let the sounds of the city outside his window fill the space because the idea of starting another conversation is too painful. We don’t know exactly what the relationship is between these two or how damaged it is or if it’s even going to survive this car ride. We’re left with only the music to carry us forward, and the fact that we don’t get any new lyrics after the first minute only enhances the feeling that what we’re hearing is not exactly a song, but a piece of storytelling with musical accompaniment. We’re forced to discern our own meaning from the lyrics, an act for which there is not typically room within a song by the Chainsmokers. So I could have written about “Siren” as what it really is, to me, anyway: one of the best short stories I’ve encountered this year. And yes, that would have been ridiculous. But that’s why I did it.

The Roommate From ‘Closer’ Makes A Phone Call To Her Best Friend, or: The Continuing Adventures Of Jess And Nicole

Nicole, 26, is walking through Prospect Park in Brooklyn, NY, holding the leashes of four separate dogs, when her phone begins to ring. Upon hearing the ringtone (“Ignition [Remix]” by R. Kelly), she knows exactly who is calling, so she answers.

NICOLE: Hey, bitch.

JESS: Nicole? It’s Jess.

NICOLE: Uh, yeah, I know it’s you. That’s why I said, “hey, bitch.” Do you think I just answer the phone like that all the time?

JESS: What? No, I don’t think that. Listen–

NICOLE: Just so you know, I’ve got a bunch of dogs with me right now, so if I lose you, it’s… well, I guess it won’t be a reception thing, but if one of the dogs tries to run away, or something, I might have to hang up.

JESS: I get it. I just–

NICOLE: This whole thing is such bullshit. I thought when I signed up for this stupid dog-walking app I’d get paid to hang out with a bunch of cute dogs, but all I get are these huge, slobbering idiots who want to fight every other dog they see. Yeah, that’s right, Brutus, I’m talking about you. What? You got a problem with that?

JESS: That sucks. So–

NICOLE: Wait, why are you calling me right now? I didn’t miss our weekly Skype call, did I?

JESS: No, that’s on Saturday.

NICOLE: Oh, hey, do you think we could change it to Sunday this week? I’ve got a callback for an audition on Saturday.

JESS: Oh, really? Congrats.

NICOLE: Thanks! It’s for Midsummer Night’s Dream, again. Which, like, ugh. And it’s in Jersey, so that’s a shitty fucking commute, if I get it. But I had an audition last week that I’m still waiting to hear back from, it sounds like it’s gonna be really cool. It’s an all-female production of Zoo Story and–

JESS: Nicole!

NICOLE: What?

JESS: Can you shut up for, like, one second, so I can tell you why I’m calling?

NICOLE: Wow, spicy.

JESS: Sorry. It’s been a shitty two days.

NICOLE: Aw, Jess. Go on, tell me what happened.

JESS: It’s Becca.

NICOLE: Becca C?

JESS: Yeah, Becca C. Who else would it be?

NICOLE: Well, it could have been Becca K.

JESS: I don’t live with Becca K, though. I live with Becca C. Or, I used to.

NICOLE: Wait, used to?

JESS: So. Two days ago, I spent the night at Terry’s place.

NICOLE: Oh, how’s that going, by the way?

JESS: Ehh. I’ll tell you on Sunday.

NICOLE: Oh, can we do Sunday morning, though? I have a shift at the restaurant in the afternoon.

JESS: Nicole. Focus.

NICOLE: Right! Sorry.

JESS: I wake up Thursday morning and I head back over to our place, and it’s still early — like, eight A.M. And I pull into the apartment complex, and I see right away that Becca’s car isn’t there. And, like, that’s weird, right? Because Becca doesn’t ever get up before ten. Eleven, if she’s been out drinking. Which… she usually is.

NICOLE: Did she go out on Wednesday?

JESS: I left the apartment at eight P.M., and she was still wearing her sweatpants.

NICOLE: Yeah, but… sometimes she doesn’t get ready to go until like, after nine, right?

JESS: True. But only if she’s done her hair ahead of time. And you wanna know what the state of her hair was, when I left the apartment?

NICOLE: Bun?

JESS: Top bun.

NICOLE: Oof.

JESS: Yeah. She wasn’t going anywhere. And plus, she had been putting out this sort of, like, weird energy all day? I mean, she had been watching The Office since I got home from work, which is not unusual, but she didn’t seem very into it. It as like she had something on her mind.

NICOLE: Brutus! God damn it, if you don’t leave her alone, I will choke you! I will choke you out!

JESS: Just talking to myself here.

NICOLE: No! I’m sorry! I’m listening. Becca was acting weird.

JESS: It wasn’t just weird — I know what weird Becca is like. This was different. So, when I pull into the parking lot the next morning and don’t see her car, my first thought is, oh! She’s finally doing what she said she was gonna do six months ago, she’s going to meet with an academic advisor at the University and see about re-starting her Masters program.

NICOLE: Didn’t she complain about that program, like, all the time? Would you really want that?

JESS: It’d be better than her lying around the apartment all day, doing nothing, complaining about her parents.

NICOLE: Oh, God, never mind. I just remembered what it’s like to hear Becca talk about her parents. I almost forgot.

JESS: I never got that luxury. You’re so lucky.

NICOLE: Hashtag blessed!

JESS: (laughing) Shut up. So, when I got into the apartment, something felt really wrong, like, right away. Like something was different. I couldn’t figure out what it was, but it felt so weird that I decided to check on Becca really quick. I go to knock on her bedroom door, but then I see that it’s not even closed. I push it open the rest of the way, and you know what I see?

NICOLE: What?

JESS: Nothing.

NICOLE: Nothing?

JESS: Nothing! The room was totally empty! Becca cleared out all of her shit and left literally in the middle of the night.

NICOLE: Are you serious? She didn’t leave a note or anything?

JESS: Nothing. I tried texting her, calling her. No response.

NICOLE: That’s so fucking weird.

JESS: Yeah, but here’s the thing: she didn’t just take all of her shit. When I went back into the living room, I realized why it felt so weird in there. Because a bunch of my shit was missing.

NICOLE: She stole your shit?

JESS: She stole my shit! She took my big lamp, she took a bunch of my books, she took my ukelele–

NICOLE: The ukelele I got you for your birthday?

JESS: Yeah!

NICOLE: That bitch!

JESS: She cleared out about half my bottles of liquor. She took all of my How I Met Your Mother DVDs.

NICOLE: Even season nine?

JESS: Even season nine.

NICOLE: Oh my god, who is she?

JESS: Nicole. That’s not even the worst of it. You know what else she took?

NICOLE: What?

JESS: My mattress.

NICOLE: Your mattress? She stole your mattress?

JESS: She stole my mattress.

NICOLE: Like, she took it right out of your room?

JESS: No, no — the mattress she had in her room was actually mine. When we first moved in, she asked if we could switch because the mattress she had was too soft for her to sleep on, and I was like, sure, I don’t care, let’s trade.

NICOLE: Oh. Well… do you think maybe she forgot that you switched? And she just thought she was taking her own mattress?

JESS: No! Because the first mattress she had, the one that ended up in my room? That was my mattress, too.

NICOLE: Wait, so, Becca’s parents are like, super-rich, and not only did she not have her own mattress when you guys moved in together, but she took yours with her when she left?

JESS: Yes.

NICOLE: What a fucking psycho.

JESS: Hey, don’t say that. It’s offensive.

NICOLE: To who? Psychos?

JESS: Well… yeah. But you’re not supposed to say ‘psycho’ any more.

NICOLE: You’re right. But, like… what other word is there? How else would you even describe that behavior?

JESS: That’s not even the worst of it. The mattress that she stole? I was actually borrowing it from my aunt and uncle. They gave it to me for free, I just had to promise I’d have it back before their son finished college and needed it for his apartment, and I said, sure, because I thought by then Becca would have gotten her shit together to a high enough degree that she would at least be able to buy her own fucking mattress.

NICOLE: Do you know when your cousin is moving in to his apartment?

JESS: Yeah, next month.

NICOLE: Jesus! This is so completely fucked. Like, I knew Becca had problems, but she literally robbed you and disappeared. Who even does that? Who steals a fucking mattress?

JESS: And now I have to pay for a replacement mattress. I’m out at least six-hundred dollars, not even counting all the rest of the shit she stole.

NICOLE: Wait. Wait, hold on. Do we know for sure that Becca took all that stuff?

JESS: Nicole–

NICOLE: Oh! What if someone broke into your apartment last night? And they took all your stuff, and then–

JESS: Nicole, calm down, Becca’s not… dead, or kidnapped, or whatever.

NICOLE: How do you know?

JESS: Have you been on Instagram today?

NICOLE: I’m trying to do this thing where I don’t check it until I’ve done at least one productive thing, because you know I used to check it right when I woke up? And not just Insta, I would check Facebook and Twitter, too — and Snapchat, when that was still a thing — and first of all, it was making me super anxious, because the world is so fucked that you can’t read the news without having it fuck up your whole day, and second it was, like, a huge time suck, right at the beginning of the day, when I should be getting up and jogging or doing meal prep, or… whatever.

JESS: So, that’s a ‘no’?

NICOLE: Yeah! No.

JESS: Well, Becca posted an update to her story just one hour ago.

NICOLE: Oh, shit. Where was she?

JESS: According to the location tag she used, she’s somewhere in the middle of the Nebraska.

NICOLE: What the fuck.

JESS: There were two posts. The first one was just a picture of a corn field or some shit —

NICOLE: What filter did she use?

JESS: …

NICOLE: Sorry.

JESS: And there was a caption, and I quote: “Start spreadin’ the news.”

NICOLE: “Spreadin’?” Like, with an apostrophe and everything?

JESS: Do you know what that is?

NICOLE: It’s fucking gross is what it is.

JESS: No, Nicole, that’s the first line of that song. “New York, New York?”

NICOLE: Wait. Wait. No, that can’t… wait. Are you sure?

JESS: Do you know what the second update was?

NICOLE: A selfie?

JESS: Yeah, of course.

NICOLE: Of course.

JESS: Nicole. This bitch was parked by the side of the road, sitting on the hood of her ugly-ass broken-down Range Rover, flashing the peace sign, with the caption, “I’m leavin’ today.”

NICOLE: Jess, stop.

JESS: And you know what was strapped to her roof?

NICOLE: No.

JESS: My fucking mattress.

NICOLE: Becca is driving from Boulder to New York City with your mattress strapped to the roof of her car?

JESS: Yah.

NICOLE: Jess, I… I don’t even know what to say. This is the crazi–this is the most bizarre thing I have ever heard. How could–oh, fuck.

JESS: What?

NICOLE: It’s Brutus, he’s trying to fight another dog. HEY, IDIOT, CALM DOWN! What? No, sir, no, I wasn’t talking to you, I was talking to the dog. What? Well, no, he’s not MY dog, listen, I–

JESS: Nicole?

NICOLE: I’m sorry, Jess, I gotta go real quick.

JESS: Yeah, sure.

NICOLE: Talk to you Sunday?

JESS: Talk to you Sunday.

NICOLE: Cool. Jesus Christ, your fucking mattress — BRUTUS IF YOU DO NOT GET YOUR NOSE OUT OF THAT MAN’S CROTCH RIGHT NOW NOW YOU ARE GOING HOME IN A BODY BAG, I SWEAR TO GOD.

This Feeling

I’ll tell you a story before it tells itself

It would be easy for me to say that “This Feeling” sounds like the Chainsmokers trying to combine elements of their two biggest hits with co-writer Emily Warren’s long-running preoccupation with self-destructive romantic relationships; after all, it’s got the male/female duet format of “Closer,” the alt-rock stylings of “Something Just Like This”, and the lyrical themes of… well, “Closer” again, but also “Side Effects,” “All We Know,” “My Type”, etc. The first half of the song (before Taggart’s vocals kick in) could be from any number of contemporary electro-pop songs featuring a strong female vocal, particularly Zedd-produced tracks like “Starving” or “The Middle”, with the latter being especially relevant given that it, like “This Feeling”, re-purposes a country singer into the context of an upbeat dance song. Speaking of which, Kelsea Ballerini is a shrewd choice for a guest vocalist; she’s a proven success within the country-music demographic, a market that has gone entirely untapped by the Chainsmokers to this point. And they’re not the only ones who benefit: as a mainstream artist working within an authenticity-obsessed medium, Ballerini has to perform a delicate dance to remain acceptable to her audience, so appearing on a track where she can completely shed her country-music roots and aim straight for the pop charts is a savvy career move on her part. Every element of “This Feeling” can, if you’re so inclined, be broken down into a series of crass, cynical decision with direct commercial implications, turning the song itself into a mere conglomeration of parts, each one meticulously designed and implemented with the aim of appealing to the widest possible audience of people. The weird thing is that none of that matters and it never will.

I’ll lay out all my reasons, you’ll say that I need help

There’s a reason why this kind of song is popular, and I don’t just mean the type of song produced by Zedd or Clean Bandit or Calvin Harris —  I also mean songs specifically produced by the Chainsmokers themselves: “Something Just Like This” and “Closer” were massive hits for the group, enough to ensure retained cultural presence for two years straight. If the tides of time wash clean everything else the Chainsmokers have ever touched, “Closer” will still be immortalized on whatever form the Time Life collections take thirty years from now, and Coldplay’s co-ownership of “Something Just Like This” ensures that it will be remembered as a least curious footnote in that band’s long, strange career. Here’s a statement that seems self-evident but will be endlessly frustrating to a significant number of people: this popularity means something. No piece of media becomes this successful by accident, as much as that may often seem to be the case. Okay, yes, there are powerful, corporate-run forces in our capitalist society that use their influence to insidiously control the conversation surrounding music (well, there’s mainly just the one), but you know that old saying? About horses, and how you can present an appealing option to them, but you can’t make them do the thing you want them to do unless they actually want to do it? This is what that’s about. Yes. This exact situation.

We all got expectations and sometimes they gone wrong

So, if these songs are all popular for a reason, what is the reason? It’s an obvious answer, so obvious that feels ridiculous, borderline insulting to write it. But there’s really no way around it, so unless we want to waste our time, we might as well put it out there. People like these songs for the same reason they like any song: because it sounds good and it’s fun to listen to. Whatever musical elements make up the song hit the pleasure center of their brain in an appealing way, while the lyrics connect with them on some level. There are other ways to listen to music and analyze its influences, the exact structure of the work, how the artists position themselves culturally, etc., but most of the people who listen to music hear a song and decide whether they like it or not based on how it immediately affects them. To the extent that they consider it critically, all of their thoughts are based on their initial reactions. Critics are not excluded from this, either. It’s impossible to write about music without taking your own enjoyment of it into consideration, and even if you could, why would you want to? Even if every song was really nothing but a group of components dispassionately assembled in a specific order to incite a certain reaction, the reaction would still be the culmination of the entire process. If you could actually hear to a song without experiencing it, it would cease to be the potentially life-altering experience it is now and would become nothing more than an unentertaining chore, a clinical dissection of an object you can’t even see. If music could be accurately criticized, no one would ever listen to it.

But no one listens to me, so I put it in this song

Another weird thing is that everybody already knows this to be true. We are, as a culture, so aware of the disconnect between our experience of music and the objective reality of it that we invented a new term in order to categorize art that we enjoy but simultaneously believe to be unworthy of enjoyment. A “guilty pleasure” is a piece of art that moves your body, your heart, even your soul, but which you feel you must, for some reason, distance yourself from. For various cultural reasons, there are some works that we feel must be held out at arm’s length, separate from ourselves, even as we embrace the effect the work has on us.  But why? It doesn’t work like that the other way around. If you encounter a piece of art that you critically determine to be worthy of praise, yet you yourself remain unmoved by it, you don’t place in a category meant to delegitimize it as a work (or at least you’re not supposed to). In fact, sometimes people will repeatedly expose themselves to a piece of art that they know they’re supposed to like, over and over, just to see if maybe they can trigger a single pleasurable experience. This is a fool’s errand, a life-wasting exercise in masochism, and it has lead to more bad takes than any other cultural practice. We could wipe out every obnoxiously contrarian “But What If It’s Actually Bad”-style think-piece in a week’s time if we stopped fetishizing the outdated idea of an artistic cannon. We’re never going to do this, of course, but it’s worth remembering that we could if we wanted to.

They tell me think with my head,
Not that thing in my chest
They got their hands on my neck this time

Drew Taggart, ever the poet, claims that “This Feeling” is about “being yourself and not giving a fuck what people think about you.” In the song, this is a reference to a romantic relationship, presumably a bad one — there are a few hints in the second verse that things between this couple are not ideal, but for the most part, we don’t get many details about the relationship itself, because the relationship isn’t important. What’s important is that this relationship makes the narrator feel good, while everyone around them insists that they’re making a mistake. The narrator’s response to this is incredibly human and unsurprisingly combative. If you’re being made to feel guilty about something that you experience as unambiguously positive, you essentially have two choices: completely abandon any illusion of agency within your own life and admit that your every decision is controlled by outside forces, or resolve to not give a fuck. This can admittedly be a somewhat imprudent attitude to adopt when navigating the emotional minefield of a romantic relationship — it is entirely possible that a friend who has your best interests in mind can examine your situation from a different point of view and offer up valuable advice. Sometimes, people want you to think with your head because your heart is being stupid. But the same reasoning doesn’t apply to music. After all, has anyone ever been convinced, by any argument of any scope and intelligence, that their favorite band is “actually bad?” Can you imagine what you would think if someone even tried to do that? Even if it was your best friend, the person’s who opinion you value most in the world, you probably wouldn’t give a fuck. Now imagine if it was some bozo writing an online culture magazine.

But you’re the one that I want,
And if that’s really so wrong
Then they don’t know what this feeling is like

“This Feeling” does not present a universally applicable maxim for living a truly fulfilled life. But it doesn’t have to do that; it’s a pop song. All it has to do is keep you entertained for about three minutes. It can be more than that, obviously. A truly exceptional pop song can stay with you for much longer, becoming so intertwined with your own personal experiences and memories that the song becomes a fixture of your life, an beacon of intense emotional power shining throughout the years to mark one single point of pure, iridescent joy. It can also be a neat thing to play at parties, or in your car. Music criticism can be interesting and even enlightening, but no amount of words will ever substitute a single experience like that. I’m not saying that we should stop talking about music altogether; again, even if that were actually a good idea, we’re never going to do it. I’m also not advocating for an anti-intellectual, gut feeling-driven philosophy or attitude, at least not when it comes to important things, like social justice or climate change. All I’m trying to say is: let’s not forget what we’re talking about here. This is a pop song. The entire chorus is the word “yeah” repeated about fifty times. It’s good and it’s fun to listen to, and if you disagree, I don’t give a fuck and I never will.

And I say:
Yeah-eah
Yeah-eah-eah-eah