The Chainsmokers Are Selling a Mirage and Everyone is Buying
Image courtesy of the artists.

The Chainsmokers Are Selling a Mirage and Everyone is Buying

Their new album 'Memories…Do Not Open' deals in nostalgia for an imaginary past.
April 13, 2017, 7:47pm

In the opening frame of the Chainsmokers' lyric video for "Paris," a lush single released back in January, Drew Taggart and Alex Pall try to redefine the name of the centuries old city. In the universe of the Chainsmokers, the French capital isn't just a place, but a state of mind, man. They give two fictional definitions for the song's title: 1. "a sentimental yearning for a reality that isn't genuine" and 2. "an irrecoverable condition for fantasy that evokes nostalgia or daydreams." They conceive the city as a sort of millennial Margaritaville—in the process romanticizing both the past and our own desperate longing for it—packaged in a slick fusion of electronic fluff and Coldplay-ish melodies. It was the first statement of purpose for their debut album Memories…Do Not Open—heady stuff from a duo that until recently had their combined dick length (17.34") posted on their website.

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Drew Taggart and Alex Pall check off so many different outrage boxes it seems almost intentional: they're simultaneously self-proclaimed nice guys, swaggering tech bros, simpering fake-deep quotes generators, and living avatars of Big Streaming disruption. They look like Sims and dance like their bodies were just unfrozen from cold storage. But dunking on their doofus personas allows us to dance around a more important question, one which ultimately surpasses how they conduct themselves in interviews—why is their music so successful? According to Billboard, Memories is on pace to go #1 this week with over 200,000 sales equivalents (150,000 of which came from traditional downloads rather than streaming), making it one of the biggest electronic debuts of the modern era.

Like the lyric video for "Paris" suggests in its own overwrought way, the best Chainsmokers songs bore their way into your mind using nostalgia as a drill-bit. Relative highlights from their catalog like "Paris," pre-album smash single "Closer," and Memories' dewy-eyed "Young" hinge on recollections of teenage love affairs and breakups. They describe small towns, fights with parents, wrecked cars, late night meet-ups, and other aspects of the universal teenage experience.

Taggart and Pall, aged 27 and 31,  have grown up in a musical landscape soaked to the bone in nostalgia. The cultural production of what youth feels like now is dominated by hyper-referential artists who try on and discard genres and sounds like second-hand clothes. Nostalgia is no longer just something we sometimes do—it's become fundamentally linked with who we are.

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Yet, the Chainsmokers don't actually borrow that much from previous eras, sonically speaking. Aside from a few 80s synth tropes, their fusion of pop, trap, and songwriter shmaltz sounds totally contemporary. The album traffics in glossy, expensive electronic textures shaped into traditional pop songs—a gleaming chrome machine wearing a tender human face. At a glance, a song like "Something Like This" feels familiar, with its cozy Chris Martin lyrics and verse-chorus-verse structure. But that's window dressing. At its core are the drop's pillowy sawtooth synths, so fat with digital texture you want to reach out and bite them. The way they echo the vocal melody reminds of those Boston Dynamics robot dogs learning to walk—endearingly awkward and terrifying at the same time.

Memories…Do Not Open isn't nostalgic for any specific time—rather, it takes the literal act of "opening memories" as its subject. The album's best songs—"Paris," "Young," and "Last Day Alive"—render vague descriptions of exes and love affairs and breakups and foreign cities in broad, warm tones. Rather than a specific historical era, their songs transport you to a pleasant, blank canvas somewhere in the past that you can fill in with faces and places from your own life.

"Young" provides a particularly fascinating example. It boasts the album's strongest production—streaks of synths paint a sunset vista, while chugging drums evoke the doomed teenage lovers driving off into it. "It's hard when you're young," croons Taggart, a first-degree black-belt in stating the obvious. The vibe feels like an echo of a John Hughes movie, filtered through Anthony Gonzales' memory, as interpreted by Carly Rae Jepsen, whose album was probably included on a Sony trend consultant's moodboard for this record. The Chainsmokers are too young to have first-hand memories from this era, as is their millennial fanbase. Instead, these tropes have become an abstract shorthand for "the past" in the personal, rather than temporal, sense. Everyone's teenage memories take place in the 80s now.

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It's easy to criticize the Chainsmokers exploitation of nostalgia for commerce as a cheap, cynical ploy. But take a step back, and a dark, compelling spectacle reveals itself. The featureless, comforting world of Memories brings to mind the rise of virtual reality experiences. As our world descends into chaos and drudgery, corporations build new ways to help us retreat from it—consider the Black Mirror episode "San Junipero," about old people hiding from death in a virtual recreation of an 80s small town, eternally.

Along with "Young," the album's final song "Last Day Alive" nails the Chainsmokers' uncanny fusion of memory and blankness. "Always and forever, the last day alive," Taggart sings, over more skyscraping, sanded-down New Wave production. These simple words evoke a strange paradox of time and death. Live the rest of your life with the affect and intensity of teenagers from another era, they seem to imply—the present isn't enough. The duo make music that turns nostalgia from a link between present and past into a total state of being.

Our generation continues to grapple with an enduring identity crisis—we've grown up in a confusing valley between past glories and a terrifying future. In his book Retromania, Simon Reynolds describes the "insidious form of paralysis" that affects those of us living in a present that's "stretched thin…pierced by portals to innumerable potential elsewheres and elsewhens." Our "super-saturation" of influences has just left us anxious. With their broad, vague sketches of golden memories, the Chainsmokers (and the corporate system they represent) have made an album that neatly dovetails with our dislocated, nostalgic present. "We're drunk on the past that we're living in," Taggart croons on "Paris." It's hard to find a more contemporary stance than that.

Ezra Marcus is on Twitter.