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A Writer Returned from a Chainsmokers Gig and Says It Was Good, Do We Fire Him?

Apparently mainstream EDM has come a long way since 'Jersey Shore' and LMFAO.
Images: Danny Howe

What do you expect from a Chainsmokers show? Bros in tank tops letting off steam after a work week? Check. Young women dancing in packs, not giving a shit about the dudes? Check. Every imaginable 2017 pop and EDM trend? Check! The Chainsmokers perfectly reflect your existing views about modern music. One person's fluid genre-hopping is another's cynical pandering. Listen to them, and you'll hear exactly what you want to hear. The Chainsmokers are Drew Taggart: 27, boyish producer-turned-vocalist, and Alex Pall: 32, bearded marketer-slash-DJ. They share several Pioneer DJ decks in the middle of Melbourne's vast outdoor Sidney Myer Music Bowl stage, running around maniacally whenever they can.

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Image: Danny Howe

By my estimation, the Chainsmokers play about 34 songs in 90 minutes. That's three drops on average per song, or a just over one drop a minute. Their attention spans might be short, but the sheer number of EDM subgenres they power through is dizzying. Their set is a clown car filled with endless variations on the hallowed EDM drop. It might all sound the same to an outsider, but let's count the ways: there's common garden-variety dubstep. There's EDM's dumbest subgenre: dirty Dutch/Melbourne bounce electro house. Anthemic big room house, tech house, and in the exact middle of the road: tropical house. Then on the hip-hop side: future bass, moombahton, and of course - trap.

EDM spectacle is a pure physical experience aimed straight at your lizard brain. It's the anticipation of the beat drop, feeling the subs in your feet. It's the gleefully absurd cartoon visuals, the columns of steam, pyro, fireworks. Any and every DJ with a budget does some of this shit, but the Chainsmokers embrace it all. Their drummer, channelling Travis Barker, plays a solo with flaming sticks - why the hell not? Even so, their Melbourne setup's only half as big as their mind-boggling Coachella stage.

Skrillex, Diplo et al are all about making you completely lose your shit. Other acts aim for a more traditional, trance-like rise and fall of euphoria. But when most EDM acts trade in sentimentality, it feels false - it's either too cheesy, emotionally flat, or vocally anonymous. But the Chainsmokers' lyrics, even when they're vague, feel totally sincere. Their songwriting has nothing to do with EDM, and everything to do with diaristic 2000s emo. They'd rather confess their feelings than play at coolness.

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Just 15 months ago, Drew Taggart had never sung live - or even thought of himself as the frontman of what seemed like a straightforward DJ-producer duo. In between the bangers, they segue into the indie-emo-synthpop hybrid of their debut album.

Backed by live synths and drums, Drew sings "Break Up Every Night", "Honest", "Young", "Paris", "Bloodstream" - "I'm fucked up, I'm faded… / Those things that I said / They were so overrated" - not like a larger-than-life rockstar, but as a reasonably talented kid who's grown into his voice surprisingly well. That unpretentiousness is a strength - he could be any of us.

In a few years' time, the Chainsmokers might have enough intimate stadium-pop anthems for a full set. Justin Bieber and Coldplay are clear influences. But they need to condition their audience into wanting songs - not just the usual EDM playbook of drops and beat switch-ups. While most DJ sets are all about instant gratification, the Chainsmokers are slowly taking a more sentimental, slightly less bone-headed, but ultimately more rewarding path.

Populism shouldn't be a dirty word – though it's oft-mistaken for the lowest common denominator. But mainstream American EDM has come a long way since Jersey Shore and LMFAO. If the Chainsmokers are the bottom of the barrel - and I don't think they are, not by a long shot - they're far more dynamic, open-minded, and compelling as personalities than the last generation. Their mix of emo sincerity and EDM brattiness works, for now, because they commit themselves totally to both.

"Don't Let Me Down" ends the night in deeply cathartic fashion. Daya's prerecorded vocals, Drew's live guitar, and the gentle synths all work to create an enveloping sonic space. But it's all about the last chorus, the song's third drop, where the synths, horns, vocals, live and programmed drums unite in full harmony for the first time. It's not the biggest or dirtiest drop of the night, but it's the most satisfying.

And then Drew and Alex leave the stage without a peep. The crowd chants for an encore they don't get. There's no in-house music - the lights come up, roadies start dismantling the set. How anticlimactic. It turns out silence is the biggest drop of all. What comes next – critical respect?

Richard S. He is a pop producer and critic. You can tweet your grievances to @Richaod.