How Did The Chainsmokers, of All People, End Up Dominating 2016?
Analysing the bros, the music, and the voices behind the year's biggest hit-making machine.
Photo by Kevin Winter/Getty Images for 102.7 KIIS FM's Wango Tango
"Lol wtf" That's The Chainsmokers on Twitter, who, scrolling through their mentions, came across a tweet from pop culture site Idolator. "Everyone hates @TheChainsmokers," Idolator wrote, @-ing the electronic duo that is Alex Pall and Drew Taggart in November. "But they keep on winning with ear candy like 'Setting Fires.'" Idolator then linked to an article on their website that praised The Chainsmokers' latest joint with XYLO.
In their defense, "lol wtf" is an appropriate response to the backhanded tweet, which used their name in a hate-them-but-can't-look-away tactic in the same way that most sites use Donald Trump for hate-clicks. But Idolator wasn't wrong. The Chainsmokers, with their cleverly crafted dance tracks that dominated the year and unfiltered views on everything from Lady Gaga to United Airlines, have created an outspoken, unapologetic persona for themselves.
In a year where The Chainsmokers saw chart dominance ("Don't Let Me Down" with Daya reached number three on the Hot 100, while "Closer," featuring Halsey, doesn't seem to be leaving the chart, with several weeks at number one) and three Grammy nominations, the electro bros are 2016's success story. And to explain the phenomenon that is The Chainsmokers, you have to look at their wacky, front-facing persona, the music itself, and the women that front their songs—three incredibly calculated facets of the machine.
As far as their loathsome image, their "frat bro dude" aesthetic was never clearer than in September's Billboard cover story, which had the internet grinding its teeth—so much so that, to save readers time and tooth enamel, Vulture broke the interview down into the "seven cringiest things," including how they measured the length of their penises for their website bio and how they call bands that want to work with them "thirsty." (Sorry, Weezer.) The Billboard interview also contained this gem: "Even before success, pussy was number one," says Pall. "Like, 'Why am I trying to make all this money?' I wanted to hook up with hotter girls."
Aside from the interview that doomed them to eternal asshole-dom, you can trace their bro beginnings back to their first hit, 2014's viral "#Selfie," a truly terrible (like all songs with a hashtag in them) LMFAO-inspired, satirical take on duck-face vanity. It pokes fun at "basic" ladies' insecurities and lampoons a girls' night out. It pits women against each other and slut-shames. And the song got its due. Pall and Taggart's "American Idol" performance of the song had Porter Robinson, Knife Party and Deadmau5 calling them a sell-out act, making it most harangued "American Idol" appearance since William Hung auditioned. The official video of the performance was scrubbed from the internet this year.
Since then, they put United Airlines on blast for a delayed flight in 91 tweets (which are now deleted), they went after Lady Gaga's "Perfect Illusion" (and maybe rightfully so); they called their own VMA performance "shit"; they probably didn't call Halsey a "bald bitch" but there's still speculation; they called Tyga a "bubblegum rapper"; and they continued to exploit the women they messed with in college.
The Chainsmokers' most successful hit this year was constructed in the same vein as "#Selfie." "Closer," a song about the women that Taggart hates, basked in the glow of number one for 13 weeks. Taggart told Interview magazine how the lyrics came about: "I went to school in Syracuse with all these super wealthy girls that I was enamoured with at first because it was so foreign to me because of where I was from in my Podunk town in Maine. I was just so unimpressed with them. I got to know them and slept with them and all that stuff, so I wanted to write a really unsexy sex song."
OK, so, as illustrated, The Chainsmokers are dingleberries. But in a year when Donald Trump, a dingleberry in every tweet and interview, could get elected as President of the United States, perhaps The Chainsmokers are onto something with their unabashed, tell-it-like-it-is, all-about-the-pussy, party-hardy persona. In 2016, it seems like "Nice guys finish last" and "Everybody loves a bad boy" are two debated sayings that have a bit of sad, undeniable truth in them.
They've done studies on these personality types. In a classic Psychology Today article, "Do Assholes Really Finish First?" Dr. Scott Barry Kaufman theorises that bad boys are more attractive for the evolutionary traits that their mating intentions clear. In another Psych Today article, Ray Williams writes about why America loves narcissistic leaders (hint: Trump is the basis of the article). He cites a Stanford study, which says that people with extravagant self-importance, lack of empathy, sensitivity to criticism and entitlement make more money. And they're not afraid to dish out tough love (remember earlier, when the duo said Weezer is "thirsty"?). Assholes sometimes come across as authoritative, so we go along with it. The Chainsmokers, who seem to have carefully engineered every part of their business strategy, are no doubt aware of how this brand might prove helpful to them.
So, if The Chainsmokers are such dingleberries, how did they become the Grammy-nominated sensation of 2016?
Part of the answer comes in the age-old debate of separating the artist from the man, which musicologist Charlie Harding is all about. Harding, who co-hosts Switched on Pop, a podcast that breaks down the nerdy, musical elements of Top 40 tracks, strongly suggested when I called him up that I interpret the music completely apart from Pall and Taggart. For most people, it's easy to separate the man from the art. If you're not deeply entrenched online, most people only hear about The Chainsmokers through their music. TMZ is not following their every fuck-up Justin Bieber style, Inside Edition doesn't run segments on their partying problems, CNN, who even diverts into gossip territory on a slow news day, hasn't even touched them, thank god. They have 700,000 Twitter followers. They're popular, but they as people are hardly celebrities. They're no tabloid fodder.
"The timing of the build and where it lands is almost note-for-note the same. The only thing that changes is the outro."
Instead, whether we are attracted to their strange persona or not, the music is where The Chainsmokers have hooked us in 2016. Harding pegs their success on a few things: their song composition, their nostalgia-fuelled lyrics, and they way they release their work. On Switched on Pop, he's broken down "Closer" in an excellent and thorough episode (seriously, go listen to it), in which he coins a term for The Chainsmokers' secret weapon: the Pop Drop.
The Pop Drop is the moment in songs like "Roses" or "Closer" or "Don't Let Me Down," when the chorus acts as more of a buildup to another melodic, non-vocal chorus. Think about the dolphin sounds in Jack U's "Where Are U Now" or the lyricless sampling of Rihanna (and Taylor Swift's) voice in Calvin Harris' "This Is What You Came For." The Pop Drop is a way for mainstream music to get its taste of EDM while also feeding the hunger for nostalgia. It's evolved from Kanye West and RZA's chipmunk soul and the earliest vocal sampling of the 80s.
"They've really mastered that sound," Harding says. "If you sit down and analyse their bigger hits, they're basically doing the exact same thing. They've found a formula for themselves that works over and over with subtle variation. They have similar textures; the timing of the build and where it lands is almost note-for-note the same. The only thing that changes is the outro."
It's true. Take a listen to The Chainsmokers' Collage EP, a collection of their five most recent hits, and you can follow the formula through each song: a dreamy intro which foretells the chorus, an elementary melody, a pre-chorus, a Pop Drop (taking place of the real chorus). The formulaic nature of the tracks may seem exhaustive, but Harding says that the homogeneity plays to their advantage, as Spotify playlists (which play key roles in the discovery of new music) are looking to gather songs for "moods," rather than variety.
Remixes are another way to get free marketing for your music, and the duo's stuff is ripe for other producers' revisions. "Even though the Chainsmokers are making these big Pop Drop songs, if you look at it, there's really not too many things happening at any one time, which really invites remixing," Harding says. "I think they're doing a really good job of getting as much material out while it's hot."
"Closer"—and the extremely similar "All We Know," featuring Phoebe Ryan—also nails relatable lyrics, which serve up the right words at the right time—a time where white entitlement has grown even stronger in Trump's America. References to specific cities, tattoos, Blink-182 songs, mattresses and cars have the listener painting a vivid image, and Harding says those references couldn't be more intentional.
"There is that almost like country music-like quality, speaking to issues that are more suburban and rural," Harding says. "They're very specific about their references. Going from Boulder to Tucson. Going from a wealthy community to a much wealthier community where they're struggling to make ends meet. They're making references to cars that are almost hip-hop in nature but are like poorer, white, working class references. But speaks to the way in which there is a white working class who feels they have been ignored, whether or not they are of any political persuasion."
Even if their songs fit into one formula, they're milking the moment for all its worth. The question is, will they be able to adapt when that moment has passed? One thing we do know is that the guys are changing the game when it comes to how mainstream music is released.
With no album in sight, Pall and Taggart have taken the ancient practice of a singles-only release schedule from the dance world to the pop world. (They asked their fans on Twitter if they should make an album, and 75 percent replied "FUCK YEAH" in all-caps, 25 percent replied no, and one person said "Harambe would've wanted an album.") But for The Chainsmokers, a full album would mean creating a full concept, making each song different and ditching the formula that has gained them success. "They just keep producing these singles and trying to place them one after another on the charts," Harding says. "I don't think anyone's doing that."
This brings us to The Chainsmokers' singers, their vessels for success. Without a voice, a song rarely makes it to radio (DJ Snake's "Turn Down for What," which featured specks of Lil Jon's gnarly shouts, is the closest we'll get to lyric-less triumph). It doesn't matter how talented the producers are, a singer makes the song human, something we can attach to, a feeling that strikes strikes us deep in the gut. The people that make that happen are Rozes, Emily Warren, Daya, Charlee, Halsey, Phoebe Ryan, and XYLO, among others—even the narrator of "#Selfie."
Today, a song with The Chainsmokers is a highchair to stardom.
So how do they choose who features on their tracks? A certain level of record label finagling is involved, but a clip from their Rolling Stone interview gives insight: "[Pall] keeps running lists on his computer—influential bloggers and their tastes; fledgling singers. He says that the latter list, which he's been compiling for several years, 'had people like Halsey and Tove Lo on it way before anyone really knew who they were. 'The duo like collaborating with undervalued talent, which jibes with their 'disruption' ethos."
The value in working with unknown talent is that they can't rely on a singer's fame to carry the track. It pushes them to be better. They've proven that they don't need Rihanna, who actually turned down their "Don't Let Me Down" demo, to make hits. "Because young unknown artists have this hunger, they're willing to work really hard," Pall told Rolling Stone.
Today, a song with The Chainsmokers is a highchair to stardom. Rozes, a.k.a Liz Mencel, never intended to pursue a solo career before her collaboration with the duo, "Roses," made when she was just writing songs for other artists. "When I wrote with them, that song, it was like people actually understood what I was saying," Mencel told Fuse. "And they liked what I was saying, and they liked how I was saying it. 'OK, I can do this.'" Mencel, while still gaining traction, now has an EP of her own.
Daya's solo career, however, was well underway with an EP and a song on the Billboard Pop Songs chart by the time her Chainsmokers ditty, "Don't Let Me Down," hit in February. But it no doubt launched her higher, and at 18, the song earned her first Grammy nod, earlier this month, making her the youngest artist to be honoured in this year's nominations.
Halsey, of course, had already had a headlining tour and album by the time "Closer" dropped, but like Daya, she had yet to nab a Grammy nomination, and her highest charting solo single, "New Americana," only made it to number 60 on the Hot 100. Now, she's up for Best Pop Duo/Group Performance in 2017. The relationship between Halsey and The Chainsmokers worked both ways when she gave them the opportunity to play a show at Madison Square Garden on her Badlands Tour in August.
While the Chainsmokers seem to give their collaborators a boost in success, the singers from their tunes—mostly women, with the exception of BullySongs and Taggart's own pipes—play an even greater role. Halsey provides a sexy naivety, Phoebe Ryan exudes a tender innocence, Daya fires off a vicious helplessness, XYLO unleashes a mesmerising exoticism. These singers ARE The Chainsmokers. They make you forget about the dingleberries... if you were even paying attention to them to begin with. These women are the heart of the music.
As a collective, the female voice of The Chainsmokers is stronger than any frat boy personality. It's the beaker that holds their whole carefully constructed formula together, that makes the Pop Drops and repetitive song structures come to life, that adds depth to the faces of the music. And as 2017 edges closer, we're curious to find out: Will they be able to keep whipping up the same concoctions?
Emilee Lindner is reporting live from wherever the drop takes her. Follow her on Twitter.