Are The Chainsmokers Really "Just Frat Bro Dudes" in Disguise?

The chart-topping EDM duo's comments in a new Billboard cover story raise questions about a new flavor of dance-music masculinity.

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Sep 16 2016, 10:01pm

Photo courtesy of Disruptor Records

Were there an academic discipline based around the observation and categorization of bro subspecies, the Chainsmokers could keep a small liberal arts school's anthropology department humming for a decade. A primary text would be Billboard's voluminous new interview with the the trap-pop-EDM duo, who are currently sitting at number-one on the Billboard Hot 100 with their Halsey collaboration "Closer." You know the song—it's an undeniable summer singalong that derives weird emotional power from geographically granular lyrics about "your roommate back in Boulder" and "that Blink-182 song that we beat to death in Tucson." Rarely have mid-size Rocky Mountain municipalities had such chart impact.

The Chainsmokers are Drew Taggart, 26, and Alex Pall, 31. In the interview, Billboard writer Chris Martin explores the group's origins in New York City, their rise to prominence, and where they want to go next. But Taggart and Pall are not quite like any previous pop stars. In fact, the piece culminates with deft analysis of the duo as emblematic of a new male archetype: "the bro who has it all, equal parts geeky artist and savvy capitalist, as lovable as he is insufferable, iterating on his product and making stupid money while he's at it." Martin notes how the Chainsmokers cleverly identify and exploit emerging market trends, basing their remix choices off Hype Machine stats ("peel off a couple of Phoenix fans, peel off a couple Two Door Cinema Club fans") and testing out songs on Snapchat like a start-up in beta. "Music has found its own tech bros," Martin concludes, with what seems like a raised eyebrow.

To me, the Chainsmokers represent the omega point of an increasingly visible cultural narrative. The sloppy Tucker Max masculinity of the early aughts has adopted a smooth Seth Cohen sheen, infused with the data-driven mercantilism of Silicon Valley and the performative tastefulness of the indie sphere. High schools—previously ruled by swaggering alphas who bullied nerds, wore Billabong, and idolized South Park—now overflow with floral ASOS button-ups, meticulous fade haircuts, and relentlessly cheerful Vine stars. The Tucker Max generation dreamed of jobs at fratty day-trading firms; modern kids aspire to work for disruptive tech companies that offer board game nights and sushi chefs. The Chainsmokers are the EDM analogue to that kind of professional. For their Billboard shoot, they posed in crisp Vans and jeans cuffed just so—they look like totally serviceable Tinder matches. But have they really transcended the underlying lizard-brain architecture of the bro mentality? Over to you, Alex Pall:

"Even before success, pussy was number one," the Chainsmoker told Martin. "Like, 'Why am I trying to make all this money?' I wanted to hook up with hotter girls. I had to date a model."

Taggart concurs: "We rage every night. My mom's going to hate reading that, but she already knows."

Elsewhere in the interview, we learn that the Chainsmokers' website includes the phrase "17.34 combined inches," which Pall confirms is their "penises combined... tip to tip." Taggart says he started an investment club in high school, and the duo mentions that they moved to L.A. to be closer to Las Vegas. They proclaim themselves "just frat bro dudes...loving the ladies and stuff."

In conversation, the Chainsmokers' words reflect a messier break from unenlightened cultural archetypes than their tasteful wardrobes and collaborations with the extremely woke Halsey might imply. "[We're] like if LMFAO just started making..." says Pall, setting up Taggart's slam dunk: "...the illest shit and stopped dressing like idiots."

Still, there's something captivating about the Chainsmokers' relationship to their own success. Martin notes that the duo seem to maintain a chip on their shoulder regarding their reputation as EDM gimmick-merchants (courtesy of their breakout 2013 novelty hit "#Selfie"), and does a good job exploring their unease. He observes that they "tense visibly" when he asks about the ridicule they received after performing the song on American Idol. Pall recalls "that week of hell," while Taggart testily declares, "I don't hear [criticism] now."

Inquiring minds would love to hear what Halsey—a proud feminist who once tweeted, "I'm sick of hearing 'cover up' [and] 'don't talk about your body' [as if] being born a female means a life of shame and guilt because of your gender"—would have to say about "#Selfie, a song that glibly frames women as shallow and narcissistic, featuring an exaggerated valley-girl voice complaining about not receiving enough Instagram likes. Sadly, she's not quoted in the piece. Instead, we get Steve Aoki—who released "#Selfie" on his label Dim Mak—trumpeting from the mountaintop about the Chainsmokers' noble struggle:

"Of course it was difficult," he says of the group's response to the "#Selfie" mockery. "But I'm a DJ that throws cake at people. You've got to love what you do, and do it with heart and soul. These guys do that."

Amen, brother.

Perhaps the Chainsmokers' most revealing moment is this glorious paragraph, on the subject of artists who once curved them crawling back for features:

"They were like, 'Yo! We should do a track together,' and I'm like, 'Oh, really?' " says Pall. "I can't blame somebody for saying no early on, but it depends on how you said no and how you came back to us. If you own it, like, 'I didn't see the vision, but it's clear now and it's super sick,' I get that. It feels good when those people are like..." Taggart finishes the thought: "Thirsty."

Can't you hear Pall's thunderous mental trap-hands accompanying his "Oh, really?" clapback? This whole quote drips with SoHo House swagger, conjuring a worldview where former haters become "thirsty" because the "vision" is "super sick." The Chainsmokers seem to have a Donald Trump-esque need to overcome perceived slights. Take this quote from the bio on their website: "They each graduated from prestigious North-Eastern Universities, they like hot chicks in yoga pants, enjoy a good burger, and have been rejected from many of the venues they now play at."

At the core of my strange fascination with the Chainsmokers is this apparent blend of deep insecurity and supreme confidence, a dichotomy reflected in a tweet Taggart issued last night, presumably in response to the cover story: "I'm really getting tired of being referred to as a 'bro' by the press. Not that I'm not one, but I'm also a nerd, creator, [and] artist." He's right in recognizing that being a nerd and a bro aren't mutually exclusive—in fact, they've never been more synonymous. "Anyone who knows us [knows] we are the chillest, most humble dudes," the Chainsmokers tweeted yesterday. There lies the tech-bro's essential dilemma: it's hard to keep your "chill" while trying to take over the world.

This article was originally published on THUMP.