The Chainsmokers Are Bad, but It’s Not for the Reason You Think
On their debut album 'Memories... Do Not Open,' The Chainsmokers embrace nostalgia, for better or probably worse.
For artists who make such uncomplicated, easily apprehensible music, there are many lenses through which to view The Chainsmokers. Andrew Taggart and Alex Pall represent a multitude of things to many people: They're adept pop songwriters who have nailed a winning formula that has kept their music on constant rotation for what feels like eons now; they're dopey, edible-gobbling, retrograde chauvinists who represent the nadir of bro culture; they're a two-headed quote machine that makes pure candy for music journalists and rancid chum for the outrage machine; they're spartan producers whose antiseptic aesthetic signals the latest death knell for the EDM boom-and-bust that swept every corner of pop music imaginable over the last decade.
Or: They're the logical and most visible extension to date of the minimalistic, genre-blending electronic pop that British singer-songwriter James Blake made instantly popular upon the release of his eponymous 2010 debut. "This James Blake Bon iver track makes me hate everything I've ever produced," Taggart Tweeted last May, with a frown-y emoji that signaled performative defeatism by way of aspiration. Shortly after the release of Blake's third full-length, The Colour in Anything, Taggart Tweeted that he listened to it "22 times through," declaring himself "officially a hipster" as a result; he later shouted out Winnipeg's airport for playing Blake and Brit pop-rock aesthetes the 1975 over their soundsystem, giving his official "Respect" to the soundtracking choices. "Lol this is how I write down song ideas for myself when I don't have my laptop," he Tweeted last July along with a screenshot of notes that began with the phrase "High James Blake sound."
Where the Chainsmokers' own brand of sparse electro-pop stands in relation to Blake's is, to say the least, in the eye of the beholder—but it's inarguable that the duo's career leading up to their first full-length, Memories...Do Not Open, has seen them slowly peeling back layers from the bold, colorful, build-and-release template that so much of EDM has adhered to in the past. 2014's breakout "#Selfie" was a crass and brash slice of Electric Daisy fare; last year's "Don't Let Me Down" still featured a plethora of airhorns and synth squeals tailor-made for the Gobi Tent, but it was anchored around a flickering light of a guitar lick that more resembled LITE FM radio juggernauts like the Fray and Charlie Puth than it did presumptive contemporaries like Martin Garrix and Calvin Harris. You've absolutely heard its deathless, Halsey-featuring follow-up "Closer," which was the Chainsmokers' first number one single as well as a moment of aesthetic crystallization, its purposefully anti-climactic hook nonetheless becoming massive in its own way.
And it follows that an anti-climactic fog hangs over much of Memories...Do Not Open. If you've heard a Chainsmokers song—which is to say, if you've listened to the radio at least once in the last 12 months—you know what to expect here: twelve songs that pair faux-navel-gazing lyrics with music that capably walks the line between festival-ready EDM and beige-hued pop-rock. A lot of the songs sound very similar to one another; objectively, a few of them come close to earning a critical designation of being "good." Most, if not all, of Memories...Do Not Open is inherently catchy in the sense that you will end up hearing the vast majority of it ad nauseam over the airwaves for the next year and a half—and a good number of those songs, whether you like it or not, will get stuck in your head. You can fight it off like a plague or embrace it with open arms, but The Chainsmokers' ability to make music that is easily loved by the masses is at the core of what they do.
If you've heard a Chainsmokers song—which is to say, if you've listened to the radio at least once in the last 12 months—you know what to expect here.
It doesn't take a thousand listens, though, to notice that there's a common lyrical theme that runs through Memories...Do Not Open. "She wants to break up every night / then tries to fuck me back to life," Taggart sings with a nearly hilarious lack of subtlety on "Break Up Every Night," a song that resembles The Killers' "Mr. Brightside," except written by a misogynistic mall-punk band instead of a bunch of Mormons from Las Vegas. On "Honest," Taggart comes close to showing signs of remorse over the assumed extinguishing of a long-distance flame before whining in a full 180, "You're not the only one on my mind / if I'm being honest." Romance ain't dead, but for these guys it is at the least and almost always on perpetual hiatus.
Ironically—or, perhaps, fittingly—some of the more sonically pleasing moments on Memories...Do Not Open take place when guest vocalists step up to the mic, and there's an added layer of irony that some of them are women. "Don't say that you're human / don't say that it's not your fault / I won't take the bait or these excuses that you're using," Emily Warren sings on "Don't Say," a wispy tune with a satisfying chorus that, lyrically, could be interpreted as a moment of self-recrimination (however questionably effective it may be) when it comes to the Chainsmokers' shamelessly hetero-male tendencies. Then there's the Coldplay collaboration "Something Just Like This," which closely resembles a Coldplay song with electronic flourishes à la the Ghost Stories AVICII collaboration "A Sky Full of Stars." Martin's somewhat embarrassing recent embrace of EDM's live-for-today attitude—in his hands, a midlife-crisis-cum-philosophical outlook befitting a Club Med ad—means that he and The Chainsmokers, themselves students of light rock schmaltz, are a little closer aesthetically than your typical strange bedfellows.
Much digital ink has been spilled over The Chainsmokers' inability to come across as anything other than lunkheaded dipshits—some of the copy coming from the band themselves, most notoriously in a brilliant and extremely entertaining Billboard profile written by Chris Martins. A friend recently commented to me that Taggart and Pall make for "good villains," which isn't inaccurate; the musical monoculture has more than enough artists to rally around in unanimous consent, so it makes a measure of sense that the Chainsmokers' detractors have been as vociferous and unified as the people who attend their shows and willingly listen to their music. Yet while the dipshittery nags, it's not the quality that ultimately undoes the album as a musical project.
As everything from the title to the Coldplay enthusiasm suggests, The Chainsmokers' outlook on Memories...Do Not Open is more often than not tinged with nostalgia for days past—even if those supposedly unopenable memories don't amount to more than crashing their ex-girlfriends' cars and getting into fights with their parents. Looking at the past with rose-colored shutter shades and treating the notion of "tomorrow" like a looming threat are both common subjects for the ankle-deep reflections contained in EDM lyrics, and despite The Chainsmokers' attempts to elevate the artform by way of scene-setting specificities, they more often than not land in shallow lyrical waters.
The nostalgia isn't just there lyrically: Two songs on Memories...Do Not Open—the Florida-Georgia Line collab "Last Day Alive" and the record's first single, "Paris"—both evoke the electro-smeared warmth of Anthony Gonzalez's M83 project. The latter shamelessly rips the bright beams of M83's 2011 single "Midnight City"—at this point, one of the decade's most influential documents, albeit one that is deeply indebted to visions of the past—and the not-quite-just-an-homage triggers the kind of queasiness you'd get from eating food that's off-brand and expired.
There's a stronger parallel to be drawn here, too. After the grunge explosion and the birth of so-called "alternative rock" brought on by Nirvana's emergence in the early 90s, the rest of the decade's mainstream rock airwaves were plagued by increasingly same-y sounding "post-grunge" acts that sanded down the depressive bile of their forebears until it sounded smooth, frictionless, and utterly corporate. Purely for analogous purposes, let's say that M83 is Nirvana (wait, don't go!), and the Chainsmokers are, for shits and giggles, Vertical Horizon—so far removed from the source material that the resemblance is barely there, but once you become aware of it, the soullessness it represents is impossible to shake.
Similar to any person between the age of 25 and 33, Taggart and Pall have clearly spent the alleged autumn of their adolescence inhaling music that reminds them of pasts experienced, unremembered, and borrowed secondhand. Other artists have taken similar approaches—Grimes is one of them, Frank Ocean is another—and turned these generational concerns into something real and reflective of the era they're situated in. The Chainsmokers, on the other hand, have taken those concerns and turned into cold hard cash, which is above all else a reminder that behind every lived experience is someone waiting to turn it into just another commodity bought and sold.
Photo by Mauricio Santana / Stringer
Larry Fitzmaurice is VICE's EDM curmudgeon. Follow him on Twitter.
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- Memories...Do Not Open