Pop It, Lock It: Toward a unified theory of the Chainsmokers

Wednesday, November 15, 2017 - 2:34pm

“We’re just frat bro dudes, you know what I mean? Loving ladies and stuff.” -Alex Pall, Billboard, 2016

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I think I might kind of like the Chainsmokers. This is hard for me to admit as A) somebody who generally likes music with a heart to it, and B) somebody who really earnestly believes that women should be treated as people and not like, people-shaped canvases onto which men can project their fantasies and by extension, insecurities. The Chainsmokers’ collective personalities kind of suck (for a while, the bio section on their website said only “17.34 combined inches”), and it’s really hard to believe they’re both pushing 30 given their frat boy sensibilities. And yet, here I am. I, I, I, I can’t stop.

Their songs usually go something like this: a tepid 4/4 beat, a simple piano line with some reverb slapped on, and a glaze of barely realized, washed-out sentiment cast on top of the whole thing with all the aesthetic impact of an Instagram filter. A cursory glance at their lyrics leaves you realizing pretty quickly that a Chainsmokers song is about one of two things: 1) why won’t this girl love me or 2) why won’t this annoying bitch leave me alone.

The “she”  in a Chainsmokers’ song is effusive and inscrutable, the wind whipping through her hair as she looks back at him in her tiny bikini. To the Chainsmokers, she’s unknowable, which makes her attractive, but in turn is what makes her unreasonable, disposable. “Break Up Every Night” offers a pretty good primer about the way they see women: “Give me the runaround / Which one am I with now / She’s got seven personalities, everyone’s a tragedy / She wants to break up every night / Then tries to fuck me back to life / I cannot help it if I like the way she makes me feel it.” Bitches be crazy, amirite?

“Break Up Every Night” is an outlier, though. They’re not usually so explicit about their contempt. Usually, the Girl in a Chainsmokers’ Song is filtered through that specific type of smoky, boozy haze that flattens and desaturates all the colors. She’s described in flashes of details: a shoulder tattoo, sneaking out, a car crash, smoking over a balcony while posting selfies. These details are interspersed into really generalized narratives about young love (I say narratives but it’s usually just really lazy, half-baked couplets like: “don’t worry my love, we’re learning to love / but it’s hard when you’re young”). The listener is invited to fill in the rest of the details because she’s never a person, just a part of the atmosphere, used by the writers the same way they use “summer” or “the party” or “the road” — a way to set the scene and conjure up the images of what it means to be young and in love.

It’s not as though this is anything new or even particularly bad. It’s one of the most common and foundational techniques in pop. With the exception of highly detail-oriented pop stars who perform explicitly narrative songs like Taylor Swift or Drake, most pop music isn’t in the business of telling a fully-fleshed story with characters who feel like real people. Pop songs sketch out the basics of a moment in broad strokes and usually use delivery and instrumentation to articulate the nuances of a feeling. “Your stare was holding / ripped jeans, skin was showing / hot night, wind was blowing” doesn’t tell me much about the subject of the song, but it’s a burst of vivid images that conjure Carly Rae’s rush of attraction.

But the Chainsmokers don’t do that. Their instrumentation doesn’t usually communicate much emotion besides me feeling that I wish they would learn to make better drops that didn’t sound like car alarms. So their lyrics, repetitive though they might be, are what we have to work with in terms of understanding who they are and what they believe.

That’s why I can’t help but feel like there’s something kind of insidious about the Chainsmokers’ whole hazy ethos. Before they released Memories...do not open (which might be one of the worst album names I have ever heard but that’s neither here nor there), the Chainsmokers’ most common tactic of breaking the Top 10 was recruiting a young, lesser-known female indie singer to perform the song, using her small but dedicated fanbase to boost their own popularity. They did it with Rozes, Daya, Halsey, and Emily Warren (who wasn’t even credited for her vocals on “Paris”) — and these collaborations are all miles better than any of their solo work.

There’s something a little uncomfortable in this model. These songs about the pains of love that so prominently feature young women being made into objects of sexual and emotional gratification — they’re all penned by teams of grown men, then sung by women to generate oodles of cash for the Chainsmokers. It’s definitely not exploitation — these women are of course credited and these hit songs boost their careers just as much as the Chainsmokers’. But it’s still a little strange to hear these songs sung by young women when the lyrics are laced with either apathy or malice directed at their female subjects. Halsey sings, “I forget just why I left you / I was insane” after Drew spends most of the first verse bashing her friends and brushing her off as clingy. Daya’s turn on “Don’t Let Me Down” (in which Drew notably doesn’t sing, so it’s all from the girl’s perspective  (or rather, a bunch of grown men writing the girl’s perspective) finds her spending the whole song begging this boy not to leave her because she’s so entirely consumed by him.

It’s almost as though they’re using these girls and capitalizing on not only their indie creds and talents, but also their femaleness. They probably know that “Closer” would be unbearably whiny if they didn’t let us hear the other side of the story, so they used Halsey not just for her talent but specifically for her gender. Capitalizing on girlhood, if you will.

I could go on. But ultimately, it’s not really that important, because, well, I still really like all of these songs. I don’t know, okay? I think it works, all comes together, in a really strange way. On the one hand, I can’t help but feel like these women are just being pounded into flat surfaces on which Drew and Alex can project their bullshit and ideal vision of a girl they hold in their memories. But I think it’s possible to find a  certain truth in that, because, well, that happens, doesn’t it? It happens all the time.

I think by inherently empathizing with the girl in this situation (knowing what it’s like to be called crazy, knowing what it’s like to be seen as an unsolvable mystery despite all evidence pointing to you just being a goddamn person), I can find a bit of humanity in the artificial Chainsmokery-mess of it all. I mean, Daya was 18 years old when she sang “Don’t Let Me Down,” an expression of female want and pain that was written by men — an inherently disingenuous construction. But listen to the way she howls at “I think I’m losing my mind now.” It’s hard to listen to that and feel anything but empathy. Because, I mean, me too, Daya. Me, too.

I don’t believe that Drew or Alex particularly care about any of the relationships or women they write about, but I believe that the women on the other side of it care a lot — and that’s what’s important to me. What I like about Chainsmokers’ songs is that by articulating such a douchey frat boy perspective, they’re inadvertently giving shape to something a little sadder and a little truer than they ever intended. They deal almost exclusively in flat, washed out images and memories, but their essence is grounded in something real. It’s the quiet, unspoken tragedy at the other end of every one of their songs: what happens when you decide that a person has all the significance of a flashing image, reduced in the writer’s mind to nothing but a faded memory.

I know, I know. It breaks your heart.