As the most infamous and possibly the most successful new group in America, the Chainsmokers offer a clear lesson in how white men can remain relevant in an increasingly diversified pop landscape: through self-erasure. The EDM duo’s chart hits throughout 2016, leading up to “Closer,” the monster earworm that spent most of last fall atop the Billboard Hot 100, epitomized a widespread practice in which often male DJs hire often female singers to lend their tracks content and charisma. Tracks such as “Rozes,” “Don’t Let Me Down,” and “All We Know” inhabit an established corporate style sufficiently, slickly, and anonymously. The electronic surface is so smooth that the perky plaints of singers like Daya and Phoebe Ryan disappear right into it. Adherence to the broadest of EDM pop conventions functions less as selling point than admittance badge; pretty polish, aching melodies, drops that sway rather than crunch — voila, songs perfect for filling dead space on the radio, even if they suggest only a generalized style without approaching a particular one. Such is the appeal of the blank slate. As for “Closer” itself, its chart success appears to have convinced the Chainsmokers, at heart studious entrepreneurs on the lookout for statistical affirmation, that they’d found the paradigm for their subsequent career. Their full-length debut, Memories… Do Not Open, out since April, lives in the shadow of their greatest hit.
As public figures, the Chainsmokers fascinate in their odd disparity between art and persona. Andrew Taggart (the cute one) and Alex Pall (the smart one) give interviews to Billboard and Rolling Stone where they strike various absurd poses for the camera, including one marvelous shot in Billboard in which they stand waist-deep in a pool in their t-shirts and jeans, holding glasses of beer while spouting quasi-parodic approximations of so-called locker room talk that I won’t quote here, so as not to upset delicate sensibilities. They present themselves as pop radio’s very own “tech bros,” as Billboard’s Chris Martins puts it, covertly sincere young men who party hard and spend too much money on luxury goods while working obsessively to refine their business model.
But their hits, unobtrusive as dance songs and nebulous as love songs, could have been generated by any artist, or algorithm, with any persona, in any state of mind; what they lack, at the very least, is a spirit of enjoyment that one expects from nominal party animals. Sleek nullities like “Rozes” and “Don’t Let Me Down” exist in a referent-free vacuum: bland genericism can’t be reliably traced back to the lab that engineered it. Perhaps one might look for fingerprints in the reflection of the synthesizer polish, but these songs are purposefully anonymous — the sung chorus’s subservience to the instrumental drop decentralizes the singer, while midtempo caution and mildly glowing synth textures decentralize the drop. As for the elusive, centered subject — the Chainsmokers themselves — they’re gone, their presence hardly evident in the songs at hand. Even when Taggart takes the mic, he’s such a nothing singer that he fails to evince even the slightest hint of personality. They’ve established a brand through public relations; their music needn’t follow suit.
Their breakthrough hit, which is also their only fabulous song, 2014’s “#Selfie,” stands as an anomaly in their catalog for its energetically abrasive beat and spoken vocals. Over spritzy, crunchy, percussive synthesizer bounce, a delightfully narcissistic young woman played by Alexis Killacam recites a monologue consisting of exaggerated stereotypes meant to indicate the shallowness of clubgoers, California girls, or both: “After we go to the bathroom, can we go smoke a cigarette? I really need one. But first, let me take a selfie.” Whatever their intentions (who cares?), and however immature and/or sexist the song may be, it reads as a love letter — adolescent boys mocking adolescent girls to mask jealousy and admiration. Behold Frank Zappa’s clumsily cruel “Valley Girl” done with love. However tiresome her bubbly cadence, the details of her life do sound like fun: dancing in the club, drinking with friends, and eventually going home with her crush. The song projects not scorn but rather an amusing defense of clubgoers, dance music, and a species of shallowness that may also be a species of fun. At the time, the song was misread as merely contemptuous of its subject and dismissed as a novelty single by critics who didn’t understand that such a categorization needn’t amount to dismissal. Then the Chainsmokers stuck around, longer than most artists behind so-called novelty singles. Their subsequent series of increasingly dull hits, exercises in crafted electronica whose glistening keyboard whooshes and muted hooks ostensibly stand in for eroticism (in “Rozes” especially), functioned as a solemn corrective to the frivolity of “#Selfie.” Then came “Closer”, Andrew Taggart’s first time as a singer in a duet alongside guest star Halsey, and their career trajectory, along with modern romance itself, was forever changed.
The dirty little secret behind “Closer” is that the insufferable ex Taggart can’t help repeatedly crawling back to symbolizes hookup culture itself. Don’t believe the literal reading that the song concerns two people. Taggart, whose mild croak renders him an everyman figure, and Halsey, whose fuller, more enthusiastic cry tastes like liquid sugar by comparison, meet in a hotel bar and rekindle the flame of days past, while a feelgood keyboard hook occupying the drop position sets a defiantly celebratory tone. The repeated proclamation “We ain’t ever getting older” might have been a slogan of fist-pumping triumph, but there’s a melancholy to it, for to never get older means to never mature, which means to never find your one true love and settle down. A whole generation of young people’s anxieties about intimacy, casual sex, and commitment informs “Closer,” to the extent that it fails to parse if Taggart and Halsey are viewed as individuals: the song’s hysteria exists on a scale too grand for one couple. Rather, “Closer” concerns an endless hookup cycle that doesn’t satisfy but keeps beckoning because breaking the cycle is hard and the alternative, prolonged intimacy, is scary. The pretty hook offers nominal catharsis, but it’s bittersweet; to pump one’s fist during the drop in “Closer” is to acknowledge one’s erotic life as frustrating, impersonal, scripted, and insufficient. If the platitude about millennials participating in casual sex while secretly hating it holds any truth, then Taggart and Halsey are its avatars, standing in for whole generational attitudes; as singers they scream past each other and fail to connect, doomed to fuck a repetitively steady stream of anonymous ciphers for the rest of eternity.
Likewise, Memories… Do Not Open articulates the romantic anxieties that supposedly plague affluent, heterosexual millennials, and perhaps fratboys most of all. “Break Up Every Night,” in which Taggart “don’t wanna wait until she finally decides to feel it” so he “build[s] the bridges up again,” sums up an album whose midtempo electroballads affirm every idiotic cliché about young people, technology, social media, narcissism, casual substance use, casual sex, and the collapse of traditional dating — it’s as if Andrew Taggart and Alex Pall have read every incoherent thinkpiece on the internet about their own generation and internalized said thinkpieces in a weird ritual of guilt and self-hate. Imagine one of those plaintive and/or smug Odyssey listicles explaining Twelve Reasons Why Millennials are Failing at Love, translated into its album equivalent. Look, I’ll write that listicle now:
1. We’re scared to settle down (“The One”).
2. We’re individualistic and goal-driven, at the expense of our partners’ needs (“Break Up Every Night”).
3. We party too much and do too many drugs (“Bloodstream”).
4. Wealth and access to technology makes many of us egocentric, and that means we’re insensitive toward our partners and their needs (“Don’t Say”).
5. We hold out for too long, because we grew up watching Disney and superhero movies and have unrealistic expectations (“Something Just Like This”).
6. We’re scared to define our relationships past the casual stage (“My Type”).
7. Sex with strangers becomes routinized (“It Won’t Kill Ya”).
8. We care about our image on social media more than we care about real relationships (“Paris”).
9. We can’t commit to one person (“Honest”).
10. We’re materialistic and brand-conscious (“Wake Up Alone”).
11. We make excuses to avoid dealing with our feelings (“Young”).
12. We have a horrible weakness for triumphalist sentimentality and EDM power ballads that diagnose our perceived generational maladies (“Last Day Alive,” also the whole record).
Whether or not these spurious criticisms apply — to individuals? to a whole generation? meaning whom? maybe just the Chainsmokers? or their fans? — they make for a tedious, self-defeating album, dotted with songs that keep fussing over their own failure to have a good time. “Break Up Every Night” spirals around glowing, percussive synth stabs with winning energy, while “It Won’t Kill Ya” sways alluringly over cautious piano chords during the verses and woozy airhorn during the drop, but mostly even the upbeat songs go through the motions on autopilot. Perhaps juicier beats would do the trick, but the Chainsmokers’ brand of EDM softcore, lightweight keyboard yearning in processed pastel shades, produces drab ear candy with sickly clumps of sugar inappropriately concentrated in single spots. Strummed guitars and plucked pianos are integrated smoothly and hardly make a difference. Nor, paradoxically, does the thematic focus relieve their anonymity. Working squarely within the guidelines of current radio convention and consequently confining themselves within a tighter box than is actually necessary to achieve airplay, these are punishingly generic songs, perhaps because speaking for a whole generation involves the widening and hence blurring of one’s scope. Taggart’s eagerly clumsy drawl and Emily Warren’s smoky croon suggest roles too composite to reveal any character of their own; Coldplay’s Chris Martin on “Something Just Like This,” while intolerably sincere in much the same way, at least sounds like himself. To further dilute the record, they don’t even include “Closer,” leaving the hookless “Paris” and the honorably, expediently soaring “Something Just Like This” to remind listeners that yes, indeed, they are a frequent radio presence.
Memories… Do Not Open would be an object lesson in the perils of universality and the blank slate, if it hadn’t topped the Billboard 200. Positive market feedback ensures the production of more music like this in the future. Taggart and Pall hold up a distorted mirror to their audience, showing fans the ugliest versions of themselves. I wish American consumers didn’t identify, as they say.