The Chainsmokers’ Hostile Takeover of Pop

Okay, listen, we tried very hard not to write a review of The Chainsmoker’s debut album, “Memories…Do Not Open.” But if it is one thing the Chainsmokers are truly great at, it is their ability to become inescapable much like the mosquito that just won’t stop following you around and leaving an irritating buzz ringing in your ears.

Photo credit: Idolator

The road to become legitimate pop music hit makers from dance music clowns is fraught with pitfalls, and The Chainsmokers have made some interesting turns along the way. When Drew Taggart and Alex Pall released “#SELFIE” (suppress eye-roll here) at the tail end of 2013, they were pretty much nobodies trying to crack the burgeoning dance music scene. When the song became a relative hit, it launched The Chainsmokers as dance music pranksters, crafting novelty songs about how women are so much more annoying, vain and superficial than men (interesting enough also accurate descriptors for The Chainsmokers’ own brand of dance-music lite). When their next parody and vaguely insightful in a shallow way, “Kanye” failed to go anywhere, maybe it was hint that the Chainsmokers needed to get serious and start talking about, oh we don’t know, relationships or something. They’ve gone overboard with the course correcting, and wound up taking themselves far too seriously, churning out woe-is-me, you don’t know how hard it is to be a mid-level famous dance-music bro, tracks.

Photo credit: Maine Today

While, they’ve ditched the novelty of their earlier songs for their album, they’ve kept the casual misogyny of songs like “#SELFIE” and “Closer”. In some way’s “Closer” really is the blueprint for every single Chainsmokers song – a dash of misogyny, Taggart as a passable if pretty boring vocalist, a more talent female artist thrown in and just enough hints of the EDM craze to get played in clubs (also as a sidenote: is “Closer” and even “Paris” not total The Postal Service songs from a decade ago? And also inferior Miike Snow?). And when it was inescapable we should have known that The Chainsmokers were training everybody’s pop orientated ears to accept some shallow dance music trends. After all, why be EDM bros when you can be popstars?

Of course, every pop group needs a face, which may explain how Drew Taggart (#theattractiveone) became the front man of this duo. Though, judging by the SNL performance, he needs to go to one of those schools that every studio head sends aspiring boybands and teen idols to – you know, the ones that teach the basics of stage presence and dance, boot camp style? Though having witnessed some classic One Direction concerts, maybe those boot camps don’t even work. Being a pop-star (usually) is hard work, but Taggart makes it look easier than a Sunday stroll in the park. Though, we don’t have to point out the obvious gender double standard at work here, right? How hard do think an Ariana Grande or Little Mix or Taylor Swift work in comparison to the Justin Biebers, One Directions and The Chainsmokers of the world? Yeah, case closed.

The Chainsmokers take it easy on SNL. Photo credit: Billboard

Besides a face, every pop group also needs an album, which goes some way to explaining why The Chainsmokers even bothered to put together an album rather than dropping random singles and EPs to dominate the radio charts. Though, the irony of naming your album “Memories…Do Not Open” is a little too on the nose even for us. It’s like waking up the morning after a big night out, and blearily looking at the all the messages you sent the night before with a mounting sense of panic. The most important reason you would put out an album in the music industry’s current gloomy climate (seriously, the stats for album sales do not look good – what is the opposite of skyrocketing?) is the prestige factor. Part of releasing an album for the prestige factor, is showing your work and The Chainsmokers seem to have taken a leaf out of (leader of the pack but currently missing) Taylor Swift’s book by including carefully curated behind the scenes snippets. Where she uses voice memos to producers Max Martin and Shellback or Ryan Tedder, they include tiny bits of goofing off in the studio and talking about tracks, to show that they put the craft in too.

Pop is mostly a collaborative game though and dance music even more so. The two standout tracks from the album are those co-written by frequent collaborator, Emily Warren. Lyrical depth is not The Chainsmokers’ strong suit and the only two songs to have any deeper emotional heft or resonance are “Don’t Say” and “My Type”, both penned by Emily Warren. It’s almost like they’ve taken a lyric from opening track, “The One”, “I know it’s pathetic, fuck it yeah, I said it” and applied that philosophy to the whole album. Anyone who cares about how women are represented in music, may also want to skip this one. Lines like “Give me the runaround (runaround)/Which one am I with now/She’s got seven personalities, everyone’s a tragedy” on “Break Up Every Night” and “And there’s this girl, she wants me to take her home/She don’t really love me though, I’m just on the radio” on “Honest” are more of the same “women are crazy and manipulative” stick that women get beat with all the time (not to say anything about the mental health shaming on “Break Up Every Night”). The overly aggrieved tone of so much of the lyrical content on “Memories” shows the deep rift that runs through dance music’s treatment of women. On the surface, it’s all PLUR while bubbling under that surface is a kind of resentment of at least half the fan base.

Taggert & Emily Warren. Photo credit: Billboard

The most fun part of listening to this album is imagining that a song like “Don’t Say” is a response to the clear douchebag persona established in songs like “Break Up Every Night” and “Honest”. The latter song is clearly about how tiring it is to be famous and on the road touring and how hard it is not cheat on your girlfriend. Lyrics read, “it’s six am, I’m so far away from you/I don’t wanna let you down/What am I supposed to do?”. I dunno mate, maybe not cheat on your girlfriend? Lines like “we both know I go to far like when I wrecked your car/And almost fought your father when he pushed me in the yard” “don’t worry me love, we’re learning to love/But it’s hard when you’re young” uses the excuse of youth for all shitty behaviour. If you squint hard enough, the female protagonist of “Don’t Say” responds to the lack of responsibility, nothing-that-happens-is-my-fault attitude by saying “Don’t say, don’t say it’s not your fault/I won’t take the bait/Or these excuse that you’re using/Don’t say, don’t say your human.”

Lyrics are one thing, and god knows dance music has never had a strong history of storytelling and empathy, but the overly serious pseudo-dance ballads fall flat musically too. Mostly because the songs are so mid-tempo but seem even slower. Even more irritating are the elements that are clearly shoehorned in for some random reasons. The “whoa-whoa-whoa-who-o-oa” on “Honest” are obviously there for the obligatory festival waving-hands-in-the-air- sing-along, while nothing is more clearly a label directive than the awful closing song with Florida Georgia Line. The less said about that one, the better. It doesn’t matter though, their billions of plays and inescapable radio presence doesn’t lie, The Chainsmokers have completed their hostile takeover of pop. Wasn’t dance and pop music meant to be fun?!?!?!