The Chainsmokers are a band with a cool name, but unfortunately, they’re just two fratty dudes who love pussy. They craft algorithmically commercialized pop music to get laid and get rich. They succeeded. I cannot defend these jokers as actual human beings, who by all accounts seem like fifth-rate cheesedicks who revel in casual sexism, casual racism, casual arrogance and a bewilderingly unironic embrace of a bro-dude aesthetic.
But I can, and will, defend their songs.
Even though, as Clayton Purdom at the AV Club put it, the only correct response to them is “sheer, unbridled contempt.” He’s not wrong:
The proud frat boys of EDM don’t even have the gumption to just release more sledgehammer, mosh-pit friendly dubstep, à la circa-2010 Skrillex or Diplo; their specialty is instead wistful, featherweight EDM pop designed to be screamed along to over a Red Bull and vodka or 10. It’s relentlessly cliché music about doomed, beautiful relationships and how tonight will be the best worst night of your young beautiful life; it is all extremely Thought Catalog.
“Duh!” I want to say, shaking Purdom by the imaginary lapels. “That’s exactly what’s great about it!”
Sorry, music nerds, but feeling extremely Thought Catalog is actually the prime purpose of most pop music in the lives of everyone else on the planet. The first time I heard “Roses” by the Chainsmokers, I was sitting in a bar in Venice on Abbot Kinney, a commercially ruined stretch of street in a seaside town overflowing with tourists in Instagram outfits. It was 2015, and I was heading toward a Thought Catalog moment in life called divorce, but it was still also summer in Los Angeles, which is so unimpeachably good that it takes a long time before even the foulest things will cut through that.
I was feeling a mix of dread and hope. That thing where you’re simultaneously holding onto the past and also just reaching for the future. I can think of a dozen pop songs that could’ve come on right then and made me feel just like how I felt, songs that classify as “better” from a critical standpoint; “When U Were Mine” by Cyndi Lauper (written by Prince) is one example. But instead “Roses” came on, and it did the job. This is their job. They do it well.
As songs go, it has an odd, manufactured unreality to it. The keyboards start with a dreamy warbled pulse. The drums are a stutter and a clap. The vocals are a breathy, nasal R&B croon. The bass line finally knocks on the door to be let in, but it’s just a dribble. One that merely suggests momentum without really pushing the song along at all. It is, in fact, a song that barely moves until it lurches. It feels weirdly airless from a production standpoint. A heavy weight you’re lugging up to some point. The lyrics suggest it is about a relationship that, much like all relationships in desperate need of a Hail Mary, it longs to be everything it once was at its height, plus everything it might have been at its best future.
“I’ll be your daydream / I’ll be your favorite things / We could be beautiful,” she sings. “Get drunk on the good life / I’ll take you to paradise / Say you’ll never me let go.”
You know how the rest goes. It builds up with a Morse-code keyboard line that takes us to a finger snap and a drop. The drugged-up synth lines, the spare beat, the languid vocals, the snap, the drop, then the rinse and repeat — that’s the hook of virtually all their songs. The duo repeat this again on “Closer,” and again on “Paris,” and again on, well, a lot of them.
But what it captures, and what it peddles so well, is a kind of sadness-tinged nostalgia that’s also hopeful. It’s that simple. And there is no shame in that, even if the people who make it are idiots.
I grew up in the ’80s, where this was the main drug on offer in pop music: synth-y, breathy songs about longing that shaped my psyche for romance as much as any rom-com. In a sense, that’s what Chainsmokers’ best songs really do. They remind me of being at the skating rink in the 1980s, where I consumed a weekly dose of nothing but top Billboard hits for five straight years on weekends, while living out my most awkward, teenage preciousness. It’s a period when you don’t really know what love songs are about because you’ve never had a real relationship, but you’re dying to get there. I would go on to appreciate much “better” music that would pass any critical test, but just like anyone raised on pop music, I’m inextricably formed by radio-friendly unit shifters, too.
Listening to “Roses,” it was as if I had squeezed the total emotional sum of those songs into a single shot of pining and downed it on an empty stomach. It was emotional, woozy, catchy, vague as fuck, disposable as all get out… and it ruled.
That weird reverie was interrupted by a guy at the bar who suddenly launched into an evisceration of why this song, and Justin Bieber and Lorde and other pop hits of late, were absolute cold theft of EDM, dubstep and his true love, tropical house. He proceeded to play me about 10 songs in a row off his phone of the “real” examples of the genre (you can read one of a billion screeds precisely like this online — here’s one).
I understood. I know what it’s like when the “mainstream” gets a hold of something special, something you loved, something you thought was small and yours, and makes it everyone’s. I remember when the movie Fight Club used “Where Is My Mind” by the Pixies, one of my favorite bands ever, and suddenly every two-bit joker claimed this band. Before the film, the Pixies existed mostly off the radar; they were a secret handshake between people with good taste.
But I wanted to hear “Roses” again. Why? Because it was exactly how I felt, and it lodged in my brain.
The Chainsmokers Are Shallow and the Songs Are Derivative
Here is a good reason to hate a band: Because you think it sucks.
Here are not good reasons to hate a band: Because the people who make it are jerks. Because it’s derivative. Because it’s commercially aimed. Because it’s popular. Because it’s dumb. Feel free to only like original, precious, highly intelligent pop music made by Peace Corps members who’d never use their music to get laid if you like, but let me know when you find any. No seriously. Let me know.
For instance, the Chainsmokers started a band to get laid, and they are just stupid enough to admit it. “Even before success, pussy was No. 1,” one of them told Billboard. “Like, ‘Why am I trying to make all this money?’ I wanted to hook up with hotter girls. I had to date a model.” That’s a funny thing for male music critics to hate, because it is the exact same reason Lemmy from Motörhead decided to start a band — he noticed dudes with guitars were “surrounded by chicks” and he wanted to be surrounded by chicks, too. Motörhead, of course, could slay the Chainsmokers with its dead dick. But there is a reason “Ace of Spades” is still on every jukebox worth a shit. Its pop-culture status has no bearing on how much the song rules.
As for the music being derivative, this has not historically been a problem for pop music, either. All really popular music is. Nothing too weird ever really gets through. Justin Timberlake is one of the most derivative acts on the planet. He can’t exist without Michael Jackson. The Weeknd, at least in terms of “Can’t Feel My Face,” which is remarkable in its imitation of its predecessors, can’t exist without either of the two. Coldplay can’t exist without U2 or Radiohead. Oasis can’t exist without the Beatles. Liz Phair? Not without Joni Mitchell. Hell, no one in pop music can exist without the Beatles. Beatle George Harrison’s best song (“My Sweet Lord”) off his best solo album (All Things Must Pass) had to pay dearly for lifting from the Chiffons (“He’s So Fine”). The Strokes openly admitted they just wanted to be the Velvet Underground, but successful. They got very close, if by close you mean they stole openly from Tom Petty on “Last Nite.” Still a terrific song.
The Chainsmokers Are Formulaic
Extremely formulaic. A couple years ago, some 19-year-old kid became a viral hero after he decided to shred the Chainsmokers and “expose” the “pattern” of their songs. It’s this:
1. Pick three chords. Choose a minor chord, go a whole step down to a major chord, then another whole step down to another major chord, and just play within those chords.
2. Choose lyrics about being white and in love. Possibly lyrics about how your parents are mean, being young and free, or staying up late.
3. Include a build-up followed by a generic synth breakdown.
It was hailed at the ultimate roast, killing the band DEAD. Only they didn’t die and no one cared. Because that formula is actually just describing thousands of bands since the dawn of time. He tried to even recreate one of their songs, but uh, he did not write another “Roses.”
If you think using just three chords is some kind of hack joke that eliminates you from good songwriting, then I guess you don’t like the Ramones. Or the Misfits. Or Johnny Cash. Or Nirvana. Or Green Day. Or Van Morrison. Or If you think writing songs that are big and dumb eliminates them from being good, then I guess you don’t like Prince or Miley Cyrus or Kesha or Tom Petty. Sure, you might consider those artists heads and shoulders above the Chainsmokers. So do I! I’m not a moron. But you can’t even write “I Wanna Rock N Roll All Nite” by KISS, one of the dumbest songs of all time, which happens to be incredibly formulaic, big and stupid. And awesome.
All that is to say, that the Chainsmokers are not good because they are original. They are not good because the dudes are cool and kind. They are not good because they invented anything. Or are smart. Or even all that talented. As musicians go, Chainsmokers are magpies who flit about building their musical nests from little bits of twigs and trash from anywhere they can stab their pointy little beaks into it and drag it back.
They’re still really good at that.
The Chainsmokers Are Soulless
Larry Fitzmaurice at Vice wrote an eviscerating takedown of the band, and it’s incredibly enjoyable to read. Yes, the songs sound the same. Yes, they “walk the line between festival-ready EDM and beige-hued pop-rock.” Very few of them are “good,” he adds.
If M83, he writes, are Nirvana, then Chainsmokers are Vertical Horizon, he argues, “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.”
His problem isn’t the copying — Grimes, Frank Ocean, he notes, have both taken the music of their youth and refashioned it. Only they turned that into “something real and reflective.” It’s the commercialism.
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.
Okay. Tell Lou Reed in heaven, who let “Walk on the Wild Side” be used in a 1985 commercial for Honda scooters.
To be clear, everything Fitzmaurice is saying is true, and yet, he has still entirely missed the point.
In order to fairly despise something I think you have to understand why it’s beloved at all. And in order to do that, you have to understand the point of pop music, which is not to delight the brains of music critics with a complete knowledge of the canon who are bored and dying for anything at all to come along and set their nerd brains atwitter.
Pop songs are about feelings. They represent some big dumb emotion — maybe, on occasion, two emotions! — and little else. Even the word “feelings” is too complex — it’s more like an impulse. A glimpse, a glimmer, a memory, a shadow. Feelings may be stupid, and I feel that way, too, but what I am is practical. I have them, and so do you, and pop songs get them. That’s a good thing.
Pop music is popular and therefore populist and this makes an unending target for derision. But fuck that, it’s for the people, for us, and our big dumb feelings. More to the point, nearly all pop songs are about longing. Longing can be for the thing you have, the thing you had, or the thing you’ll never get. But it’s longing all the same. If it’s lust, it’s longing. If it’s love, it’s longing. If it’s regret, it’s longing. If it’s anger, it’s longing.
Pop Music Is Cheap and Dumb…
Pop songs are also drugs for the masses, and drugs are good because they give you a familiar, reliable high every time you return to them. You hear a song the first time and there’s an instant hook. You return to it over and over again, to keep hitting that moment. Chainsmokers songs are a familiar source of a certain kind of supply, if your drug is nostalgia.
Eventually, though, it wears out its welcome and it doesn’t create the same transportive rush anymore. But the thing is, there’s always another one, precisely because they are dumb, formulaic, unoriginal, soulless and easier than average to crank out.
This is well illustrated by a famous Nick Hornby essay in Granta about the pleasures of pop music. I think about it all the time, because he argues brilliantly that the disposability of pop music is its strength, not its weakness. He knows how bad a lot of it is, but he doesn’t care. He’s in it for the fix, the rush of getting addicted to some new earworm that’s going to drive you crazy and destroy your life until it stops.
The standout part of the essay, to me, is that he would burn a CD of all his obsession songs at the end of each year so he could remember them and marvel at how once addicted he was. And every year, he simply could not believe he would ever hear another pop song that would make him feel the way the last one did.
But sure enough, next thing you know, he’d turn on the radio and there one would be: a sparkly new song with that familiar feeling, all that longing, rushing in to hook him again.
…But Despite All That, Hating the Chainsmokers Is Even Dumber
Chainsmokers songs as widespread and ubiquitous as “Roses,” “Closer,” “Paris,” “Something Just Like This,” are popular because they capture an impulse or feeling, fed to us in slick packages that seem fresh yet totally familiar. Chainsmokers are the Stranger Things of bands: We’ve heard it all before, except here it is, acting brand-new. But because we love that, and need it, and are already hooked on this feeling, we don’t care that we’ve heard this all before. Using this as a criticism of their music or anyone’s for that matter is like saying ice cream is stupid because it’s just milk and sugar, and any asshole can churn that out.
The thing is, I can’t really listen to those Chainsmokers songs anymore, not even “Roses,” because I’m over them, and they don’t really do it for me now the way they did. But that’s fine. That’s how this goes. When you pick apart most pop music, it quickly reveals itself as hopelessly embarrassing, formulaic, simplistic and cheesy, and that, by design, is transitory. That is especially true of really mainstream stuff that trickles down to everyone. But I would argue that we’re all just embarrassing, nostalgic idiots, swaying to some dumb formulaic song, that just so happens to capture longing we all feel, yet which feels so individual to us. I am. So are you. And the haters may never like the Chainsmokers, but it’s more likely they just won’t admit they’re like us too.