In which the Chainsmokers demonstrate a cleverly calculated understanding of the mechanics of pop music.
To my dear reader,
Like many people, I have deep ambivalence toward the EDM-lite pop duo the Chainsmokers. For those unfamiliar, the Chainsmokers rose to prominence with their semi-ironic “#Selfie,” before gaining radio fame with their 2016 song “Closer” and other radio hits that include “Paris.” I am both nauseated and enthralled by the group’s cookie-cutter pop songs, with their white-average-frat-boy level of lyrical and musical complexity. Wallowing in narcissism, the Chainsmokers are masters of manufactured sentimentality – calculated efforts to musically and lyrically elicit specific reactions (in this case, for radio plays, and subsequently, for money). However, while I could say that listening to their music is like watching a train wreck… from inside the train… that would be giving someone too much credit.
I could act all higher-than-thou and pretend that I only saw their music as a distillation of manufactured sentimentality, but I must be honest and say that, firstly, I suspect that they know exactly what they’re doing, and that, secondly, I fucking love every minute of it. This manufactured sentimentality is really a demonstration of a disgusting (but impressive) understanding of what simple things pop audiences clamor for, and a ruthless willingness to shove it down the throats of those audiences so that they keep asking for more. It also demonstrates a willingness to revel in millennial, white, upper class, privileged self-indulgence without an ounce of analysis or reflection. It ‘s a level of cynicism and consumerism that both appalls and delights me.
Their 2017 radio hit “Paris” is an excellent example of typical Chainsoker’s fare. Like most of their songs, it’sa mid-tempo dance track, floating around 110 BPM. Like all their songs, it’s in 4/4. Like all their songs, it uses few or no non-diatonic pitches. Like all their songs, it ebbs and flows between an airy chorus and verses with building basslines, all leading to a mild, inoffensive sort of “drop.” Like most of their songs, the melody fits easily into the range of a baritone or a soprano (the most common voice types).
All are elements of a hit song.
Like all their songs, the lyrics discuss brittle young love/lust. While this is, in many ways, to be expected for a pop duo, the few details they do include tend to be the sorts of things only applicable to comfortable young folk with expendable money (a.k.a. white millennials). Like most of their songs, the lyrics mention either lust as a primary motivator or sex as an explicit goal. Like most of their songs, although there is often an effective combination of specific and universal details in their lyrics, there is little to no use of metaphor or figurative language.
All are elements of a hit song.
I so love the Chainsmokers because they musically and lyrically manifest cynicism and consumerism, and “Paris” demonstrates this spectacularly. To make for a song both easy to hear and to sing along with, Taggert sings in his lower midrange, repeating the pitches D3, E3 and F#3 in different combinations, while gentle synths wash through a diatonic chord progression of G – Bm – A – F#m. To add premeditated wistfulness, a lilting soprano doubles Taggert, giving his melodic line greater brilliance, and occasionally adding a countermelody, with neither really belting or singing at any extreme. The part of the song that most enthralls me, however, is the bridge, as repeated melodic lines begin to overlap in a clumsy polyphony before, finally, Taggert sings the line “We were stayin’ in Paris” up an octave, and we get a sort of weak drop. It’s a genius move of manufactured sentimentality, with all those lyrics about lust and anthemic us-against-the-world mentality and somehow having the expendable income to just hang out in Paris (I guess) piling on top of one another like it’s all just TOO MUCH TO BARE AAAHHH!
I can’t. So much self indulgent white privilege… in song form. I just want to take a bath in it. I just want to rub it all over my body and revel in its sweet, self-pitying narcissism.
It kills me and I love it and I hate it and I LOVE it.
But in all honesty, I can’t be too mad at the Chainsmokers. Okay, I can for their blatant misogyny and gross consumerist attitudes. I cannot, however, for their manufactured sentimentality. I manufacture sentimentality each time a theater asks me to write a song about something that elicits no emotion in me. I manufacture sentimentality each time I set a text I didn’t write to music. I manufacture sentimentality each time I write a piece of instrumental music just for the sake of writing for an instrumentation, or in a new form, for the first time.
What makes a difference is both that all of my music is not nauseatingly similar and that I am not making songs that glorify millennial self-indulgence. All artists have an arsenal of tricks used to elicit different emotions. Training in an art form is the act of gaining tools for that arsenal, and creating inevitably means using some of those tools. Using the exact same tools for every work of art you do, however, suggest a serious lack of originality or a serious lack of regard for your art and your audience – and honestly, I suspect that all are true for the Chainsmokers. And yes… I love every minute of it.
With all due respect,