MusicNovember 16, 2016

The Chainsmokers: Abrasive man-children, fratboy assholes, makers of the best song of the year, or all of the above?


Elle Hunt leaks her Facebook chat with Joseph Moore and Ciaran O’Regan about the Chainsmokers, the world’s favourite pop bros, and ‘Closer’, their globe-smashing hit.

ELLE: Even if you don’t know the Chainsmokers by name, or their previous work (mostly: a song called ‘Selfie’, about selfies), you will have heard ‘Closer’. I dislike it with an intensity that I logically understand to be unreasonable. The tripping little synth during the verse annoys me. The breath between “stole” and “from your roommate” in the chorus annoys me. The male vocalist, one-half of the duo, seems to be putting on an accent, which annoys me. And the big finish, when Halsey’s really gunning for it, is just about unlistenable.

Having read a profile of the Chainsmokers in which they came across as abrasive man-children I like it even less, and feel justified in doing so. But I seem to be in the minority. It’s been in the charts for weeks. The New York Times devoted a podcast to it. There are memes about how much it bangs.

It doesn’t bang, not a bit, at all.

Attempting to persuade me otherwise are Joseph Moore and Ciaran O’Regan, with whom I have maintained a pop-centric Facebook chat thread for two years.

JOSEPH: I started off more curious about the Chainsmokers than anything, after reading that Billboard feature and watching their ‘How We Made It’ YouTube tutorials where it’s clear they have no idea how they made their songs.

But, somewhere along the way, this eerie banger about being sad and horny and white got me hooked. Like actual chain-smoking! Somehow, these undeniable fratboy assholes who are bad at music made the best song of the year.

So much of it comes down that to that three-note melody in the drop, which is so stupidly simple it’s like a children’s song you’ve known your whole life (or at least since The Fray’s ‘Over My Head’). Did they just clock melodies?

I love this song’s refreshing intimacy. Dance-pop lyrics have always been so loaded with generic Instagrammable life affirmations, yet this is very specifically about two people who fucked at least twice (once in Boulder, once in Tucson). By the song’s triumphant end, I’m somehow nostalgic for their made-up relationship. Take me back to Tucson baby!

ELLE: I just don’t know where to start with how deluded you are, but on the song’s “refreshing intimacy” – anyone who has to take a breath in the middle of a sentence is frankly not someone I care to be intimate with. Especially not in the back of a CAR.

I agree that it’s good that EDM is branching out into other lyrics than “yeah”, “air”, “don’t care”, etc. but it still reads like it was written on the back of a napkin. Parts of it don’t make sense. Are they in a Rover? Or on a stolen mattress? Who steals mattresses, anyway?

What you construe as “putting the heart and soul back into EDM” strikes me as weirdly cynical, like the Chainsmokers are congratulating themselves for surpassing a very low bar.

What is your favourite ‘Closer’ meme? I hate ‘Closer’ but I love memes. Maybe that will be my ‘in’.

JOSEPH: I’m not sure The Chainsmokers are cynical. They are basic dudes and basic dudes find sincerity in all sorts of dumb shit – smoochin’ an old flame in the backseat of a car might be the romantic high point of their lives. Maybe the cynical person here is the one who hears those giant sweeping chords that bring this baby home and doesn’t feel ANYTHING.

I don’t know about the ‘Closer’ memes, sorry. Is there one where the song plays, and then a genius (Einstein?) says “great song!”? I will get to work on this meme, one moment.

ELLE: No, I mean like this one:

Or this one:

This is a good one, I admit:

Sorry Ciaran, you go.

CIARAN: I, too, wish this wonderful song was written and produced by less dickish people. But this is life on the charts. The music business is so lousy with jackasses capable of turning out great music that it almost seems innate to the profession.

Before ‘Closer’, I knew the Chainsmokers existed. I knew they made songs. I paid them no mind. I saw them as a nuisance that would fizzle out before it became necessary to learn their names.

‘Closer’ put a speedy end to that. Taken in the context of the charts it stormed, it’s unique in so many ways. It’s not some overblown banger. The production is light and airy, with the exception of the outro, where I must concede, Elle – they overcooked it.

The vocals aren’t booming or autotune-heavy. Sure, on a technical level, they could have stood a few more takes. But they’re bare and breathy – the effect is quite intimate.

I think it’s the lyrics, though, which are the key to the song’s meteoric rise. The unlawfully obtained mattress. The Blink-182 song. The shoulder-tattoo-biting. Pop ballads usually eschew this level of detail to tell a more universal story. What ‘Closer’ makes clear is that listeners don’t need a song to be about them; in fact, we may revel even more in sitting front row at somebody else’s fuckup.

This song has been No. 1 on the Hot 100 for 12 consecutive weeks, a feat only achieved by 16 other songs in history. It’s hard not to see ‘Closer’ as a step in the right direction. It’s more finely-drawn and less trite than most of them, and also the first song of its size to depict semi-realistic sex. All of this can only be good news for better bloody pop.

ELLE: Ciaran, I like hearing you talk about ‘Closer’ far more than I like hearing ‘Closer’, which is, admittedly, not at all. But you have made me see the upsides in this song I previously hated with a passion. The way you talk about it makes me wish I could hear it the way millions of others around the world do, including President Obama.

Both of your comments about the specificity of the lyrics reminded me of Taylor Swift, who writes songs with very specific scenes that you use as stand-ins for your own experiences. It’s very effective when she does it and I can, begrudgingly, accept that somehow these stupid Chainsmokers have done the same here.

CIARAN: I should point out here that you’re not in that much of a minority. Several great commentators have poured scorn on this thing. And even though Obama definitely listened to it and that account is definitely real, he may have just been seeing what all the bother was about.

You’re right, however, in suggesting the lyrical style is straight out of the Swift playbook. Ultimately, for all my high-minded analysis, this song just plays my feelings like a fiddle and you may simply be more wise to its moves.

JOSEPH: Hey guys, sorry I’m missed the chat getting good. I was making a Closer meme …

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Mad Chapman, Editor
Aotearoa continues to adapt to a new reality and The Spinoff is right there, sorting fact from fiction to bring you the latest updates and biggest stories. Help us continue this coverage, and so much more, by supporting The Spinoff Members.Madeleine Chapman, EditorJoin Members

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