Hello, and welcome to Radio Rants, where we’re pulling double duty today.
I know there’s an ocean-sized release out there right this second, but let’s get back to the pop charts one last time before the summer’s over. Today, we’re looking at DJ duo The Chainsmokers, who–well–are here to stay. They have, of course, been in mainstream for the last twoish years; breakout it’s-a-joke-song-but-not-really “#selfie” blew up in 2014, and they went legit with last year’s “Roses.” But it’s the simultaneous charting of “Closer” with Halsey at number
6 1 and the Daya-featuring “Don’t Let Me Down” at 8 that cements The Chainsmokers as, to me, the best example of what Chris DeVille at Stereogum calls the rise of the producer as a lead artist. DeVille’s argument is that, as a byproduct of the producer-worshiping EDM scene infiltrating and influencing pop, producers are more visible both behind the scenes and on the charts, and now guys like Calvin Harris and Zedd are more prominent in a post-“We Found Love” world. I say this is truest of The Chainsmokers because they’ve notched hits with bit players and unknowns, whereas Calvin Harris is only as successful chartwise as his collaborators.
Which hey, good for them, but it’s trouble for me because I just cannot find it in me give a shit about The Chainsmokers. And I’ve tried, too! I listened to “Roses” when it and its “The Chainsmokers aren’t hacks, we swear” narrative blew up last year, and it left me cold. I kept trying “Don’t Let Me Down” and bailing, whereas I could muster up something to say about a song as dull as “One Dance.” I don’t even really think The Chainsmokers are bad, it’s just that something about them turns me into Mean Old Mr. Rant. Their take on trendy EDM is smaller and less world-conquering than the likes of Zedd and company, but also completely fine. It just goes in one ear, rattles around okay, and out the other.
Thus brings us to “Don’t Let Me Down.” “Don’t Let Me Down” is probably going to be the fifth or sixth biggest song this summer, which feels about right in a grudgingly acceptable way; this is The Chainsmokers operating in “you wanted a hit?” mode. It starts with some a-okay guitar and drum pads under Daya’s vocals, but let’s be real, paying attention to this song’s verses is like pretending you’re invested in the first 20 minutes of a disaster movie: you’re just here to see shit blow up. The song throws some watery synths in during the build-up, adds in some drums/claps straight outta “Black Widow” to ratchet up the drama, and Daya injects as much meaning as she can into “Don’t let me, don’t let me down” and “I need you, I need you, I need you right now.” The drop comes and throws everything vaguely into trap territory with big bass, snares, “hey”s, and more handclaps as Daya repeats the song’s name a bunch. It’s smooth, it’s tolerable, it’s the signal for me to stop dancing and get a new drink when it comes on at the club.
Jokes aside, “Don’t Let Me Down” does a few things well. The drop is catchy enough, and Daya brings the drama and vocal power on the song’s second half when she gets to let loose, and nearly overpowers these place-holder lyrics (theory: “Don’t Let Me Down”‘s lyrics function only exist as scene dressing to heighten the dramatic build-up. Otherwise they pack as much meaning as singing about like, Olympic medal counts). It’s not a bad song, but “Don’t Let Me Down” feels like empty calories without the sugar overload. It’s been a totally acceptable song to hear in shopping malls, sporting events, clubs, and ads, but if I never hear it again after October, I’m absolutely fine with that. Mostly, “Don’t Let Me Down” makes me miss “Lean On.”
So there, I thought hard enough about a Chainsmokers song to replace my innate apathy with informed apathy. I just wish my feelings on “Closer” were that straight forward.
Which, “Closer.” Hooooo boy.
I can’t back out of this one now. Not only did I already write it into the title of this blog, but it just become Chainsmokers’ and Halsey’s first number one hit, so welcome to legitimacy, baby. And while ultimately “Closer” leaves me just as mixed as “Don’t Let Me Down,” it takes a far more frustrating route to get there because I almost, almost like it.
Let’s step back for a second. Now that I’ve invested some time and energy into The Chainsmokers, I’ve pinned down why they rub me the wrong way: their music is weirdly, stridently ungroovy. There’s no rhythmic through line, no unerring beat to come back to and lose yourself in. You can’t dance to this shit. Lest I sound like every anti-EDM crank ever, let me state that this is a Chainsmokers’ problem and not an EDM one: “Sweet Nothing” is still a killer dancefloor cut, and I’ve wrung more mileage out of Bieber’s sad-bro EDM tracks than I care to admit. Zedd’s “Stay the Night” is probably a D-grade song, but at least you can move to it. You can’t say that of Chainsmokers’ tunes outside the drops, the only developed parts of their songs (such to the point that I almost swear they write the drops first and work backwards from there).
All this comes to the forefront of “Closer” because, even as one of their best beats and one that’s in my lane, it still feels slight. It’s the darker, piano-y electronic ballad to “Don’t Let Me Down”‘s bright summer banger that features Halsey, the aspiring prom queen of darkish, electronicy pop ballads. And unlike “Don’t Let Me Down,” the hook at the drop absolutely works; those wistful, rotating synths interlock over a beat that’s easy to get lost in. The whole thing captures that shared, swept-up infatuation. To be fair, I consider Kanye’s “Paranoid” and “Sober” by Childish Gambino criminally underrated, so warbling robo-keyboards like this are just dog whistles for me, but still “Closer” is as strong a hook as any Chainsmokers have done. The production on the verses and the sung chorus is fine–there’s that word describing these guys again–but that hook is a make.
Then there’s the rest of this damn song.
“Don’t Let Me Down” might have had lyrics that were dashed off on the back of a takeout receipt en route to the studio that day, but “Closer” is so obnoxious that I miss that banality. The lyrics of “Closer” are about as vapid as “#selfie” but played entirely straight as a love story between two kids so self-absorbed that, y’know, maybe we have all of those “millennials are ruining _____” thinkpieces coming. It’s a love duet between two people to themselves. To wit:
“Hey, I was doing just fine before I met you/I drink too much and that’s an issue but I’m OK” Is that a pick-up line or?
“You tell your friends it was nice to meet them/But I hope I never see them again” This line, and really, anything Chainsmoker Andrew Taggert sings in “Closer,” is so vaguely affluent and douchey that it technically counts as a PostGradProblems column.
“So baby pull me closer in the backseat of your Rover/That I know you can’t afford” That’s a moment killer, right? Like, you and this person you’ve had eyes on for years are touching mouths and shit, then one or both of you reflects on how this car’s an active credit bomb, and the magic’s over.
“Bite that tattoo on your shoulder” I’d actually be kinda mad if someone bit my tattoo. Tattoos cost more than you do.
“Pull the sheets right off the corner of that mattress that you stole/From your roommate back in Boulder/We ain’t never growing older” What kind of asshole steals a mattress?
“Stay, play that blink-182 song/That we beat to death in Tucson, OK” I’m glad this song brings up blink-182 because they’re a perfect comparison for why “Closer” can take all the shit other people bought it and go die. Blink’s brat anthem “What’s My Age Again?” similarly prides itself on blowing people off; “I never wanna act my age” isn’t too far from “We ain’t ever getting older.” But “What’s My Age Again?” knows this schtick has consequences and may even be pathological as Hoppus wonders aloud “What the hell is wrong with me?” in a moment of self-awareness that “Closer” either cannot or will not give. You’re not quirky or carefree, you’re just assholes.
That’s a lot to pile on a track written by a pair of bro-y DJs whose lyrical prowess is usually remedial at best, but they tried something here and it tanked. Alex Pall, the Chainsmoker who doesn’t sing on “Closer,” has described it as “comical in nature” and about “spoiled girls in college who have family money but also live the dichotomy of the broke college life” (the idea of “the broke college life” including the words “Range Rover” is the most Caucasian thing I’ve heard today), and how an ex will “remember all the horrible truths” after y’all hook up. Exactly none of that translates to the song’s delivery, which is bullshit wish fulfillment. The beat’s nice, but it can’t drown out how stupid this song is. The Chainsmokers might have escaped “#selfie” but the move from “novelty act” to “mediocre hit maker” is like boasting you’re never getting older: staying the same means not moving forward.