In defense of The Chainsmokers
John Darr | Thursday, November 10, 2016
This piece is in response to “The Chainsmokers’ music simply checks pop’s boxes” by Christian Bunker, which was published in Wednesday’s issue of The Observer.
Most pop music is just trash that hasn’t been thrown out yet. The majority of tracks that roll through the Billboard Hot 100 disappear within a few months and are never heard again; a select few survive as throwback favorites that stand in for a specific era of popular music. These throwback tracks are often born of artists taking a popular music trend to its most extreme without descending into utter parody. Any decent DJ knows she can essentially throw on “Mr. Brightside” and forget the rest of angsty 2000’s radio rock, or capture the joyful cheesiness of 80’s pop with “Africa.” The rest of such a set, which will comprise of tracks that compose the day’s Top 40, will soon be forgotten and left to rot in the depths of already-outdated iTunes libraries. So the two questions any pop music critic wants to address are 1. How does the music in question function now? and 2. Does it function well enough to stand above other pop tracks that fulfill similar purposes and ultimately, outlast them?
In regards to The Chainsmokers’ new EP, the first question is pretty easy to answer: The “Collage EP” is a collection of absolute pop smashes. Ubiquitous party staple “Closer” has topped the Billboard Hot 100 chart for over 10 weeks now while “Don’t Let Me Down” and “All We Know” are comfortable perched not too far below. It is nearly impossible to attend any kind of party and avoid hearing at least one of the tracks.
There’s a number of reasons why these songs are everywhere. The Chainsmokers’ fan base prior to releasing “Collage” (or singles from it) was already formidable; singles like “Roses” and “#Selfie” alongside high-profile, if controversial, performances at Ultra and the 2016 VMAs boosted the duo to near household-name status. Such a fan base is going to ensure at least moderate success to anything bearing The Chainsmokers’ name. On top of that, The Chainsmokers signed to Sony Music Entertainment last year, so their advertising budget is massive. A large fan base and effective marketing go a long way in securing “Collage” a spot on radio stations and playlists around the globe.
Yet most importantly, there’s the music itself. With “Collage,” the Chainsmokers consistently utilize a highly successful formula to craft hit after hit across the release. The backbone of each song is made of standard verses and choruses as well as some sort of instrumental “drop,” which, unlike standard dubstep drops, relies on synthesizer melodies and a simple, groovy rhythm. Each track is fronted by a different, relatively unknown female singer (sometimes in conjunction with founding producer/vocalist Andrew Taggart); the vocal performances tend to be solid given the straightforward melodies they’re given to work with. In essence, each Chainsmokers track is utterly predictable, friendly and catchy.
What divides The Chainsmokers from similar producer-lead pop acts is a seek-the-middle mentality. As mentioned earlier, the Chainsmokers avoid dissonant or noisy drops á la Skrillex and instead opt for accessible, melody drops in the vein of recent DJ Snake and Kygo tracks. Their clean production and tight arrangements leans neither atmospheric nor minimalist. Their lyrics share a nice balance of contextually forgivable clichés about love and passable narrative detail, especially on “Closer.” Finally, The Chainsmokers’ music may be suitable for dancing and partying, but the energy of the tracks tends to be moderate. In such a way, the “Collage EP” is well suited to both casual and club listening environments.
In today’s music scene, The Chainsmokers serve up highly effective pop music that has found a massive audience by locking down a musical happy medium. There is certainly more interesting, socially relevant and technically impressive music being released at the moment, but as far as pop music goes “Collage” presents an accomplishment in balance and accessibility. As “Closer” continues to dominate the charts, it’s becoming apparent that The Chainsmokers have popular appeal locked down better than the grand majority of pop artists on the airwaves right now. No one can know for sure if The Chainsmokers will age out of their dance floors and radios play in the years to come, but I’d be willing to bet that for a very long time, they won’t be getting any older.