Their goal to make pop songs that make tons of money.
The Chainsmokers is a pop startup, their goal to make pop songs that make tons of money. Half of the band’s job is to get people to sing over the beats that the other half makes, and it’s dubious how much heavy lifting and pulling even he does. By their own admission, they’re in the game to get paid and get laid. They don’t want you to think of them as serious artists. They don’t even want you to think of them as artists. Their art is of the deal.
Given the reaction that’s greeted them in the music-nerd world, you’d think making pop to fill one’s own pockets was a new thing. But the Chainsmokers are in the same tradition as the ‘60s pop stables that spun unknown bands and singers into “Sugar, Sugar.” The duo’s often compared to Nickelback, but they’re more like the Black Eyed Peas circa The E.N.D. – a shamelessly commercial juggernaut run by a man (in the Peas’ case will.i.am, in the Chainsmokers’ case Andrew Taggart) who knows what the public wants and will happily dish it out.
There’s something admirable in the way they rely solely on their songs – not on some hokey backstory like Susan Boyle’s, not on some faux ideal of folky authenticity like Ed Sheeran’s, not even (necessarily) on giant guest features – to win over their audience. It’s clear Taggart is a diligent student of pop. Only someone who’s internalized every Panic! At The Disco song could write a lyric like, “She’s got seven personalities/ And every one’s a tragedy,” from “Break Up Every Night.” The music he makes meets at the intersection of some of the biggest trends to pass through the collective millennial memory bank. EDM. Indie pop. Emo. Piano rock à la the Fray. If you’ve loved a pop song made after 2000, Taggart can regurgitate it for you wholesale.
It’s insidious, but at least Taggart isn’t shy about his intentions. The best songs on the Chainsmokers’ debut album Memories… Do Not Open plant the memories he conjures in his lyrics – fake or real – directly into your head. The sterling standard is their “Closer,” with its rovers and tattooed shoulders and roommates back in Boulder, and though it’s sadly not included here, they try to scrape some of its magic a couple times. “Young” is nearly a clone, except this time they’re remembering “When I wrecked your car/ And almost fought your father when he pushed me in the yard/ And all those nights we snuck out, like to meet up at the bar.”
What Taggart’s keenly attuned to – here and on “Paris,” which rhymes with “to get away from your parents” – is not only what we remember but our relationship with those memories. Wrecking a car and almost fighting your girlfriend’s dad are unpleasant when they happen, but down the road it’s easy to share a chuckle about them, and they can become defining moments of a relationship. The best lyric on “Closer” is, “Play that Blink-182 song that we beat to death in Tucson.” They’re sick of the song, but it’s such a part of their story that they can’t help but play it and let those memories come. Such is the power of pop; Taggart gets it.
The problem is that these songs are really the only ones Taggart’s good at. For the most part, his lyrics are terrible, especially when he’s trying to be humble and water down his bro persona. “Honest” confuses being honest for being a dick: “You said I should be honest so I’m being honest,” he sings about… wanting to fuck other girls. On “The One,” he busts out the old I’m-a-man-doing-what-I-can blame-shift: “I won’t make it to your party/ Got caught up in my own selfishness/ It won’t let me be a part of this.” He’s as big a pig as any male pop star, though thankfully there’s nothing rapey here. Taggart likes to let himself be seduced, which is nice.
The production’s not terribly imaginative, which is understandable. For the most part, this is a lite take on the kind of muscular EDM-pop Diplo perfected on his Jack U album with Skrillex and on his Major Lazer megahit “Lean On.” It’s MOR enough that its clever genre nods end up actually being kind of subtle, not something you’d expect from the guys behind “#Selfie.” Really, the Chainsmokers’ problem is being too douchey to know when to shut up. They’re no doubt insufferable people, but their biggest crime as a pop machine may be that they’re too well-oiled.