This week, the melancholy dance-pop hit "Closer" by EDM-lite duo the Chainsmokers became the biggest song of 2016. With 11 weeks and counting at the top of the Billboard Hot 100 chart, the track, which features wistful vocal contributions from 22-year-old Tumblr-favorite Halsey, has now surpassed anthems by far more famous musicians, like Drake's "One Dance," Rihanna's "Work," and Sia's "Cheap Thrills."
"Closer" is far from a fluke: It's the latest step in a carefully plotted quest to dominate the charts with sad-eyed club pop. Yet to many, Andrew Taggart and Alex Pall, the well-coiffed (and KISS-loving) duo behind the project, are still just two random dudes who make distinctly bummed-out music showcasing young, smoky-voiced female singers ("Don't Let Me Down" with Daya, "All We Know" with Phoebe Ryan, and "Roses" with Rozes all charted in the past year). Since they're not going away anytime soon, here's what you need to know about the surprisingly controversial guys known as the Chainsmokers.
So, what makes "Closer" so special?
More than anything, "Closer" feels like the culmination of the Chainsmokers' careful, market-savvy beta-testing. The duo's biggest hits combine vaguely house-like dance-music textures with proven pop structure, mining Grey's Anatomy-style pathos from lyrics about tentative hotel-bar flirtations, fumbled hookups, and wounded feelings. They're designed to be recognizable. (In fact, "Closer" sounded so much like The Fray's "Over My Head (Cable Car)" that the Denver rock band was retroactively given a songwriting credit.)
Because of its verse-trading male-female vocal parts and tone of delicate despair, "Closer" reminded me of Gotye and Kimbra's "Somebody That I Used to Know" and Peter Bjorn & John's "Young Folks" when I first heard it. Depending on when you spent the largest portion of your life in a shopping mall, your reference points may vary.
Of the Chainsmokers' mainstream hits, "Closer" is the most emotionally palpable banger. With lyrics about cities like Boulder and Tucson, the softly murmured words have a specific sense of place that helps them rise above the din of your friend's generic tropical-house Spotify playlist. In the second verse, Halsey name-checks Blink-182, which should hit the nostalgia sweet spot for "I just bought a Chemex" millennials pining for their pop-punk youth. Plus, Taggart's delivery of "Baby, pull me closer in the backseat of your Rover" might be the most conspicuous SUV shout-out since Nelly's "Ride Wit Me." Unlike the drop-obsessed euphoria of first-wave pop-dubstep pioneers, the song's default mode is both carnal and crestfallen.
Even if you're a dance-music novice who doesn't know Tiësto from Diplo, it's easy to get pulled into the blandly chill orbit of "Closer." While writing this story, I listened to the song dozens of times on repeat, and I still bob my head when it hits that chintzy, wordless chorus. The video, with its steamy but tasteful Undressed-core visuals, recalls Justin Bieber's "What Do You Mean?" minus its action-movie beats, skateboarding interlude, and John Leguizamo cameo. As a song, it's as unobtrusive as a screensaver. As a marker of where pop music might be headed in the next few years, it's a mildly unnerving bellwether.
But what are they like as people?
The easiest way to understand why the success of the Chainsmokers is maddening to some is to read writer Chris Martins' cover story about the duo in Billboard. Here are just a few unflattering quotes Taggart and Pall drop over the course of the piece:
"We rage every night."
"We're way too good at drinking."
"Only Justin Bieber and Drake can hold a candle to what we've done."
"Even before success, pussy was number one."
"That’s our penises combined... tip to tip."
At one point, the article says Taggart was inspired by Jeremy Piven's Entourage character Ari Gold. It's like a profile of a sentient puka shell. Like many modern bros, the Chainsmokers are self-effacing about their status as pop's reigning beer-pong kings. As NPR music critic Ann Powers notes, they've evolved as musicians and songwriters since their novelty song "#Selfie" first crashed the pop charts in 2014, but their reliance on female singers still comes with some tricky ambiguities. "It can be hard to tell if male DJs centering their work on women's self-expression is exploitation, compensation or the return of the repressed," she writes.
For the vocalists who appear on Chainsmokers tracks, the hope is clearly that the group's chart-topping singles will create a wave of hype for them to ride in their own lucrative solo careers. For example, Daya, the singer heard on "Don't Let Me Down," released her own idiosyncratic pop album Sit Still, Look Pretty back in October. It's unclear if she'll be able to mimic the success of the Chainsmokers, but she's off to a good start.
Get used to them
What does all this media attention mean for the Chainsmokers? Bigger collaborations and bigger festival spots, probably. The duo may continue along the big-name DJ path they're currently on, but it's also possible they'll aim for a more mainstream brand of success than previous EDM phenomenons like Avicii, Skrillex, and Calvin Harris. Despite feuding with Lady Gaga and Mark Ronson in recent weeks -- a conflict spurred after Pall knocked her single "Perfect Illusion" in a Rolling Stone interview -- many other high-profile artists are now seeking them out. In interviews, they've hinted at collaborations with acts like Big Sean, Weezer, Linkin Park, and Coldplay's Chris Martin. In a pop-music landscape that feels increasingly data-driven, Taggart and Pall have appeared to crack the code.
The question going forward will be if the Chainsmokers can flip their hitmaking rep into a more traditionally "respectable" image as serious, album-oriented artists -- or if they're even interested in that. Why stress over building a legacy when you can travel the globe and party your way to the top of the charts? For now, they're releasing their Collage EP on Friday, nursing their rockstar injuries, and tweeting out It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia screenshots. You know, typical dude shit. They wouldn't have it any other way.
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