The Week In Pop

The Chainsmokers Have Pinpointed Pop’s Absolute Middle And They Refuse To Budge

Fast food, like any vice, is fine in limited quantities. Only when you pound Big Macs regularly, Morgan Spurlock-style, do you really suffer from indulging in high-fructose cheap thrills. Ditto pop music at its most pandering and superficial: It can be delicious or repulsive depending on how you’re feeling, at its best it can hold its own against more respectable alternatives, and too much of it will leave you craving something that offers more nourishment.

That’s how I understood the Chainsmokers upon seeing them perform at SXSW, flaunting their rapidly expanding collection of hits in a quasi-performative DJ set that underlined their origins as a sleazy EDM bromance. And that’s how I expected to receive their debut album Memories… Do Not Open, released last Friday and projected to easily debut at #1 next week. I figured the LP would continue my love-hate relationship with these dudes, that it would be peppered with hits and padded out with filler and my main critique would be that repeated exposure leaves you feeling like a piece of trash. Instead, I’m reminded of a different point about fast food: No matter how many new promotions most franchises conceive, the menu is basically the same item over and over again.

In the case of Memories… Do Not Open, that item is “Closer,” a song that doesn’t even appear on the album but hangs over it like the ghost of a douchebag ex-boyfriend prone to excessively boorish pullquotes like “Even before success, pussy was number one.” The Chainsmokers have chosen to make “Closer” their foundational template, which is understandable to an extent considering the song’s global dominance. But even before “Closer,” they were charting a course for world domination and maybe even inching toward deserving it.

After vacuous breakthrough single “#SELFIE” made them one of the most disreputable acts in music but before they embraced their role as the Nickelback of EDM, Drew Taggart and Alex Pall bounced back from the brink of post-novelty purgatory with a string of increasingly massive pop singles. They cracked pop radio playlists with “Roses,” a euphoric future bass glide that’s still my favorite song of theirs by miles. A few more false starts later they channeled their inner xx for the appealing Daya collab “Don’t Let Me Down,” which would go on to become deservedly inescapable throughout the spring and summer. Two years after “#SELFIE,” I was ready to conclude that they didn’t suck anymore.

These self-described musical tech bros had clearly tapped into something the world wanted, but the extent of their savvy optimization wasn’t fully revealed until “Closer” came along and became 2016’s longest-reigning #1 hit. A duet about revisiting youthful indiscretions in a misguided pursuit of youth, it seemed like a decent song until it seemed like a plague until it seemed like a corny generational touchstone on par with “Don’t Stop Believin’.” The Halsey duet cemented the Chainsmokers’ position at the center of pop by meticulously triangulating where pop already lived, synthesizing a handful of the most pervasive trends in mainstream music as if attempting to identify the exact midpoint of the road. It may be the purest expression yet of the developing pop music singularity I like to call the monogenre.

As I noted last fall, “Closer” found the twilight-shaded common ground between Taylor Swift and Drake, arguably pop’s two biggest stars, in essence predicting what a rumored collaboration between the two might sound like. In merging the aesthetics of a country-pop star who worked her way toward synth-pop and the dude who blurred the line between rap and R&B, they distilled almost the entirety of modern radio into a passive-aggressive power ballad about longing and regret. And they encompassed most of the rest of the dial by doing it as producers stepping into the role of lead artists and by abandoning EDM’s harsh thumping in favor of zonked-out melancholic soft-rock vibes typical of tropical house. In short, “Closer” was the most 2016 song possible.

It worked. “Closer” stayed at #1 for 12 straight weeks, one of only 17 songs in history to last that long atop the Hot 100, and was still in the top 10 nearly as recently as last month. It became the Chainsmokers’ signature song and, perhaps to her dismay, Halsey’s too. (Sorry, “New Americana” fans.) At the time it seemed like just one more evolution in the Chainsmokers formula, the added wrinkle this time being the addition of Taggart on vocals. Less than a year later, with the hits piling up and a #1 album imminent, it seems more like the Chainsmokers attaining their final form.

“Closer” was such a success that they decided to keep recording it over and over again under different names. “All We Know,” “Setting Fires,” “Paris,” the Coldplay collab “Something Just Like This” — every subsequent Chainsmokers single sounded just like “Closer.” They all featured similar 4-5-6 chord progressions, similar bouncing synth parts over lightweight dance breaks, and similar wistful lyrics about the romantic entanglements (and disentanglements) of well-traveled young people, usually sung by Taggart and young female counterpart looking for her big break. Every single one of them sounds like instant nostalgia.

That worked, too. Not at first; “All We Know” and “Setting Fires” may have been such shameless “Closer” clones that listeners considered them redundant or recoiled from them like artificial intelligence in the uncanny valley. But “Paris” and “Something Just Like This” became massive hits in their own right by replicating “Closer” just closely enough to hammer the same pleasure centers, albeit with lesser dopamine squirts. Last month the Chainsmokers joined the Beatles and the Bee Gees as the only groups to land three simultaneous hits in the top 10. It would be impressive under any circumstance, doubly so for a duo that not long ago seemed destined to be remembered as craven one-hit wonders if they were remembered at all. (Memories of “#SELFIE”… do not open.)

Now that the “Closer” reenactment project expands to album length, the returns continue to diminish. The pivot is complete: The Chainsmokers at this point are less a production duo than an easy listening pop-rock band who dabble in electronics, like if the Fray commissioned a remix project. Memories… Do Not Open is as edgeless as that description implies. As ever, Taggart and Pall revel in their most basic instincts, this time in service of the goopiest songwriting imaginable. The Coldplay collaboration makes so much sense now, though by comparison these saccharine, elementary in-my-feelings anthems cast even Coldplay’s worst impulses in a sympathetic light.

“Paris” and “Something Just Like This” are included, still annoyingly irresistible and suddenly seeming more respectable in contrast to the rest of the tracklist. Vocalist Emily Warren shows up for two more “Closer” knockoffs, “Don’t Say” and “My Type,” which spotlight a relationship’s icy aftermath and fiery first days, respectively, like prequels to the “Closer” narrative. “Honest,” “Young,” and “It Won’t Kill Ya” all audaciously return to that same chord progression — “We just gotta own that shit,” Taggart sings at one point, as if winking at his audience. “Bloodstream” is basically “Roses” run through the “Closer” filter. Each of these songs has slightly different window dressing, but experienced back to back like this, the creative bankruptcy is staggering.

On the rare occasions when Taggart and Pall dare to branch out even a little bit, half the time it makes me long for the bland security of the “Closer” template. “Break Up Every Night,” which you may have witnessed on SNL last weekend, is an ’80s pop bop somewhere between MAGIC!’s “Rude” and Walk The Moon’s “Shut Up And Dance” — yeah — built around the chorus, “She wants to break up every night/ Then tries to fuck me back to life.” Opener “The One” begins with dreamy choral action reminiscent of Kanye West’s “Dark Fantasy” but quickly descends into vapid vanilla sentimentality.

The Chainsmokers were at their best when cycling through guest vocalists and adjusting their sound to match each collaborator’s strengths. Near the end of the album, they return to that approach and come away with some of their least objectionable tracks in recent memory. Jhene Aiko shows up to apply her airy R&B skill set over staccato synth blurts more lively than almost any other sound on the album before the usual ethereal theatrics kick in. It’s no masterpiece, but it’s the rare Memories song that sounds like the Chainsmokers without sounding like a Chainsmokers retread.

And then there’s the duo’s alarming alignment with bro-country superstars Florida Georgia Line, who, in hindsight, are an even more obvious match for these guys than Coldplay were. It’s not surprising that music’s foremost willfully gauche two-man hit machines would join forces. What is surprising is that they take the opportunity to go full M83. In closing out the album, “Last Day Alive” shoots for the stars and at least scrapes the stratosphere, perhaps puncturing the Chainsmokers’ self-imposed bubble along the way. It sounds like drifting off into outer space on a vessel powered by synthesizers, which implies exploration is on the horizon.

Commercially speaking, such an adjustment might not be necessary. People are still gobbling up whatever the Chainsmokers are cooking. There’s no telling how long they could keep releasing variations on the same song and getting richly rewarded for it. But even the most resilient metabolism can only gorge on the same garbage for so long before suffering the consequences. Perhaps if they don’t update the menu soon even Taggart and Pall are going to puke.

CHART WATCH

Many of us were hoping Kendrick Lamar could rightly tell Ed Sheeran to be humble and sit down this week, but instead “HUMBLE.” debuts at #2 while Sheeran’s “Shape Of You” stays at #1 for an 11th nonconsecutive week. That’s quite an accomplishment for Sheeran — Billboard notes that only 21 other songs have ever ruled the Hot 100 for that long — but Kendrick’s achievement is noteworthy, too. “HUMBLE.” is his highest-charting song as a lead artist (his previous best solo track was “Swimming Pools (Drank)” at #17; his appearance on Taylor Swift’s “Bad Blood” remix went to #1). It’s also the highest-debuting rap single since Eminem and Rihanna’s “Love The Way You Lie” entered at #2 in 2010.

Kendrick’s ascent means Bruno Mars’ “That’s What I Like” slides to #3. Kyle and Lil Yachty’s “iSpy” rises to a new peak at #4, which means it’s now Yachty’s best-charting hit. (It was already Kyle’s biggest hit by a mile.) The Chainsmokers and Coldplay’s “Something Just Like This” is at #5; that and #9 “Paris” give the Chainsmokers 49 consecutive weeks with a hit in the top 10, passing Ace Of Base for third on the all-time list behind Drake (51) and Katy Perry (69).

More big singles movement: Country star Sam Hunt rises to #6 with “Body Like A Back Road,” which becomes his first top-10 hit. It’s the first time since Jason Aldean’s “Dirt Road Anthem” in 2011 that a #1 country song has hit the Hot 100 top 10 without also crossing over to the Pop Songs chart, which measures pop radio play. In other words, “Body Like A Back Road” is doing so well among country fans that it’s charting high without actually crossing over — though new reports suggest it’s well on its way. The rest of the top 10: the Weeknd and Daft Punk’s “I Feel It Coming” at #7, Kodak Black’s “Tunnel Vision” at #8, and the Clean Bandit/Sean Paul/Anne-Marie hit “Rockabye” at #10.

Over on the albums chart, Drake’s More Life rules for a third straight week. Per Billboard, it’s the first album to remain three weeks at #1 since Drake’s own Views held on for nine straight weeks last year (and then another four weeks later on). More Life accrued 136,000 equivalent units, 111,000 of which are due to streaming. After beginning at #1 for two weeks, Ed Sheeran’s ÷ spends a third straight week at #2 behind Drake with 80,000 units.

Then comes the week’s top debut, Painting Pictures by troubled (and troubling) teen Florida rapper Kodak Black. Of his 71,000 units, 51,000 were culled from streaming. After Bruno Mars’ 24K Magic and a pair of Disney soundtracks (Beauty And The Beast and Moana) we arrive at Mastodon’s Emperor Of Sand, debuting at #7 with 43,000 units. Notably, Mastodon sold more albums than anyone else last week (41,000), so if Billboard’s tally was still based on album sales only, Mastodon would have a #1 album.

Rounding out the top 10 are Future’s self-titled, Migos’ Culture, and the latest from Christian rockers MercyMe. Lifer enters at #10 with 33,000 units and 30,000 in sales, becoming the group’s fourth top-10 release.

POP FIVE

Harry Styles – “Sign Of The Times”
For his debut solo single, One Direction’s Harry Styles has released a Bowie-inspired piano-rock ballad. It’s not bad! It makes me curious about what else he’ll debut on SNL this weekend and what his newly announced debut album will entail.

Pale Waves – “There’s A Honey” (Prod. The 1975)
Pale Waves are label-mates with fellow Manchester natives the 1975, and the 1975’s George Daniel and Matty Healy produced this gem of a single. It’s sighing neon ’80s pop-rock, brisk and gorgeous and forlorn. I love it. Thanks to Idolator for pointing it out.

Kiiara – “Whippin” (Feat. Felix Snow)
I keep liking new Kiiara songs, which troubles me because I am pretty sure Kiiara is the American Iggy Azalea. Don’t let the superior production fool you about what you’re enjoying, but maybe go ahead and enjoy it anyway.

Grace Mitchell – “Now”
Mitchell has previously struck me as Abel Tesfaye’s female foil, but this propulsive new wave track has personality all its own.

American Authors – “Everything Everything”
This song from Disney’s new Born In China nature documentary is corny and obnoxious and annoying, and it sounds like a hit.

NEWS IN BRIEF

  • Justin Bieber is back in the studio working on his Purpose follow-up. [Idolator]
  • Adele’s 21 surpassed Carole King’s Tapestry
 for the most weeks on the Billboard 200 chart for an album by a woman. [Billboard]
  • Adam Levine will host a new digital series Teeing Off With Adam Levine for Top Golf. [TMZ]
  • Britney Spears’ Piece Of Me Las Vegas residency is ending in December. [LV Review Journal]
  • Mariah Carey has formed Butterfly MC Records as a joint venture with Epic and will release a new studio album as part of the partnership later this year. [PR Newswire]
  • Cashmere Cat’s album is finished and now it’s called 9. [Twitter]
  • Sam Smith hit the studio with Timbaland. [Instagram]
  • Panic! At The Disco singer Brendon Urie will make his Broadway stage debut in Kinky Boots. [Playbill]
  • John Legend will voice and produce the virtual reality series Rainbow Crow. [Variety]
  • Ed Sheeran filmed a video for “Galway Girl” in Galway. [Instagram]
  • Chris Brown and Lil Wayne have been named in a federal drug investigation revolving around their association with the CEO of Sizzurp. [Miami Herald]
  • In other bad news for Brown (what other kind is there?), he’s reportedly pissed that Migos’ Quavo betrayed him by dating his ex Karrueche Tran. [TMZ]

HOLD ON, WE’RE GOING HOME