I haven’t updated this blog in a while: in between moving house, starting a PhD, working a job, dealing with Brexit and staring dumbfoundedly at Donald “Racist Paedo-Rapist” Trump, the blog has ended up taking a backseat. I’ve been determined to finish my No. 1 reviews though so here we are, a whole bunch of posts giving quick reviews of every 2016 UK No. 1 that I missed while they were in the charts:
The Chainsmokers reinvented themselves last year, transitioning from being EDM jesters who wrote songs like #Selfie to EDM artists who wrote songs like Closer. It was a good move for them, given how awful they were at being jesters. #Selfie, for example, was nigh-on indefensible, purporting to be a ‘satire’ of vapid millennial women which took so many cheap potshots at the most obvious, low hanging fruit available that it ended up being as vapid as the people it was critiquing.
That’s not to say that their EDM artist phase has revealed them to be competent artists though. Massive parts of Closer are just pure crap. Neither of the singers can sing, the lyrics are jumbled messes of extraneous wank, the chorus requires two people to duet on a section which can only be from one of their perspectives, and the music is the same undulating synth preset that all charting EDM songs use (read: dull).
The flaws in Closer feel right for the song though. The track concerns two former lovers who accidentally cross paths in a bar and end up having sex. The morning after, the man wakes up and proceeds to be a self-loathing dick (“I drink too much and that’s an issue but I’m ok”) while the woman wakes up and proceeds to desperately overblow her one night stand into a romantic rekindling of the relationship (“You look as good as the day I met you / I forget just why I left you”).
Each singer’s performance, both of which are terrible, fit their characters like a glove. The female singer’s performance is trying way too hard, but the character she’s playing is an intensely needy woman trying way too hard to read things into the night that just aren’t there. Similarly the male singer’s performance is sloppy and lackluster, but his character’s main characteristic is that he’s just a bit shit: a rude, dour alcoholic who’s knows his flaws and hates himself for them. Both characters are defined by their failures and thus so are the singers’ voices: if they were real people who recorded a pop song together, they would fail at it in exactly the way the singers do here.
There are bits of the characters which niggle though. The male character is played by one of the guys who wrote the song; as such, the fact that he gets to play a tortured male anti-hero while hiring a woman to little more than lust over him gives the song a definite Mary Sue quality. There’s also some weird sexist overtones hanging over The Chainsmokers’ work. Both #Selfie and Closer have them hiring a female singer and then positioning themselves immediately above her in terms of the song’s power relationships, either through hiring a woman purely to present her as a vapid whore in #Selfie or hiring a woman purely to fawn about how sexy they are in Closer. The result is that quite a few Chainsmokers songs seem to be largely about asserting dominance over their female guest-stars; I can’t imagine they’re the nicest people to work with at all.
Moving on from the characters, let’s look at the lyrics. In summary: they’re crap. “Pull the sheets right off the corner / Of that mattress that you stole / From your roommate back in Boulder” is just an awful set of lines, gracelessly gamboling through material which starts descriptive and quickly becomes inane. They’re poorly constructed too. The mention of the roommate in Boulder is obviously there so that the lyric would rhyme with the next line’s “Older”, the rhyme only serving to heighten how arbitrarily chosen the location “Boulder” is. This then puts the audience’s focus in entirely the wrong place: the most important part of the line should be the “stolen mattress” image (which says a lot about the characters, their situation and their outlook), yet that image gets buried under half-baked references to nameless side-characters and odd locations. The structure of the sentence needs a complete reversion; we should start at their childhood town and focus in onto the sheets of their mattress.
But again, the characters are as directionless as their lines. They see each other and “can’t stop” themselves from engaging with meaningless sex, showing a total lack of control over where their life is going and thus a complete lack of any forward momentum. They also see themselves as “never getting older”: stuck in a world of stasis, incapable of seeing a future or a way out for themselves. These characters’ lives have broken down and fractured; the idea of following any form of traditional narrative structures is now lost to them. The song wouldn’t feel true to the characters if it was structured well.
It also ties really well into the world around us. Last Christmas, my parents and I talked about how the current generation goes around marriage in a completely different order to how their generation did. You used to go out of school, start a career, find a partner, marry your partner, move in together, build up your career and that was you for life. Now we go out of school, start a career, build up your career, find a partner (maybe), move in together (maybe), continue building up your career (if you can), marry your partner (if you work out), and then carry on like this as long as you can (until everything inevitably falls apart or one of you die). It all speaks to how unstable the world has become. In a world of constantly changing industries, zero-hour contracts, a broken job market, increasingly expensive houses, the slow erosion of the welfare state, etc etc etc, it is becoming increasingly impossible for millennials to envision a future for themselves. I’m in a very good position at the moment: I have a job, a house, money in the bank and multiple degrees. The job is a rolling contract which is due to end in a few months time, and very few positions in the local area cater to my level of education and skillset (no-one wants to pay 23-year-old socialists to write about pop music 24/7). My house is a rented terraced house which I can only afford because I have a housemate who’s currently in a similar position to me. My savings will not last long if I can’t get another job or if my housemate decides to move on. I don’t know what know what my job will be in a few months time and I don’t know if I’m still going to be able to afford my house and PhD course this time next year. And let me repeat: I’m one of the affluent, lucky ones. I’ve got myself in a pretty good situation here. The youth of today don’t have futures anymore: they have the next few months, if they’re lucky. As such, the strange anti-structure of Closer isn’t just a technical exercise mirroring it’s central character’s frustrations, it’s actually what a lot of the world sounds like right now. Closer is exactly as crap as the world which borne it.
Does this make The Chainsmokers into the great chroniclers of our age, incisively looking at the world around them and representing it’s true form for all to hear? I doubt it. All of the issues with the song are present in other works by The Chainsmokers: the misjudged performances, the unpleasant undertones, the flawed writing and compositions, etc. The difference is that the flaws in Closer join together to make something more than it’s component parts. By hook or by crook, Closer manages to accurately capture something about life at the moment. Considering how much life has gone to shit in recent years, maybe actively crap music is about to have it’s day. Now is the time of Judith Halberstam’s The Queer Art of Failure; in times of shit, maybe there’s a lot to be said for failing well.