Why I Can’t Quit The Chainsmokers

My body doesn’t seem to care if the pop duo are robots trying to convince us they're human, or just garden-variety idiots — it still wants their music, which (for better or worse) is everywhere.

The thing you need to know about the Chainsmokers, more than you even need to know who they are, is that listening to them is — for a lot of us — like masturbating with a fridge-sized vibrator. Their music hits all the right buttons. And that’s why they’re everywhere: on the radio, at the mall, or just piping out of your bathtub drain without explanation.

You’ve definitely heard their music before, even if you didn’t realize it. The Chainsmokers’ sound isn’t the most recognizable. The EDM-flavored pop duo’s beats are always slick and addictive, but vocally their hits are a jumble of song-speech from Andrew Taggart, the verbal half of the duo, and singing by various featured artists. Their biggest single yet, for instance, is “Closer,” a duet between Taggart and the pop star Halsey. “We ain’t ever getting older,” they chant together, stupidly, on the chorus.

“You liked ‘Forever Young,’ so we rephrased it for you!” they say, basically. You say, “Thank you.” You feel disrespected, vaguely, and you try to resist, but your body responds, horny for dancing. Eventually, you have listened to “Closer” more than 100 times, and you’re not alone. It’s the second most streamed song ever on Spotify (or third, if you count both versions of "Despacito"). And the duo’s songs just spent 61 straight weeks, more than a calendar year, in the Billboard Hot 100’s top 10. That streak ended only on July 10, and fell just short of Katy Perry’s all-time record of 69 weeks. (Nice.) For better or worse, the Chainsmokers are the sound of the present.

You’re not special. Like basically everyone else in America, you’re the listener the Chainsmokers expected.

The lesson you take from this: You’re not special. Like basically everyone else in America, you’re the listener the Chainsmokers expected, even though you don’t want to be. You want to defy their expectations and separate yourself from their bros-in-polos base. You only laugh at, like, half of their almost-jokes on Twitter about dogs and texting, and you don’t think they deserve a cookie for recognizing their own blandness. (“Honestly, we're two white guys that like to be friendly,” Taggart told Rolling Stone.)

You certainly don’t find it cute that they publicize their combined dick length on their website. (17.34 inches, allegedly.) We’re naturally virile, they try to suggest. The fact that they take their figure out to two decimal places betrays some latent anxiety, though. And some of that same anxiety runs through their songs and videos, in which the duo constantly reference the past, the outdoors, and physical pleasures — inhaling fresh air, biting that tattoo on your shoulder. The Chainsmokers’ music is so modern and inorganic, so much what aliens would sing to humans to lull us into complacency, that it's always on the edge of the uncanny valley. Their recurring themes of nostalgia and, especially, nature, seem like a kind of campaign to reassure fans that they’re human. Otherwise, we might start thinking they’re plastic Ken dolls under their clothes. I mean, I don’t not think that.

But it doesn’t matter what I think. Because, at their best, the Chainsmokers bypass my brain and hack into my body, which doesn’t care if they’re dolls, or robots, or garden-variety idiots. The language of pop is physical — beats, hooks — and the fun of it is physical, too. My body likes how the Chainsmokers bang on my aural erogenous zones with their relentlessly repeating chord progression. My body especially loves “Paris.” The beat sounds like my heart.

That’s the only explanation I have for why, in June, I flew to Las Vegas to see the Chainsmokers live. They were “performing” — DJ'ing, mostly, accompanied by an emoji-stuffed light show — at XS, an indoor-outdoor club on the Strip with at least 30 disco balls, ceiling-mounted fog…guns? and multiple swimming pools. Guests were forbidden from swimming, though. The pools existed only to symbolize luxury’s triumph over the desert, and evaporation in general.

I didn’t go to Vegas alone. My friend flew in for the show, too, on a day when the heat peaked at 112 degrees in the shade. But the trip was my idea, and I flew farther than she did. It wasn’t because I love the Chainsmokers’ music. My working definition of love involves lust and respect, and what I feel for their music is just a weird lust. It can’t be reciprocated and it unfolds without touch — it’s all sound and taste. I have listened to each Chainsmokers hit on repeat until I tasted blood, imaginary but still tangy.

I hoped seeing their live show would help me understand why. I also just really wanted to see “Closer” live. The show started with a confetti drop at 1:30 a.m. (Vegas!), and my friend and I danced and sat and increasingly just waited for that telltale “Closer” opener, a mix of ghoul-whispers and echoing piano.

We knew any performance of this song would face logistical challenges, since Halsey wasn’t there. Still, we stuck around. We dissected Taggart’s outfit: a long black T-shirt with “OFF” written on the back, and jeggings that were baggy — fashionably so, I guess — around the butt. We watched strange emoji tableaux flash across the club’s video screens: a throbbing, sobbing emoji synching with a sad lyric, a smiley face whose pupils were hands flipping the bird, an emoji-with-a-body dancing amid cartoon cash stacks, hot dogs, and ibuprofen.

“It’s interesting,” my friend said, during a lull in the show. Maybe it was when the Chainsmokers put on “The Circle of Life,” barely remixed. “They just aren’t very good.”

The Chainsmokers are Taggart, 27, and Alex Pall, 32, two white guys with brown hair, brown eyes, and faces. Taggart, the cleaner-shaven one, writes, produces and increasingly “sings” the Chainsmokers’ songs. (His singing range is human speaking range, if not less.) Pall, meanwhile, DJ's and arranges collaborations. I’ve never actually heard Pall’s voice; his work is largely behind the scenes, and when he’s thrust into the spotlight, you can see why it doesn’t happen very often. Taggart once told Billboard, “Only Drake and Justin Bieber can hold a candle to what we’ve done.” In the same story, Pall talked about strip clubs, phone calls he took on the toilet, and his abiding passion for “pussy.” In the two-person universe of the Chainsmokers, Pall is the id.

Increasingly, their universe is ours. They’ve been slowly taking over since 2015, when they had their first radio hit “Roses,” featuring Rozes, a great pop song (their last?). Next there was “Don’t Let Me Down,” featuring Daya, really just some spindly architecture around a monster drop; then “Closer”; next “Paris,” a mid-tempo vacation song; and most recently “Something Just Like This,” featuring Coldplay, an anthemic track about insecurity and archival research. The fact the Chainsmokers collaborated with Coldplay, an uncool band that has nonetheless objectively played the Super Bowl, shows how far they’ve come. They even got first billing; “Something Just Like This” is listed on iTunes as a track by “The Chainsmokers & Coldplay.”

“It’s interesting,” my friend said, during a lull in the show. “They just aren’t very good."

Once upon a time, maybe in 2011, the Chainsmokers would only have been mentioned in the liner notes for that song, if at all. But producers like Calvin Harris, Diplo, David Guetta, and DJ Snake (of “Turn Down for What” — let us never forget “Turn Down for What”) have changed the game. Bro-y EDM producers are mainstream famous now. The Chainsmokers benefit massively from this, though they’re not quite at the forefront of the big-name-producer trend. They blew up too recently, and they don’t have the name recognition Calvin Harris does. Before their show, a friend texted me, “Enjoy the band (dirty truckers??? Maybe something to do with oil) and Vegas!”

The Chainsmokers are at another, different forefront in pop music, though: They’re some of the first stars to inhabit the new famous-EDM-producer role while actively trying to erase its newness. They seem obsessed with the past, constantly teleporting themselves into it in their songs and videos. It’s not unusual for artists to play with nostalgia, but the Chainsmokers do it while also crafting futuristic drops that rely on the sound of two spaceships grinding together. There’s a contradiction there, but the Chainsmokers seem really, really invested in pretending otherwise. Their music sounds as if they’re trying to grow roots into the past, to be old, timeless, a natural part of human culture. The Chainsmokers want to have been making music before they were born.

They have at least been making music their whole lives, according to the lyric video for “Young,” released a few weeks ago. It’s a glorified PowerPoint, tracking the Chainsmokers in photos and video clips from babyhood, through their awkward teenage years, and into the present. They used to be kids with guitars and those metal-bead Hot Topic chokers, the video promises. They didn’t emerge fully grown from a lab. The video culminates in a Love Actually–style photo grid, shrinking down until it reveals a present-day photo of the Chainsmokers, constructed from a million tiny photos. The past has made us who we are today, the Chainsmokers intone wordlessly.

“Young” is one of many Chainsmokers songs “about how hard it is being white and in love,” as John Fassold puts it in a viral YouTube clip, but it’s also about, you know, being young. The past. Implicitly, so is every song on their debut album, which came out in April. It’s called Memories…Do Not Open, which suggests that the Chainsmokers have never taken their brains out of their packaging; it also shifts the entire album, even the present-tense tracks that feel most immediate — “Honest,” “Break Up Every Night” — into the past. These are memories, which the album’s title casts as powerful and unruly. The “do not open” is irony, though. Of course we should “open” their album, so they can make streaming money. Of course people should revisit, and even resurrect, their memories.

This is precisely what happens in the lyric video for “Closer,” the most watched clip on the Chainsmokers’ Vevo channel. Neither Chainsmoker appears in it, but it has been viewed more than 1.7 billion times (roughly seven times more than the “real” video for “Closer,” which shows Taggart and Halsey getting as sexy as they can while wearing all their underwear). The lyric video opens with a young straight couple, both tan models, looking through Polaroids on a couch. Eventually, we cut to the models on a beach, shooting the Polaroids they were just looking at.

The video layers nostalgia on more nostalgia: The Chainsmokers are nostalgic for looking through Polaroids, and the models with Polaroids are nostalgic for kissing and dry-humping — natural, biology-fueled activities — on the beach, a natural paradise. Nature is everywhere, presented almost as a sexy third star. Breaking surf gets shot with the same slow, lascivious pan as the female model’s pelvis. The video even tries to establish itself as natural. “Cut!” the director yells toward the end, but the models keep making out. He turns to the camera, mock-annoyed. “That’s what happens when you work with couples,” he says.

This is natural chemistry on a natural beach, the video concludes. Thus, this has been a good video.

In other songs and videos, too, the Chainsmokers obsessively return to nature. The lyric video for “Paris” is also set at a beach (although, ironically, the beach is in Tulum, Mexico). Model Alexis Ren stars in the hypnotic montage, wearing a variety of almost-thong swimsuits. It’s boring, because nothing happens, but also suspenseful, because how much of her butt will you see in the next frame? And the next?

The Chainsmokers love to bring us down to this level, to remind us that we are natural beings, too, with guts and animal impulses.

The Chainsmokers love to bring us down to this level, to remind us that we are natural beings, too, with guts and animal impulses. There’s a track on their new album titled “Bloodstream”; in the track before that, “Break Up Every Night,” sex is an unstoppable and literally animating force. “She wants to break up every night / Then tries to fuck me back to life / How can I help it if I like the way she makes me feel it,” Taggart chants on the chorus. It’s a grating, dumb song, but it’s also an ode to the power of biological imperatives, and the thrill of submitting to them.

Back in 2013, when the Chainsmokers had their first hit, “#Selfie,” they were not so interested in nature. That track and its video fixated on new-at-the-time tech phenomena: selfies, Instagram, hashtags. Over tuneless, unts-unts electronica, an uncredited woman monologues about her selfie process, name-checking Instagram filters and workshopping her caption. She’s a cruelly drawn character, meant to make hot women feel small, but more relevant here, she’s specific to the 2010s: indoors, zoned in on her screen.

The Chainsmokers have spent their career since “#Selfie” edging away from this woman and the granular details of modernity, retreating into nostalgia and nature. They still talk about selfies and Instagram, but now in looser terms — like “posting pictures of yourself on the internet,” a phrase Taggart uses in “Paris.” That track mostly hinges on more natural, physical pleasures, though: hanging out on the terrace, smoking, and breathing in “the air of this small town” — a line that suggests the Chainsmokers have not actually been to Paris.

I’m a city girl. I like nature in theory, but I prefer not to be immersed in it, so I can have cell phone reception. I had my exact preferred outdoor experience at XS: There were some palm trees by the unused pools. Nature is inside of me, too, though, and the Chainsmokers’ music helps me access it, churning up a primal need to move. Usually, I go for walk. I wish I could dance, but I struggle to even clap on a beat. Still, I dare to dream of the dance I would do in a more coordinated body.

At XS, I saw this dance in real life. A woman near my friend and me, who looked like Chrissy Teigen, was shimmying and twerking and putting her hands up at all the right times. I watched her covertly (I hope), and it felt like a revelation: Our bodies have the same thing to say. This perfect stranger feels the same impulse I do.

I think Taggart feels it, too. It was hard to actually see the Chainsmokers from our spot in the club, but, occasionally, they were livecast on the video screens. During one up-tempo song, Taggart, ecstatic, lifted an arm to do a circling fist pump. I wasn’t sure what to call it at the time. “Cakebeater arm of joy,” I wrote in my notes app. It was a perfect, fluid motion — crazy to do at the office, natural to do over a Chainsmokers beat. Taggart grinned at the empty middle distance.

“He loves being a Chainsmoker,” I said to my friend, and she agreed. At the time, I was still waiting for “Closer,” but looking back, that was my favorite part of the show: seeing Taggart lose his mind over his own hit.

As far as I can tell, Taggart is barely a celebrity, and Pall is even less so. I’ve never seen a paparazzi shot of either of them, and their most popular videos are the ones they aren’t in. It seems we fans like what they do, and what they do to us, more than who they are. We like their music and mythology more than we like their physical selves.

You might assume otherwise, because I am talking so extensively about the Chainsmokers, but I do read books; just this summer, I read Mythologies, by dead guy and French person Roland Barthes. It’s old, but nonetheless applicable to the Chainsmokers’ oeuvre. In it, Barthes argues that myths are the meta-narratives of society, the unifying stories rarely told but constantly referenced by art and media and marketing. Some of our current society’s myths, to illustrate, include Capitalism rewards hard work; youth is sexy; an education is worth it, no matter the price; size matters. We rarely say these things directly, only because we don’t have to. We all know, or know we’re supposed to know.

The goal of myths like these, Barthes argues, is to erase history, to make the present feel less specific to a time period or political climate. Myths create an illusion of continuity, constructing the status quo as eternal, unchangeable, and above all — Barthes loves this word — natural.

The Chainsmokers run the risk of seeming the opposite of natural: ominous, synthetic. This is a risk all new things run: Soylent, Botox, the first vibrators that truly looked like penises. Typically, though, the benefits of being new outweigh the risks. America loves new things. We Instagram still-slimy newborns; we lined up for cronuts for a while; we almost doubled the Kickstarter funding goal of a nightlight that pulses when you get an email.

Right now, our myths wavering, the future seems blank. We still love new things out of habit, but the love is tinged with fear.

But as the Chainsmokers have grown more popular, new stuff — politically and otherwise — has grown increasingly foreboding. In the Chainsmokers’ universe nature consists only of fuckable beaches, but real nature is headed in a darker direction: New cracks in the Arctic ice shelf are growing fast, and a new iceberg the size of Delaware just calved off Antarctica. Meanwhile, Las Vegas, home of XS, could get subsumed by a multimillion-pound dust storm pretty much any day now. That storm, when it takes flight and blots out the sun, will be new.

Our myth that the future is bright is on the wane. Barthes might approve; at the end of Mythologies, he critiques myth for suppressing revolution. Myth is a double-edged sword, though. Even as it sedates us, it helps us cope with our fear of the future, of sudden apocalypse. Right now, our myths wavering, the future seems blank. We still love new things out of habit, but the love is tinged with fear.

The Chainsmokers strive to reassure us. Memories are worth revisiting, they promise. Learning from past experiences helps us in the present. This is the core myth of their new album. Rephrased, it’s this: The past has prepared us for the present. Nothing is really new. Don’t worry.

It’s a depressing thought, but it’s stabilizing to swaddle myself in it sometimes — as if humans weren’t once new, and couldn’t someday disappear. As if we occupied Earth even billions of years ago, listening to EDM-laced songs about backseat quickies.

By the time our phone clocks struck 3 a.m., the crowd at XS was thinning. It was time. The ghoul-voices swirled, and Taggart uttered the first boring word of “Closer”: “Hey.” Shrieking incoherently, I jumped up and rushed the dancefloor with my friend — but, in the end, it wasn’t the satisfying finish I had hoped for. Without Halsey, the song collapsed in on itself. The verse, and even the concrete details of the chorus (the unaffordable Rover, the mattress from Boulder), were overshadowed by the refrain: “We ain’t ever getting older.” Taggart repeated it so much I could feel my body aging as he sang it. I am getting older. I’m 28, and I just got my hair dyed to hide my grays. My friend and I left when the song ended, not because the show was over, but because we were tired.

On our way out, we got lost in the labyrinthine casino outside XS. We wandered around, looking for an exit but finding only slot machines and mirrors. A beefy guy, probably drunk, touched my arm as he passed by.“You look like you’re about to go suck some dick!” he proclaimed, I think because I was wearing eyeliner and had a mouth.

He seemed proud of me.

I didn’t respond, but his comment made me think of how the Chainsmokers’ show had been the opposite of sucking some dick, of even being in a room near a dick. Dicks are warm, and there is a coldness to what the Chainsmokers do. By pretending otherwise, though, the Chainsmokers remind me to cherish my physical response to their music. That response is everything they want to be: natural and human and rooted in the past. It’s also a relief, an escape from the present and the ways it worries me.

This was never more true than at the very beginning of the Chainsmokers’ show. When I first saw Taggart, standing on the glowing stage in his weirdly shaped outfit, he wasn’t even singing a good song. And still, I was delighted, way happier than I expected to be. I want to say that I thought, There he is! A real Chainsmoker!, but really I was just a tingly body in a crowd of other bodies. I felt a whoosh of adrenaline and didn’t think at all. ●

Mae Rice is a writer who lives in Minneapolis and basically lives at Starbucks.

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