The correct response to the existence of The Chainsmokers is sheer, unbridled contempt. The proud frat boys of EDM don’t even have the gumption to just release more sledgehammer, mosh-pit friendly dubstep, à la circa-2010 Skrillex or Diplo; their specialty is instead wistful, featherweight EDM pop designed to be screamed along to over a Red Bull and vodka or 10. It’s relentlessly cliché music about doomed, beautiful relationships and how tonight will be the best worst night of your young beautiful life; it is all extremely Thought Catalog.
Contrasting this is The Chainsmokers themselves, whose list of bro bona fides is long—longer even than both their penises, the lengths of which they list on their website (17.34 inches, “tip to tip,” they claim). The more musical half of the duo, Alex Pall, got into EDM as a 15-year-old club kid and aspired to be a music agent in the mold of Jeremy Piven’s Entourage character. In interviews, they’re boors, castigating the artists who wouldn’t work with them when they were coming up (eat shit, Weezer), bragging about their alcohol tolerance, and claiming to do things like “brain-rape” Calvin Harris the time they met him. Their few live appearances consist of a legendarily tone-deaf MTV VMA performance as well as last weekend’s thin, awkward SNL appearance, on which the bros in question merely gestured toward a performance, as if doing more might look uncool. They are a perfect target, and hating them is a parlor game among serious music fans; their debut full-length, released last Friday, is currently the lowest scored album of the year on Metacritic by a country mile.
Unfortunately, I like it—or at least I like hating it to such a degree that I’m not sure it’s worth distinguishing between the two emotions. It’s wonderfully contemptible, swooning stuff, like watching a romantic comedy to make fun of it but getting an unironic cold chill when things fall into place at the conclusion. Their new, incomprehensibly titled Memories…Do Not Open consists of 12 attempts to emulate the mega-success of their single “Closer,” which has almost a billion streams on Spotify alone. (It is the platform’s third most-streamed song ever.) The template is as follows: Get an indie-girl singer who pronounces her vowels weird to sing romantic lyrics with pop-country lifestyle specificity (selfies, tattoos, drinking) over music that alternates between anthemic pop and anthemic EDM. The result is a dark twin of the banjo-and-vest festival-core folk-rock of Mumford & Sons or The Lumineers, pointing to the existence of a bright new sub-genre so perfectly suited for Hollywood trailers and detergent commercials that it seems to have been focus-grouped into existence at the expense of millions of dollars.
But The Chainsmokers appear to have built their mighty brand themselves—a fact they never let interviewers forget—using Silicon Valley-style iteration to create a perfect market disruption. (Their terms, not mine.) Accordingly, even if they are a one-trick pony, it is a pretty effective trick. They do it many times on Memories…Do Not Open, which replaces “Closer” singer Halsey with Emily Warren, Jhene Aiko, Louane, Chris Martin, and handsomer Chainsmoker Andrew “Drew” Taggart. None of the ensuing songs are better or worse than any of the others, except for “Break Up Every Night,” which is slightly more uptempo and less starry-eyed and thus less uniquely saccharine than its surroundings. Listening to it is sort of like getting a salad at McDonald’s—it’s still bad for you, so you might as well just eat the real thing, which you can get via the comparative Big Macs of wistful “Closer” soundalike “Paris” or wistful “Closer” soundalike “Bloodstream” or wistful “Closer” soundalike “My Type.” “Young” gets a little more mall-emo; “Honest” has the choral “whoa oh”s of the aforementioned festival-core bands. Nevertheless, everything starts quiet, gets big, delivers some hyper-produced wub wubs, gets bigger, and then twinkles softly out; it’s like a sitcom where every episode reconfigures the same plot points and jokes before returning to stasis for the credits.
In this capacity The Chainsmokers’ reputation as the Nickelback of EDM is merited—you could layer many of these songs over each other without creating any dissonance—but Nickelback also had a larger nefariousness to them, reflecting the corporate dead-end of grunge. They directly emulated much better music that came before them, rendering it anodyne, toxically masculine, and dumb. But The Chainsmokers are just Skrillex for the Lululemon set. Their very base is disposability; it’s Vegas EDM for the suburbs. Critics lining up to dunk on it remind me of Kurt Vonnegut’s image of a literary critic as a “person who has put on full armor and attacked a hot fudge sundae or a banana split.” Hating them is a little too easy.
And anyway, even if Memories falls flat, “Closer” is worth imitating: It’s a legitimately good song. If Ariana Grande dropped it we’d already have a Tame Impala cover of it; people would be singing it at karaoke for years, a “Since U Been Gone” for the Snapchat era. The only reason it isn’t is because, I mean, just fucking look at these assholes. You can commend the duo’s Frankenstein synthesis of music you probably hate even if you also quietly root for their individual livers to fail. As to when and how that happens—their careers ending, not their livers failing—I see two paths. If The Chainsmokers are anywhere near as talented as they think they are, they’ll be anticipating trends and blowing our minds for a couple decades. On the other hand, if they’re anything like Nickelback, they’ll… well, still be around in a couple decades. That, ultimately, is what their profoundly hated and hatable debut sounds like. You may not be making any special memories to Memories…Do Not Open, but then, neither are The Chainsmokers—or their fans, for that matter. These are commercial jingles, and their artistic success is measured in market penetration. No doubt, The Chainsmokers are high-fiving over it right now.