The Chainsmokers review - pyrotechnic rallying slogans and theatrical self-loathing

Alexandra Palace, London
Gimmicks, grand entrances and pop-cultural gags inhabit the DJ duo’s universe, where vague grievances attain epic proportions

Each pop era needs a critical piñata to embody all its horrifying afflictions, but few offer quite so large a target as the Chainsmokers. Derided first for their sexist videos, then their preposterous interviews, the duo have nonetheless insinuated themselves into the culture’s fabric. To their credit, the New Yorkers’ breakthrough in 2014 had substance, ushering a pensive sensibility into the rapidly expiring EDM movement. Their palette soon broadened – they’ve now settled into a sort of pop-house for soulful bros – but not as quickly as their audience, which has generated more song streams than the planet has inhabitants.

For all the ill will sent their way, it’s important to witness the Chainsmokers in their natural habitat. Not to observe some overlooked sociological nuance, but because it’s sometimes difficult to believe they belong to a culture at all. Alex Pall and Andrew Taggart’s music is so intellectually blank, so resistant to self-examination, that it resonates as art only in being regurgitated as a cultural phenomenon.

Gathered here at Alexandra Palace is a full house of happy Valentines and fixed-smile teens parading around shooting Instagram stories. Pall and Taggart make a grand entrance – within five minutes, nary a smoke cannon has gone unfired. But despite gimmicks including flaming drumsticks and a projected armada of middle-finger emojis, nothing is more instructive than Pall’s reaction to an early power cut. “Well London, shit happens sometimes,” he announces, audibly aggrieved. “Now fuck that, let’s keep it going.” It lasts all of four seconds before the power shorts again. He walks off stage with an air of mild petulance.

Pop-cultural gags, such as an ironic blast of Haddaway’s What Is Love, punctuate a fierce bombardment of whatever else might get a reaction. Some DJs can straddle genres with charisma alone, but this is a sensory glut, sloshing together pop-adjacent motifs with enough strobes and pyrotechnics to numb us into submission. Dubstep, emo, trap, Eurotrash, Burmese gong baths – what, the boys earnestly inquire, is the difference?

Things look up when Taggart takes the microphone, occasionally stumbling on the sweet spot between rallying slogans and theatrical self-loathing. On Paris, his reedy voice approximates the kind of plainspoken epiphanies Lorde makes her domain. The inescapable single Closer is lyrically adolescent and shamelessly tacky, yet so sweetly clumsy in execution that it halfway redeems the preceding outrage: an embarrassing, Xanax-referencing freestyle over Kendrick Lamar’s Humble.

Taggart ends the set on a new song containing each of the contradictions that makes the Chainsmokers iconic. “I walk into the club like everybody hates me,” he hollers nasally in the chorus, confetti bursting overhead. “Everybody hates me/ Everybody hates me.” This unwelcome triangulation of Calvin Harris, the Smiths and Lil Peep is not evocative nor poignant, yet it’s quintessentially Chainsmokers. Their trademark is vague grievances delivered in the style of reckless self-expression, as if merely hinting at a vulnerable thought – a friendship mourned, a kiss treasured – were an act of epic disclosure.

This is the arena in which plenty of great pop operates – petty teen drama fattened with endorphin-fuelled gravity. But in the Chainsmokers’ defensively party-heavy universe, where an EDM testosterone spree attends every gentle moment, it’s hard to avoid the subtext of self-congratulatory machismo. Building on rave foundations like a block of luxury flats, the duo’s rushing synths and shimmery feedback attain a dystopian kind of ego blackout: not a path to collective enlightenment but a blunt tool designed to obliterate introspection.


Jazz Monroe

The GuardianTramp

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