I’m a middle child, so I’m well-versed in the art of “too much” and its corresponding circuit-breaker “never enough.” As a kid, I would tell anyone who would listen that I was the oldest girl, a tender yet meaningless way to differentiate myself from my other three siblings. Back then, I’d do anything I could to set myself apart from them, it often seemed unbearable to share my parent’s attention with three whole other people. I’d try to be the best, the loudest, the fastest, the smartest — the feeling welled up in me like a bright, hot chorus.
It drove me, and it worked, but the sharp ache of it never went away. The song was never over. Maybe that initial loneliness was part of what drew me to fixate on a single song, and use it as a balm, escape, inspiration, until I wore it out; song as safety blanket, a song as a means of giving myself attention and love. Putting it on repeat meant I could give that feeling to myself as long as I needed it, even if it was “too much” for everyone else.
As an adult, I don’t think about that childhood feeling of “too much” all that often anymore. Actually, I hadn’t thought of it in years until I heard a Chainsmokers song called “Paris.” But I don’t think it ever really goes away. Whatever factor you slot in to explain it away, humans want attention — crave it — and sometimes we’ll do really stupid stuff to get it. The slick satisfaction when that need is met hits with the same lizard-brain jolt that a smash pop song delivers; pure endorphins, no aesthetic hierarchy, all dialogue, no analysis, all high-octane mood, no pretense. The song was made to bring us joy, and we are designed to feel it.
The Chainsmokers are grown men, and most of their songs are about romantic relationships, but they’re driven by this same basic human need for attention, glory, love. They’re over the top and schmaltzy in the way that only humans can be, they’re needy, and clingy and flawed. They’re too much — and that’s what makes them perfect. Over the last couple of weeks I have become a Chainsmokers fan, to the chagrin of many of my friends and peers. But their music gets to the center of that ancient ache, and now that I’m immersed, I have started feeling bad for people who haven’t realized that yet.
On Memories… Do Not Open, The Chainsmokers are selling your own feelings back to you. Even the album title gets me to deep, important moments — Christmas morning, birthday presents, boxes filled with childhood’s nostalgic totems — the moments of need and want, the moments joy or selfishness, jealousy and pride, and all my unrealized hopes. There is a certain beauty in the banality of these universal emotions, regardless of the subjective experiences that evoke them. Chainsmokers songs are just shallow enough to let you fit your own narratives into their frameworks — that can be a good thing. Not everything has to be deep.
Back when “Paris” came out, I wrote about how people were going to love it, and I even apologized at the time, because the public persona of these two goofy white dudes has come across as damn near unbearable in an era of actual political danger, corruption, discrimination, and out-and-out sorrow for so many marginalized people. I resented that I liked something these two privileged, clueless bros had put out into the world, something that felt so meaningless given the high stakes of the real world.
But then, I let myself stop resenting it.
I stopped apologizing to myself for finding safety in the breezy normalcy of some summery electro-pop. I stopped, because once you start cutting yourself off from small joys, you’ve taken away the strongest bulwark we as humans have against the onslaught of depression, anxiety and exhaustion. I stopped because I’m human, and lately I’ve often been hurting. I stopped because, as I dealt with the heaviness of 2017, these songs quickly became the only way I could refocus and calm myself down when the world felt overwhelming. Here, inside the sheen of the extremely basic drops on “Something Just Like This” I felt like enough. Chris Martin showing up to invoke early 2000s “Viva La Vida” vibes reminded me that this too, will pass. I felt strong again. Nothing was solved, but something was shifted.
Pop music as a form of escapism has been a prevailing theme in the genre’s acceptance into the realm of the “critically-acceptable.” But in this case, I’d argue the thinness of these songs is actually comforting because they hide nothing. Aesthetic judgments have long been stricter for the upbeat, studio-produced hits that are designed “just to make money,” while rock and other forms of music are afforded a purist mentality and heralded for creativity of a different scope. But, perhaps pop is so appealing in times of raw want because of how up front it is: Here is a song designed specifically for the basest parts of you, the old, unknowable instincts that make you feel desire at all, the drive to f*ck, and eat or drink, the relentless urge to fill that ache inside of you. There is absolutely no hidden agenda, and there is a different kind of purity in that blatant egoism.