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The manufactured authenticity of ‘Closer’

The Chainsmokers at VELD 2016. (Photo: The Come Up Show, Wikimedia Commons)

As of Nov. 26, 2016, “Closer” by The Chainsmokers and Halsey has been on the Billboard Hot 100 chart for 15 weeks. That’s not particularly impressive. Songs have stayed on the Hot 100 for as long as 87 weeks — in the semi-miraculous case of Imagine Dragons’ “Radioactive” — and it’s fairly common for songs to limp their way to long tenures on the chart. (If you’re wondering, Drake’s “One Dance” and Desiigner’s “Panda,” two of the biggest hits of the early part of this year, are still hanging around in the middle region of the chart; they currently stand at 31 and 37 weeks, respectively.) What is impressive about “Closer”’s tenure on the pop charts is how dominant the song has been throughout late summer and fall — for all 15 of its weeks on the chart, it’s been in the top 10, and for the 12 weeks between Sept. 3 and Nov. 16, it’s been the No. 1 song. That longevity at No. 1 is where “Closer” becomes noteworthy — only 10 songs have ever lasted longer at the top spot of the charts, and only six others have matched that record. At 12 weeks, “Closer” is now rubbing shoulders with an assortment of instantly recognizable, world-dominating pop songs, from “Lose Yourself” to “Yeah!”

Yet there’s something odd about “Closer,” something about it that makes it sit uneasily in the pop pantheon. Unlike most of those other hits, “Closer” isn’t a particularly distinctive song. It’s not by hyper-famous, instantly recognizable stars. In interviews, The Chainsmokers frequently describe themselves as just being normal frat bros — and they largely look the part. It doesn’t have a particular novelty to it, either — it’s not a nostalgic throwback like “Uptown Funk,” or a heartfelt tribute like “See You Again” or “Candle in the Wind.” Instead, “Closer” is just a song, and a fairly nondescript one at that. You’ve probably heard it many times over without even recognizing it. It’s the sort of song that fits in equally well in the club or in the grocery store, not really offensive or provocative in any way.

To understand how such a thoroughly bland piece of music could so thoroughly capture the pop-listening public, we have to first understand “Closer”’s musical roots. Mostly, that means understanding EDM. While “Closer” is a child of many lineages, including the passive-aggressive dueting of the Human League’s “Don’t You Want Me” and the 20-something ennui of Blink-182 and other pop-punk bands, its chief forebear is electronic dance music, and more specifically the variety of pop-ready EDM that first staked its foothold on the American pop charts of the late 2000s.

While danceable electronic music has existed since the electro-disco pioneered by Giorgio Moroder in the late 1970s, EDM’s history as a force in American pop music begins around 2009, with the ascendancy of David Guetta. While Guetta, a French DJ, achieved moderate success throughout Europe in the early 2000s, it was not until 2009 that he broke through in the U.S., on the strengths of his production on the Black Eyed Peas’ “I Gotta Feeling,” one of the few songs to top the charts for longer than “Closer.” “I Gotta Feeling” and the singles off of Guetta’s 2009 album “One Love” would provide the blueprint for all the EDM and EDM-influenced singles that followed. The songs combined electro-house and house-influenced beats with standard pop melodies and structures, creating compelling, relatively novel dance-pop. While the songs, aside from “I Gotta Feeling,” didn’t achieve overwhelming commercial success — the most successful of Guetta’s early solo singles, the charmingly titled “Sexy Bitch,” peaked at No. 5 on the charts — they were enough of a presence on mainstream pop radio to inspire imitators.

Guetta may have been the originator of pop-ready EDM, but he was certainly not the only artist peddling that genre to the Hot 100 around the turn of the decade. In the early 2010s, artists like Avicii, Zedd, Diplo, Swedish House Mafia and Calvin Harris all achieved major chart success in the U.S. by playing some EDM subgenre. While the EDM producers who found success in the U.S. don’t all play the exact same style — just compare the aggressive dubstep of a Skrillex record to the groovier, more restrained, garage-influenced style of Disclosure — the chart-topping EDM in America is pretty homogenous. The baseline electro-house style that is the face of modern EDM is a fairly simple formula: Start with a simple beat, often composed of just drums and a couple basic synth chords, layer a vocal melody over it, frequently sung by a fairly anonymous female vocalist, and build tension to a wordless musical climax. That climax, known as a drop, is perhaps EDM’s greatest selling point; in terms of musical storytelling, there are few things more dramatic than a good EDM drop, that release of sonic potential energy into pure action. The whole style is pristine, efficient and not particularly difficult. There are scores of tutorials on how to make an EDM song throughout the internet, and even famous DJs like Afrojack don’t necessarily know all that much about the formal aspects of their craft. (In a 2013 New Yorker article, he admitted to not knowing what a “bar” was — one of the most basic units of music theory.)

The formulaic nature of EDM and its all-consuming focus on the drop made it a ripe target for satire at the height of its popularity in 2014. That year, SNL parodied EDM with a sketch featuring Andy Samberg as a DJ who keeps the club in so much suspense for the drop that its sheer force upon arrival kills everyone in it. More importantly, The Chainsmokers entered the pop consciousness with “#Selfie.” The Chainsmokers’ breakthrough hit is a truly noxious thing, unloved even by its creators, who described it as “an annoying-ass record” in an interview with Billboard. The song, which is less a musical composition than an excuse to make bad jokes about its titular subject, is an unlovable, inept take on EDM, feeling like a house song made by someone whose education in the genre consisted of a single half-watched Youtube tutorial. Yet it was released at such a cultural moment for EDM, selfies and all the assorted accoutrements of the 20-something club and festival scene that “#Selfie” became an actual hit, reaching the top 20 in 2014.

The Chainsmokers’ next hit, “Kanye,” was also a bit of a novelty. This ode to the Westian ego, with lyrics like “I wanna be like Kanye / I’ll be the king of me always,” was a much less ugly-sounding sort of joke. It sounds like an actual attempt at the tropical house-tinged EDM that gained popularity at that late-2014 moment, never approaching the crummily obvious parody of “#Selfie.” “Kanye” isn’t good, but it is more listenable. It’s also a key part of understanding the road that leads from David Guetta to “#Selfie” to “Closer.” On an episode of The New York Times’ “Popcast,” Jia Tolentino, a writer for The New Yorker’s website, describes “Kanye” as “the necessary link between ‘#Selfie’ and the Kygo-wave of [‘Closer.’]” Somewhere between summer 2014 and June 2015, when “Roses,” the first single of their new sound came out, The Chainsmokers evolved from the calculated, contrived parody of “#Selfie” to a new style, no less calculating but aimed for a more serious success.

And so we get “Closer.” Unlike the EDM that it grew out of, “Closer” is not a pristine drop-delivery machine. The synth hook, borrowed from The Fray’s “Cable Car,” sounds especially amateurish in its guileless pounding. It’s a fairly conventional, lyrics-driven pop song, telling a story of two ex-lovers who reconnect for a night in a hotel bar and end up fucking in the backseat of a Range Rover. “Closer” is a calculated song, but it’s manufactured for a different purpose than most EDM hits.

For all of the commercial success in clubs and festivals, EDM’s success on the pop charts over the past five years has felt like a bit of an afterthought. EDM artists have never made up more than 10 percent of Billboard’s year-end chart, the best metric for understanding which songs made a significant impact on the pop world, and just one EDM single had reached the No. 1 spot on the Hot 100 before “Closer.” The main reason why “Closer” succeeded where previous EDM hits didn’t is because it feels more human, more self-aware. The stereotypical EDM piece is something inhuman, a machine designed to drive you inexorably to the release of the drop, carried by sparkling synthesizers and anonymous vocals. “Closer” takes that formula and tweaks it — the synthesizers are more clunky-sounding than the ones typically used in EDM, and Halsey and Drew Taggart (the Chainsmoker who sings the male part on this) have more personality than your average house vocalist (even though Taggart’s personality comes through as a complete lack of singing ability). “Closer” represents an evolution in pop-EDM, a softening and humanizing.

Yet it would be wrong to think that “Closer”’s more human take is any more “authentic” or “genuine” than any other EDM song, including “#Selfie.” The artifice of “Closer” is clear when the song is put up to any close examination. The song’s narrative, as it were, is threadbare, an excuse plot that allows the Chainsmokers to graft on a series of references (Blink-182! UC Boulder! Range Rovers! Tucson!) recognizable and relatable to their target audience of 20-somethings, all culminating in an anthemic refusal of reality: “We ain’t ever getting older.” If it weren’t so obvious, I’d call it genius. But maybe obvious is what works. In all of the pieces I’ve read documenting the rise of “Closer,” there’s a shared observation: Beyond anything else, “Closer” is a hit because it feels like a hit. There’s something undeniable about it, something perfectly designed for pop appeal. I can’t say I like “Closer” — I may even hate it — but even so, there’s something to be admired in its crass artifice.

This article first appeared in the Stanford Daily Magazine on January 17, 2017.

Contact Jacob Kuppermann at jkupperm ‘at’ stanford.edu.

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