The Chainsmokers Are the Nickelback of EDM
At this point, hating on Nickelback is about as uninspired as Nickelback itself. There's not even any joy to be had in writing smart things about how bad Nickelback is, because its been done, many times over. Thankfully, there's a new act here who can be the object of our collective derision. They're The Chainsmokers, and they're doing for EDM what Nickelback did to post-grunge arena rock: becoming immensely popular by using the worst cliches the genre has to offer, and then taking it down to the river and putting it out of its misery.
Nickelback made its way down south from Canada in the early 2000s when rock music had been dumbed down into the horny testosterone-fueled likes of Staind, 3 Doors Down, Seether, and Buckcherry. It had become a bankable formula that had splintered into many worse subgenres of rock music—much like EDM has in 2017. But Nickelback stands out among many of its worse contemporaries thanks primarily to the band's stunning commercial success.
Probably the clearest analysis of Nickelback's music comes from Steven Hyden's essential critique of the band's greatest hits for Grantland:
Nickelback distills every cliché about bad white-guy durr music in a convenient one-stop package—the vocals bellow like an excavator tongue-kissing a gravel pit and the riffs sputter like amplified lit farts. The lyrics frequently resort to cheap sexism, like the self-explanatory "Something in Your Mouth," a resentful ode disguised as a party-hearty strip-club rager about dumb guys feeling emasculated by powerful women. More surprising (and arguably more insufferable) is the schmaltz. Songs like "Lullaby," "Far Away," and "Gotta Be Somebody" are romantic drivel thick with imagery about lovers blissfully holding their breath and closing their eyes as they're whisked away to Pleasure Town on matching unicorns. It's the mash-up of Air Supply and Kid Rock that should exist only in nightmares.
Here we are at the beginning of 2017, where EDM has reached the same critical mass that rock music had at the turn of the century, and The Chainsmokers have arrived to fit every single one of Hyden's points.
Let's begin with genre cliches. From The Chainsmokers' unabashed borrowing from Calvin Harris, Kygo, Deadmau5, and Avicii to its college frat-bro baiting hooks, the duo sounds like it was written by and for the programmers of a Pandora EDM channel. Whether by laziness, stupidity, or through market research, the duo has managed to create beer pong tournament background music that offers nothing but repackaged EDM tropes for Spotify plays. And that's totally fine if all you care about is making Billboard lists (which Chainsmokers did for multiple weeks with three songs in 2016); many other pop acts have done this and many more will do this in the future.
The problem is, like Nickelback, The Chainsmokers sell their lowest-common-denominator sound using shameless sexism. Let's look at their first Number One single, "Closer," a duet between The Chainsmokers' Drew Taggart and Halsey. It's about him running into an ex, having sex with her in a car, then realizing he hated her the whole time. Then there's their breakthrough single, "#Selfie," which proudly mocks women taking pictures of themselves. (Compare those songs to the 2008 Nickelback hit "Something in Your Mouth," with lyrical gems such as the following: "You're so much cooler when you never pull it out / 'Cause you look so much cuter with something in your mouth.")
Like Nickelback, The Chainsmokers sell their lowest-common-denominator sound using shameless sexism.
And then there's the schmaltz. All three of The Chainsmokers big hits from 2016 are anchored by the charisma of a more talented female vocalist. They're all hungover, melancholy half-ballads that pander to fake sentimentality. It's all phony sentimentalism awkwardly stacked between macho drops and tired bass warbles that do nothing but compensate for their lack of emotion. It's enough to make Diplo feel like a poet and Harris feel like a badass.
If this all wasn't bad enough, the Chainsmokers are flagrantly smug about their fleeting success. In the most insufferable Billboard cover story of all time, The Chainsmokers brag about their penis sizes, blame other people for how bad they sounded at the VMAs, and actually said these words: "Even before success, pussy was number one." In other interviews around the same time, they talked shit about Lady Gaga and Mark Ronson. And suddenly you yearn for the days where Chad Kroeger wanted to beat the shit out of fellow Canadian Matthew Good.
Along with DJs themselves predicting the downfall of the genre, industry analysts have reported a stagnation in the once mighty EDM sales. After surges in sales from 2012 to 2015, the growth has slowed to only 3.5 percent. Tickets to major EDM festivals are slowing down, and even Steve Aoki himself has blamed the Vegas DJ landscape for the bubble bursting in America. When we look back on the Billboard Top 100 sound of the 2010s, will we do so by pegging The Chainsmokers as the end of an era?
With its ubiquity, Nickelback became the perfect scapegoat for the downfall of early 2000s cock-rock. The Chainsmokers are poised to do the same with their pop-focused lite-EDM. They've distilled the sound of the times into a handful of popular pervasive hits by stealing from nearly every act that came before them. They've shown that the genre is badly in need of innovation—and fast. Now comes the time when electronic acts need to actively rebel with an anti-Chainsmokers sound as rock acts like the Strokes and Black Keys did against Nickelback in the 2000s.
Like Nickelback in 2003, The Chainsmokers are nominated for their first Grammys this year—Best New Artist, Best Pop Duo/Group Performance, and Best Dance Recording. Like Nickelback, The Chainsmokers are being used as a tentpole of both the Grammys and the music industry. In this transaction, neither the Grammys nor the record business needs the artists they promote to be particularly good. They just need a pre-packaged mass market sound that is pervasive enough to make money. Like Nickelback, The Chainsmokers are grouped among artists far more deserving of each award. And like Nickelback, The Chainsmokers should lose.
This story originally appeared on Esquire.com.
* Minor edits have been made by the Esquiremag.ph editors.