Featured image taken from The Chainsmoker’s “Paris” music video. Disruptor Records/Columbia Records (c) 2017.
With the exception of instrumental and orchestral music, most songs have the same structure, no matter what genre it is: verse, chorus, verse, chorus, bridge, chorus. Sometimes there are extra verses, pre-choruses, and post-choruses, but the general structure typically follows this routine pattern. EDM-pop duo The Chainsmokers (often portrayed by the media as America’s favorite over-aged frat boys) follow this outline — as most artists do — but they seem to have developed their own formula ever since the success of their single, “Closer,” which has peaked at number 1 and spent 24 weeks overall on the Billboard Hot 100 as of today. Their newest single, “Paris,” utilizes this formula, but while previous singles “All We Know” and “Setting Fires” fell flat, this one works and has an abundance of potential success at radio.
Lyrically, the Chainsmokers formula is one of references to specific cities. In “Closer,” which features indie-pop singer Halsey, there are references to cities with “your roommate back in Boulder,” and my favorite lines, “Stay and play that blink-182 song/That we beat to death in Tucson, okay.” When the singers reference these cities, it points the listener towards the Western United States, creating a vivid geographical backdrop for this story between ex-lovers. As an eager blink-182 fan, I just wanted to know what song they were listening to; the Chainsmokers have stated that they were inspired by blink’s “I Miss You,” but they also revealed that it simply rhymed well with Tucson. Even though this specificity was not necessarily based on reality, it makes the song more believable and unique. So many pop songs are intentionally vague in order to allow as many listeners as possible to feel that they can relate, but specificity can be a powerful tool. It feels as if the artist is genuinely opening up and confiding in us, and that connection can be stronger than a vague one-size-fits-all song. The DJs have applied this strategy multiple times since the success of “Closer,” as on “All We Know” our singers follow each other from “Chicago to the city” and “Paris” is literally named after the French capital. However, while the name-drop feels forced in “All We Know,” it feels delicate and promising in “Paris.” Furthermore, the Chainsmokers turn the concept of referencing a city on its head in this latest single — at the beginning of the lyric video, we are provided with the definition that “paris” is actually “a sentimental yearning for a reality that isn’t genuine” or “an irrecoverable condition for fantasy that evokes nostalgia or day dreams.” This is a play on the idea of Paris, as it is actually more of a state of mind for them, and the lyrics and thought behind the song convey the sentimentality that the music itself projects.
The Chainsmokers also tend to have certain structural similarities and numerously repeated individual lines. For example, in “Closer,” that repetitive unforgettable line is “We ain’t ever getting older.” The way Halsey and the duo’s Drew Taggart achingly wail this hook can be a bit cheesy at times, but that is part of why it is so memorable — it’s something you can’t help but overdramatically sing along to with your friends. This is why “All We Know” and even “Setting Fires” did not work. In the former, the hook is, “And this is all we know,” which is just too simple, becoming duller with each repetition. With the latter, the hook is, “I can’t go on and on/Setting fires to keep you warm,” which is just too awkward and jerky. Both hooks are forgettable, which is a key reason why they never took off. On the other hand, the key hook in “Paris” — “Let’s show them we are better” — contains some powerful emotion. It sounds hopeful, and it reflects the ambience of the song, which sounds like it should be listened to on a hot summer night, in the car, with all the windows down. The line “We were staying in Paris,” serves almost as a second hook, and like the hook does in “Closer,” it helps to capture nostalgia that nothing else on the radio is doing right now. Additionally, in “Closer” and in “Paris,” the verses and choruses are distinctly different from each other, while they are too similar to each other in “All We Know.” All three songs are duets between Taggart and a woman, but in “All We Know” they sing over each other during the whole song, rather than taking turns. It’s bland, and overall the song is too muted. “Closer” develops dynamically, and “Paris” does the same, progressively pulling the listener deeper into the worlds they bring to life. They feel more real, and it feels like much more is at stake.
Both “Closer” and “Paris” have foreboding introductions that immediately draw us in, and the emotions continue to build throughout the entire songs. I find myself singing both songs melodramatically at the top of my lungs whenever I hear them, and both songs are definitely POP songs. One should never take YouTube comments too seriously, but commenters on the “Paris” lyric video are clearly disconcerted, as many are claiming that the Chainsmokers are an absolute disgrace to the EDM community since they aren’t putting drops in their songs anymore. But that’s the whole point. “Closer” has a questionable, extremely subtle drop, while “Paris” doesn’t have any real drop. These are pop songs influenced by electronic music, and that is what they were intended to be; that is why they work and are successful in the mainstream. Now, while the Chainsmokers are clearly trying to recreate “Closer” with “Paris,” the new single is not as powerful as the old one because it is not as original, but it brings something else that is scarce to the current pop landscape: it is tender. It is ambient and pretty, and almost sounds like it was influenced by The 1975. It has so much potential because it could fill the tender void at pop radio (the only other song that I can think of that serves this function is gnash and Olivia O’Brien’s “i hate u, i love u”), and the formula is carried out in a successful way.
People complain that pop music is too derivative and simple nowadays, and oftentimes it is. However, despite there being a clear formula, there are subtle complexities here that reveal themselves upon further listening. I remember hearing a lady at the hairdresser raving about how much she loved “Closer” because she thought it was such a beautiful love song, but take note: THIS IS NOT A LOVE SONG. These songs feel like love songs, but they are not at heart, and the magic behind these mixed emotions and messages is what gives them the power to connect and be popular. Be warned, and listen carefully.