To paraphrase the great Zapp Brannigan: what makes a man turn Chainsmoker? Lust for gold? Blowjobs? Or were they just born with a heart full of douchebaggery?
These are the kinds of questions I ask myself, standing in a massive throng of spectators while The Chainsmokers twiddle knobs and bob around onstage. Beams of colored light dance across the night sky while random spirals of colors that look like psychedelic screensavers play out on a projection screen hovering over the stage. Flanking the stage are massive red-and-white Coca-Cola screens. I focus intently on my surroundings to find something, anything that would stimulate me. Anything at all to distract me from the train wreck unfolding onstage.
My spirits were high earlier in the evening as I stood in line outside Hance Park, waiting to be ushered through the Coca Cola archways onto the March Madness festival grounds. I wasn't particularly excited to see The Chainsmokers, whose songs on the radio have always left me cold. I was willing to give them a shot, though. Perhaps seeing them live would give me a new appreciation for their work.
I was buzzing with excitement because I love the carnival atmosphere of these events. Even if the music is terrible, they're always great for people-watching. And I had such a good time in Hance Park the month before for McDowell Mountain Music Festival that I was curious to see if lightning would strike twice.
I grabbed a beer after entering the park. All around me were ads for Coke; a light-up Capital One Ferris wheel spun near the stage. Getting bombarded with ads is the price you pay for a free festival. I saw that Pizza Hut was selling pan pizzas and felt nostalgia twist my stomach: I hadn't eaten one of them since I was a wee lad. I ate the greasy pan pizza, marveling that it tasted exactly like how I remembered it as a kid: disappointing.
I watched Grouplove as they finished their set in this pop-up branded amusement park. The sound wasn't great, the vocals were hard to make out, and there wasn't much sound separation between the instruments. They all kind of bled together into a big ball of shouty, vaguely dancey radio rock. Still, Grouplove gave it their all up there.
They were energetic and interesting to look at: Singer Hannah Hooper prowled the stage in a leopard-print bodysuit that inspired the people standing behind me to soliloquize at length about her ass, while drummer Ryan Rabin played his kit wearing nothing but a pair of boxers. The band seemed earnest and excited to be playing for such a huge crowd, but they're also a little awkward.
It was like they hadn't quite broken in their rock star jeans just yet.
I moved closer to the stage for The Chainsmokers set. A camera crane hung over the crowd, slowly sweeping over us. The vibe at the festival was strange. It felt like we were standing around in some set designer's idea of what a music festival is supposed to look like, and I felt like an unpaid extra waiting for direction. All around me people posed for selfies or tried to get the attention of roving Coca-Cola hype men to score free swag. They were handing out red Coke hats that looked a little too much like something our Commander in Chief might wear.
Around 9 p.m., The Chainsmokers hopped onstage. Imagine Matthew McConaughey's character in Dazed & Confused after spending a weekend in Ibiza, and you've got a feel for their aesthetic. They looked like they had just gotten out of bed. Neither their appearance nor attitude suggested they were ready to play music for thousands of screaming people.
I'll concede that it's easy to hate The Chainsmokers.
This is a group that's boasted in interviews about how they're just doing this to get laid. They've shared their combined penis sizes online. They have openly crowed about how they study their social media metrics and adjust their strategies as songwriters and businessmen to maximize their popularity and earnings.
My problem with The Chainsmokers isn't that they're douchebags. It's that they're boring douchebags.
Assholes are having a moment right now. Future and The Weeknd are poppin' wheelies on the zeitgeist (to quote another asshole) by embracing their roles as amoral cretins. They've struck gold by owning their images as druggy, sleazy heels. And that personality seeps into the music, giving it a distinct character. You know a Future track when you hear it. You can't say that about The Chainsmokers. Their music is just as devoid of character as they seem to be.
Some musicians give it their all live. And then there are some who can't be fucking bothered. The Chainsmokers are the latter.
If you want to know what The Chainsmokers are like live, here's some good news: You can replicate the experience at home with 100 percent accuracy. Simply invite a bunch of your friends to your home and get them trashed on cheap liquor. Once they are sufficiently lit, begin blasting a playlist of The Chainsmokers biggest hits (along with a few other club favorites randomly mixed in) at pulverizing levels of volume. Grab a microphone and shout "Yeah!", "Party!", "Phoenix!", "Shut The Fuck Up!", "Let's Go!", and "Hey! Ho!" every couple of minutes. For a few songs, pretend to sing along while looking like you're thinking about how your investment portfolio is doing the whole time you're on the mic.
Voila! That's the live Chainsmokers experience.
Chainsmokers Andrew Taggart and Alex Pall started their set by trading off between their two roles: hype man and bored guy twiddling knobs. Pall tried leading the crowd through the most halfhearted "throw your hands in the air and wave 'em like you just don't care" that I've ever seen in my life.
Andrew Taggart, winner of the prestigious "Chainsmoker I'd Most Like To Punch In The Face" award, would occasionally step up to the front of the stage to sing their songs. The EDM Patrick Bateman sang his own material with zero discernible passion. I've seen drunk and tone-deaf karaoke singers put more soul and heart into butchering their favorite Lady Gaga songs than Taggart displayed. Perhaps he was too busy thinking about the text he'd write to his next hookup.
The Chainsmokers, like so many millenial entrepreneurs, are all about multitasking.
Listening to them live, I was struck by that lack of distinctiveness to their songs. It was hard to tell most of them apart. At one point in the evening, Taggart paid tribute to the Red Hot Chili Peppers by playing and singing a snippet of "Under The Bridge."
Now, the Red Hot Chili Peppers are not a great band. In many respects, they are goofy and deeply embarrassing. But they have heart, and you can hear that when Anthony Kiedis sings "Under The Bridge." We can make fun of his scat-rap, stream-of-consciousness California lyrical bullshit all we want, but he's got his skin and blood in that song. It means something to him. You don't hear any of that pain or soul when Taggart sings those familiar verses. He sounds just as empty singing someone else's song as he does when he sings his own.
Most of the crowd seemed to be loving their set. People danced and threw their hands up and hollered at the roving camera crane. I may have been alone in my Chainsmokers hate. But I couldn't help it. The last two concerts I had been to were the exact opposite of this apathetic circle jerk. I had seen Peelander-Z and Panic! At The Disco over the last week. Both bands couldn't be further apart in terms of sound, commercial status, or how they performed. What they had in common, though, was fully committing to doing the best show possible live. Both groups performed spectacular shows that showed a deep love for their craft and for their audiences. I didn't see that kind of love from The Chainsmokers. It's music for fuckboys, made by fuckboys.
No, I can't even call The Chainsmokers fuckboys. That would imply they've evolved to the point of being boys. The Chainsmokers are not fuckboys. What they are is spermatozoa that have somehow grown to man-sized proportions and figured out how to do bass drops.
Last Night: The Chainsmokers at March Madness Festival in downtown Phoenix.
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The Crowd: It was a free music festival on a Saturday night, which meant everyone and their cousin seemed to be there. A huge cross-section, in terms of ages, genders, and subcultures. Almost collided into people recording Snapchats or doing IG shots on 20 separate occasions.
Overheard: "This is going to be a fuckin' shitshow, isn't it?" Says the guy standing behind me to his buddy, as we all wait to get inside Hance Park. Oh pal, you've got no idea.
Random Notebook Dump: I've never seen so many bored cops in one place. I kept waiting for one of them to finally act in the public's interest and arrest Taggart and Pall for crimes against humanity, but no dice. Our tax dollars at work, America.