March 2, 2016


The Chainsmokers, Mike Posner & the Year of Redemptive Pop Singles

Christopher Polk/Getty Images for MasterCard
Christopher Polk/Getty Images for MasterCard

Everyone loves a good comeback story in pop music, especially when it’s played out on a grand stage. Just look at Justin Bieber’s ascent back to superstardom following legal drama, mop-bucket pissing incidents and racist TMZ videos. Since then, he’s cleaned up his act, put out a terrific song titled “Sorry” and ushered the world back into his corner. Similarly, Lady Gaga is in the middle of a full-blown comeback after 2013’s ARTPOP album underwhelmed: Last month, Gaga played the Super Bowl, GRAMMYs and Oscars, showcasing her raw vocal talent and making pop fans happy to watch her shine again.

For narrative purposes, it’s enjoyable to see stars like these brush off the dirt and regain their footing; a song like “Sorry” or a performance like Gaga’s Oscars spectacle is given gravitas when paired with a stirring career arc. It’s also enjoyable, on a smaller scale, to witness an artist previously ascribed to a period of empty success achieve a sense of real meaning. This isn’t a comeback, per se, because they’re not coming back to anything—they’re redefining themselves and saving their careers from one-note ruin. These instances are essentially redemption stories, an absolving of the sin of pop music futility. 

Need examples? There are two of them in the Top 20 right now: The Chainsmokers’ “Roses” and Mike Posner’s “I Took a Pill In Ibiza.” Both of these songs are more than just great pop hits; they’re rewriting the scripts for their respective artists in crucial ways.

The Chainsmokers, an American DJ duo consisting of Andrew Taggart and Alex Pall, were a punchline in the pop blogosphere for the better part of two years. That’s thanks to “#Selfie,” a deeply meme-able 2014 single composed of a female club-goer delivering a monologue about taking selfies over a thumping beat. The song was a surprise chart hit, thanks mostly to its shareable YouTube video (411 million views to date) and its millennial-baiting lyrical concept. 

A crossover single is a golden ticket for EDM acts, and the Chainsmokers began attracting enormous crowds at dance and alternative music festivals. But that live popularity didn’t change the general perception of The Chainsmokers as unvarying Internet vampires; neither did the follow-up single, “Kanye,” which extracted the braggadocio of Kanye West’s music (delivered tongue-in-cheek, of course) without offering any of his musical innovation. At least it was SEO-friendly!

A few singles later, however, The Chainsmokers stumbled upon “Roses,” and all was forgiven. Not only is the collaboration with singer-songwriter Rozes the duo’s biggest hit to date (it peaked at No. 6 on the Billboard Hot 100, and currently sits at No. 10), it’s also an absolute triumph, a hypnotic flicker of electro-pop built around the vulnerable yelp, “Say you’ll never let me go.” Similar to how the song crept slowly into ubiquity, “Roses” is the type of pop song that ebbs into a listener’s brain, entrancing at every corner without ever pouncing. It’s also the type of song to make you rethink everything that “#Selfie” made you believe about The Chainsmokers.

“I think that it definitely has a Chainsmokers feel to it, but there’s a lot of influences — including Taylor Swift and Max Martin — in the production,” the duo told Idolator of “Roses” in a recent interview. Half of that statement is false: There’s nothing about “Roses” that would make a casual listener believe it harkened back to the glory days of “#Selfie”-era Chainsmokers. “Roses” is as heartfelt and affecting as “#Selfie” is cynical and exploitative. “Roses” is actually worthy of a Max Martin comparison, which was previously unthinkable for these guys.

Posner’s “I Took A Pill In Ibiza,” which crashes the Top 20 this week by flying up nine spots to No. 15, is not as jarring as “Roses” was for The Chainsmokers. Posner has been peddling slick pop with synth breakdowns for a while now, from his Top 10 smash “Cooler Than Me” in 2010 to his failed follow-ups “Bow Chicka Wow Wow” and “Looks Like Sex.” Before this year, Posner hadn’t been able to move past the velvety croon of the fun-but-forgettable “Cooler Than Me” as a lead artist, and had seemingly put his singing career on the back-burner while co-writing hits like Bieber’s “Boyfriend” and Maroon 5’s “Sugar.” For all intents and purposes, Posner was a studio guy with a random hit at the turn of the decade.

And while the fantastic “I Took A Pill In Ibiza” doesn’t redirect Posner’s sound, it adds much-needed dimension to his personality. For one, “Ibiza’s” lyrics are darn near groundbreaking: Has there ever been a hit more searingly honest of its artist’s sad-sack position in pop? This is a song that chronicles Posner’s descent into one-hit-wonder status with unflinching candor, striking a cautionary-tale pose that resonates even if you can’t remember the hook to “Cooler Than Me.”

“I’m just a singer who already blew his shot/I get along with old-timers, ‘cause my name’s a reminder of a pop song people forget,” Posner opens the second verse; goodness gracious, that’s a bleak thing for a 28-year-old to sing. The rest of the song finds Posner returning to his hometown with hollow victories, admitting he wasted a million bucks “on girls and shoes,” and telling his audience, “You don’t wanna get high like me,” a line that references substance abuse as well as his fleeting chart fame. Oh, you want more? How about the most absorbing opening line to a pop hit in recent memory, an irresistible stutter-step of a synth line and the paradox of an exuberant-sounding track constructed around the hook, “All I know are sad songs?” Posner’s got levels on “I Took A Pill In Ibiza,” and those levels should be celebrated.

The Chainsmokers already have a follow-up to “Roses,” the similarly melancholy “Don’t Let Me Down” with “Hide Away” singer Daya, and seem to have found their straight-faced groove in the EDM game. Where does Posner go after something as soul-baring as “I Took A Pill In Ibiza,” though? The single is just now taking off, and it’ll be interesting to see where he pivots from its success. One thing is for certain, though: Whether or not he continues writing by looking into a mirror, Posner’s self-examination has made it impossible to view him as just The “Cooler Than Me” Guy moving forward. Sometimes, the only one who can save you is yourself.