Welp, I did it: I went to see the Chainsmokers at SXSW. I liked it, too. Don’t @ me.
Around 12:30AM, a noisy, pitched-down remix of “Closer” welcomed Alex Pall and Drew Taggart to the stage at Sony’s SXSW party. In contrast to some of the Chainsmokers’ recent TV gigs, there were no instruments this time around, just some DJ equipment and microphones — which was fine because nobody really wants to see the Chainsmokers play a rock concert. They slid straight into party-rocking mode, matching outbursts from their smoke cannons with fragments of neon electro, trap, and a “Rock And Roll All Night” remix. Pall, the neckbeard-wearing half of the duo, mostly danced in place, while Taggart often spun out into bouncing fits. It was your typical EDM-bro intro: fun and energetic without requiring much in the way of technical skill.
This was not exactly your typical EDM-bro show, though. Pretty quickly Taggart ended up running back and forth across the tabletop singing “All We Know,” the first of many Chainsmokers singles to be enhanced by live vocals last night. Toggling between miniature DJ mixes and quasi-performing their hits would turn out to be an effective dynamic, one that saved them from the monotony that can plague DJ sets and concerts alike. Just when one of their hits wore out its welcome, they’d veer back into a sequence of can’t-miss pop-culture pillaging. Sometimes these transitions even verged on clever, like when they launched into the “Can we get much higher?” intro from Kanye West’s “Dark Fantasy” moments before queueing up their own early single “Kanye.”
The more performative mode allowed Taggart to play the role of pop star, bounding across the table in jeans marked up with phrases like “SO VERY NICE” and “FOR LOVE OF ME” and (I shit you not) “GO HOME / HAVE A GLASS OF WINE / WATCH A MOVIE / JUST GO TO BED.” When Taggart receded back behind the decks, Pall would play the role of hypeman, calling out the typical DJ turn-up exhortations. He also speculated aloud that some electronic music fans in attendance might not have realized how hard these pop guys go, a bit of unprompted self-congratulation that felt extremely on-brand.
Their DJ instincts targeted the same blithely centrist impulses as their own music, unapologetically playing to people’s pleasure centers in easily digestible rapid-fire blasts. Every once in a while they’d throw in some surefire crowd-pleaser like the opening music from The Lion King or “Gonna Fly Now” from Rocky, triggering a more euphoric version of the melancholy nostalgia that has become their default compositional mode. Mostly they threaded dubstep and electro-house instrumentals between hits from Twenty One Pilots or T.I., never staying in one place long enough to challenge anyone’s attention span. I would not describe any of it as tasteful, but I would describe it as really fucking fun.
They also occasionally pulled some bullshit like this:
And if you think “Under The Bridge” karaoke is easy and basic, how about Taggart singing Smash Mouth’s “All Star” lyrics over the “Closer” music? Because that definitely happened too:
The Chainsmokers performed a very special version of "Closer" last night pic.twitter.com/zm2k3PX50Q
— Chris DeVille (@chrisdeville) March 17, 2017
So, yeah, a Chainsmokers live show panders to the lowest common denominator the same way a Chainsmokers single does. What they lack in sophistication, they make up for in relentless cheap thrills and not even one modicum of shame. If, like me, you’ve got love in your heart for musical fast food, you will gobble this shit up. And if the formulaic tendencies of “Paris” and “Don’t Let Me Down” cause you to retch as if consuming high-fructose corn syrup after months of healthy eating, there’s probably some Boiler Room set on YouTube to tickle your fancy instead, one that doesn’t feature “music’s very own tech bros” beaming about their new Coldplay collab.
They slotted that one near the end of the show along with a “Yellow” remix, just in time for Taggart to deliver a starry-eyed inspirational speech about how far they’ve come and how everyone who aspires to be the next Chainsmokers should follow their dreams. Four years ago, he told us, they were just two dorks at SXSW trying to figure out the music industry. You have to give them this much: For better or worse, they’ve certainly figured it out.