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Meet The Women Behind The Chainsmokers' Chart-Topping Hits

The Chainsmokers' Alex Pall and Andrew Taggart, seen here performing in Hollywood this past February, have two Top 10 hits on their hands, thanks in large part to their guest vocalists.
Christopher Polk
Getty Images
The Chainsmokers' Alex Pall and Andrew Taggart, seen here performing in Hollywood this past February, have two Top 10 hits on their hands, thanks in large part to their guest vocalists.

Take a look at a picture of The Chainsmokers and you'll see everything many people hate about mainstream electronic dance music. Drew Taggart and Alex Pall, the two DJ/producers who go by that name, are two white guys with David Beckham haircuts and perfectly coiffed five o'clock shadows who stick their tongues out while posing in front of the partying throngs their big beats entertain. "They are frat bros themselves," manager Adam Alpert, who assembled the duo via a "man date" in 2012, said to Forbeswhen asked about The Chainsmokers' appeal to young male music fans. They first found live success, in fact, on the frat circuit, playing the kinds of parties where young women do not always feel safe.

Here's a weird thing, though: The singles that have made The Chainsmokers a phenomenally successful recording act don't seem bro-tastic at all. The duo currently has the No. 1 and No. 7 songs on the Billboard Hot 100, "Closer" and "Don't Let Me Down" respectively, and both feature women's voices not only as key elements, but as the central ruling force. That's very common in dance music and has been since the disco era, when famed songwriters and producers like Paul Jabarra and Giorgio Moroder tapped into the power of African-American soul queens to make their mixes transcendent. Yet, The Chainsmokers' hits are different: They're more conversational, inspired by the intimate strains of indie rock and bedroom electronica. And these songs are not huge party anthems. They're more akin to singer-songwriter confessions, sad and uncertain even when their rhythms build.

Two years ago, few would have expected The Chainsmokers to make this kind of music. The pair's first viral success came through fleshing out a timeworn female stereotype. "#Selfie" captures the inner life of a 21st-century "dumb blonde," as this figure was called in the Marilyn Monroe era. This airhead — another era's name for her — shares her molly-addled world view with her friends in the ladies' room as she ponders the status of a potential hookup, throws shade at her fellow clubgoers ("Who wears cheetah?"), and debates what filter to use on the photo she's posting to her Instagram account. She's ridiculous, and so fun to imitate.

The "#Selfie" rap critiques millennials' alleged obsession with posing and performing while reflecting a more timeless masculine tendency to treat young women, especially those who try to wield power through beauty, with fond condescension. Some critics identified the song as sexist, although by aiming its barbs at a certain kind of woman, it also gained plenty of female fans. The rap Taggart and Pall wrote isn't really that witty; it's the manic performance by the woman who intones it, Alexis Campisi, that makes "#Selfie" irresistible. The Chainsmokers turned to Campisi, then a Baruch College undergraduate with no pop aspirations, because of her knack for satirizing pop frivolity in ways that acknowledge its allure. (Her Britney impression on Vine is hilarious.) When Campisi snaps, "Let me take a selfie," you can feel the whole club turn to photobomb her: This girl might be vain and act scatterbrained, but she is the charismatic center of her scene.

It was after "#Selfie" became a Top 40 novelty hit that The Chainsmokers began aiming for a more durably successful sound. Their follow-up, "Kanye" was a collaboration with the L.A. dream-pop duo sirenXX that captures the sadness of regular people dazzled by celebrities and disappointed that they can't join their ranks. (The video showed a Latina hotel maid enjoying a Cinderella night, then returning to her daughter and partner in their humble Los Angeles home.) It set a tone. Nearly every subsequent Chainsmokers success features women vocalists whose melancholic observations and confessions offset the busy buzziness of the beat-driven mix. Most are little known; the DJs found them via music blogs or the aggregator Hype Machine. (Let's hope they gain more recognition than did some earlier women whose voices were featured on major dance hits, like Martha Wash, who had to go to court to be recognized.) There's "Roses," a seduction narrative turned off-kilter by the contributions of singer-songwriter Elizabeth Mencel, who calls herself ROZES; the searching "Inside Out," featuring the trilling voice of the Swedish artist Charlee; "New York City," whose singer, Victoria Zaro, has a voice like a teardrop; and "Don't Let Me Down," the closest thing the duo has to a house music-style soul epiphany, with the plaintive stylings of the teenager Daya lifting it aloft.

The most intriguing Chainsmokers song so far is "Closer," a duet between primary lyricist Drew Taggart and the Tumblr-propelled rising star Halsey. A tale of two estranged lovers reuniting for a night in a hotel bar, it unfolds in narrowly cast melodic phrases interwoven with flat, nearly muffled synth lines; a snare drum echoes in the background, as if to get things moving, but the overall effect is quiet and furtive, suiting Taggart's lyrics about intimacies grounded in regret. "Baby, pull me closer in the back seat of your Rover, that I know you can't afford," Taggart moans, and that's the song's hook: This night isn't a triumph for anyone, or even a release. It's just a moment's pleasure. The track intensifies dynamically, but doesn't really climax. Taggart's and Halsey's voices, hesitant and estranged from each other by the slightest Auto-Tune tweaks, unite in a fugitive moment of release, the way an ignored car payment might make a girl feel rich for one self-indulgent weekend. His voice is almost tender; hers is almost sorrowful.

It's unusual for a pop song to occupy this unsettled space, where neither heartbreak nor delight provides genuine emotional release. But it's where people live much of the time, especially when things are uncertain. Building its love story around diminished expectations, "Closer" feels hauntingly appropriate for a time when the negatives associated with sex, from the anti-romantic nature of hook-up culture to the prevalence of sexual violence, are in clear view. The encounter the not-so-dumb blonde of "#Selfie" contemplates – "Oh my god, Jason just texted me, should I go home with him?" — might be the wreckage the heroine of "Closer" confronts, her eyes clear this time.

Much of dance-pop right now exists within this melancholy atmosphere, the inverse of the triumphal one occupied by anthemic hits like Sia's "Cheap Thrills" or Katy Perry's rising, roaring musical fireworks displays. The voices that define this twilit dance-pop space are feminine. They're different than the wondrous divas of disco and house music, though they do have precursors, like Crystal Waters and the Rickie Lee Jones sample in The Orb's "Little Fluffy Clouds." These singers are dreamy and inward-turning, or slightly odd, sharing muttered confidences instead of preaching the gospel. Though most are white, Rihanna, with her Caribbean lilt and cool demeanor, is a ruling spirit. So is Drake, whose "soft" rapping style and emotionally intelligent lyrics was, by his own accord, influenced as much by women pioneers at the juncture between hip-hop and R&B, such as Aaliyah and Lauryn Hill, as by male rappers.

Rihanna and Drake established themselves in the age of Auto-Tune and other voice-altering studio tools. These computer programs have changed compositional techniques. For many producers, the human voice has become more of a tonal element than a dominant force, even when it holds a song's central melodic line; building a track, they bend voices, distort them, integrate them as another texture complementing a track's beats and synthesized effects. This happened in earlier dance music movements, too – in his 1979 essay "In Defense of Disco," Richard Dyer wrote of Diana Ross's "'unreally' sweet, porcelain fragile voice" as an ideal one for cultivating fantasy and capturing "the intensity of the passing relationship" that was key within gay male dance scenes. Today's voices capture a related but different kind of tension, one that's less about cultivating the imagination through chance encounters and more about accepting indeterminacy as a personal status quo.

Rihanna's voice always sounds slightly imperfect, exquisitely ordinary: It's a little flat, a little rough, not perfectly toned and ready to deliver a Produnuva vault like Beyonce's. This is what Halsey's voice is like, too, and the cracks in her phrasing makes her portrayals of millennial anomie more poignant. "All we do is think about the feelings that we hide," she sings in "Drive," one of the outstanding cuts on her debut album, Badlands; the line captures the predicament of young people who feel they're caught between genuine self-expression and fulfilling a series of roles. That's an eternal teenage problem, exacerbated exponentially in the age of avatars. Like her obvious predecessor Lorde, Halsey embodies the weary precociousness of her generation, the kids who've seized technology and built whole new virtual worlds by the time they've hit middle school, but who recognize that their precocious virtual lives don't make their real minds or bodies any less vulnerable. "I think there's a flaw in my code," Halsey intones in "Gasoline," a fan favorite. "My heart is gold and my hands are cold."

Perhaps young women's voices best express today's most compelling ambiguities because, after centuries, they're still fighting to control the fate of their own bodies. There's never been more awareness of the struggle women face simply to move freely without being violated, without having their drinks drugged or being assaulted, possibly by people in authority whom they thought they could trust. The EDM scene is notoriously male-dominated and has often proven unsafe for young women. "We're trying to smoke the beehive," one hopped-up "EDM bro" told a Vice reporter before venturing into a crowd at last year's Coachella festival, unabashedly announcing his intent to goad women toward his erogenous zones. Dance music critic Philip Sherburne has noted that the imagery and language promoting EDM encourages this "voyeuristic, objectifying male gaze." And which artists do these bros love the most? The Chainsmokers, for one. In light of this, it can be hard to tell if male DJs centering their work on women's self-expression is exploitation, compensation or the return of the repressed. It's almost as if the male fantasy conveyed in many dance songs is speaking back and finally telling some truths.

One thing is clear: EDM needs more forthright female energy. In many ways it's following behind other genres. Young women are this summer's story in country and in indie rock. They've dominated the Top 40 for years. Real parity in the DJ booth and the producer's chair is a goal the genre's leaders need to embrace. Organizations like the female:pressure network are fighting for it. It is becoming clear that fans of this music want to hear what women think and feel, and not just about taking selfies.

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Ann Powers is NPR Music's critic and correspondent. She writes for NPR's music news blog, The Record, and she can be heard on NPR's newsmagazines and music programs.
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