Billboard is celebrating the 2010s with essays on the 100 songs that we feel most define the decade that was — the songs that both shaped and reflected the music and culture of the period — with help telling their stories from some of the artists, behind-the-scenes collaborators and industry insiders involved.
It’s no secret that electronic dance music enjoyed a monster upgrade in mainstream consumption in the 2010s: Skrillex and the dubstep phenomenon; Avicii, Calvin Harris and Zedd all bounding into the Hot 100’s Top 10; Swedish House Mafia becoming festival headliners and dance DJs taking over Las Vegas.
But no EDM track this decade was as inescapable as “Closer,” The Chainsmokers’ future bass earworm. The song stamped the pop consciousness for 12 weeks at No. 1 on the Hot 100 in late 2016, and earned a Diamond certification from the RIAA in 2018.
Not too shabby for a song born in the back of Alex Pall and Drew Taggart’s tour bus in late 2015. The track’s construction was simple enough; while on tour in support of their first Top 10 hit, “Roses,” Taggart invited Freddy Kennett of the Chicago-based DJ duo Louis The Child on the bus to flesh out some new ideas. Kennett and Taggart wrote the hypnotic hook melody in a night. The next day, The Chainsmokers’ tour opener, Canadian DJ and producer Shaun Frank, sat in to help pen the lyrics.
“[Taggart] had a couple of the first lines figured out and we just went from there,” Frank says. “We were just picking from some weird things that had happened in [Taggart’s] life, trying to create these run-on sentences that were awkward and weird but still rhymed.”
The twist: neither Taggart, who sings the croony lead verse, nor then-mainstream newcomer Halsey, who seals the song with a cutting alt-pop edge, were ever supposed to sing on “Closer.” “[Taggart] said ‘I can’t wait to get someone to sing this thing. Who should we get?’” Frank recalls. And I was just like, ‘Dude, you should sing the song, you sound great right now.’”
Frank convinced Taggart, and he laid down his vocals right there on the bus — his first time singing lead on a Chainsmokers record. “That recording is pretty much the vocal that made the final cut,” Frank says. (Halsey was added only after Camila Cabello turned “Closer” down.)
The DJ believes it’s the song’s nostalgic sensibility — as well as its infectious synth hook — that kept it so popular. “Everyone can relate to that, the idea of going back to college for one night, hooking up with an old girlfriend, all that,” Frank says.
And of course, there was the viral line “play that Blink-182 song that we beat to death in Tucson,” which spoke to millennial existence as well as any lyric this decade (Taggart tweeted “Feeling This” and “I Miss You” as the most likely Blink songs to have inspired the line). Frank, acknowledging the cliché, says he had no clue the song would explode in such a way. “We weren’t trying to write a hit at all, we just wanted to tell some stories,” he says.
“Closer” promoted The Chainsmokers from pop-EDM hitmakers to bonafide superstars, headlining arenas around the world and leading to more high-profile collaborations: Coldplay, 5 Seconds of Summer and Bebe Rexha. In July 2019, The Chainsmokers were named the world’s highest-paid DJs by Forbes, surpassing Calvin Harris for the first time.The song boosted Halsey, too, fueling the excitement for her first No. 1 album, 2017’s Hopeless Fountain Kingdom, and cementing her status as an A-lister.
“Closer” was EDM’s pop pinnacle, but it also marked the beginning of the end for the genre’s moment as a standalone mainstream phenomenon. The bubble was about to burst, and less than two years after the song’s world-beating peak, EDM had almost completely receded from the charts, Top 40 radio and many festival toplines.
“So much of electronic music just isn’t palatable for a huge audience,” Frank says. “‘Closer’ was so simple in its execution, and for some reason it hit people in a very emotional place.”