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How The Chainsmokers’ “Don’t Let Me Down” Set The Duo Up For Global Success — And The Freedom To Defy Dance Music Expectations

The pop-ification of electronic dance music did not start with the Chainsmokersbut no act blurs the line between arena anthems and DJ culture quite like Alex Pall and Drew Taggart.

In 2013, the duo were just another EDM twosome making remixes of indie rock bands for DJs on Hype Machine. By 2017, the pair were headlining their own international arena tour on the back of a multi-platinum sing-along that had just broken the record for longest streak on the Billboard Hot 100 top 5 in history.

When you’re looking for an explanation — some musical node that connects the tissue of the Chainsmokers’ signature dubstep-heavy DJ sets and the group’s de facto pop stardom — one must inevitably turn to 2016 crossover hit “Don’t Let Me Down. “

Powerful and eruptive, the song’s dark electronic hook and bright melodic verses straddle the Chainsmokers’ bleeding synth past and made-for-radio future. Both halves are stitched together by the hauntingly strong, yet emotionally desperate, performance of then 17-year-old vocalist Daya.

It’s a single that belonged as much on a festival set list as it did in the darkest electro-trap club floors, and it earned the Chainsmokers their first GRAMMY win for Best Dance Recording in 2017. It begs the question: How did they pull that off?

If the Chainsmokers give off a frat-house energy, it might not be their fault. The duo rocketed to stardom fresh out of college, and the band’s 2014 breakthrough single “#Selfie” was indeed meant to be a joke. It was a gag song, a catchy pot shot at the vapid VIP bathroom talk that goes down in Miami Beach megaclubs like LIV.

Buzzsaw synth lines and pounding four-on-the-floor bass kicks gave the song a stereotypical EDM vibe. But underneath the novelty hit’s spotlight, Pall and Taggert pushed themselves to write real songs full of love, longing and infectious pop hooks. They were never going to stay the “#Selfie” guys, even if they had to fight tooth and nail.

“Roses” — a sun-dipped pop tune with hints of the popular off-kilter future bass sound and an earworm of a synth hook — was the first taste of things to come. While the 2015 hit signaled a shift toward the now signature Chainsmokers sound, its 2016 follow-up was what really turned heads — and it all starts with a clear and wistful guitar pluck.

“All of our new songs happen right after we buy a new instrument,” Taggart said in a “How I Wrote That Song” segment for ‘The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon’ in 2016. “We bought a new Fender electric guitar, and I was listening to a lot of the xxand I wanted to do a lonely guitar sound.”

“So I made that, and it was pretty vibey,” he continues, “and then I was on a plane, and I got this new sample pack and it had this cool bouncy sound so I cut it up and made this cool trap drop We’d never made trap music before, so I wanted to try it and see if we could do it.”

Sourced from their friends in electronic hip-hop duo Loudpvck (whose member Kenny Beats has gone on to his own internet fame alongside big look productions for Vince Staples, Ed Sheeran, Gucci Mane and more), that trap breakdown is expertly sandwiched between the song’s sentimental pop verses that make “Don’t Make Me Down” such a striking hit.

The mix of hard and soft elements — an energetic club hook and sensitive lyrics — make “Don’t Let Me Down” a defining tune of its era. The Chainsmokers’ managed to capture the coy sleekness of 2010s indie pop and the gritty EDM trap world, then mixed it all up with a certain kind of cinematic grandeur. The song starts so subtle and rises in a gradual tension until it positively explodes, another element that brings it closer to the Chainsmokers’ club roots.

They knew they had a hit on their hands, too, mostly because it came together fairly quickly. “Everything we do happens in one session,” Taggart said in the “How I Wrote That Song” segment. But as Pall revealed, it almost became the hit that never was.

“When it was completely done, [the] computer crashed and we lost the entire song,” Pall said. They had to completely remake it from scratch, but Pall suggested that it may have ended up working in their favor. “We remade it, and it’s even better than before.”

The song’s dangerously romantic message — the line “It’s in my head, darling, I hope/ That you’ll be here when I need you the most” sets up the titular phrase — was penned by songwriter Emily Warren. (She later went on to co-write hits like Dua Lipa’s “New Rules” and Charlie XCX’s “Boys”; Warren also features on several Chainsmokers songs, including the 2017 hit “Paris.”)

It was Warren’s voice that originally graced the single when it was an unreleased set piece for the Chainsmokers, though she was never intended to be the final vocalist. The song was originally pitched to Rihanna, Taggart to disclose rolling stone In 2016, but the R&B singer ultimately turned it down.

At the time, Daya’s breakout hit “Hide Away” was gaining traction. “When I heard that, I knew that she had the range,” Taggart told the New York Times in 2016. “Her voice was pretty unique and didn’t sound like other people on the radio.”

As Taggart recalled, Daya “didn’t really need my help” in the studio, furthering the song’s magic. But “Don’t Let Me Down” clearly didn’t just make an impact with those involved — it was a runaway hit that won the hearts of critics and fans alike without much effort.

“Don’t Let Me Down” charted in 32 countries, including a No. 3 spot on the Billboard Hot 100. Even Usher covered the song during an appearance in BBC Radio 1’s Live Lounge. To date, the video has amassed more than 1.8 billion views on YouTube; it remains one of the Chainsmokers’ three most-streamed songs on Spotify with more than 1.5 billion streams.

“Don’t Let Me Down” opened the door for the Chainsmokers to do bigger and more glamorous things — including the biggest hit of their career The Halsey-featuring smash “Closer” earned the duo their first No. 1 on the Hot 100 ( among several other charts around the world), becoming the first single to spend 26 weeks in the chart’s top five.

The Chainsmokers went on to capitalize on that larger-than-life pop sound, collaborating with Coldplay’s Chris Martin and celebrating the project’s debut album. Memories…Do Not Open with a 71-date world tour.

The band continues to mix its DJ past with its pop star reality, choosing not to perform fully-original sets, but cramming strings of sing-along hits between mixes of other artists’ songs that influence them. It can be a bit clunky at times, sure, and the Chainsmokers’ earnest white-guy style hasn’t always made the group a critical darling. But the band continues to sell out shows and figure itself out, continuing their musical story with their fourth album, So Far So Gooda project they’ve dubbed “the start of a new chapter”; Apple Music’s Zane Lowe declared it their “boldest song-based statement yet.”

Are they a band? Are they DJ’s? Do they even make electronic music anymore? It doesn’t really matter, and maybe that’s the point.

In a world where genres have ceased to define listeners, why should they define the entertainer? “Don’t Let Me Down” dared to break that barrier—and even six years later, the Chainsmokers continue to provide there’s frontiers yet to explore.

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