"Here she is with The Chainsmokers. You know, that incredibly cheesy duo who had that regrettable hit "#selfie" back in 2014." - Noisey Staff, Noisey

"That's the great thing about Oops! [...I Did It Again] -- under the cheese surface, Britney's demand for satisfaction is complex, fierce and downright scary, making her a true child of rock & roll tradition." - Rob Sheffield, Rolling Stone

It always comes back to cheese, a lazy indictment at worst, a backhanded compliment at best. Good, but bad for you. A guilty pleasure.

The implication is that, if you consume too much musical "cheese," you will become bloated. But music is not like food, and to call a song "cheese" carries specific assumptions about how it is expressed. The song will likely be operatic, take emotions at face value, and blow them up, while the listener understands that these emotions will fade in time. To call a song "cheese" is to understand how moments that consume you in the present can appear small in hindsight. To call a song "cheese" requires the benefit of experience, maturity, and reflection.

But we do not want all of our music to be mature and reflective. Sometimes, we need immediacy, energy, ignorance. We need songs that assume there is nothing more important than the present. This is how pop music works, particularly that which is made for teenagers.

And songs about young love (or, idealised versions of it) lie at the center of popular music. Its history works like this: Older generations criticise new developments in pop music as vapid and disposable, and use them to signify the demise of culture. They say this because pop music expresses ideas about love and life in ways that are imprecise and naive. That is, in ways that are accessible to teenagers.

Eventually, each generation's pop music grows in stature as that generation begins to write its history. Once its members are old enough, they can express what were once intensely emotional experiences in more precise, qualitative, and historical terms. The music doesn't get better; the people who grow up on it become better at describing it.

Thirty-eight years ago, Chicago White Sox fans nearly incited a riot after the team held a "disco demolition night," in which fans brought disco records which were exploded on the field after the first game of a planned doubleheader. (The second was cancelled due to the chaos which followed the demolition.) It was a powerful symbol of anti-disco sentiment. For some rock critics and purists, disco was cheap and synthetic, compared to the "authentic" soul-searching of a Bob Dylan or David Bowie. (Never mind the absurdity in attempting to measure authenticity and hold it as a musical virtue--or the fact that both Dylan and Bowie spent their careers shedding and creating new identities.) Now, disco and its dance music lineage (house, techno, synth-pop) have become a sort of Talmud for independent and popular artists, from Daft Punk and Justin Timberlake, to LCD Soundsystem and Bruno Mars.

Britney Spears faced a similar arc. Reviews of her early albums often took a dismissive tone, framing Spears as a soulless puppet constructed by her label. ("Whatever Britney Spears ends up 'growing into,' she stands today as the latest model of a classic product: the unneurotic pop star who performs her duties with vaudevillian pluck and spokesmodel charm," Steven Daly wrote in a 1999 Rolling Stone profile of Spears.) This was consistent with critical attitudes toward pop music in the late nineties and early aughts as a commercial product created without true artistry. But the internet flattened the hierarchies which created these ideas. It made less sense to construct your identity around independent artists since iTunes and Spotify made them as accessible as popular artists.

In the place of elitism came a new curiosity and reverence for the gruelling, collaborative process of writing and producing pop songs. (Even the New Yorker ran a series of features--which were later collected and expanded upon in a book, The Song Machine--about behind-the-scenes writers and producers like Max Martin and Stargate.) Now, pop artists are perceived as auteurs and curators, rather than the instruments of businessmen. Reviewing Spears' 2011 album Femme Fatale for Slate, Jody Rosen referred to Spears as "a great avant-gardist." Rolling Stone's Rob Sheffield, who awarded 2000's Oops!...I Did It Again the apologetic endorsement of being "fantastic pop cheese, with better song-factory hooks than 'N Sync or [the Backstreet Boys]," called Spears a "true pop visionary" and "one of the all-time brilliant hitmakers" in reference to her 2016 album Glory. As always, it's not the music that changes, but the conditions under which it's evaluated.

Electronic dance music remains fixed in the first stage of dismissal. The complaints levelled against it are strikingly similar to those used on previous genres: It is formulaic and unsophisticated, created by artists without "real" talent (i.e., the desire to play acoustic instruments). Like disco, it is made for communal dancing, which is used as proof that it is frivolous. (Pitchfork's Philip Sherburne characterized EDM as "the hype-fueled, glowstick-twirling meeting of Southern California rave culture, Vegas bombast, youthful hedonism, and corporations eager to cash in," in a 2016 piece about the perceived demise of EDM culture.)

As the most popular EDM artists at the height of the genre's convergence with top-forty pop, the Chainsmokers are both exceptionally popular and divisive. A recent Esquire essay claimed, "the duo brings all the worst clichés of [EDM], and just might destroy it," and compared the duo to Nickelback, who were made to symbolise the sins of certain, commercially successful offshoots of grunge and alternative rock in the early aughts. The essay accused the Chainsmokers of "doing for EDM what Nickelback did to post-grunge arena rock: becoming immensely popular by using the worst clichés the genre has to offer, and then taking it down to the river and putting it out of its misery." This is the dominant prism through which cultural critics view the duo.

The Chainsmokers are Andrew Taggart, 27, and Alex Pall, 32. In 2012, the two were introduced by Pall's manager and debuted in 2014 with the obnoxious and sexist single, '#Selfie', which pokes fun at young women who take selfies--with the implication that they are shallow narcissists. There were shades of LMFAO in the song's grasping for low-hanging fruit, its folding of the dominant symbol of millennial self-absorption into the skeleton of modern dance music. It was a structure in search of a style.

But '#Selfie' was an aberration, rather than a compass. The Chainsmokers' next single, 'Kanye', would set the template for their future work. While still wrapped in the structure and rhythm of modern dance music, there is a vulnerability at its core. Here, at last, was a style.

The song begins with a piano in minor-key. The vocalist, sirenXX, enters with a melody that resembles a child's nursery rhyme in its gentle, sing-song lilt. Her lyrics describe daydreams of stardom and, already, there is a dissonance, between the cocksure aspirations sirenXX describes ("One day I'll stand with a crown on my head/Like a God, yeah, like a God/With every step, no, I won't second guess what I want") and her modest delivery.

Just before the end of the pre-chorus, the instrumental track goes silent and sirenXX's voice is multiplied: 'I wanna be like Kanye/I'll be the king of me always/Do what I want, I'll have it my way', she sings, as the instrumental track returns with sub-bass, synthetic brass, and hi-hats. What reads as arrogance on paper sounds innocent and aspirational, demonstrating the tension that lies at the heart of electronic dance music: Its fans are portrayed as aggressive and simple-minded, but most come to it for a communal catharsis similar to that found on disco dancefloors or arena rock shows. They come to be completely present, to have their senses flooded, and for the thrill of sharing that sensation with friends and strangers.

Since 'Kanye', the Chainsmokers have released a pair of EPs--2015's Bouquet and 2016's Collage--and, in April, a debut album, Memories...Do Not Open. In their lyrics, there are narratives of love lost and mismanaged. In their music, evocations of the explosive, unstable passions which shape those narratives.

But Pall and Taggart's regrettable interviews and awkward televised performances have cast a shadow over their music. In fairness, the interviews deserve scrutiny. Pall and Taggart can be petty and insensitive, and their nadir came in a 2016 Billboard cover story in which the two boasted about their alcohol tolerance ("You'll never see us getting carried out of a club. We're way too good at drinking," Pall claimed.) and sexual exploits. At one point, Pall, thirty-one at the time, summarised his motivation to become rich and famous as such: "Even before success, pussy was number one...Like, 'Why am I trying to make all this money?' I wanted to hook up with hotter girls. I had to date a model." In a behind-the-scenes video shot for the Billboard website, Pall and Taggart prank called their friend, Dan Marcus, a digital media coordinator at United Talent Agency, in the middle of his work day and convinced him that Taggart was dangerously intoxicated. Marcus became concerned and assured Pall that he would leave work to attend to Taggart, if necessary. Pall and Taggart then informed him the prank call was being filmed for Billboard and burst into a fit of laughter.

The duo, justifiably, took a tremendous amount of criticism following the profile's publication, and have spent the months since trying to limit its damage. In a March interview with NME, rather than apologise for their boorishness, Pall and Taggart claimed their conduct in prior interviews was to be taken as satire, and complained about the emotional costs of being misunderstood. It was a classic, condescending public relations move--the kind that assumes a gullible audience which prefers arguments over semantics and intent to accountability. (This is the same playbook used by just about every major American corporation, few of whom understand how insulting it is.)

The interview, like their previous major profiles, was revealing. Taggart and Pall often display a rare combination of business and creative savvy but communicate their ideas with the inelegance of teenagers. In a 2016 Rolling Stone profile, Pall revealed that he uses SoundCloud to scout potential collaborators and remain connected to current trends, listening to the first few sounds of a given song, then skipping thirty seconds ahead to determine if it's worth consuming whole. This is a rare admission for an artist to make, but it speaks to the ways in which he and Taggart connect with millennials. This model of consumption--casting a wide net and listening for sounds or hooks to distinguish a song from the rest--aligns with a music delivery infrastructure built around constant discovery, whether through curated playlists or genre and mood-based collections. This model encourages diverse tastes for those with the curiosity to venture beyond algorithmic suggestions. In the Rolling Stone profile, Pall and Taggart's mentioned influences range from Blink-182 and Dashboard Confessional to Kanye West and Beyoncé.

Yet discussions of their creative impulses are never far from their promotional strategies. Taggart, in particular, tends to sound like a marketing executive, referring to the online metrics and comments they follow with religious fervour. At one point in the Rolling Stone interview, he wonders aloud about the return-on-investment the profile will yield.

But on video, their lack of polish is obvious. In a 2016 video interview with Forbes, Pall and Taggart slouch and fidget and pepper their answers with "likes" and "uhms." They refuse to take accountability for their mistakes, and their syntax is crude. ("We really want to write super-personal shit that's like, when you hear it, you, like, get to know us," Taggart says at one point, describing his and Pall's ambitions for the songs that would comprise Memories.)

I suspect their clumsiness is not incidental to their popularity. It runs through their music and televised performances and I imagine it endears them to an audience that has grown up online, writing posts and uploading photos on social media sites which later become public documents of their most embarrassing years. For a generation that creates and consumes the digital equivalent of public diaries, mistakes are not only tolerated but embraced. To strive for mediated perfection is to reveal the depths of your insecurity. The missteps make you human.

The Chainsmokers have made two significant, nationally-televised missteps. The first was an ill-advised performance of '#Selfie' on American Idol in 2014, in which Pall and Taggart ventured from their stage to take selfies with the audience and hosts. The performance lasted less than two minutes, but it felt much longer. You could sense the hopes of middle-aged television executives--young enough to recognise trends in teen culture, but too old to understand its idioms--deflating by the second. A misguided attempt at bridging generations left everyone feeling more misunderstood than before.

The Chainsmokers' second televised embarrassment came at a more visible moment, just as the duo was arcing toward superstardom. At the 2016 MTV Video Music Awards, they performed 'Closer'--then number-one on the Billboard Hot 100--and it was clear they had not been trained to sing or move on television. 'Closer', a duet with the singer Halsey, marks Taggart's debut as a vocalist, and for the first ninety-seven seconds of the performance, he was responsible for filling the stage himself, while Pall stood behind a synthesiser and sampler. Ninety-seven seconds is a long time to command a large stage on national television when you don't know how to use your hands while holding a microphone. After those ninety-seven seconds, Halsey entered, and she was tasked with creating the appearance of sexual chemistry with Taggart, who, once again, seemed as if he was being swallowed by the stage. They were the perfect inverse of Drake and Rihanna, two brilliant performers who can make careful choreography seem spontaneous and large, public spaces seem small. Their performance of 'Work' at the 2016 BRIT Awards is instructive. On stage, they produce an aspirational intimacy, one in which each makes all the right moves with grace and precision. This is the kind of intimacy we see on television and in the movies, and it's what we imagine we look like in our own moments of intimacy.

Halsey and Taggart are what we actually look like. Their timing is a little off; their rhythm is halted. You cannot help but watch the duet and feel a pang of recognition, and understand how terrifying it would be to have those moments broadcast on television. Taggart and Pall (who eventually left his perch and, like Taggart, appeared confused as to how he should move his arms) do not possess the physical awareness we expect from pop stars, but it works to their advantage. Their televised performances fit into a rubric of earnest, public embarrassment familiar to any millennial.

The same is true of Taggart's lyrics, which mirror those of the emo and pop-punk bands he has cited as influences in their extreme melodrama and candour. On 'Closer', for example, Taggart's lyrics are petulant ("Hey, I was doing just fine before I met you/I drink too much/And that's an issue, but I'm okay") and myopic ("We ain't ever getting older"). They also lack empathy.

This is what many young songwriters tend to mean when they describe their work as "personal"; songs written in the tone of a diary entry--frustrations projected outward, blamed on anyone but yourself. Taggart follows this template on 'Break Up Every Night', in which he deflects blame for a strained relationship: "'Give me time, give me space, give me reason'/That's what you tell me when you're leaving/Change your mind every night like the seasons/You're insatiable," Taggart sings of a girlfriend he describes as having "seven personalities." This is typical of teen romance, the complete certainty in your partner's frustrations stemming entirely from their defects, rather than your mistakes.

Taggart's lyrics can be crass and repulsive, but, like Drake or Kanye West, he creates an intimacy that draws you toward him. Like his televised performances, his lyrics are embarrassing in the way an old Facebook post or Tweet--revived through a new like or comment--can be, especially those taken from a time when you believed broadcasting minor slights would garner sympathy and mistook clichés for insight. Taggart has nowhere near the aesthetic or vocal instincts of Drake or West, but he possesses the same ability to create a version of himself who is vivid and specific in his flaws.

So, you arrive at the fundamental tension of many talented, complicated pop acts: Their contradictions make them both compelling and somewhat nauseating. We forgive them because they perform the miracle of making music that is intimate and widely accessible. They can be socially problematic, but they comfort us because they make us feel better about our shortcomings.

The Chainsmokers are built upon a foundational contrast, only half of which has come to define them. Outwardly, Pall and Taggart project a carefree cockiness that can flicker between benevolence and smugness in an instant. This is the side cultural critics amplify.

But musically, Pall and Taggart can be fragile and vulnerable, even if they express that vulnerability without much emotional awareness.

Taggart's lyrics tend to blow minor grievances out of proportion and assume his perspective is sympathetic. ("It's 5 a.m. and I'm on the radio/I'm supposed to call you, but I don't know/What to say at all/And there's this girl, she wants me to take her home/She don't really love me though, I'm just on the radio," he sings in 'Honest', which is about how difficult it is to be young and successful while pining over an ex-lover you didn't like that much in the first place.) He is not clever enough to make himself likeable.

The duo's musical strategies are subject to similar contrasts. Pall and Taggart operate within the language of electronic dance music--build/drop structures, a combination of sung and instrumental hooks, digitally programmed percussion, synth tones inspired by European techno--but soften its most aggressive impulses. Their drops do not hit with the titanic force of a Skrillex or Diplo; their bass frequencies are quieter and less pronounced; their melodic textures are softer. By adapting the idioms of two wildly popular youth genres--EDM and emo--into a shape that fits into the traditions of pop radio, the Chainsmokers positioned themselves for massive commercial success.

But being clever will not necessarily make you a star. You must be able to express your concept in a way that will resonate with teenagers and young adults. There must be something in the music that cuts through ideas into visceral, indescribable emotion. While to most adults the Chainsmokers seem childish, that is exactly the point, and exactly why they're so popular.

Because what the duo does better than just about any modern pop act is tap into the brief, intense moments of emotional vulnerability that burn our first romantic encounters into our memories. In these moments are powerful shocks of anticipation, surprise, and excitement that become dulled with repetition. There is an astonishment that comes with your first fulfilment of a romantic fantasy, and the pain its dissolution can produce.

This is the feeling Pall and Taggart capture in their best songs, especially the ones with lyrics that are impulsive, confused, and sometimes cruel. This is where the tension comes into play: a push-pull between sung and instrumental hooks, male and female voices, that which you can express in words, and that which you cannot. That interplay is best embodied in the female singers who have collaborated with Pall and Taggart.

Emily Warren features on two songs from Memories, 'My Type' and 'Don't Say'. Her finest moments come on 'My Type', which may be the best song the Chainsmokers have produced. The song describes the narrator's feelings toward a man who refuses to commit to intimacy beyond drunken, late-night hookups. The narrator, torn between disappointment and the recognition that she repeatedly falls for (and is, perhaps, excited by) men with similar temperaments, plays this conflict with a sly, self-deprecating touch. She sings with a hint of a smirk.

Taggart and Pall interject with an instrumental hook that fleshes out the drama she suggests. Where Warren simmers, Pall and Taggart's hook, composed of stuttering chords which sound like a heavily processed piano, explodes--hinting at hurt Warren's character won't admit until the song's final chorus. There, her voice is doubled, and the second iteration holds onto syllables longer than the first, singing with greater force and drama. The effect is to reveal her split impulses--poise and hurt--and illustrate the tragedy of being the more invested half of a relationship. The song's emotional thrust lies in the subtext, expressed through intervals of intense feeling.

So, this, ultimately, is what the Chainsmokers do: make listeners recall the flashes of emotional vulnerability which define our foundational experiences with intimacy--the fluttering in your stomach, the firing in your synapses that imprints the present into your memory.

Many artists make love songs from the perspective of hindsight; they are coherent, have a clear beginning and end. These songs are not about feeling so much as the structure of memory, and they are the love songs that more "mature" and critically-respected artists tend to make. They resonate with adults who have enough self-awareness to reflect on prior experiences and connect them with current ones.

Other artists make songs that are about the anticipation or immediate aftermath of a romantic experience. These songs are about love narratives more than brain chemistry, and they are the speciality of a Taylor Swift or Carly Rae Jepsen. But the Chainsmokers live in the seconds which create the foundation for the other types of love songs. They make the kind that makes you feel exposed and a little embarrassed. And they're the kind that, ten years from now, millennials will elevate above the instant dismissals they receive today. By then, there will be new artists to misunderstand.