We didn’t see this year coming, but we heard it from all sides. In Signal & Noise 2016, you’ll find the way we made sense out of all of that sound.
In cold, dark times, we huddle together to laugh at memes. Remember how we united to collectively mock Kylie Jenner back in January after she’d uploaded a cozy fireside chat to YouTube, outlining her 2016 resolutions? “I feel like every year has a new energy, and I feel like this year is really about, like, the year of just realizing stuff,” she said, head cocked in a Thinking Woman’s Pose. “And everyone around me, we’re all just, like, realizing things.” She gestures with the controlled urgency of that one Ancient Aliens host when he gets to say the word “aliens.” My timeline riffed on its inanity for a few days, then moved on.
Realizing stuff aside, 2016 will be remembered as a horrific year soundtracked by exceptionally good pop music. As many of us have learned in recent months, politics is not something to be opted in or out of when convenient — it is all happening, all of the time, regardless of whether we have the freedom of distraction. Similarly, art does not “become” political, where it once was merely neutral, due to sudden demand. Still, it was nice to see so many of our biggest stars challenge themselves and their audiences to make capital-A Albums that felt like they meant something — to prove that, even in the corporatized, single-driven streaming era, pop music didn’t have to pander to succeed.
Yet, despite all that 2016 offered, the track by which I will remember this year is Marshmello’s “Alone,” the year’s most transcendent EDM song by the festival circuit’s strangest newcomer. “I’m so alone, nothing feels like home!” cries an unidentified, helium-high voice, possibly Marshmello’s own, after a minute of indecipherable, Skrillex-style vocal sample chops. (An easy comparison is “With You, Friends (Long Drive),” a gem from the EDM/metalcore alchemist’s 2010 Scary Monsters and Nice Sprites EP.) But “Alone” does not achieve full liftoff until nearly two minutes in, building toward the drop only to thwart gravity and ascend even higher — the rest is ecstasy. Like a trance song, the real power lies not in the squelching bass or stuttering beat, but the urgent vocal melodies — even when the words themselves are garbled to the point of meaninglessness.
If “Alone” itself was not a sufficiently embarrassing encapsulation of my 2016, I should add that, yes, its creator also poses as a sentient marshmallow the size of an adult male. As far as gimmicks go, Marshmello’s is ponderously, unapologetically stupid. He DJ’s in all white, head completely obscured by a comically bootleg marshmallow headpiece that looks like a small trash can. On SoundCloud, his location is listed as “the grocery store.” Where some DJs don masks to build mystique or maintain privacy, Marshmello seems to most enjoy anonymity for its potential to troll. This summer, he turned his prime-time EDC slot into an elaborate prank, announcing to the crowd he’d finally reveal his identity at the end of the set; but when he pulled off the headpiece, to complete shock, Tiësto was beneath. In reality, Marshmello’s true identity seems to be American dubstep DJ Dotcom, the knowledge of which frankly feels a bit beside the point.
Midway through the year, the fine art of masked DJ’ing’s old and new guards clashed when Deadmau5, unable to endure Marshmello’s lighthearted trolling, finally snapped. The Canadian DJ, who’s been donning a giant, glowing mouse head and naming his records things like Album Title Goes Here for over a decade, unleashed a tirade of insults at the bucket-headed upstart. “The only real frustrating part is trying to work out in my brain who’s actually more annoying. [Marshmello] or his brain-dead posse of deaf sheep,” he tweeted, then deleted. The absurdity of it all — a giant mouse and a human marshmallow, bickering over the sanctity of their craft — made it not entirely implausible that Marshmello’s whole shtick was, in fact, satire. Maybe this was another attempt at PC Music’s faux-naïf conceptualism, or a poker-faced celebration of shlock in the style of Jeff Koons, or just an attempt to cash out on the epic dumbness of festival EDM. Maybe, behind the mask, Marshmello was laughing his ass off at all of us.
Or maybe — probably — all of that is wishful projection, and Marshmello is nothing more or less than what he appears: a DJ dressed as a marshmallow simply because it’s funny. Some things are just dumb, and no amount of creative optimism or critical posturing will make them otherwise. But if I’ve realized anything in these months since Kylie Jenner’s awakening, it’s that dumbness, too, must be taken seriously — that ignoring dumbness does not make it disappear; that dumbness does not negate power but, rather, fortifies it. The Chainsmokers, in their opportunistic mediocrity, were certainly the EDM breakthrough we deserved this year. But for me, Marshmello was the perfect mascot for 2016: a fucking dancing marshmallow, blissfully trolling America.
None of this changes the fact that “Alone” is a perfect song. It does not drip with self-conscious irony like a PC Music track, nor is it cynically efficient in the style of, say, an Afrojack banger. There is a purity about “Alone” that makes it impossible for me to believe Marshmello is all gimmick and no emotion. What initially struck me was its similarity to the giddily overblown-on-purpose sound — often referred to as “maximalism” — employed by a tenuously connected bunch of early-’10s producers like Rustie, Hudson Mohawke, and arguably Skrillex himself. (Thump editor Ezra Marcus also noted the connection in a recent piece.) These guys probed the boundaries of “good” taste to improbably beautiful effect, weaponizing schlock and amplifying every emotion to cartoonish extremes. These comparisons only go so far; besides “Alone,” little of Marshmello’s growing catalogue suggests that he has the depth or technique of an artist like Rustie, at least at this relatively early point in his career. But that same emotion is there — the everything-happens-so-much-ness of it all.
Over the last decade or so, we have seen the dominant ideology in cultural criticism shift to prioritize populism over esotericism, to do away with obsolete ideas of “authenticity” — in short, to take Justin Bieber as seriously as we do Thom Yorke. At some point along the way — as social media, SEO optimization, and the increasingly unavoidable reality that our rotten planet is falling apart at the seams has incentivized hyperbole — we seem to have lost the plot. On several occasions in the month since Donald Trump’s election, I have read on my Twitter timeline the suggestion that the aforementioned critical ideology will, under a fascist president, be revealed as not just frivolous but legitimately damaging — evidence that, in elevating brainless pop automatons to credible artists, we’ve made dumbness unimpeachable.
But that line of logic misses the point of this critical shift to begin with. To argue that pop music — dumb music, shallow music — demands as much consideration as “real” music isn’t to say that this stuff is necessarily good. But it’s real, and a staggering number of people listen the fuck out of it; pretending as though that doesn’t matter is not a very realistic way to examine culture, much less to move through the world at large. Manic celebrity worship and cowardly, obsequious editorial ideals should certainly be mocked as often as possible — now more than ever. To devote comparable critical space to Marshmello and The Chainsmokers as one does for Frank Ocean and Mitski is not to say that “Alone” is a comparable achievement to “White Ferrari,” or that The Chainsmokers are remotely credible. Still, it’s a lot harder to analyze how it is that these artists got so popular, and what it means that this stuff is what resonates, than it is to craft a withering screed on why “Closer” sucks balls, laughing it all off as beneath you. Dumbness does not negate power — when has it ever?
One might think, as the year of realizing stuff draws to its wheezing, whimpering end, it would make sense for Marshmello’s true identity to be at last revealed, or that I would be remotely curious about who exactly lies beneath that dumb, leering mask. In truth, I’d be relieved to never know. If the masked DJ once existed to stimulate curiosity, the gimmick now strikes me as generous — a preemptive scouring of the grotesque humanity from the pureness of a dumb, beautiful song like “Alone.” Some stuff is better unrealized.
Next in MTV News's Year in Music 2016: Doreen St. Félix on Rihanna, a rock star in repose.