Sick Boys

C.B. Robertson
Feb 20, 2018 · 8 min read

I examined the poets, and I look on them as people whose talent overawes both themselves and others, people who present themselves as wise men and are taken as such, when they are nothing of the sort.

— Socrates

Philosophers for centuries have noticed that artists often produce songs and stories that appear wiser than their creators. Whether or not this is a function of the artist’s ability to articulate the origins of their wisdom (articulation itself being a rare skill), or whether some Muse or God speaks through them is an interesting question. However, addressing the question risks missing the point, just as focusing on less interesting works by the artist or their own surface-level explanation for the song. Whatever preconceptions you may have about the wisdom and experience of Alex Pall and Andrew Taggart — or lack thereof — know that wiser men have received genuine wisdom from less wise artists throughout history.

With this in mind, let’s examine a particularly good song that came out earlier this year called “Sick Boy” by The Chainsmokers. Contrary to the artist’s own summary, there’s a lot more to it than merely “identity in a crazy world….”

What makes the song — and what distinguishes it from the general crap that is most of modern music — are its lyrics. I’ll touch on the aesthetics of the sound, but focus my analysis primarily on the words.

After an introductory sound-play riff that is quiet, but also tension-building and a little mysterious, the song pauses, and then delivers the opening lyrics:

I’m from the East side of America
Where we choose pride over character
And we can pick sides, but this is us, this is us, this is

“I’m from” denotes identity. In the world of music — especially but not exclusively in hip-hop — East-coast and West-coast are strongly competitive, even antagonistic. “We can pick sides, but…” highlights the similarities that lie beneath the opposition: tribalism, and the inauthenticity (the East-coast WASPish “pride over character”) taken on for the sake of the outer identity.

I live on the West side of America
Where they spin lies into fairy dust
And we can pick sides, but this is us, this is us, this is

The juxtaposition of “I’m from” and “I live on” connotes a genuine feeling of divided loyalty. The Chainsmokers did not — as many carried-away artists are prone to do — perfectly mirror the form, and violate the law of identity: “I’m from the East side… // I’m from the West side…” There is clearly a division within the American house. Well beyond music, anyone who has followed the Right/Left political divide, the Millennials/Boomer divide, or the various racial, religious, and gender schisms in the West generally is aware of the reality of these divides… and the pride and lies that are poured into the battles between these groups, at the expense of character and truth.

“This is us, this is us.” Repetition in poetry implies importance, and here, the fact that we’re all in some part “of America” (another heavily repeated word) is juxtaposed with the oppositional portrayal of East and West.

Finally, the unfinished “this is…” serves at least two purposes.

First, it gets the listener to subconsciously complete the sentence: “…us.” This induced participation causes the engrossed listener to buy into the premise, that we — East and West — are both “us,” as opposed to “us and them.”

Secondly, and simultaneously, the unfinished assertion makes the outcome mysterious, as though the writer had doubts about the truth of the line and left the blank space as a kind of question mark. Is this us? In combination, the question and the repetition that primes completion of the incomplete lyric (participation) make for an incredibly strong psychological effect

And don’t believe the narcissism
When everyone projects and expects you to listen to ‘em
Make no mistake, I live in a prison
That I built myself, it is my religion
And…

The implication of social media is almost palpable. First, there is the explicit reference to narcissism (which The Chainsmokers actually did a reasonably good job defining lyrically). Narcissistic behaviors can be induced by addiction to social media, and while this self-worship can feel good in the moment, the lack of genuine connection with people can lead to feelings of deep, prison-like isolation, even when surrounded by others.

The prison reference also signifies the social media tendency towards filter bubbles. These ideological religions that bind us and blind us to each other are not mere metaphor: Professor of psychology Jonathan Haidt has talked about how Social Justice has become a religion, but it would be a mistake to think of Social Justice as the only kind of belief that leads to division, distrust, dishonesty, and arrogance.

They say that I am the sick boy
Easy to say when you don’t take the risk boy
Welcome to the narcissism
We’re united under our indifference

The first line is an acknowledgment of what “projects and expects you to listen to ‘em” sounds like. Both Republicans and Democrats accuse the other of being sick, stupid, and malicious; the same with East/West coast, Boomers/Millennials, Men/Women, etc. These allegations are, indeed, easy to make in a world where everyone has their own blog, their own “feed,” their own social media world that literally revolves around them and their selected preferences. Nothing is on the line.

For The Chainsmokers, the most likely manifestations of this would be in criticisms of their music. It is easy for non-painters to tear apart the work of a painter, for people who do not write to criticize a work of literature, or music enthusiasts to rag on some composer they don’t like. This pattern of criticism without having skin in the game is, as the song points out, a form of narcissistic behavior that indicates no interest in creating value, only in tearing down what other people create so that we don’t have to feel bad about ourselves.

These lyrics coincide with a building tension and volume that comes before a peak. Emotionally, it gives the sense of imminent conflict.

And I’m from the East side of America
We desensitize by hysteria
And we can pick sides
But this us, this is us,
This is

I live on the West side of America
Where they spin lies into fairy dust
And we can pick sides
But this is us, this is us
This is

Here is where the musical tension first peaks, and the beat has dropped. When you listen to the percussive rhythm in conjunction with low synthesizers, it conjures the feeling of being in a battle of some kind. Lyrically, the timing is unremarkable, and the stanzas more or less repeat themselves, with one interesting exception: “we desensitize by hysteria.”

Since most of American politics and media are based either in New York or in D.C., the asymmetry in modifying the lyrics makes sense… although one could argue another Hollywood-specific replacement for “spin lies into fairy dust” may have been appropriate.

The repetition in conjunction with the sound of the music reinforces the idea that fighting between warring tribal factions — within our own identity, or within our society — won’t actually resolve the fundamental causes of the division. The cause lies somewhere else, and The Chainsmokers are kind enough to tell us where in the very next stanza.

I am the
I am the
I am the sick boy
They say that I am the sick boy
And they call me the sick boy

Now the music has crescendoed into something akin to a melodic harmony. It’s easier to notice in the instrumental.

The quality of this melodic harmony (not being a proper melody, as it does not stand alone, but is dependent upon the vocal melody) is sad, tragic even, as if the state described by the lyrics is inevitable and inescapable.

The repetition of “I am” simultaneously identifies the singer in contradistinction from the warring factions (East/West, etc), and as the source of the division. Yet the placing of the label in other’s mouths (“they say that… // “…they call me…”) leaves it ambiguous as to which of these is true, or perhaps if both can be true. In fact, the chorus amounts to a kind of question: am I really the sick boy, as they say?

Don’t believe the narcissism
When everyone projects, and expects
You to listen to ‘em
Make no mistake, I live in a prison
That I built myself, it is my religion
And

Now the repetition takes on a new meaning. Before, the stanza described a symptom, but here, it stands also as an answer to the chorus question; the answer being… yes and no.

No, because we are told “don’t believe the narcissism.” When other people are calling us sick, they are projecting and expecting us to listen to them.

Yes, because the verse immediately afterwards tells us that we helped build this, by valuing the wrong things — namely, ourselves.

Feed yourself with my life’s work
How many likes is my life worth?
Feed yourself with my life’s work
How many likes is my life worth?
Feed yourself with my life’s work
How many likes is my life worth?
Feed yourself with my life’s work
How many likes is my life worth?

The “likes” is an obvious reference to Facebook’s primary tool of giving (and receiving) social approval, which is the currency of narcissism. Less obvious, however, is the double entendre in the verb “feed.”

In context, it implies a kind of theft, almost cannibalism, on the work of others, which characterizes the narcissist’s — or perhaps the sociopath’s — perception of other people.

I’m from the East side of America
(I am the, I am the, I am the sick boy)
I live on the West side of America
(I am the, I am the, I am the sick boy)
I’m from the East side of America
(They say that I am the sick boy)
I live on the West side of America
(And they call me the sick boy)

I am the
I am the
I am the sick boy
They say that I am the sick boy
And they call me the sick boy

Overall, this song is good: perhaps a B+ on the music scene, and that makes it a rarity. True classics are exceptionally rare, and sometimes as hard for the listener to identify as they are for the composer to write. Good songs are easier to identify, but still hard to compose, and in this case, I think The Chainsmokers did an excellent job matching playful yet serious lyrics with appropriate and evocative music. It’s a deep and wholesome song that has a broad enough appeal to hit the radio.

For those who are convinced our culture is going to hell, and that our society is doomed, “Sick Boy” serves as a double-edged reminder: that good art is still being made, and that when the world looks grim and hopeless, it is entirely possible that the world is not the sick boy.

C.B. Robertson

Author of “In Defense of Hatred,” “Letter to Anwei,” and “Holy Nihilism.”

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