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Photo by Kevin Mazur/Getty Images for Billboard Magazine

Marshmello Could Be Great, But He Keeps Making Pop Songs

ByColin Joyceillustrated byLia Kantrowitz

In 2017, the masked maximalist has mostly made listless pop music with big name vocalists—in the past, he's proven he's capable of so much more.

Photo by Kevin Mazur/Getty Images for Billboard Magazine

Generally speaking, Marshmello is not the sort of artist most people expect a whole lot from. The world’s most famous masked maximalist is an EDM producer in the strictest sense, and as such his productions are a centrifugal cavalcade of rickety state fair rollercoaster drops and nauseatingly sweet synth sounds. He’s the sort of guy who fills his DJ sets at megafestivals populated by tank-topped bros with boneheaded remixes of long-overplayed karaoke classics (peep this abomination of a “Wonderwall” deconstruction that I once saw him play at the Indy 500). His Instagram feed is a river of selfies with #influencers and carefully composed photos of the dumb bucket he wears on his head, dead-eyed, always smiling.

You would be forgiven for not thinking much of him based on these facts, but I always will, if only because last year he released a song that’s pretty much perfect. In June of 2016, Mello—as he’s affectionately known to his fans—debuted on the tastemaking label Monstercat, with a single called “Alone.” Both in spiritual and in a literal sense, it was a successor to his January album Joytime—which presented just what its title suggests, a winning revision of EDM reduced to only its most gleeful moments. That largely meant synthesizers with the crackly and saccharine characteristics of rock candy and winning drops as gooey and surreal as a ski trip down the Gumdrop Mountains.

The innovation of “Alone” was that took the best of those moments—a beautiful sunrise of a synth line, a chattery vocal sample—and imbued them with a special sort of post-millennial alienation. Its blissed chorale was a tale of searching for your place in the world, something that resonates both with those festival bros and more introverted types. It echoes mainstream electronic music’s move toward a sound that Mello’s pal and occasional collaborator Slushii once dubbed “feelsy,” a focus on emotion and openness rather than the brutal energy that once ruled EDM. But it also bests most of the stuff in that trend. For all the strides that Porter Robinson had made toward bringing the heartwarming fuzz of shoegaze into the hi-gloss EDM world, rarely have his—or any of his peers—songs sounded as direct as “Alone.” It’s simple, nearly to a fault, but every time that pitch-shifted chorus morphs into that fluttering synth line, it’s dopamine fireworks.

Since its release, “Alone” has seen hundreds of millions of streams, and it was certified platinum earlier this year after a long slow-burn that eventually saw it peak at number 60 on the Billboard Hot 100, a rarity for a track like this. As much as big dance tracks electrify festival crowds, it’s fairly rare for them to reach the charts—or even the radio—without the aid of a big pop vocalist. Marshmello could have taken his the rise of “Alone” as a sign of his ability to break through on his own terms—for his neon corn-syrup slurries to rewire the synapses of listeners generally primed for big Sia hooks on prog-house drops. But instead, in the months since “Alone” broke through, he’s kinda just done what most other successful producers do once they hit a certain level of fame: work with stars.

An embryonic version of his twist on pop songs emerged in the immediate wake of “Alone.” Marshmello’s next single was a slinking collaboration with Far East Movement (of “Like a G6” fame) and Tinashe, which if nothing else showed how malleable he was as a producer—that he was amenable to subduing his colorful quirks when the occasion called for it. Unfortunately, most of his singles since have been similarly muted. It started last year with his single “Ritual” on Skrillex’s OWSLA label—which is generally a home for boundary pushing maximalism—on which he wrangled the Los Angeles singer Wrabel over a dizzy house beat that builds to a fairly conventional crescendo.

This year he’s mostly followed that formula, starting with “Chasing Colors” a high-school-glow-in-the-dark-party of a pop single with Miley Cyrus’ younger sister Noah. He made “Silence” with Khalid, which has proven to be pretty successful, peaking at 42 on the Billboard chart, but I'd guess because it’s more or less Khalid song—with the R&B echoes of his usual work traded in for acid flashbacks of HARD Summers long passed. In late October, Mello teamed up with Selena Gomez on “Wolves.” At its peak of number 35, that song was highest-charting single to date, but there’s not a whole lot to it, production-wise—chiming electric guitars that build to a bubbly synth arpeggio that feels a Flume song playing in slow motion. It’s uncharacteristically understated compared to the stuff that Marshmello put out last year, which is kinda worrying. He’s at best when each new sound feels like sticking a sparkler in a socket.

The specter that sorta looms over this whole move is the rise of the Chainsmokers, who more than any other dance act in recent memory have been able to transition from festival staples to legitimate hitmakers. They too broke through by making neon-bathed pop songs aided by both unknown vocalists (Daya) and young stars (Halsey). They transitioned away from the more prickly, vibrant sonics that started their career in favor of glassy-eyed pop platitudes, which, obviously, had a pretty broad appeal even if they were less immediately distinctive. It’s hard not to see echoes of that in the work that Marshmello has released this year, especially in the success it has generated him. Even aside from those two bigger hits, with Gomez and Khalid, virtually everything he’s done this year has landed somewhere on Billboard’s Dance Charts, which generally leans toward MOR pop crossovers rather than more boundary-pushing tracks.

It’s a trap with pretty appealing bait. In 2017, the Chainsmokers and other relative successes in dance music (like that one dimly lit Axwell /\ Ingrosso song with Kid Ink) have a pretty clear formula. Even Cashmere Cat—the producer Magnus August Høiberg, who’s always shirked EDM’s strictures for something a little more contorted—has gotten increasingly suctioned into pop music’s wormhole. But work like Høiberg’s could offer a way forward for Marshmello. His approach, at least on his debut full length 9, is to drag the pop singers kicking and screaming into his world, offering an uncannily warped version of pop radio. He hasn’t quite done the numbers that Mello has done, nor does he necessarily seem like he cares to, but he’s been able to maintain a distinct identity, even as he racks up Grammy nominations and lends his ear to virtually every big-name vocalist the radio can throw at him.

Outside of his bigger singles, there are signs that Marshmello might be amenable to an approach more like this. He’s tossed off a few more instrumental—or at least guest-free—singles that feel a little weirder, like “Love U,” a helium-addled take on Daft Punk’s stadium-sized digitalism. “Moving On” was a warped return to some of the spun-sugar charms of “Alone,” though its drops lack some of the potential energy that made that song so great. Even in the more straightforward pop songs too there’s flashes of brilliance—like the breakdown of “Chasing Colors,” which feels like an old NES cartridge sent through a wood chipper—but those moments are just too few and far between.

If there’s reasons to remain hopeful about what Marshmello’s got up his long white sleeves, it’s in some of his more low-key experiments. In March, he teamed up with Slushii on a song called “Twinbow,” a song as wide-eyed and colorful as its namesake. It’s prismatic approach to sound design is definitely a bit too warped for the radio play he seems to want, but you hear the sproingy, kaleidoscopic playfulness that gave “Alone” so much of its charm in the first place. There’s also “You and Me,” a strange curveball, apparently featuring vocals from Mello himself. It's an absurd Frankensteining of pop-punk singing and squirrely synth work, the rare track that’ll play at both Emo Nite and EDC. It is just about as off-putting as that description may imply, but it’s a risk, at least, and Marshmello’s biggest problem in 2017 is that he hasn’t really been taking very many.

Colin Joyce just wants the best for EDM. He's on Twitter.