License to Chill

Daniel Adler deconstructs the genre of chillwave, and the web’s evolving relationship with the music it labels.

Since the middle of 2009, much of the online music community has been abuzz with talk of a burgeoning genre known as “chillwave” (a.k.a. glo-fi, hypnagogic pop). Acts like Washed Out, Memory Tapes, and Neon Indian were crowned the consensus forerunners of the scene, and observers scrambled to cover the phenomenon. What typifies this new sound? Here’s an excellent description from The Stranger:

Sonically, this stuff is generally as mellow and relaxed as its name implies, hazy and soft, with lo-fi washes of guitar, synth, and voice all blurring together; delay and echo are common traits, as is looping and the use of samples. Aesthetically, it’s bright but faded, beachy and pastoral. The genre’s great unifying theme is a kind of fond nostalgia for some vague, idealized childhood. Its posture is a sonic shoulder shrug, a languorous, musical “whatevs” (perhaps inspired by the bleak job prospects, especially for would-be musicians, in our current crap economy).

Per some positive reviews and high rankings in many year-end lists, my first foray into chillwave was Neon Indian’s debut album, Psychic Chasms. While the record has its fair share of pleasantly hazy earworms, it didn’t resonate with my personal memories, nor did it even make it onto my own year-end list. Psychic Chasms certainly didn’t reflect my ambivalence toward discovering my place in the world (that’s what graduating college is for). Mostly I thought that if this artist was at the vanguard of the genre that suddenly had everyone’s attention, White Williams (née Joe Williams) must feel left out in the cold. His 2007 album Smoke has a similar sonic palette to that of Psychic Chasms, but never got the same attention. So I filed away another “artist X sounds like artist Y” comparison and, content with cementing my encyclopedic knowledge of at least two years of synthesizer-based indie music, moved on.

Then I read this scathing review of Psychic Chasms by Skip Perry of Cokemachineglow. Since this review (as well as every other mention of chillwave on Cokemachineglow’s site) showed intense aversion towards the nascent genre, clearly something greater than the rise of sunny synth-pop was afoot. As I set out to learn more about the chillwave debate, I discovered that while the music may reflect ambivalence, the critical response to chillwave embodies anything but.

Before it became divisive, the term “chillwave” was just an offhand joke. As far as I can tell, the moniker was devised by hipster critic extraordinaire Carles, author of the blog Hipster Runoff. In this deliciously sardonic post, Carles considers then-enigmatic bands like Neon Indian and Washed Out and observes:

a ‘new band’ can’t have too strong of a ‘personal brand’….It’s too easy to ‘not take a band seriously’ if you see pictures of them, and they look like dweebs/people who are ‘trying too hard.’ It seems easiest to have a chill project, that is somewhat ‘conceptual’ but also demonstrates that ur band has ‘pop sensibilities’ or something.

He settles on categorizing these artists and their contemporaries as “chill wave,” because it is “dominated by ‘thick/chill synths” and feels like it’s “supposed to sound like something that was playing in the background of ‘an old VHS cassette that u found in ur attic from the late 80s/early 90s.” (For anyone who takes Hipster Runoff seriously, just consider that other candidates for naming the new genre included “Conceptual Blog Core,” “BroWave,” and “Forkshit”). Although the tone of the post (and indeed, the entire blog) is mostly one of bemused detachment, beneath the surface is a world-weary cynicism toward, and mockery of, the obsessive naming and categorizing of all things new.

Carles probably anticipated that coining a genre in this way would foment a backlash. Sure enough, across the music blogosphere, much hand-wringing and comments-section fireworks ensued. Carles’ timing was certainly perfect for causing a stir, at least as it fits in to the timeline described by Utah Free Media internet radio DJ/music blogger Scottco. Amazingly, all the events described therein — from Pitchfork’s first attempt to define the scene to Carles co-opting the genre-labeling to Scottco’s recap of the hubbub — happened within the span of one week.

From that point on, everyone became a pundit. Hundreds of commenters said their piece on Carles’ original post and on all successive posts tagged with his musings on chillwave. Readers flocked to debate the pros and cons of the term and the music on prominent music blogs like BrooklynVegan, Stereogum, and I Guess I’m Floating. In the latter discussion, even actual chillwave artists (Memory Tapes, commenting as alter ego Weird Tapes, as well as band Blind Man’s Colour) took the floor to defend their art. Google searches for “chillwave” reveal that practically every other music blog had something to say as well. It still trends frequently on Twitter.

How did this series of events affect chillwavers themselves? The Stranger had a response from Kyle Hargus, one half of chillwave-branded duo U.S.F.:

It’s kind of a double-edge sword. It’s cool, because it had a lot to do with the amount of attention we got, honestly. We got compared to Ducktails and Sun Araw, and having like three or four of those bands to propel upwards with helped us. I have no problem being called ‘chillwave,’ but I would kind of resent people disregarding us just because of that label.

By the end of the year, the people who consume this stuff — that is, music and the criticism that comes with it — had shown fatigue toward chillwave. To wit: in the results of Pitchfork’s 2009 Readers’ Poll, respondents voted chillwave ninth in the category of “Trend You Wish Would Go Away.” (Puzzlingly, Toro y Moi, an artist that’s been readily lumped in with the chillwave scene, occupies the number eight spot on readers’ opinion of music’s “Best Hope for 2010.”)

By this point, the actual music became inextricable from the hubbub about its origins, name, intentions, and creators. The antipathy toward Neon Indian in the Cokemachineglow review (“Do I only think the scene sucks because I have heard so much about it compared to how little I’ve actually sat through?”) began to make sense. By January of 2010, Jason Baxter, the other half of U.S.F., made a plea in The Stranger’s Line Out music blog:

Let’s table the whole “chillwave” debate — whether or not the term actually describes a multitude of wildly varying artists, whether or not it’s indicative of a modern media obsession with branding and labeling everything within earshot, whether it sux or rox or whatever—and take a look at a couple promising chillwave glo-fi hypnagogic pop bands on the rise.

His point is well taken: can’t we just enjoy music for music’s sake? And at this point, after trying to wrap my head around the chillwave debate, I’m inclined to adopt a similar music-first posture. But after tracing back the many paths that led us here, I’m not quite ready to let the topic go. We’ve figured out the when, what, and how of the chillwave hype cycle. But what of the why? — why did this small scene provoke such a passionate and widespread reaction?

It’s tempting to chalk the phenomenon up to tropes about the internet (Democratization of information! Everyone’s voice shall be heard!), go-to villains (Damn that Pitchfork and its finicky ratings system!), or our modern tendency to homogenize and categorize trends for easy consumption. But those arguments don’t hold up against the reality of the situation. When everyone speaks in comment sections, the results are too complex and chaotic to detect a common thread. Several prominent arbiters of musical tastes – not just Pitchfork – have been complicit in promoting chillwave (and anyways, Pitchfork is composed of many distinct writers). And finally, as modern music fans we need to compare similar sounds in order to describe and understand music — especially with the massive amounts of it we accrue these days.

The truth is, chillwave became the most talked-about trend in the music sphere because of a perfect storm of events, some related to music, some not. First, that the class of 2009 had similar musical genomes was probably less a matter of imitation or bandwagon-hopping, and more a symptom of the absorption of sounds from well-known and applauded acts in recent years (the forefathers of chillwave arguably include the Avalanches, Ariel Pink, Panda Bear, and Air France, to name but a few). That some of our most influential sources of music news and criticism noticed the similarities and acted as curators (a role we have given them) is forgivable, even commendable, for finding harmony above the fray of the over saturated music world.

The rise of chillwave also benefitted from factors meteorological and economic. The music is said to be “sun-washed” and influenced by summers past — no wonder it was popular in July. And, as suggested in the very first quotation found in this article, perhaps the genre speaks to a widespread ennui felt by the newly job-seeking (or newly jobless). The fact that these factors aligned so well also helps explain the rapid pace at which the chillwave dialogue progressed. When the “next big thing” — musical or otherwise — grabs our attention, we would do well to remember that whatever trend, no matter how arbitrary, derivative, or manufactured it may seem, is the outcome of a great many complex parts, that only time and distance can reveal.

A comprehensive (and even-handed) list of suggested listening for chillwave can be found at Rate Your Music. Another comprehensive list is on the Rhapsody Blog.

In late 2008, Daniel Adler traveled between South Korea, Taiwan, Japan, China, and Vietnam to study the effectiveness of Sister City relationships. As he left America, he was told that "Sister Cities don't do anything," but having traded shots of ginseng liquor with the mayor of Gunsan, South Korea, he believes he has disproved that theory. Images from Daniel’s travels can be viewed at his personal photography website, Adlerography.