Leave Chillwave Alone

In defense of the nostalgia-steeped genre Ariel Pink both invented and abandoned

Last summer, Pitchfork launched Altered Zones, a site dedicated to the "explosion of small-scale DIY music": all those recent protean micro-genres that reach a hardcore audience through ultra-limited cassette or vinyl releases, but accrue a much larger listenership thanks to blogs and file shares. What was intriguing was the decision to outsource the content—MP3s-with-blurbs, video premieres, artist-curated mixes, the occasional profile—to an "international team" of 15 blogs. Deftly balancing deference and co-optation, the move was a tacit admission that something was going on that the webzine itself couldn't quite handle, and a shrewd enlisting of those who could.

Altered Zones is invariably called Pitchfork's "sister site," but the missing word here is "younger"—there's an age difference large enough to be considered generational, maybe even epochal. Pitchfork thrived through adapting the print-music magazine to the Internet; its mindset still belongs to the era of criticism. But Altered Zones is an expanded version of the MP3 blog, with a sensibility that could be fairly described as post-critical: You'll almost never read a negative comment (MP3 blogs, by definition, don't post sound files they don't rate), and nothing gets graded on a 10.0 scale.

Founded by people whose formative musical experiences occurred before the Internet really took off, Pitchfork retains an attachment to notions like "importance" and "significance," along with such related pre-Web concepts as the geographically located scene, the gig as a privileged site where the community forms around a band, et al. But the Zones generation, artists and listeners alike, have never really known a time when music wasn't enmeshed with the Web. They have only a tenuous sense that music is something you pay for, and a much-diminished investment in live performance. In the '80s and '90s, Amerindie fans typically withheld judgment on a band's worth until they saw them "deliver" live. But when the Web is your primary new-music portal, live performance fades in importance. In the Zones, buzz bands are rarely bands as such: More often, they're just a guy in a bedroom.

Ariel Pink, already past it
Courtesy Ariel Pink's Haunted Graffiti
Ariel Pink, already past it

Details

Ariel Pink's Haunted Graffiti
"Round and Round"
(#8 single),
Before Today
(#16 album)

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The godfather of all this, of course, is Ariel Pink, who built a cult through mid-2000s albums The Doldrums, Worn Copy, and House Arrest, made at home on an eight-track, every last note played by himself. Like My Bloody Valentine with shoegaze, the sound Pink invented—'70s radio-rock and '80s new wave as if heard through a defective transistor radio, glimmers of melody flickering in and out of the fog—was so striking it could only become a chronic influence. Ironically, just as a legion of one-man bands emerged brandishing pre-faded sounds, Pink returned after a five-year silence with 2010's Before Today, an album recorded with a proper band, in a proper studio, and—in this realm, almost unheard of—with a proper producer. On songs like "Can't Hear My Eyes" and "Round and Round" (Pazz's #8 single, and Pitchfork's #1), Pink stripped away his trademark reverb-haze to reveal the formal perfection of his song structures in all their intricacy and ingenuity. As the title hinted, the album harked back to a lost golden age, approximately bookended by Rumours and Synchronicity, of professionally crafted, crisply produced pop-rock. That is to say, the very slickness and adultness that the lo-fi indie tradition originally defined itself against.

I wish glo-fi had caught on as the name for the genre spawned off those three Pink albums (a sound that Before Today ultimately leaves behind), since it at least captures something of their gloss and mess. But "chillwave" seems to be what we're saddled with, a term coined as a joke and wielded most energetically as a brick bat. For 2010 wasn't the Year of Chillwave so much as the Year of Chillwave Backlash, a flurry of jibes almost as formularized as detractors make out the music to be: obligatory reference to Hipstamatic + snigger at the name + invocation of nostalgia as a priori Bad Thing = entire region of music dismissed.

A fundamental human emotion, nostalgia is a perfectly respectable subject for art (see Proust, Nabokov, much poetry, and plenty of pop music, actually). For sure the gauzy sub-Galaxie wistfulness of all that beach pop gets tiresome. But the elegiac mode can also generate things like Mark McGuire's Living With Yourself, on which the Emeralds guitarist weaves "field recordings" of his burbling five-year-old self, originally taken by his father, into the rippling radiance of tracks like "The Vast Structure of Recollection." Living With Yourself, Emeralds's Does It Look Like I'm Here?, and Oneohtrix Point Never's Returnal (all released on the respected Austrian experimental label Mego) have similar temporal coordinates to Before Today, but draw on different resources: the late-period Krautrock of the Sky label, Manuel Göttsching, and soundtrack-era Tangerine Dream; New Age and the Ambient Series (Budd and Hassell as much as Eno). But the almost-clinical clarity of the textures and the mood-blend of serenity and sadness point to common ground between the instrumentals-only Oneohtrix/Emeralds sector and the song-oriented school of Pink.

That said, I don't think the N-word really has much to do with all the '80s ghosts haunting this music. From YouTube to sharity blogs, the Internet is an ever-expanding data sea, and these young musicians are really explorers, voyaging into the past and diving for pearls. Like the real ocean, it's full of flotsam, garbage, kitsch. But sometimes the plastic turns out to be the pearls. The paradigmatic move here is Oneohtrix-man Dan Lopatin's prising apart of Chris DeBurgh's sickly ballad "Lady in Red" to release the sliver of sublime that is "Nobody Here" (one of numerous "echo jams" he deposited on YouTube). But yacht rock and New Age were just the start of the '80s salvage trade. Hitherto disregarded genres of that decade like Goth and EBM entered the influence-mix this year, while How to Dress Well's gaseous take on r&b suggests that the '90s pop mainstream is next in line for archival extraction. Witch house belongs here, too, as just another "zone": Salem's Goth + screw + crunk cuts a diagonal through the '80s, '90s, and early noughties.

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5 comments
Shillwave
Shillwave

Leave the Chillwave Backlash alone!

Contemporary western culture is a pile of 5hit. Making fun of it is a lot more rewarding experience than actually having to consume it.

Alex Pilewski
Alex Pilewski

Everything loses momentum when it doesn't evolve. Chillwave had a tenuous place in blogger's hearts because it had that faint nostalgic quality. But the genre didn't end up being very flexible, all things branded "chillwave" sounded exactly the same. The sounds will remain but I'm glad the term is being given the proverbial gtfo.

Daredaredare
Daredaredare

To descend into the same stodgy critic(al) urge that Simon attributes to Pitchfork, I don't think it makes sense to label Ariel Pink as the father of chillwave. It's pretty obvious that the genre has coalesced into '80s-influenced electronic pop. Its other line of con-/divergence is more the psych/tape noise of Ducktails and Animal Collective, rather than the '60s Nuggets and '70s AM radio that Ariel Pink stems from. It's too late for wish-fulfilling reassignment to guide the evolution of the genre; the night bus is already leaving the station.

Swoop
Swoop

Not so much the specific sound that current chillwave artists are mining stems from Ariel Pink, but the method and approach to their music certainly does. And at the end of the day, it all boils down to hazy, psychedelic pop filtered through whichever genre the artist chooses to use as their foundation.

 
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