In Defense of Chillwave


“Glo-fi” or “chil-wave”, that sub-sub-sub genre of electronic indie pop, was kind of a big deal at SXSW this year. Well, as big of a deal as something solely focused on trying to sound like Christopher Cross on muscle relaxers can be in 2010 at a constantly internet-streaming, forever re-tweeted music festival. Big enough though that New York Times‘ Jon Pareles dropped this awesomely brutal piece about why the scene is well, bullshit.

Pareles critiques chillwave’s formal elements, referring to its fuzzy grooves and gated drums as “annoyingly noncommittal”–“a hedged, hipster imitation of the pop [Chill-wavers are] not brash enough to make [themselves].” In short, chillwave sucks because it retrofits older, better music for younger, more ignorant, stuck-up weirdos and nerds. Sounds like the critique lobbed at every indie trend of the past decade.

Problem is, chillwave is the most interesting and vital, stupid indie trend in a minute, and in attacking it, Pareles fundamentally misreads chillwave’s influences and ignores its heady intentions. ’80s pop is everywhere–the sound chillwavers search out goes way beyond the Billboard charts of “the me decade.” It’s in Atari and Nintendo games. And Tangerine Dream’s sell-out, soundtrack period. CDs on the Wyndham label. And horror movies on VHS. It’s that “Happy Birthday To You” song that played at Chuck E. Cheese because the real “Happy Birthday” song is too expensive to license. Stuff even the most devout ’80s revivalists, from Lady Gaga to jj and everybody in between, wouldn’t deign use to spike their style.

Chillwave contrives a revaluation of the past and present. It gathers the still too-loaded sounds and emotions of the ’80s and confronts a contemporary audience (generation, maybe?) with them, raw and uncooked. The slivers of beachy ambience in, say, Animal Collective or MGMT actually sound like a “hedged hipster imitation” of the go-for-broke cheez chillwave’s fully embraced. This is why Pareles’ comment that the music is “non-commital” is so baffling. Chillwave really goes there.

Notice that the precedents for chillwave are aughties music that challenged codified indie ideas of “cool.” Ariel Pink, whose career is all about taking schmaltz seriously, is the scene’s godfather. Christian Fennesz’s 2004 release Venice, with its barely-there waves of noise and a thematic focus on fading, shifting memory, is an ancestor of chillwave too. Really, any electronic music of the past ten years that isn’t blog house or electroclash is pretty much some variety of airy, chilled-out music embraced by the same bunch of people that scoffed new age music.

That chillwave is now a bonafide scene, including not just a few stragglers here and there, but small labels full of them, suggests a tiny but significant shift in sensibility. As in: ‘Hey, let’s cut the bullshit. New age, on its own terms even, can be pretty good.’ And though chillwave’s nostalgic for new age and other unthinkably “bad” aspects of the ’80s, it doesn’t necessarily revere them–Pareles’ “half-remembered Top 40” jab is about right. The formal aspects of these almost-familiar sounds are important, but the focus is really on the weird, deeply personal byproduct of hearing them, two hazy decades ago, at age ten. Not so much the Mike & the Mechanics tape your dad used to listen to with you but how that tape felt. And how it feels now. And how those now/then feelings conjoin and clash to make something slightly, appropriately off.

“Land Runner” by Ducktails is the theme to a failed, “hip” high school comedy, but foggier and sadder.

Washed-Out’s “Feel It All Around” is well, it’s basically just this Style Council song but more depressive than melancholy.

And don’t ignore the regret in the title of Neon Indian’s “I Should’ve Taken Acid With You”.

There’s also California’s James Ferraro, ignored in most chillwave discussions because he’s just too fucking weird, but part of U.K magazine Wire‘s focus on the scene last fall when they dubbed it “Hypnagogic pop”. Ferraro stretches chillwave sounds into thirty-minute drones and double-stuffs the whole thing with context: The sounds an eighties baby heard, made equal parts beautiful and disturbing.

The issue with chillwave isn’t whether it’s sincere, but that it’s too sincere. The guys making it are brave/stupid enough to ponder memory and self and childhood via a junkpile composition style that’s so rarefied and off-to-the-side that it’s a quiet provocation. Hardly “hedged”, Chillwave, unlike most ’80s-influenced indie trends as of late, stares the bloated, oblivious decade straight in the eyes, and doesn’t shudder when that decade looks back.