Leave Chillwave Alone


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.

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.

In “Hardcore Pops Are Fun,” from 2006’s House Arrest, Pink provided a kind of hymn/manifesto for this generation’s ahistorical omnivorousness: “Pop music is free/For you and me . . . Pop music is wine/It tastes so divine.” But he still had a foot in ’90s irony (“Hardcore Pops” was actually recorded in 2001). Archness gets burned off completely in the music of those that came after him, replaced by an earnestness that aspires to spirituality. You can see the sensibility in both the music of key figures like James Ferraro and Sun Araw, and in the writing of Altered Zones contributors like 20 Jazz Funk Greats: hyper-referentiality without irony. From a distance it looks like postmodernism, but really it’s something else: a mystical merger of Pop Art and psychedelia.

Earnestness is one of the defining attributes of “digimodernist” culture identified by the theorist Alan Kirby—other hallmarks are “onwardness” and “endlessness.” On Altered Zones and its constellation of blogs, the flow is relentless: What matters is always the next new name, the latest micro-genre, another MP3 or MediaFire. Artist careers likewise are a continuous drip-drip-drip of releases, a dozen or more per year—there’s no reason to edit or hold back, every reason to keep one’s name out there. Stimuli streams in, largely via the Web; creativity streams out, largely via the Web. Today’s musician is a pure screen, a switching center for all the networks of influence. (That’s me echo-jamming Eighties Baudrillard, by the way).

Which brings us back to Pitchfork’s decision to create a sibling site. Why couldn’t they just process the output from all these zones themselves, sort wheat from chaff? The answer perhaps is that there’s just too much of the stuff, and that filtering doesn’t seem to be quite the thing to do with it. This scene is about being engulfed and enthused, carried along by the currents of the new. Drifting not sifting. Before Today made the Top Tens of most of the blogs that make up this restless circuit, but, one senses, mostly out of sentimental loyalty to the forefather. Signed to a big label, touring to promote his big album, praised and profiled by big magazines, Pink no longer really belongs to the underground. Whether that now puts him in limbo, and whether any of his chill-dren (the most promising, Toro Y Moi and Neon Indian, both add Daft Punk to the mix) will follow him there, remains to be seen.

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