Chilled to Spill: How The Oil Spill Ruined Chillwave’s Summer Vacation
Empty nostalgia or a realignment of values, chillwave's alchemical waste-sounds may be on the cusp of a deadbeat summer.
Lately, I've been thinking about what will happens when the oil spill washes up on the shores of chillwave. I know this sounds superficial, as there are so many larger and more prescient aspects of that disaster that warrant our attention -- the environmental devastation, the dead animals, the closed loop of government-subsidized hypercapitalism, the economic impact on an already-downturned labor force, and so on. Few would give any consideration to what impact a catastrophic ecological nightmare would have on a virtual form, let alone one as potentially flash-in-the-pan as chillwave, but nevertheless, with so many spoiled vacations, it’s hard not to consider how a music so many have dubbed escapist and overly nostalgic for dreamy memories of the American coastline will be effected.
Chillwave is a lot of things, dispersed rather unevenly thanks to loose genre borders which have come to encompass just about anything Pitchfork regularly features in its Forkcast download section. But fundamentally, chillwave is beach pop. Its defining characteristics are a relaxed unanxious pace, a degraded ideal timbre reminiscent of antiquated recording technologies, sampled loops culled from tawdry big budget pop of the past 35 years or so, diaphanous clouds of reverb on loan from dreampop and ambient music, breezy colorful synthesizer hues, and wake-and-bake style laid-back vocals.
Even if the textural dynamics and carefree formalist inertia of much of this music don’t specifically evoke shorelines and sandcastles for some listeners (though it certainly does for this writer), the artists themselves have certainly worked hard to reinforce the imagery of coastal vacations and the endless possibilities they presented during childhood. Borrowing a bit of the adult reclamation of Bildungsroman wonder best exemplified in modern music by Animal Collective (and perhaps on film by Where the Wild Things Are), chillwave seems to analyze the more mystifying aspects of growing up in the flamboyant cassette era.
Markedly buoyant, Animal Collective have never been known to shun the darkness, often taking strides to explore how liberating facing one’s fear could be when young, something that adults and all their insecurities find harder and harder to manage. Chillwave, on the other hand, is… well, "chill". While the lyrics to this music teeter delicately between nonsensical pabulum and whimsically effervescent psychedelia, the song titles, band names, and thematic concerns are permanently perched in a sun chair with feet soaking in the undertow.
Ducktails, a group based out of the Jersey shore area, has used a motif of palm trees to brandish their cassettes and LPs while the internal contents of these albums are gauzy set pieces with titles like "On the Boardwalk", "Tropical Heat", "Seagull’s Flight" and "Let’s Rock The Beach". On their "Beach Point Pleasant" from their self-titled album, Ducktails channel The Durutti Column if Vini Reilly had been commissioned to write for carousels and the tape heads wore down on the demonstration tape.
Neon Indian (whose song "Terminally Chill" could be the national anthem of chillwave) recorded a single for Green Label Sound, a record label owned by Mountain Dew, a company that has certainly branded itself in the past as a source of summertime refreshment. A group like Dolphins Into the Future makes sounds that are so furrowed within aquatic field recordings that they almost recall the '80s new age fetish for dolphin and whale songs.
Meanwhile, the title of Delorean’s latest LP, Subiza, seems to be a neologism derived from the album’s town of origin, Subitza Galar, and the nearby Spanish island Ibiza, long known to be a tropical clubland paradise and an early home to the Balearic sound. Balearic beat’s resurgence in the mid-naughts (epitomized by the nu-Balearic track "Life’s a Beach" by Studio) has spilled over into the mix of dance pulses and Caribbean percussion found in chillwave groups like Delorean and the also-summery-named Tanlines.
The bathing suit weather iconography in chillwave is in fact so intense that many have begun initiating any like-sounding lo-fi group into the chillwave cult, such as non-sample-or-synth based indie guitar acts Wavves, Surfer Blood, Beach Fossils, and Best Coast. Fan made videos of this music on YouTube often feature some kind of snapshot of swimmer/ocean sunset or cut-up 8mm VHS videos from family vacations past.
Other chillwave cuts like Neon Indian’s "Deadbeat Summer", Memory Cassette’s "Surfin’" and Delorean’s "Seasun" make reference, if only in title alone, to a kind of permanent vacation, a getaway pop less intent on e(x)ternalizing the internal than chasing the fleeting, recording the sound of moments ago as it dies. Memory Cassette’s Dayve Hawke, who also records as Weird Tapes and Memory Tapes, waxed upon the nostalgia inherent in his music in this manner: "Obviously nostalgia has to do with the past, but for me it's not about the distant past. I'm nostalgic for five minutes ago. I think that's just how I am. I just feel removed all the time; that's just my general state. I never feel 'in it,' I always feel outside of things" ("Interview: Dayve Hawk of Memory Tapes", About.com, Anthony Carew, 3 December 2009).
Taken at face value, this statement seems to be a younger generation’s reaction against the hauntological notion of Theoretically Pure Anterograde Amnesia, which was the title of a six disc project by James Leyland Kirby’s experimental 78 RPM record sampling The Caretaker project. Anterograde amnesia is a real condition in which the afflicted is unable to produce new memories. Writing about the theoretical implications of this in the liner notes to the album, K-Punk noted that "Beneath the superficial bonomie of the endless television rundowns (100 bests, I Love 1971-2-3-4......), Theoretically pure anterograde amnesia finds a dementia. The young have become like the very old, living in a past that they confuse with the present. More horrible than being trapped in one's own reminiscences, this is about being condemned to forever wander someone else's memory lanes" ("Can it Be that It Was All So Simple Then?", K-Punk.abstractdynamics.org, 4 November 2006).
If Hauntology, arguably the closest forebear to Chillwave, acted as the diagnostician, it’s easy to see Chillwave as the disease, or at least symptomatic of the disease. In Chillwave, all time is collapsed and each artist becomes a master at "wandering someone else’s memory lanes", particularly through the frequently-insourced and arrogated '80s, a decade which these 20-something musicians can barely remember, if they lived through that decade at all. To boot, the '80s archaeologized in Chillwave tunes is not some fertile, hitherto undiscovered retrofuturist archive of experimental sound, but the badlands of junk mainstream culture and soft FM hair salon rock.
According to a Village Voice editorial by Brandon Soderberg, "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." ("In Defense of Chillwave", Village Voice, 26 March 2010). To the skeptical observer, it would appears that chillwave is hoarding in the center all that was one rightfully pushed to the margins, decentralizing our own throwaway culture to simply replace it with that of a previous era.
It would be reductive to dismiss Chillwave as the Rapidshare generation’s flat earth mythology wherein critical praxis is just a disciplinary facilitation of confirmation bias and the only fecund territory is that last untouched space ripe for colonizing that no hipster dare touch without oozing irony from every pore (upwardly mobile yuppie culture, chakra-lite positivism, Saturday morning cartoon sentimentality, et al.). After all, Hauntology, made mostly by an older generation of artists who had survived the crash of UK rave and witnessed markets slowly conquer the realm of social relationships, had its fetishized fringe referents, too.
Hauntology sought to use ghosts to move beyond late capitalism’s century of the self, focusing on the buried potentialities of past futurisms (Ghost Box’s embrace of the socialist utopianism in '60s BBC television, Burial’s drowned world 2step take on rave’s lingering afterglow) and esoteric occultism (Resonance FM DJ Johnny Mugwump rounded up a veritable who’s who of the genre for a fireside reading of Weird Tales for Winter, a modern collection of short stories in the vein of Lovecraft, Blackwood, and Machen). In Hauntology, listeners discovered that the past was uncanny and that the age of all access had both eliminated the potential for mystery and precluded the allure of the unknown/uncertain. Even the future seemed to be predetermined, the Bush/Blair neocon era reinforcing the notion of an end to history. "The future is not what it used to be," Kode9 put it in an interview dating back to 2006 ("Kode9: The Future is Not What It Used to Be", Zoopersound, 1 November 2006). Or, according to the 2009 three disc solo set by Leyland Kirby, Sadly, the Future is Not What it Was.
Whereas Hauntology dressed itself up as a secret society to find ways in which the weird past held clues that could bust us out of the stasis of our current moment, chillwave flipped the switch and stated that it was plain sight pop culture itself which was bizarre and untenable. For chillwave was not just about specific musical pieces themselves, but the entire cultural experience behind the listening experience, what musicologist Christopher Small would call the "musicking" (the feel of the headphone against your ear, the process of rewinding the tape, the social expectations inherent in listenership, the feel of the sand under your feet as you listen, etc.).
As Soderberg stated, "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." Our historical remembrance of these totemic pleasures, focusing solely on the materiality of the sounds, was fundamentally dishonest. The past, chillwave, seems to pose, is not what it used to be.
An early track by Oneohtrix Point Never called "Nobody Here" filches the titular line from Chris De Burgh’s putrid wedding slow jam schmaltz "Lady in Red" and dubs out the monophonic phrase to make it a peer to the celestial harmonics of 10cc’s "I’m Not in Love". Washed Out warped Gary Low’s Italo-Soul croon "I Want it Now" to make it sound like the euphoric rinse of beat-based shoegaze on "Feel it All Around". For an online tribute to Michael Jackson, both Toro Y Moi and occasional Ducktails collaborator Julian Lynch chose to cover the maudlin "Human Nature" over some of the King of Pop’s and more revered material. Weird Tapes, meanwhile, has spotlighted easily recognizable samples from Cyndi Lauper’s "Girls Just Want to Have Fun" ("My Babe Walk"), Van Halen’s "Why Can’t This Be Love?" ("Nikki"), and the Legend of Zelda theme ("Home").