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Chilled to Spill: How The Oil Spill Ruined Chillwave’s Summer Vacation

Image from cover of Washed Out's Life of Leisure (2010)

Empty nostalgia or a realignment of values, chillwave's alchemical waste-sounds may be on the cusp of a deadbeat summer.

The Past Lapping At Our Shores

Chillwave is not a remembrance of the' 80s as we choose to remember it, but rather the' 80s how they actually were. It makes no concessions as to how strangely theatrical and hysterically unearnest a period the whole messy scene was. Taken from a historical perspective, it becomes easy to see how the sense of retreat that is intrinsic to this time and vital to chillwave’s narrative is not only lost, but utterly irretrievable. The optimism of that period is not the escapism of a post disaster capital world. It was something we believed, not just something we said to convince other people we believed it. Sunny-side-up supply-side Reaganism is something the collective delusion of the tea party wishes it could replicate, but in the age of limitless information their charade just seems like a Freudian nightmare worn on the outside of the skin.

James Ferraro’s “Demon Channels" videos borrows the MTV spoof Hell TV from the film Stay Tuned for a visit down LA streets with fast-forwarded claymation worms entering television sets, looped interviews with Reagan, spray-painted pentagrams, and walk of fame stars of Bugs Bunny and Bob Hope. Ferraro belongs to an earlier breed of chillwave that journalist David Keenan termed “Hypnagogic Pop" in a seminal article on a new breed of lo-fi psychedelia for The Wire. The article details how Ferraro found Cthulhu in KFC and Best Buy: "I think aspects of human culture that some people regard as unimportant actually operate within a really deep system of ancient symbolism and human archetypes. Hard Rock Cafes, strip clubs, gyms, celebrities, etcetera are all great examples of this, of roadside temples. My albums are like downloads from that body of information, or an interface with that body accessed through the mediation of experience or imagination/visualization" (“Childhood’s End", The Wire, August 2010).

“When an artist like James Ferraro or Gary War takes a sample from an ’80s workout video and degrades it almost past recognition," Emilie Friedlander wrote on her blog Visitation Rites, “he divests it of some of its original authority as part of the mainstream power apparatus and reclaims it as raw ‘working material’–ripe for recycling, recombination, and personal imprinting. The gesture is not an ‘oppositional’ gesture per se, nor is it a subversion of pop culture from within. I think of it more as a positive building movement, one which acknowledges pop’s hold over us while using it to built an alternative to that reality" (“Horizons: What, if any, are the Politics of Hypnagogic Pop?", Visitation Rites, September 2009).

Mainstream symbolism, particularly the intentionally temporal byproducts of advertising, are often touted to be apolitical or meaningless (worse yet, “dada") because they are so inundated into the flow stream of mobile experience that they are thought to be little more than background noise, inevitabilities, or unchangeable derivatives of a society of overabundance. In actuality, most “apolitical" private-public artifacts are just as political as overt agitprop, their messages just seem mundane because they remain unchallenged throughout the broader discourse. Friedlander’s essay stops short on suggesting that hypnagogic pop/chillwave is political medium (a matter to which this author would agree), but finds that there is political potential in the genre’s schismogenesis, its rebranding of the familiar as something cryptic and potentially subversive. That’s why the frequent argument that chillwave is “recession-era music" misses the point entirely.

Homemade recording equipment has literally never been cheaper or more accessible and, given the fact that nobody seems to be making money off music any more, all music could arguably be “recession-era music". Chillwave instead reaps past spectacles, gigantic expensive productions from the history bin, and recreates them as a cheap DIY charade of itself. As Keenan’s article put it, “Without a serious critical agenda to dictate how it is 'supposed' to be interpreted or received, a decade's worth of 'worthless' art and culture is ripe for hallucinations, interpretations and the plundering of idiosyncratic personal canons".

Yet, the referents chillwave uses are not hauntology’s ghosts, apparitions from the past with lingering vitality in the present, liminalities lingering between life and death, presence and absence, consciousness and unconsciousness. The schlock chillwave embraces are bones, more dead than a ghost and so far beyond yesterday’s news that its very fossilized exoskeleton looks like it belongs in a museum. The rate of extinction in Toffler’s third wave society is such that culture is thrown away quicker than it can be absorbed and explored. All that’s left is the raw material, the compost, the bones. Chillwave uses these bones as a kind of fossil fuel to propel its engagements along.

Of course, real fossil fuel takes millions of years to form before it washes up on the shore of our beaches and threatens the lives of surrounding wildlife. The most notorious fossil fuel, oil, is like a liquid ghost, composed of decayed matter sunken into the earth and brought back for new purposes. Via heat and pressure, it assumes a chemically altered form. It’s biofuel, but perverted. Thick, sludgy, and dark as night, oil is a natural substance that nevertheless seems grossly out-of-place and artificial. Quite appropriately then, oil provides the energy that makes inorganic mechanical components imitate life. As a musical metaphor, oil samples the environment and crate-digs way into the archives to satiate the unquenchable thirst for the new.

Edward Burtynsky- 'SOCAR Oil Fields #3, Baku, Azerbaijan, 2006'

In Twin Peaks, David Lynch and Mark Frost used the motif of oil to signify the presence of something vast, mysterious, ancient, and potentially evil under the surface of things. Oil is like the ancient burial ground, a recurring setting of horror fiction, wherein the past has been dug up and disturbed from its death. Oil is generally described in popular culture as an addictive drug, a substitute for capital and power, or a symbol of modern man’s cavalier attitude toward the environment. Yet, oil is also a remnant of a world that once was, a world that, like the '80s, has been so abstracted by the passage of time that its essence is only retrievable in a distorted form.

Peak oil means we’re all out of fossils, all out of ghosts. After peak oil, it’s only a matter of time before we can no longer be fueled by the energy of the past. The reserves are being used faster than they’re being made. It feels like perhaps this is what’s happening with chillwave, which has taken sampledelic music to the end of the earth -- yacht rock and beyond -- in pursuit of the hook, the groove, or the plunder. Ten years into the 21st century and we’re already running out of first-use referents.

In recent years, the music world has seen reappraisals of the untouchables -- Hall n’ Oates (“Daryl Hall", Pitchforkmedia, Chris Dahlen, 21 August 2007), Phil Collins (“No Flak Jacket Required: In Defense of Phil Collins", The Quietus, Gary Mills, 26 May 2010), ELO (“The Electric Light Orchestra", Stylus, Dom Passantino, 24 October 2005), Journey (“Redeeming Journey and ‘Don’t Stop Believin’", The Stranger, Michaelangelo Matos, 25 May 2010), Jan Hammer, John Carpenter, and even (assumedly with some irony) Yanni.

As I’ve stated above, chillwave’s use of hegemonic residue from the unrepentantly stagnant '80s can be seen as a realignment of value, calibrating the genre with Mary Douglas’s ideas of waste/dirt as a revolutionary force. However, it may also just be the case that the chillwave artists are just way too nostalgic and acutely aware of the poisonous effects of their chosen fossil fuels, but unable to let go of them. In J.G. Ballard’s High Rise, inhabitants of an upscale insular community in the titular edifice slowly degenerate into barbarism to defend their way of living. In an effort to always remain within the corridors of the high rise, they first dispose of their waste by throwing it out the windows, never to be seen again. Soon, they start to find the waste comforting and indispensable and retain it in their rooms. If the way Chris De Burgh and Mike and the Mechanics felt in the '80s is “chill", then the waste bin of popular culture is as much a comfort as it is a tool in the realignment in its values.

Ballard himself perhaps couldn’t have come up with a better name for the fateful oil rig of this summer’s spill than Deepwater Horizon. It’s as if the horizon of the ocean were opened up, Atlantis purged. The oil seems to have mostly disseminated now, but it’s unclear how it has dispersed. Will it make its way into rivers and streams, slowly poisoning the drinking water from here on out? Will it evaporate into the air and rain down upon us from above, as some have already reported?

The' 80s influence in chillwave seems to be mostly unconscious, a result of just living with the radio on while The Pointer Sisters subtly dictated one’s mood. For years, Jann Wenner, Mick Jagger, John Kerry, and other old lefties fought to make sure we didn’t forget the '60s, which they assured us were not over in the midst of the uphill struggle to undo all that happened in that decade. As perhaps the closest thing we have to the inverse of the '60s, the '80s now seem the inescapable decade.

The '80s are in the water supply. Michael Jackson, prince of spectacle, is our John Lennon. Obama even seems to invoke Reagan more than Bush II ever did Yet, the '80s we live through now in 2010 is not the actual '80s, but the '80s as 2010 remembers it.

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So, to bring us back to the issue posed at the beginning of this article, what happens when the honeymoon ends, when oil washes up on the shores of chillwave? The easiest answer can be found in what is alternately being called Haunted House, Witch House, or Drag. As catchy as the former two names are, the music in question bears little to no formal resemblance to house music whatsoever and is instead decelerated down to BPMs more suited to a slow motion sway or a lethargic strut than all night club-thumping. The latter term, Drag, has actually been around since the late-'80s as used by artists in the Florida Hip-Hop scene like DJ Fury and Bass Patrol. Though the original drag did indeed have ties to hip-house music styles like Miami Bass, Ghetto House, and Juke, the latest drag incarnation sounds more like chillwave soaked in oily sludge, mired in filth, and gavaged with marbles.

Whereas the original “drag" simply involved “dragging" a vocal out to the lower registers (similar to the effect of “screwing" pioneered by the late DJ Screw), often without switching the beat up too much, modern drag slows the BPM to sub-trip-hop levels, making it not really the stuff for dancing. The vocal on Balam Acab’s “Heavy Living Things" is like ‘ardkore’s sped-up soul sample in reverse, a sluggish neutered breathing schema halfway between a whale song and a Gregorian monk chant. The fluttering sub-bass is like dubstep’s wobble slowed from 45 to 16 RPM. The result is music whose chill runs down your back, whose ghosts hoist the microphone from the living kids, and whose conscious state drifts from the hypnagogic back into the dream.

The brightly hued synths of chillwave remain in drag, as does the fetish for sampling loops and realigning the values inherent in those loops. One of drag’s foundational artists, Salem, made his name with a series of unauthorized remixes of rapper Gucci Mane and others. On of the first releases on Tri Angle records, a label run by Robin Carolan of the blog 20 Jazz Funk Greats which houses most of the seminal drag artists, was a free compilation of Lindsay Lohan covers and remixes.

Yet unlike chillwave, this is a music where lower register vocals mostly disseminate the haze and a sweep a gloomy mood over the beach. Drag even addresses the summers of chillwave, which aren’t what they used to be in these mixes. oOoOO’s “NoSummr4u" is a twisted syntax reinterpretation of Nocera’s freestyle anthem “Summertime, Summertime" in which the female or heliumed male singer (appropriately enough, androgyny is a defining feature of drag) intones “Take me to the water/ I listen to the rain outside/ Feels like I almost have to die with you".

Salem’s “OhK" goes one further, with a vocal that’s almost the complete antithesis to chillwave, its hangover if you will: “Cold in the morning/When you’re walking home/ In yesterday’s clothes/ The sun can’t warm you up/ The sun can’t tell a lie/ The sun can’t keep you clean/ Hard as you try."

The past couple years have seen some dramatic reversals in electronic music. The bright vibrant bounce of mid-naughts synthpop made way for the cold tones of minimal wave. Dubstep went from post-apocalyptic soundscapes to the glittery stroboscopic aesthetics of the purple sound. The eerie oft-kilter experimentation of hauntology was translated for the indie audience as chillwave. Drag may be an early attempt to flip the switch on chillwave, but, if so, it forgets that Keenan’s hypnagogic pop was already properly dark as the genre was still being founded. However, where hypnagogic pop grew out of a kind of post-noise music diaspora, Drag seems to take its cues from hip-hop, thereby detaching itself from the avant-garde and retaining more traditional structure and composition than the likes of Ferraro, Emeralds, Pocahaunted, et al.

It’s unclear at this point if drag can spoil chillwave’s vacation, but it seems far too gimmicky at this early stage to be the vital new thing that supplants our chronic memorializing of the '80s. In fact, it may even be the hip-hop listener’s answer to '80s goth. As a potential reaction to chillwave, drag create fossils out of a movement that still seems to be in its infancy, one which critics are still struggling to define.

It’s hard to tell at this point if either movement will become reusable material that washes up on the shores to fuel future generations of music or whether they will just mix with the sludge and sediment of the rest of musical history in the vast oceanic rest of the internet, congealing somewhere along the deep water horizon. If they are remembered at all, will they be remembered for what they are or for how the future chooses to remember them? Indeed, one day it is very likely that chillwave and drag will not be what they were.

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