Enjoy the Chillride Part 2: Ctrl-Alt-Genre

Last week we quickly covered the questionable, slightly hilarious origination of the term Chillwave. A quick search over at Last.Fm for pages that include the amorphous tag, “chillwave,” is amusing to say the least. What it lacks in focus, is certainly makes up for in enthusiasm. The description of the tag… wait for it… reads thusly:

Chillwave is a sound that is dominated by thick/chill synths that feels like it is supposed to sound like something that was playing in the background of your mind. This is like joyous dream music. It sounds the way watercolors look. Vibrant, textured sound.

This music makes you feel like you’re driving around in your best friend’s car, smoking weed and getting slushys at 711. Makes you feel happy. Listen to it.

Although this description is not without its charms (I especially like the synesthesic line “it sounds the way watercolors look”), it doesn’t really describe much of what the music genre is supposed to sound like. It’s this sort of half-factual, half-cheerleading evangelical description that drive people crazy, and keeps the blogosphere talking about what is and what is not “chillwave”.

Though the bands lumped into the Chillwave movement are not without their own individual merits, the collective aesthetic wreaks of accelerated nostalgia. In Douglas Haddow’s scathing, if not frightening accurate essay on hipsterdom, the crux of the issue is the hipster’s free associative use of cultural cues as a means to look authentic. His examples are (were) trucker hats, PBR, and fixed gear bicycles, but the same obsession with nostalgic touchstones can be applied to chillwave.

Chillwave seems focused on the lifting of (relatively) old aesthetics. The style’s obsession with “lo-fi” recordings, sun-washed overexposed photography, cassette recordings and synth noise is actually all processed, affected nostalgia. But, as with all other forms of nostalgia, the stylistic touchstones are only skin deep.

According to the Last.fm wiki-description, the only sonic uniformity in chillwave is the synthesizer, but a Brandon Soderberg blog defending the scene more accurately points out the main chill-cessory is most certainly the laptop, which, when on stage is charged with muddifying vocals and churning out soothing, woozy undulations. The personal computer though, is actually centric to the rest of chillwaves questionable reappropriations, sonic or otherwise.

First-off; the laptop as a recording device. Without argument, a musician using a laptop as a means to record music should automatically disqualify them as being “lo-fi”, or, as some now call chillwave, “glo-fi”. To record music digitally, and then master that sound on an electronic platform should, by definition, exclude them as an artist whose output is “low fidelity”. The fact that some of chillwave bands take digitally-recorded and mixed tracks and distribute them via cassette tape recording seems doubly contradictory, allbeit charming.

Gone are the days of “Bedroom Pop” in which mousey kids would pull a Tascam 4-track into their closet to record their muddled diary confessions with amateur guitar strumming — C86, these bands are not. There is an unacknowledged irony in the chillwave scene that such easy-to-use hi-tech recording software is used to regress sound back into foggy authenticity.

In the same way that technology that can export spotless product is being used to distort and warp sounds to simulate an earlier era, so goes the visual aesthetic for Chillwave. The look (which can be gleaned easily by looking at the photos for chillwave bands) is one of an imagined simpler time. A nostalgia pulled from flipping through old family photo albums, faded double-exposures, saturated vacation photos, and austere sun-bleached beach holidays. (Also, arguably, The Chemical Brothers’ Dig Your Own Hole liner notes).

Once again, these timeless images can be created in a number of ways nearly instantaneously. One means — which is seems downright primitive nowadays — would be purchasing a perfectly imperfect lomographic camera (easily available at your local Urban Outfitters). An easier solution would be snapping a photo with your digital camera and then tweaking the exposure and color balance on your laptops’ photo editing software. But, for those who don’t have the time to upload images to their computers, there are also a litany of smartphone apps that can take your ho-hum contemporary images and make them chillwave approved.

What is perhaps most frustrating about the genre, as I’ll touch on more in the next installation, is how quickly musicians have simultaneously dismissed the label and embraced all the aesthetics mentioned above.

It seems that as long as you don’t claim to be a chillwave band, you can freely cherrypick all of the genre-by-night’s cornerstones while wholly avoid being labeled a such.

I will leave you with a selection of photos posted on the Last.Fm Chillwave group page.


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