Sound of the City just published a piece by writer Brandon Soderberg called In Defense of Chillwave—it’s a direct response to Jon Pareles’ much talked about takedown of the genre after it dominated so much of the conversation at this year’s South By Southwest. Soderberg contends that Pareles’ gripes are the same as the gripes people have had about every new sub-genre of of indie rock for the past decade. There’s probably something to this notion, but one also has to wonder at what point we might consider the possibility that there’s a reason the same gripes keep coming up, and that it doesn’t necessarily have anything to do with the person doing the griping being older than 23.
It should be noted, probably, that I’ve already commented, albeit briefly on Pareles’ piece, and I’m at least on the same page as him, if not one page closer to wanting to pull my hair out:
In his SXSW recap for the New York Times, Jon Pareles wonders just what the fuck is up with all this glo-fi, chillwave nonsense, then figures it out: “It’s annoyingly noncommittal music, backing droopy vocals with impersonal sounds—a hedged, hipster imitation of the pop they’re not brash enough to make.” I’m not exactly sure if I agree with the part about these artists not being brash enough to full-on pop, because I actually fear something much worse: that they know so little about the history of the indie-world that’s spawned them that they wouldn’t even recognize the brashness of such a move.
That fear I mentioned stands in direct contradiction to many of the points made by Soderberg, who goes to great lengths to provide context for chillwave. And, actually he makes it sound super awesome:
’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.
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.
The last part is where I get a little lost: If chillwave really did feel or sound “slightly, appropriately off,” I think it would be every bit as exciting and vital as Soderberg finds it to be. But for me, the problem isn’t that it’s off, exactly. The problem is that it’s content to be less of everything: less catchy, less danceable, less polished, less earnest than the music that informs it. Soderberg very well may be right to chalk that disconnect up to hazy memories and the passing of time, and I think he’s right that it could make for some great music. I just don’t think we’ve heard it yet.
[image from Hipster Runoff]