What Did Chillwave Mean, Anyway?


It’s almost summer, and there’s a new Toro Y Moi album out this week. Both these facts have got us thinking about the genre that dare not speak its name, the curious faux-retro sound that flourished briefly during 2008 and 2009. We are, of course, talking about chillwave, and since we’re coming up to the third anniversary of the alleged Summer of Chillwave — and we’ve just passed the fifth anniversary of the album that started it all — we thought we’d amuse ourselves by looking at the genre with a bit of historical separation, and asking what it all meant.

The defining aspect of all the music that got placed under the chillwave banner — everything from the laptop atmospherics of Memory Tapes/Memory Cassette to the bong-addled summery schtick of Best Coast — was its sense of nostalgia for some imagined past, a nostalgia that manifested in wistful melodies and cross-processed cover art. It’s a nostalgia that remains prevalent throughout popular culture today, actually — you can cite everything from the huge popularity of Mad Men through Gorilla Vs Bear’s fondness for Polaroids to the current Williamsburgian predilection for waxed moustaches and expensively retro boat shoes.

But as with your silly facial hair and sailor tattoos, the key point here is that this is an imagined nostalgia, a yearning for a past that never existed. Some musicians have taken this idea of an imagined past and played with or subverted it — take Ariel Pink’s early work, for instance, which deliberately set out to sound like it may have been recorded off a cheap transistor radio at some point during the 1970s. A more recent example is Royal Headache, whose self-titled debut album shares a similar sense of faux-vintage production. (It’s getting released here next month — it was widely hailed as the album of the year in the band’s native Australia last year, and you’ll doubtless be hearing more about it shortly.)

Chillwave, though, largely lacked any such sense of self-consciousness. It wasn’t really playing with the idea of an imagined past, it was simply doing its best to retreat into that past — a construct of hazy summer memories and simplicity and comfort. The fact that this was such beach-centric music makes it interesting that it was also so heavily Brookyln-centric. (Perhaps the most amusingly incongruous example of this was The Drums’ “Let’s Go Surfing” — um, let’s go surfing where, exactly? On the wave of shit in the Gowanus?)

But again, this incongruity only serves to emphasize that the whole genre involved creating an imaginary solace from the troubles of the world, and it’s surely no coincidence that chillwave’s rise coincided with the aftermath of the 2007 sub-prime economic meltdown. Older generations have often bemoaned the lack of political music coming out of this generation, perhaps with good reason — but in its own way, chillwave strikes me as just as much a reaction to its historical context as, say, punk was. The key point, however, is that the two genres’ protagonists reacted to uncertain times in very different ways — whereas punk reacted with anger and a desire for change, chillwave was the sound of escapism and resignation.

In this respect, chillwave also strikes me as hugely middle class music. It’s not a sound for the people at the bottom — they’re just as angry and disenfranchised as they’ve ever been. It’s more a sound birthed by those who’ve grown up with some sort of privilege, a generation that’s grown up in relative comfort, all the while listening to their parents talk endlessly about wonderful the ’60s were, and how sweeping a social change that decade wrought, and etc. In an increasingly uncertain world, that allegedly golden era seems ever more distant. As a commenter wrote just yesterday on our “Classic Rock Songs We Never Want To Hear Again” post: “At least [the ’60s] generation had a cause… Our lives have become so easy we have nothing to sing about anymore. We haven’t a clue what real hardship is and consistently this generations [sic] music reflects that, not in a good way most times either.” This may or may not be the case, but either way, surely such a situation brings its own set of insecurities, particularly when there’s a sense that one’s hitherto easy life is about to evaporate into a haze of unpaid internships and financial uncertainty.

Chillwave said precisely nothing about any of this — but the fact it chose to say nothing itself says a great deal. It’s perhaps an indictment on our generation that its response to challenging times involves retreating from them rather than getting angry about them. But then again, perhaps not — we live in a country where the divide between rich and poor grows ever larger and the deck seems almost insurmountably stacked in favor of the 1%. No one writes protest songs any more, because they seem so entirely futile.

It’s interesting to note, for instance, that the Occupy Wall Street movement has given rise to so little music. Punk these days is more concerned with dick jokes than with politics, and in any case, any musician who does take any sort of political stand is greeted with skepticism and scorn. Even hip hop, a genre that began with some sort of social conscience, has (at least in its mainstream form) devolved into a celebration of the sort of materialism that perpetuates the inequities it claims to oppose. Rappers don’t dream of changing the system, they dream of becoming part of it.

And chillwave did its best to ignore the system entirely, functioning as a sort of cultural placing of your hands over your eyes and ears and imagining your happy place. Which is, of course, ultimately futile. The chillwave era will most likely be a footnote to musical history, a faint flaring of middle class angst in a frightening time for everyone. But that doesn’t mean it’s not worth examining regardless, because its simple existence says far more about a generation than the music itself ever did.