When the Chillwave Crashed: A Genre Gone Too Soon

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By Colin Joyce

The summer of '09 feels like a long time ago thanks, in no small part, to the forces that dominated the blog rock of the day. A legion of 20-year-olds with moppy haircuts, a couple of synths and a pirated copy of Ableton live took the internet by storm. Or maybe it was just a drizzle. There was certainly something about it that felt torrential, but that could have easily been the reverb or the oversaturation of the field. It was known by at least a couple of aliases, hastily applied by trigger-happy music critics to neatly file away geographically and sonically disparate acts. Glo-fi, hypnagogic pop, these were names that came and went–slightly clumsy, if well-intentioned, attempts at collapsing all the nostalgic electro-pop as one quantifiable, marketable Thing. But the moniker that stuck still haunts the purveyors of this perceived scene to this day. Chillwave.

 The mildly pejorative jokey micro-genre coined by Carles of Hipster Runoff fame, carried the ranks of the side-chained post-Dilla explorations of Toro y Moi, the pseudo-Cocteaus dream pop of Ernest Greene's Washed Out project, the blown out Casio pop of the Brooklyn duo Small Black, Jamison's British Columbia-based reverb soaked beats, and the luminous synth rock of Denton, Texas resident Alan Palomo's solo project, Neon Indian.

These were projects for, by, and of the internet. After a renaissance of sound editing and arranging software in the early aughts, it was now possible to make a record with nothing more than a laptop and a pair of earbuds. Lay down some soft synths (stock on your stolen audio software of choice) and some blown out drums, coat the whole thing in reverb and you've got a certifiable Chillwave single. Export the wav to your desktop and upload it straight to Bandcamp and you are now a 'musician.' When an art-form that appears so easy comes along (abstract expressionism, experimental filmmaking) armchair aesthetes tend to lambast it with claims that, given the tools, they too could produce art of that quality. The problem with Chillwave is that they did.

A legion of 20-year-olds with moppy haircuts, a couple of synths and a pirated copy of Ableton live took the internet by storm. Or maybe it was just a drizzle. There was certainly something about it that felt torrential.

But it didn't take long for the warped VHS co-dreaming to shatter. For every technological advantage that Bandcamp provided in proliferating this newfound aesthetic, it didn't have much of a levee system in place for the resulting deluge. For every band of ex-chillwavers that remains an ongoing concern, there's five dead in the water after a couple of slopped together digital 12"s. Despite the omnivoreity that Bandcamp and Pirate-able audio programs promote, they stripped away some of the editing process that is part and parcel with the technical know-how that comes with traditional electronic production.

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