The Chillwave Letters: Discussing Blog Rock, Redeeming ‘Blog Rock’ – pt. 1

The following conversation first occurred over the course of an email exchange between me and my main man Dan.


Dan: We’re two smart dudes, let’s hash this out.

I’m guessing you’ve read about chillwave somewhere. This week I let my curiosity go wild and YouTubed the chillwave phenomenon for an hour. I have a few thoughts and I’m curious what you think about my hunches.

I feel like this is kind of like a living RIYL via YouTube, for better and for worse. i don’t think these groups are as easy to pin down sonically as it seems people want to, but if you check out Washed Out you’re checking out Small Black next via related videos and then you’re at Toro y Moi, etc. So if you’re our age, you’re probably checking these groups out via YouTube, right? But this is the perfect genre for YouTube consumption–on one hand, all the recording sounds low budget and sometimes even lo-fi, and on top of that most of the singers hide behind reverb. On the other hand, nobody’s blasting it out of expensive home sound systems–the sound is being further denigrated by the bitrate compression inherent in streaming audio. Then you release the music on cassette–music made on laptop, converted to WAV, transferred to cassette–further denigrating the music.

So a tentative thesis is like, maybe this is YouTube: The Genre.

On top of the sound issues I’m talking about with YouTube, the videos are pretty funny. Specifically I’m talking about the Toro y Moi video for “Blessa.” The entire video is like signifiers of a hipster brand of happiness. It’s cool because there’s attractive people in interesting clothing talking while a hot bespectacled black dude serenades them and they drink beer out of novelty measuring cups. Just choosing to make your video like “a party with all my friends” is a much bolder statement than it looks on face; you’re welcoming judgment of everyone watching it to judge you and your scene but you’re also confident enough that it’s going to get approval. And why wouldn’t it? It’s like, just a bunch of good looking people who you want to believe are engaged in sophisticated banter while this dude plays.

At the end of the day, it’s a serious waste of time hating this like some dudes on blogs seem to; the music is about as meek as it gets and isn’t making any big claims; it’s totally insular in who it appeals to–it’s like, if you get the signifiers, you’re in, you almost don’t even have to listen to the actual song you just have to dig the vibe. I’m just digging, so jury’s out whether I actually like the music; Washed Out seems good. I first heard him over the summer on a dance music radio show and didn’t know it was like, the thing to be into 2k9, but like what is this genre? I’m really curious whether you agree/disagree with my initial impressions, you have a good detector with these things.

Greg: I guess I don’t think it’s strictly fair to call it YouTube: The Genre* ‘cause I think the music could exist without the YouTube platform—Neon Indian songs were disseminated on blogs before they started racking up big YouTube hits, or at least that’s my impression.  (Carles from HIPSTER RUNOFF coined the term, right?) And I don’t know if artists are producing their music with the expectation that it’ll be played on YouTube, but I doubt it.  Which is not to say that the intent of the artists that compose a genre is what a genre’s identified by–

I do think you’re onto something though, and it’s something so far under-considered.  Listening to mp3s rather than CDs, records or cassettes affects how we experience music (the compressed sound, the infinite reproducibility, etc), but so does the platform we use for listening.  And I’m not sure there’s a precedent for something like YouTube’s affect on music listening—you can’t really compare the effect of YouTube on how we think about a band to the affect that, say, MTV had before it.  Now, and for the foreseeable future, is the Internet presence of a genre going to be what determines that its seen as genre to begin with?  (How much responsibility does YouTube have for our perception of these groups as part of a genre, Carles’ contribution not withstanding?)

Chillwave isn’t the first title applied to a bunch of artists with tenuous connections to each other.  Elvis Costello, New Order, The Ramones and Haircut 100 wouldn’t necessarily appeal to the same people but they were all called new wave at one point or another (and if you were to play them for a space alien with no concept of the genre, it wouldn’t necessarily group them together).  There are always organizing forces for how we think about music—invisible, genre-shaping hands.  Maybe the question is what about this phenomenon is NEW (how much do internet platforms affect how we think, and how much do they reflect it?).  I don’t know enough about new media or human cognition to propose any satisfying answers.

There’s a distinctly associative way of thinking that the internet generally encourages, be it through hyperlinks, the books Amazon.com recommends to me when I visit the site, or in this case, YouTube’s related videos.  Here’s what maybe we can say about new forms of (for lack of a better term) alternative music and the internet (social media especially)—I think that more and more we’ll categorize artists in terms of the places/platforms online where they get the most exposure.  No doubt the name ‘blog rock’ makes you cringe, but I think it’s a sign of things to come that plenty of people have referred to acts like Grizzly Bear and Vampire weekend by that handle.

Side question: how old is Alan Palomo?  Is chillwave the first highly-visible music movement headed by people younger than us?  Because that’s a scary thought.

* I feel like if anything gets the title of YouTube: The Genre, it’s short videos of people’s pets

D: You’re right, you’re right, you’re right. I swung for the fences with that YouTube bit and lifted a crummy pop-fly to shallow left. As a tribute to David Wright’s opening day homer, let’s retool the swing a bit…

Continued later this week

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2 Comments on “The Chillwave Letters: Discussing Blog Rock, Redeeming ‘Blog Rock’ – pt. 1”

  1. Hannah Says:

    i miss you guys


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