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How Kygo's 'Instagram House' Became the Soundtrack to Millennial Daydreams

What is "Instagram house"? You know what I mean: Producers remixing Ed Sheeran tracks with steel drums, pan-pipes, and 4/4 beats in a way that sounds just like the last day of your vacation.

by Clive Martin
Sep 17 2015, 4:20pm

Screenshot via this Best of Kygo mix, but it could be from literally any one of those "tropical house" YouTube videos

This article originally appeared on VICE UK.

Ever found yourself stuck at home in a YouTube vortex, only to get distracted, go argue with a postman, and return 45 minutes into some weird "tropical house" mix featuring a stock photo of a palm tree at sunset?

I know I have. And unless, pre-distraction, I've been watching Russian street fight videos or a tutorial about unblocking sinks, the vortex usually takes me directly to a tune by Kygo, the Norwegian house producer. In fact, I'm going to go out on a limb and say that never in such a short amount of time has the canon of one single artist so invaded my life. Whether it's on YouTube, SoundCloud, those House of Fraser adverts, HSBC Radio, or distant barbecues full of healthy, happy people in denim shorts that I'll never be invited to, I just can't seem to escape the sound of Kygo, with all its woozy xylophones, plonking steel drums, and processed-to-within-an-inch-of-humanity vocals.

Wondering if I was the only person feeling the omnipresence of Kygo's work—perhaps fearing it was some kind of delayed Ibiza flashback haunting me in my lowliest moments—I looked into the man's numbers, and they revealed that he's something of a quiet phenomenon.

So far, the artist known to his mother as Kyrre Gørvell-Dahll has chalked up 92 million views on his track "Firestone," as well as tens and tens of millions more on all the others (which include a bizarre version of Blackstreet's "No Diggity"). He's done an official Coldplay remix, he's just released a proper single with unlikely X Factor success Ella Henderson, he replaced Avicii at this year's Tomorrowland festival, and god knows how much cash he's clearing through advertising syncs. The way his tracks autoplay on YouTube one after another suggests he knows where the bodies are buried in the Silicon Valley, and guarantees his world tour will sell out everywhere it goes. Granted, he's not quite on the world stage just yet, but he's quickly becoming massive.

When coming to understand the phenomenon behind Kygo, the "who" part of it doesn't matter too much. A scant bit of research will tell you that he recently turned 24; that he comes from Norway (the picturesque coastal city of Bergen, to be precise); and that he looks a bit like a mix between a slightly buffer Logan Sama and the guy who played the Winklevoss twins in The Social Network. Apparently he's an accomplished piano player, but packed that in when he discovered Logic Pro and Avicii, the man whose high-top patent leather Supras he would later fill, and who he cites as a major inspiration on his career, with his tongue absolutely nowhere near his cheek.

"Avicii's melodies were so simple and cool, and they were actually similar to the melodies I played on piano. I thought if I could teach myself how to produce and get those melodies out of my head and into the computer, maybe I could make some cool music, too," Kyrre told Billboard last year.

This has 93 and a half million views at time of writing

His enthusiasm about Avicii speaks to the kind of guy Kygo probably is: keen; polite; slightly naïve, perhaps; not very cool. He wears scoop tees and always rocks his baseball cap backwards. He smiles in all his Instagram pictures, sometimes with dogs. He could be every nice European guy you've ever met; the backpacker who asks if you know where to find some cool music in King's Cross on a Wednesday night; the kid who cheerfully lets you into your hostel at 5AM, bandages your hand, and asks you how your night was. He's just a Scandinavian boy who loves to party but (probably) doesn't do drugs. He is the light to Martin Garrix's shade, and Martin Garrix isn't exactly shady.

The man himself might not be a fascinating figure, but his success reveals a wealth about not just the state of our culture, but the way we view our lives—much more so than Rihanna or Guetta or Kanye or any of the other real big-hitters might.

Kygo is the leading light of a raft of "tropical house" producers that have positioned themselves as a slightly more tasteful, exotic alternative to all the fist-pumping, molly-popping and cake-throwing of EDM. Alongside the likes of Robin Schulz, Zwette, Thomas Jack, and Klingande (as well as a swarm of one-remix-wonders), Kygo is part of a scene that, at the moment, seems to exist in a mostly digital realm, slightly outside of the electronic music scene, utilizing functions like the related tracks on YouTube and SoundCloud to build a base, rather than the traditional routes of late-night radio plays and DJ sets.

Even compared to EDM, their music has little in common with traditional house and techno. The BPM count sits around the 100 mark, the sounds are so bait they're basically default, the artists they remix are unashamedly mainstream. There are no Red Bull Music Academy lectures here; no white labels; no rare edits; no collectors; no heads. There are barely even any club nights for it. The whole thing is so unchallenging it's almost challenging. It seems to be precision-engineered for global domination; euphoric but not overwhelming, anthemic but relaxing, nostalgic yet thoroughly modern, a little bit Ibiza but also a little bit Scandinavia, sort of like Duke Dumont on a couple of vallies. Jamie xx reimagined for the Hollister crowd. It's all things to all men, and despite my better instincts, I am probably one of those men. I sort of quite like it. It's quite hard not to like.

The formula is simple but devastatingly effective at almost every turn: pick a track by an artist who wouldn't usually have 4/4 drums or Balearic synth sounds (M83, Ed Sheeran, Passenger, Ellie Goulding, Marvin Gaye), take the vocal, put it underwater and then slowly bring it up for air as the track starts to build. Bring in your synthesized pan flutes and your Dario G melodies and your hard-drive load of effects, and voila: You've got a track that sounds like the last day of your holiday.

Have a look at Thump, our entire website dedicated to dance music.

You see, Kygo's success lies not in what his music sounds like, but in what it sounds like. He trades on nostalgia in the same way a San Miguel advert might. It isn't about the power of his productions, but the feelings they can evoke. His music might be fundamentally bland, somewhere between Gorgon City and something you might hear in a flotation tank, yet it's undeniably evocative, redolent—transformative, almost.

The combination of all these audio clichés, processed and slowed down to a pace that washes over your being like a neck-nibble from the sun, somehow manages to drop you into a kind of generation-wide collective memory: that first trip to Ibiza or Phuket or Zante; that first kiss under the stars with Becky or Josh or Andre or Isabella; that night where everyone got up onto Paolo's roof and watched the sun set over Barcelona or Lisbon or Brooklyn or Hackney Wick.

Whether you've ever actually done any of that or not is irrelevant; it's the feeling that counts. Kygo's music is the perfect soundtrack for a centre-left branch of youth culture whose main outlets exist not in nightclubs and shopping centers, but at beachside music festivals, full moon parties, and boat raves. This is the generation that's had the ability to travel and has become fully aware of its own globe-trotting narrative, determinedly catching every sunset, every kiss, every cocktail, every midnight skinny-dip and sharing it online with everyone they know.

Calling Kygo's music tropical house is far too immediate, far too rooted in a reality that it has no basis in. What he's making is Instagram house, AirBNB house, YouTube slideshow house. His tunes don't exist in the moment; they exist in our heavily filtered daydreams. His music exists in places we've been before and places we've read about in a "Things to Do Before You're 30" book. The fact that every video of his comes with a shot of a desert island at dusk, or a tanned woman running her toes through white sand, or a rock pool under the twilight sky is no coincidence. The images are central to the appeal of the music—they're the dream it's selling. The dream that so many people are buying. A Kygo video has replaced the postcard on the fridge, a reminder that a better time has come before and will come again.

Kygo's music looks and sounds like a screensaver that's been prescribed to somebody with post-traumatic stress disorder; it's barely even there. It has far more in common with New Age muzak like Kenny G or Enya or Play-era Moby than it does with house music. Problem is: I quite like Moby and Enya, and maybe I even quite like Kenny G. Though you can't help but wonder if Kygo's music was dreamt up by the Thai tourist board, he achieves what he's doing so proficiently that even as I'm typing this, listening to his remix of Henry Green's cover of MGMT's "Electric Feel" under the dishwater skies of an overcast Tuesday in North Hackney, I'm transported to another time and place.

But it's a time and place I'm pretty sure I was never even at. A time and place cobbled together from Qantas adverts, episodes of Made in Chelsea, Boden catalogues, TripAdvisor reviews, other people's gap year photos and my own regrets about having stayed in a city too long. Kygo's world might not actually exist, but it's not a bad place to be. It's little wonder so many people want to go there.

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