Tame Impala, Chillwave, and Other Dispatches from the Vibe Generation
What caused our generation to be obsessed with music made with largely synthetic sounds and carrying the emotional pliability of a mood ring?
The definitive statement of intent from the Vibe Generation came, ironically, from a guy with a guitar. “I was raised up believing/ I was somehow unique,” the 29-year-old Robin Pecknold, the frontman and creative braintrust behind Fleet Foxes, sang on the title track to 2011’s Helplessness Blues. “Like a snowflake distinct among snowflakes/ Unique in each way you can see.” As an album, Helplessness Blues’ subject matter is fairly specific, conceived in the wake of a tough breakup; the song in question, however, zooms in on a specific sort of millennial anxiety that anyone between the age of 26 and 35 can relate to: What if I’m never successful the way I thought I’d be? Does it even matter?
By the song’s end, Pecknold never quite reaches a conclusion, and four years later, neither have we. We are a generation of self-analysis and self-care, effecting a perpetual inward gaze that asks questions only to come up with more questions. We’re not so much seeking answers as we are looking for ways to feel something else, to escape from the near-constant horror that is public and private life in 2015. We take drugs, we spend like crazy, we open our hearts and minds as widely as possible to all non-hateful viewpoints and lifestyles, and then we take more drugs—all set to music made with largely synthetic sounds and carrying the emotional pliability of a mood ring.
So much of this music sounds like it should be pumping out of the speakers of a clothing store, and a lot of it does. And there’s nothing wrong with that! We love shopping, enough so to open anti-consumerist Banksy types up to a specific level of ridicule that they wouldn’t have faced 20 years ago (ten, even). A fair amount of this music, which has so dominated a subset of youth culture for six or seven years running, could be conceivably termed as “background music,” albeit the type that very much occupies the foreground—from EDM’s incessant, aggressive pulse, to the trippy, emotive streak running through internet-native and overground hip-hop alike, to the achingly sincere, starry-eyed theatrics of alternative pop and big-budget indie. Losing yourself in music is something listeners have done for decades, but our level of engagement with this stuff comes close to approaching total symbiosis. We thrive on vibes.
Chillwave—the dead-not-dead electronic pop genre that launched a thousand dorm-room producers—could be pointed to where this listener-generational phenomenon begun. But it’s necessary to work backwards and investigate what influenced chillwave—and, no, it’s not Animal Collective’s Merriweather Post Pavilion (although AnCo are certainly the forefathers of the vibe generation—for Christ’s sake, they once named an album Feels). I’m talking 9/11, the Iraq war, multiple financial recessions, and the inability to avoid the constant stream of horrific and dispiriting public events that the information age provides. It’s easier than ever to watch video of someone dying, and we’re perhaps the first generation that has to deal with such a strange, morbid quandary on a daily basis. Sneer if you want, but growing up in public over the last 15 years has been an epic fucking bummer.
Conventional wisdom dictates that musical movements are born out of restlessness and a desire for change, but chillwave’s case is more complicated than that. Both sonically and in backwards-gazing ethos, the genre emerged from a sense of generational retreat—a collective desire to return to the womb, maybe, or at least to find a place of contentment where we’re left alone to exist in a sort of vaguely pleasant stasis. “I found a job/ I do it fine/ Not what I want/ But I still try,” Toro Y Moi’s Chaz Bundick sang in his 2009 single “Blessa,” one of a few musical artifacts that could be pointed to as the ostensible beginning of chillwave. That quote’s been trotted out one thousand times in articles about what chillwave’s “about,” and it is also perhaps the genre’s most lasting contribution to the present-day, pinpointing that space between malaise and contentment that so many young not-quite-adults express on a regular basis.
As a movement, chillwave basically withered and died, mostly because many of its lower-tier practitioners were motivated by careerist, rather than sonic, ambitions; home-recording software made it exceptionally easy to churn out something with the sample-mining, if not wholly emotional, level of Washed Out’s 2009 chillwave totem “Feel It All Around,” and so literally hundreds of aspiring musicians tried their hand at making hazy, nostalgic electronic pop. The holy triumvirate have persevered regardless: Washed Out still draw a massive crowd of ChristianMingle subscribers and Frisbee-golf enthusiasts alike, Bundick has followed his internal compass through varying genres since, and Neon Indian’s Alan Palomo has emerged as one of the generation’s premier sonic fabulists.
Neon Indian’s latest album, VEGA Intl. Night School, is possibly the most impressive work of electro-pop to come from chillwave’s first, uh, wave: a high-definition opus that combines bawdy 80s dance sounds and the candied sludge of chillwave forefather Ariel Pink, Palomo has become an expressive generational stylist the same way Scritti Politti’s Green Gartside captured the similarly consumerist and self-obsessed pop of his generation. Whether intentionally or not, Palomo embodies the Vibe Generation’s obsession with total sensual overload and leaving the world behind; on the crashed-UFO epic “Baby’s Arms,” he sings with a distant warble, “Never coming home again/ ‘Till they see the world as I see you,” perfectly capturing our willingness to leave it all behind.
And as chillwave similarly has retreated to the far-away gaze of the rearview mirror, the genre’s existence in itself dovetailed with similar and emerging trends in overground alternative music—an increased embrace of sampling and electronics, a de-emphasizing of guitars, a sonic approach that favored tactile sensuality rather than the bookish sensibilities that pervaded 2000s alternative music, and an unabashed love of all things retro, from Tangerine Dream to fruit punch Gushers, that has defined this decade’s youth as a people that find the present to painful to exist in.
At their peak, Crystal Castles gloriously pilfered from harsh electro, goth, and what rock critic Simon Reynolds once termed the “new pop” of the 80s, mixing aggression and beauty in a way that perfectly soundtracked telling your friend about finding your dad’s dead body; on their 2011 self-titled LP, Bon Iver moved out of their proverbial cabin and mined sheer emotional resonance out of glowy keyboards and the work of supper-club jazz aesthetes Pat Metheny and Bruce Hornsby—as did Destroyer’s Dan Bejar, who amassed a loyal following over the previous 20 years with inscrutably clever lyrics and chameleonic rock tendencies, achieved an astonishing stay of longevity with that year’s sax-laden, impossibly vibey Kaputt.
2011 also saw the release of the Vibe Generation’s practical Rosetta Stone: M83’s titanically overwhelming double-album Hurry Up, We’re Dreaming, an album title that perfectly sums up this era’s head-in-the-clouds response to mobility-challenged woes. Mastermind Anthony Gonzalez wasn’t new to evoking nostalgia, as much as evoking nostalgia was never a “new” thing; the project’s previous effort, 2008’s Saturdays = Youth, was so redolent of the soft-hued John Hughes era that all it was missing was an Anthony Michael Hall cameo. But Hurry Up, We’re Dreaming took the vibe-based trend of sensory aggression to a whole new level, with expansive, explosive expressionism strongly recalling peak-era Smashing Pumpkins (a band that, when it comes to stylistic forebears, are practically the Vibe Generation’s version of Nirvana) and this decade’s most lasting and influential single “Midnight City,” a planet-sized anthem with a wordless chorus made for a planet that, for better or for worse, has become less and less concerned with words themselves.
“Midnight City” brought a whole new level of exposure to the already-popular M83 project—especially for the emergent, economically driven genre of EDM, whose party-hardy, live-for-tonight, largely Caucasian audience fashioned the song as their own personal “Don’t Stop Believing.” The band’s set at the 2012 Ultra Music Festival was by all accounts an unmitigated disaster, but the rare occurrence of an alternative rock band having a seat at an EDM festival’s table was the greatest sign yet that the shape of alternative rock was undergoing a drastic and lasting change.
A few words on rock music, which has had a rough go of it this decade when it comes to tastemakers and trend-chasing youngsters: It’s become somewhat fashionable to proclaim the death of rock music these days. The proclamations have frequently scanned, at best, as shortsighted—Jack White might be a punchline to some, but he’s still a hero to millions more, and the same goes for Dave Grohl too. And anyway, rock has more or less adapted to the Vibe Generation by doubling down on jam-band ethos—a longtime safe haven for vibe-seekers. Real Estate, Mac DeMarco, Woods, and Kurt Vile and the Violators have achieved levels of varying success by getting loosey-goosey with the atmospherics; earlier this year, the War on Drugs’ strung-out, smeared-lens Springsteen reveries received the industry stamp of approval when the project signed to Atlantic, a notable occurrence in a climate where it’s become increasingly rare for rock bands making the leap from indies to majors.
Another high-profile indie-to-major occurrence in 2015 was Tame Impala, which shares some similarities with WoD: They’re both one-man projects who have struck gold by spinning the sounds of rock’s past into something more psychedelically warm. For Tame Impala’s Kevin Parker, the obvious rock-of-olden-days touchstone is the Flaming Lips, a band that has simultaneously fallen out of fashion with hip-conscious listeners and cannily accrued an even younger generation of followers through their work with Miley Cyrus. Whereas the Lips drew from their own classic rock touchstones (Led Zeppelin, Black Sabbath, and the like) for their own psychedelic reveries, Parker offers a modern, consumer-friendly update by tempering psychedelia with the type of sticky-sweet hooks and screen-saver iconography that made MGMT a hit with the kids in the late 2000s.
Tame Impala’s latest album, Currents, is possibly the finest album of the year as well as one of the most astounding pop-rock albums in recent memory; after the ‘roided-out rampage of 2012’s Lonerism, Parker kept the trippy shit and jettisoned the rest in favor of stuttering beats, motorik fantasias, and gorgeously textured soundscapes that owed as much to modern R&B as they did to the expensive luxuries of soft rock. The album sounds like modernity—bright and nearly monolithic, a gigantic nervous system encased in a protective cell phone case big enough that it’d crush an entire city if it toppled over.
For all its populist appeal, Currents is also an extremely intimate album, a continuation of Parker’s ability to express the anxieties of living so deep inside your own head that you don’t know if it’s even possible to escape. The level of self-reflection he achieves is akin to placing a mirror in front of a mirror, capturing our generation’s ability to feel stressed as hell even as we’re just trying to chill out, man.
The album’s most striking moment of TMI-level honesty—for me, anyway—arrives on Currents’ penultimate track “Love/Paranoia,” a sonic shape-shifter that seems to chronicle a relationship rift in real time. Parker expresses self-doubt, frustration, and paranoia, before engaging in the kind of public recollection that anyone who’s ever written teary-eyed Tumblr posts knows far too well: “Do you remember the time we were/ The time we were by the ocean/ I didn’t care if it was day or night/ The world was right where I wanted.” The song ends with Parker pleading “I’m really, really sorry,” as nakedly emotional of a sentiment you can get from a musician that, when it comes to his public persona, has projected a perfectly blank stare.
And that personality-trait conundrum extends to the Vibe Generation at large. We put up a good front when it comes to trying not to care, but for whatever reason—the crushing weight of modern life, the openness that social media engenders, the drugs that make it easier for us to be honest with ourselves and each other, if only for a few hours—we’re bursting at the seams with feelings. We air them out relentlessly if only because the relief it provides allows us to retreat to safer spaces soundtracked by music that sounds like a flying car: a vision of the future perpetuated by the past’s unreasonable expectations. And it makes sense, too, since the present sucks and the future is unknowable—but for the Vibe Generation, the past contains endless possibilities.
Larry Fitzmaurice is a writer based in Brooklyn. Follow him on Twitter.