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2010 A Glass Half Full

Why Glo-Fi's Future Is Not Ephemeral
Ross Pounds , June 30th, 2010 10:55

Yesterday we had the cold, now it's time for Ross Pounds to look at chillwave, and argue that this is a genre that's here to stay

Every year has its breakout genre, a half-baked flash-in-the-pan rolled off the tongue of some bored scribe with nothing better to do. Where once we had nu rave or electroclash, now we have glo-fi. Or chillwave. Or hypnagogic pop. You know the names by now, the blog jokes and the backlash, the hipster clamour quickly followed by an avowed and hardy dismissal a few months later. It's all rather tedious. But, and bear with me here, there's something different about this one. Glo-fi (it just sounds better than chillwave, to these ears at least) has potential to succeed where those in the past so dramatically failed, a chance for a life beyond the confines of Pitchfork and the blogosphere.

Where those genres above were defined by a particular sound which then influenced other areas of culture (particularly fashion) glo-fi stands out due to the fact that it exists in more broadly aesthetic terms, where sound and image intertwine, where film and photography influence artists as much as their musical forefathers. Furthermore, it's not a genre created on the streets of Shoreditch or Williamsburg, but in the bedrooms of young men, on laptops and battered dime store drum machines.

It's not about haircuts or neon pink, but more to do with John Hughes and expired film, sunburnt skin and half-remembered teen dreams, conjuring images of forgotten American childhoods through a kaleidoscopic lens. To put it more simply, it's unlikely that the fashion choices of Ernest Greene (Washed Out) or Chaz Bundick (Toro Y Moi) are going to finding their way to your local Urban Outfitters any time soon.

As Pitchfork's Marc Hogan wrote in a review of Neon Indian's Psychic Chasms: “The sound has many names, but none of them seem to fit just right. Dream-beat, chillwave, glo-fi, hypnagogic pop, even hipster-gogic pop– all are imperfect phrases for describing a psychedelic music that's generally one or all of the following: synth-based, homemade-sounding, 80s-referencing, cassette-oriented, sun-baked, laid-back, warped, hazy, emotionally distant, slightly out of focus." An exhausting list perhaps, but it serves as a pitch-perfect distillation of what makes glo-fi work. It's a genre of subtleties and nuances, of bands who, upon first listen, may sound more or less the same but, after some exploration and excavation, reveal their disparate influences in a number of ways. It's these faintly different approaches, the gentle touches and manipulation of minutiae, the sub genres within a sub genre, which may ultimately lend it some well-deserved longevity.

But distinctions do have to be made. Lines need to be drawn. As with anything birthed from the internet, glo-fi has spiralled off wildly, consuming bands with no wish to be drawn into its lysergic sprawl, bloggers and magazines slapping the tag on anyone with a synth and a copy of an Ariel Pink album. Philip Sherburne at Rhapsody broke down the genre in an excellent, if perhaps slightly too broad, summation earlier this year, pinpointing the myriad influences which go into making the sound.

There are bands who are certainly deserving of the tag, and, not coincidentally, have been the major recipients and beneficiaries of the genre's rise (see Washed Out, Memory Tapes, Toro Y Moi, Small Black, Delorean, Real Estate, Ducktails and Neon Indian for starters). Alongside those few are the bands who have gained fleeting mentions in articles about glo-fi, who, through no fault or intention of their own, have piggybacked the hype machine and rode it to varying degrees of success despite no real affiliation with its generally accepted aural aesthetic (see Ganglians, Best Coast, Javelin, jj, Nite Jewel, Teengirl Fantasy). And then, as with any genre, there are the stragglers, the hangers on, the Shitdisco's of this world. Bands who were lo-fi the year before, and into dance punk a few before that. It'd be something of a low-blow to call them out here, but it's also a handy example, a pointer to the perils of internet fame. It's a world where one man's shit is another man's gold, where two minutes of typing on a keyboard can make heroes and break hearts, to build or kill a career in one press of the return key. That's the price one has to pay these days, however. The currency of the internet is hype, and the bank will run dry eventually.

There's always a paradox though. Whether it builds you up or knocks you down, the internet is a necessary evil in this day and age. As Jon Pareles wrote in the New York Times in March, glo-fi is "recession-era music: low budget and danceable." It's very much a genre of our exact time, a creation that's eschewed the traditional routes as it's found its own voice, often avoiding labels in favour of free distribution. In a recent interview with NME, Ernest Greene spoke of the freedom and ease with which he could get his music to a wider audience. He'd finish a track on his laptop, have some lunch, email it to a blog, watch it get put up that evening and then sit back and see the hype spiral from there. As a business model it makes perfect sense: high hit rates at low cost. At a time when Lady Gaga announces that her new album is finished but won't be out for another year, it becomes clear that glo-fi is a genre more symptomatic of modern day music then any other, a contemporary phenomenon with a decidedly uncontemporary aesthetic, a place where music is made and heard with nothing in between.

What's also so refreshing is how familial the scene appears as its prominence has grown. Where once music followed a hierarchical path, trickling down oligopolous tubes from board rooms to bedrooms, glo-fi is almost entirely artist based. Many of the artists started out on tiny labels run by friends in other bands (Woodsist, Underwater Peoples), borrowing members to create side projects, pushing the sound further or just having fun. It's often from these slightly incestuous creative hubs that the best music derives (see the Real Estate-Ducktails-Alex Bleeker axis), bands encouraging others rather than providing competition, a genuine camaraderie emerging once the hype cloud clears.

As Small Black's Josh Kolenik noted in a recent interview with the Quietus: “It never hurts to be put in good company." One gets the sense that once the dust has settled, the same groups will still exist, the same helping hands will be offered, and the scene will progress as it should: organically and without the pressure and egomania that killed off its predecessors. As with anything else, it's a genre which draws from artists past and present. A touch of Panda Bear or Ariel Pink, equal parts J Dilla and The Avalanches. But history isn't really the point. It might look to the past for inspiration, but let's hope that Glo-fi sticks around for a while longer yet.