Chillwave was a term invented by thought leader/influencer Hipster Runoff blog to classify a type of music loosely defined by summertime imagery, analog production, and heavy usage of samples. It really only existed from the summer of 2009 to the beginning of 2011, around the time when no one was sure how much of Hipster Runoff was a gag and how much was sincere tastemaking. In the music, you can hear the lo-fi, bedroom aesthetic of early Ariel Pink and the playful, beachy quality of middle-period Animal Collective. Projects like Memory Tapes, Com Truise, and Nite Jewel could have been thrown in with existing genres like shoegaze or dream pop, but by creating a term from nothing, it revealed how arbitrary and meaningless labels like that really are. It wasn’t a scene. It was a parody of a scene, both a defining moment for the music blogosphere and the last gasp. Sites like Gorilla vs. Bear and Pitchfork bought into it for a while, and sincere think pieces in traditional media publications like the Wall Street Journal asked, “Is Chillwave the Next Big Music Trend?”
It never could have been a proper trend, because it was transparently manufactured. The artists, many of whom had never even heard of each other before the “summer of chillwave,” started to rebel against the classification, realizing we’d all get wise to the joke eventually. Josh Kolenik of Small Black is quoted in that Wall Street Journal trend piece saying, “We were out the other night with the dudes from Neon Indian and we were joking about how we’ve created a scene that never really existed.” He also claimed that they introduced themselves to the other band because they “wanted to make chillwave jokes.” It was like a Russian nesting doll of irony. Bands whose success was tied to the explosion of a genre preemptively mocked that genre, even though the very existence of the genre was mocking them. I don’t even know who to feel sorry for.