Downtempo Pop: When Good Music Gets a Bad Name

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>If the 24-hour news cycle is able to chew up stories and turn them into parodies of themselves over the course of a day, then it makes sense that music news could do something similar to pop trends. As soon as a new category is defined, its categorization is brazenly denounced, sometimes in the same article. So, for instance, once a term is used by a Jonas brother in casual conversation, that type of music is considered persona non grata and then cast aside as "so two weeks ago." Then everybody scrambles to find something new. People not caught up in this cycle just shake their heads with idle confusion.

A prime example of this vicious cycle is the case of downtempo pop music—that collection of styles and songs made up of slow, tranquilized beats, garish synths, and melodies that sound like they were filtered through the AM radio of an '84 Dodge Dart. With similarities to the slow, easy pace of Jamaican dub and ambient music, but with the hooks of '80s pop, it was bound for greatness. Albums by Neon Indian and Ariel Pink had garnered good reviews by Pitchfork and The Wire. They had numerous songs that might be considered hits in the world of independent music, from Memory Tapes' "Bicycle" to Neon Indian's "Deadbeat Summer", and Toro Y Moi's "1909".

Washed Out's "Feel it All Around" is a perfect example of the genre's breathless simplicity: A single beat and a simple vocal line that immerses the listener in the weighted mood of an ethereal fugue state:


"Round and Round" by Ariel Pink travels from the same breathless simplicity into various song styles, from King Sunny Ade afropop to Holland-era Beach Boys with elements of musique concrete dropped in here and there.


With each new hit and new band building off of the sound came a new term to refer to it all by. First it was called "Chillwave", then "Hypnagogic Pop", and then "Glo-Fi", and eventually declared "the next big thing". Then it was declared dead, all in the course of a year.

Just as soon as critics were able to cobble together enough examples to define the genre, it was abandoned. New York Times columnist Jon Pareles called it "annoyingly noncommittal music" and "a hedged, hipster imitation of the pop they're not brash enough to make" after a showcase of similar bands at the 2010 South by Southwest festival this spring. The article in The Wire magazine that defined the term "hypnagogic pop" garnered a slew of semi-hate mail, describing it as the "worst genre created by a journalist". Others, like Henry Gruel from Impose magazine, railed against the terminology. "I hate to admit it when some wanker makes up a downright terrible term to reign in a disparate group of musicians". Even the bands that encompass the genre, like Neon Indian and Toro Y Moi, don't believe the genre exists, or that it should be classified as such.

In this cultural digestion cycle, whether the music is good, or had something to say, is generally considered irrelevant. Which is a travesty, since this trend, or non-trend of seemingly similar musical groups, still retains its potency. Its breathless, dark ambience and ability to tap into underlying memories with tape hiss are powerful effects. The worn pop melodies mine a murky memory hole of pop melodica while still retaining their own thoroughly unique identity. The modern existential ennui of the lyrics is descendent from Brian Eno, Gary Numan, and David Sylvian.

Describing these songs as "haunted impressions of the '80s" might scare someone trying to kill the nostalgia that hounds that decade, but those faded memories just might reveal a powerful catharsis. Brandon Soderberg of the Village Voice described the overall sound as "Christopher Cross on muscle relaxers".

Whatever similarities the music might have to the minimalist horror trance of a highly obscure yet influential band like Suicide or to the New Age ambience of meditational trance recordings, it is that similarity to synth R&B and Californian light rock, or Yacht Rock (Fleetwood Mac, Michael McDonald, Doobie Brothers, and later-era Beach Boys recordings), that are its strongest identifiers.

Light rock came out of the '70s as a response to the tumult of the previous decade. Not only did this music directly encourage "Taking it Easy", but it was stylistically minimalist compared to the screeching feedback and baroque pomp and circumstance that rock music had become by that time. Even when upbeat, '70s light rock was calm. As it developed into the '80s, it slowed down to the emotional warmth that made for pleasant background music while out on a schooner in the bay with a white wine spritzer and some Docksiders, eventually becoming the Yacht Rock we know today. Almost simultaneously, R&B went through the same transition. Originally high-energy gospel, with particular emphasis on the rhythm in "rhythm and blues", nowadays it's associated with slow emotional crooning and release.

Even though the slow jams of light rock and R&B have widespread popularity, with plenty of radio stations spanning the country dedicated to their sounds, they tend to be anathema to rock critics. They may appear as background music, inoffensive wallpaper that works well for shared office environments, but their details are rarely discussed, which makes them perfect fodder for exploring in the hypnotic background of hypnagogic pop.

To hear the blurry phrasings of a long lost R&B song faded in the mix of dark, trance-like beats, or the similar melodies of an oft-forgotten Beach Boys tune, is to swim in hazy memory. These musical snippets are like audio ghosts; unspoken apparitions hidden in plain sight, but visible in the periphery. The experience is simultaneously beautiful and surreal.

Whether or not the bands, the ones that make this heretofore nameless music, object to the random name that critics refer to them by, they shouldn't let it interfere with the production. Critics will continue to make fanciful, nonsensical declarations—that this is "chillwave summer" or that glo-fi is the next shoegaze—independent of public acceptance. Sometimes it's best to just ignore them.

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Llewellyn Hinkes-Jones is a Washington, D.C.-based writer whose work has also appeared in the Toronto Star, Morning News, Washington City Paper, and the Awl.

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