Illustration by Josh J. Holinaty
The groundwork for the Neon Indian explosion was laid last April, when Carles, who runs the popular alt-blog Hipster Runoff, went bananas over “Should Have Taken Acid With You,” which he hailed as “probably the best 100% ‘new’ song that I have heard this year.”
The thing about Carles, which is also the thing about Neon Indian, is that he’s ultimately an inside joke. Notorious for posting fanatical treatises on Animal Collective, Carles is a sanctimonious exaggeration of scene-obsessed poseurs. And yet, with his latest pet cause, he has assumed the status of musical authority. “Chillwave,” the term he coined to describe Neon Indian, has spread like wildfire. Used as shorthand by the likes of the New York Times, the Village Voice and the Guardian, chillwave has officially entered the cultural lexicon. And similarly, Carles’ lionization of Neon Indian has taken on an air of inevitability. This February, the band appeared on Late Night with Jimmy Fallon, performing to a television audience of millions. A month later, they were one of the most anticipated acts at the annual tastemakers’ festival South By Southwest. In the rush to be the first to crown the next pop phenomenon, critics have turned these featherweights into instant stars.
Much of the sell-job with Neon Indian focuses on how Alan Palomo, the twenty-one-year-old responsible for the band’s analgesic sound, evokes misty watercolour memories of the eighties, a decade he was barely alive to experience. Writers wax rhapsodic about his incorporation of classic video-game bleeps and bloops, pseudo-analog effects and the washed-out noise of overplayed cassettes. The sort of Proustian nostalgia Neon Indian is said to trigger can be a powerful artistic tool. Retro performers like Amy Winehouse and Sharon Jones draw deeply on classic soul and funk sounds to channel the pangs listeners feel for the heyday of, say, Stax Records. But those cats also use nostalgia as a jump-off point for bracing new music. Their tunes are imaginative, original, vibrant. The past isn’t just “source material.” At the heart of what they do is an intense desire to pay homage to forebears.
Neon Indian, on the other hand, trades in hollow revivalism. The songs on their 2009 debut Psychic Chasms add up to a smug, kitschy, Ray Ban dress-up party. The trippy Korg synths, multitracked vocals and flaccid riffs are the aural equivalent of watching Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle cartoons in slow-mo. For all the fuss about the band’s pining-for-the-past lyricism, an apathetic teen’s weekend lament—“Should have taken acid with you”—is as close as we get to soul-searching. It’s the work of someone who steals another generation’s cultural references because he’s too lazy to locate his own.
Neon Indian isn’t alone in pillaging collective cultural memories for profit. When retail chains mass-produce fake-vintage band t-shirts, they aren’t trying to turn teenagers onto the Clash—they’re selling a lifestyle. The message may be authenticity, but the medium is instant gratification. Maybe it’s nothing new, but the difference between a cultural consumer today and, say, fifteen years ago, is that contemporary kids barely have enough time to formulate their own memories. They are left ravenous for everyone else’s. Memory has become unmoored from history, and cultural producers pounce on a trend before the pendulum swings. (See the spore-like spread of other chillwavers, like Memory Tapes and Washed Out.)
What Neon Indian demonstrates is that you no longer have to prove the mettle of your influences. All you need is a basic grasp of Garage Band and a half-assed knack for mimicry. A hyperventilating blogger in your corner doesn’t hurt either.
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