Ernest Greene's Bid For Immortality
I recently spent some time re-watching most of Portlandia's eight seasons on Netflix. The show is a remnant of a certain sensibility from the early 2010's, a thesis statement for a time when places where we ourselves didn't live or weren't from carried an air of sublime mystery and seemed otherworldly in some way that it was hard to put a finger on - and not only that, but also that they were homogenous enough in their characters to be whittled down to some sketch-comedy humor and flamboyant exaggerations. Watching the show now reminds me that I was once a young adult who had yet to venture outside his hometown and how that prospect both energized and terrified me in ways I hadn't felt before and haven't felt since.
Anytime one binges a particular television show, there are elements that become repetitive and their repetition can make them unwelcome over time. Often a starting sequence or theme song will earn these distinctions quickly and is frequently an early casualty of the fast-forward function. Portlandia's opening song is different, however. With only minimal changes to the visuals over the show's run, the opening song is a thirty-second edit of "Feel It All Around" by Washed Out. The song is a temperate drizzle of sunshine, a warm beckon of nostalgia to people of a certain age, and Ernest Greene pulls it off with both a comfortable level of irony and his heart fully visible on his own sleeve. As my binge progressed, I realized that not only did I have no urge to skip the opening, but that I felt more and more comforted by it with each repetition. This is of course partly because I love the show, and by extension I love what the opening theme represents (i.e. that the show is about to start) - but even more than that, I just love the song. Even completely divorced from the context of the show, the song is an amazing piece of work.
As I've discussed before, I am typically loathe to name a song as the "best" of any particular genre or modality, but with this song's immediate entry into the pantheon of chillwave's all-time greatest work it seems like a question that is at the very least worthy of asking. Chillwave's short and controversial history is worth discussing a bit before we dive in, and forgive me for doing little more here than paraphrasing its startlingly comprehensive Wikipedia entry: a microgenre from about 2007 to 2010 that utilized large amounts of reverb and old school instruments and effects-processing to achieve a sound described by some as "…like something that was playing in the background of 'an old VHS cassette that u found in ur attic from the late 80s/early 90s…" (sic). Arguably, a primary goal of music like this lay more in the nostalgia it invoked than in the enjoyment of the music for its own sake. The description above is quoted from an article by Carles from Hipster Runoff (note, it was taken from Wikipedia since HRO no longer exists), who is credited with naming the sound while it was in its nascence. Many also said that the genre was the first that had come into being fully online, making it a departure from the norm in that there wasn't as much of a geographic link between the artists and that the sonics of the disparate acts were only tangentially similar because they weren't the product of any parallel evolution between them, as would typically result from them being in the same physical scene. The internet's significant role in the formation of the concept is very likely a large part of why it ended up being so short-lived. Within a year or so, most in the artist and audience communities were backlashing against the sound and the entire idea - some because they simply didn't like it as music and others because they didn't want the too-close-to-AI internet trendsetting Illuminati to name and classify their music for them. With the benefit of hindsight, many would say that chillwave was never really a thing to begin with. Some artists made some music that sounded vaguely similar and the internet merely did what it has always done: collect, analyze, and spit out tiny bite-sized opinion balls for distribution to an unaware populace.
As mentioned, the question is worth asking: is "Feel It All Around" chillwave's best contribution to the wider culture, is it the best product that could have come from the form? Because the genre was so brief in its agreed-upon existence, it makes a good case study. At this point, nearly a decade removed from the humble beginnings of the little genre that could, most artists associated with it would tell you that they weren't. Now, they wouldn't be wrong, per se - after all, it's not like there were meetings of all the artists beforehand to discuss what they would sound like and what their goals were for the idea. Other notable artists in the chillwave-osphere included Toro y Moi, Neon Indian, early Ariel Pink, Ducktails, and others. Most of them didn't know each other, although Chaz Bundick of Toro and Ernest Greene had collaborated. But I would argue that in this case it may be more important to consider the perception ahead of the reality behind it. The perception is that this was a defined genre, even if only for a short time, the reality behind it (that it really wasn't) is less important. For the masses, chillwave existed - it shined for only an instant in pop culture time, but it was there. So while many of the artists would deny that it had any unified aesthetic, the perception of its existence is enough for us in this case.
On to the song. Greene made "Feel It All Around" by collecting samples and pitch shifting them, notably one from "I Want You" by Gary Low. That is an interesting fact, and I am glad that I know it, but the truth is that I only learned it in researching this piece. In ten years of listening to this song before now it has never occurred to me to track down the samples used to make it. I am normally someone who goes out of his way even when he doesn't really care to read about samples used in music. I normally enjoy the act of deconstructing the final product and trying to reverse-engineer how the artist got to here from there. Normally. In this case, I never felt that need. It didn't interest me in the least. I bring this up because it outlines a point for me about the song: it sounds less like a set of sounds that you have maybe heard before than it does a fully-formed song pulled from inside your brain, one that is so familiar that it doesn't need an explanation or a designated place in some mental library. The song sounds like it has always existed and that Greene somehow found a way to pull it out of a primordial collective conscience.
Aside from sounding like a comforting memory of something you've known so long you had forgotten it, "Feel It All Around" is unapologetic about how fun it is. It is equally appropriate on a well-populated dance floor, blaring through headphones on a long bus-ride home, clipping on a cheap boom box in the backyard, whispering through computer speakers before bed so that it doesn't wake up anyone else in the house, buried in the middle of a mixtape made for a new crush. The song is like a rush of sugar without the problematic side effects and it knows that, but unlike so much other indie music made around the same time it doesn't mind that you know it too. From its bouncy bassline to its gorgeously-layered synth and vocal washes, the song wants to be your friend but it respects you - there is no pressure here, if you want to have a good time you are free to but if not that is totally up to you. Either way is cool.
At the end of the day, I think that this affability is what I appreciate so much about "Feel It All Around". It is such a well-made and successful song but it has only the best of intentions. It is occasionally possible to hear a song, especially in the indie realms, that you like but you can't figure out why you like it. This isn't really a "problem", but living in a culture that has commodified knowledge and being somehow initiated into small corners of itself can bring about a situation where one understandably feels that if they don't know the reason why they like what they like then they are less of a fan or they haven't done the "work" necessary to "get it". And I don't want to demonize entire generations of fandom here, it is great if people want to learn more about why they like things. But it is OK too when we just like what we like and it doesn't challenge us to learn more, be more, get better in some way that we may not immediately know how to. We don't get any hint of that here, we only get vibes that are magical and intentions that are nothing if not fully transparent and agreeable. I love being challenged by art, but there is indisputably an amount of mastery in creating a work of art that is both not a challenge and is enjoyable on its own terms for exactly what it is.
Listening to "Feel It All Around" and the rest of the EP that it appears on, Life of Leisure, I can see a timeline where chillwave was a thing that existed for much longer than it did here in our reality. I can see titanic progenitors and also newer artists coming in waves over the next five, ten, fifteen years. I can see a magazine being dedicated to it and having a pretty good run before the owner has to sell it away for its components to a larger corporation that has no intention of letting it do its thing (don't worry, the owner did fine and retired comfortably). I can see children reaching twelve or thirteen and rebelling against the genre as a proxy for their parents. I can see high school reunions where Memory Tapes songs get a big reaction from almost everyone in attendance. Somewhere in this timeline, a child really wants a Mellotron so he can learn to play it just like his favorite "old" band, but he instead gets a JUNO-60 and is OK with it…for the time being.
I can stand on Ernest Greene's shoulders and see this version of the future, and the only thing I can't see in it is a song that does chillwave better than "Feel It All Around". To me it feels like the absolute apex of the form, one that could never be topped or outdone. Wether you agree with its genrefication or not, "Feel It All Around" is a song that is much more than the sum of its parts and for that it rises above its place and time in ways most songs never could.