I couldn’t disagree with Jody Rosen more in this assessment of chillout, the somnambulent genre of music that puts relaxing on the highest pedestal of humankind’s achievements. This is a perfect example of the ahistorical journalistic music coverage that I was complaining about earlier today. Rosen wants to come across as putting chillout into sociocultural perspective, but she (he?) dehistoricizes chillout by arguing that there has always been music that serves the particular function of numbing the pain of existence. When Rosen makes a tentative historical assertion — “Like Muzak before it, chillout exists largely to ease the flow of goods and services” i.e. it’s specific to our form of consumer capitalism, or “The current boom market in chill music is an indication that many former ravers now have jobs and mortgages and children, and have traded in nightlife for bourgeois domesticity” — the rest of the piece and its insoucient tone invalidates it. Chillout is not an industrial product specific to our dire times but yet another iteration of the eternal cyclical passing of generations. No need to be alarmed; life flows on. Her critical approach adopts the acquiesent and ameliorative ideology of chillout itself.
What more could you possibly want out of life than to be able to relax, right? Never mind what aspects of modern life cause stress — just chillout and deal with it, okay? Here, listen to this compilation of Moby’s greatest commercials. As Rosen says, “Sooner or later, every club kid has to grow up and make peace with dinner music.” If growing up means reducing your aestehtic scope to background music, then no one should ever capitulate, and you should pretend to be sixteen forever. Maturity should mean the precise opposite, that one has attaining the sophisticated listening skills that open up your musical palette. It shouldn’t mean that you are so beaten down by adult life that you have no energy left for anything more demanding than hypnotic smooth jazz noodlings. I can’t stand the fatalist, quietist approach that takes stress as a given component of existence and then apologizes for the commercial product that exploits it and condones it. Those people who manufacture chillout are capitalizing on stress; far from wanting you to “chill,” these DJ entrepreneurs have a vested interest in assuring that you are constantly cyclically stressed. And the musical wallpaper that they traffic in has a corrosive effect on all music that I was hinting at it in the previous post — it makes it impossible to conceive of music appreciation as anything other than a tranquilizer. So if we’re not listening to some brand-name music to advertise our identity or our subculture, we are listening to it to stop our synapses from firing. The public conversation necessary for supporting a different way of hearing music, the kind of conversation musical performance demanded before the days of recording, is all but dead now. Music critics intermittently try to keep it alive, but then indifferent cynics like Rosen come along to say that it all doesn’t matter, and who cares what your neighbor does? “It’s a hard life,” Rosen writes, “and if it takes some lame Gotan Project track to help my neighbor unwind from his day at the office, who am I to judge?”
We are all autonomous individuals who are free to make our own taste choices and they have no impact on other people. Sure they don’t. That bogus myth that “it’s all subjective” announces the end of the critic’s function, and make of him another mouthpiece for PR firms. Chillout is music for sellouts, that’s why anyone who still cares recoils from it as if it were a pile of brain-wasting prions.