Last week, I coerced a few friends into watching a music video while we were eating lunch in the Pierson dining hall. At first they protested — they didn’t want to be a noisy spectacle in the otherwise quiet, pristine cafeteria. Eventually though, they relented, and we spent the next four minutes and 29 seconds wrapped in the world of Toro Y Moi’s “Still Sound.”
Toro Y Moi is, in my opinion, the most substantial band to come out of the 2009-2010 chillwave craze, and “Still Sound” — the first single from the band’s upcoming second album “Underneath the Pine” — vindicates me. I would describe the song as “astral funk,” this groove-heavy ideal from the seventies re-interpreted through the Internet and space ages. In the video, Toro Y Moi takes this concept literally. The aesthetic is vintage. The film is hazy and yellowing; the band’s sole permanent member, Chaz Bundick, dances in timeless basements and parks. In a particularly Scooby-Doo turn, he is chased out of an abandoned warehouse by a ghost draped in a white sheet and chains.
As the video came to its climax, a disorienting scene where Bundick eats what appears to be a blood orange, my friend asked a question: “I wonder if, 30 years from now, our kids will look back on this and have a hard time telling this from something actually made in the seventies?”
The question threw me at first. The video seems to intentionally reject anything visibly 2011, yet there are modern details scattered throughout. Chaz’s large clear-framed glasses could have been worn by the young and cool in the seventies, but his boat shoes, plaid shirt and sweater certainly were not. The playground equipment in the background of some scenes is in the bright plastics of the nineties; the cars cruising by are certainly products of the 2000s. “Still Sound” is the seventies, but not completely. Toro Y Moi is aiming for an era, but only noncommittally — this is not a period piece so much as experimentation. 2011 is still present, however subtly.
Noncommittal is a word that has been thrown at Toro Y Moi before. In a New York Times ArtsBeat writeup of South-by-Southwest on March 22, 2010, music critic Jon Pareles described Toro Y Moi and his chillwave compatriots as “annoyingly noncommittal music, backing droopy music with impersonal sounds — a hedged, hipster imitation of the pop they’re not brash enough to make.”
Pareles’ reaction to Toro Y Moi highlights a real generational divide in music. In many ways, pop culture is youth culture. When you reach adulthood, it’s hard to relate to the “crazes.” This explains why Ke$ha is almost universally reviled by (middle-aged) (male) critics, even though I (and tons of teenagers) think that she ranges from harmless to brilliant.
What makes our generation different is our access to the past. Because of YouTube, we can instantly find almost any music video made since the medium’s inception. I can watch classics like Ready for the World’s “Oh, Sheila,” George Michael’s “Careless Whispers” or Duran Duran’s “Rio” on repeat, whenever I want.
But the videos start to lose their appeal when you watch too closely. On the aggregate, these treacly hits, the pop songs Toro Y Moi is “not brash enough to make,” start to sound empty and flat. The blinding sequins and sharp, matching white suits weren’t revolutionary in 1984, and they certainly wouldn’t be revolutionary today. We have a critical distance from the seventies and eighties that allows us to reject the objectively unlistenable and embrace the ridiculous but catchy. And because of technological breakthroughs, our generation has the ability to take bits and pieces of the past and fashion it into something else. Not better, per se, but new and different. Toro Y Moi takes advantage of this phenomenon; his first album, “Causers of This,” is composed mostly of samples from older songs. Even his newer, sample-free material references the past tirelessly. To avoid falling flat like the pop stars of yore, we can only really employ that nostalgia if we’re noncommittal about our devotion to it.
Of course I don’t have that same critical distance to the popular music of today. This is perhaps why I have every song Ke$ha has released in my iTunes, and why every song has gotten plenty of play. But I like to think my love for Toro Y Moi’s chillwave and astral funk is pure, unbiased but influenced by my youth. “Still Sound” references the glitz and glamour of an age I miss even though I didn’t participate in it. But the spectacle is toned down — it’s calm enough to be played stealthily in a dining hall.