memory tapes and tapes

Listening to Washed Out's High Times at the moment, apparently it was released only on cassette tape, but inevitably it's made its way onto the Internet and onto my hard drive. The thing that strikes me about it - and I'm prone to assume that much of the current chillwave/glo-fi/hypnagogic pop stuff does similar things - is its playing around with 'audio patina'. Strictly, patina describes that great effect that comes when certain metals oxidise over time, and they get a fine coating of age. In other words, patina describes the unique effects of wear on substances due to time, their environment and history of use. Patina is the making visible of the temporal. It's all very zen and Romantic and nature-meets-culture kind of stuff, but most people only really think of it in terms of tangible things. The golden brown of aged mahogany, the crackling of paint on Australian weatherboard houses, and - if I may be so bold - that attractive, soft and tacky shine of an overused keyboard key.

But it's not just visual, patina, for our experience of music and sound in general often has a rich sense of the patinated, perhaps owing to the fact that recording media are inevitably objects in the world, subject to the physical vagaries of time and wear. Analogue media, to be sure, have a far more immediate sense of age than their digital counterparts, and I think part of the resurgence of tape and vinyl in music making and consuming has to do with this romantic idea of patina - these are formats that we know have lived.

Chillwave, to me, seems, in part, to be about surfacing the experience of sonic patina in the sheen of its sound. Not only do a great number of bands circling around this putative genre specifically reference cassette tapes, the 90s, and other such signifiers of time in their band names and song titles (and even their release strategies), but so too does the music itself have an overwhelming sense of being of a particular time. I'm not talking about the idealised thematic images of a particular era/childhood (beach, surf, weed, skating) which undoubtedly abound here, nor is it the reference to musical styles from a particular era (grunge, surf, 60s pop, punk), it's rather the evocation of the very electrosonic horizon of a certain past.

Washed Out, I mean, is evoking memories of the sound of childhood formats and media experiences. Take 'Clap Intro', whose looping piano sounds like it is coming off the back of some warped, beaten videocassette recording of an old Saturday morning cartoon, whose magnetic heads have stretched and defected from the incessant playback of juvenile fixation. Add to that a hazy admixture of other not quite so identifiable but highly visceral sounds from 'back then' and you get what Daniel Krow calls "warped nostalgia" or David Keenan, more intellectually, "hypnagogic pop" - music that reaches back to 80s (I'd also say 90s, but whatevs) mass culture and somnabulistically reimagines the memories.

I love this shit - most probably because it's the first mediatic genre I've come across that specifically aestheticises the dominant formats of my own youth. It just can't not be made by late Gen Ys that were growing up in the late 80s and 90s, people now in their 20s who lived their entertainment youth through walkmans, videotapes, and cassettes. By its very definition, this music is has a time-limit, it 'wears thin' quite literally, and I think that's something to embrace rather than premeditatively dismiss as just hype or "vaguely retro sound".

The question is, will Gen Zs be musing over tracks in ten years time that are full of the artefacts of digital encoding and compression?

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