Where were you when chillwave collapsed? Hipster Runoff’s Carles, provocateur and cynic par excellence, the mysterious figure who coined the very term “chillwave,” had gone missing. Washed Out, progenitors of the genre, had “sold [their] turntables and bought guitars,” fulfilling James Murphy’s prophecy in “Losing My Edge.” By late 2011, it seemed that the Internet-based fad had lost most of its critical momentum and popular relevance.
In its place emerged vaporwave, seeping out of chillwave’s cracked neon ruins, a ghost of chillwave’s retrofitting and nostalgia-mining but more explicit and self-conscious in its appropriation of older styles. The micro-genre’s vanguard (Macintosh Plus, James Ferraro, Internet Club among others) applied a self-reflexive deconstruction to chillwave’s 80s revivalism. Uncovering and dismembering digital detritus, these artists aimed for more than mere reproduction. By presenting these collages as high art pieces, vaporwave musicians reframed the music they unearthed. Decontextualized and reworked, the music functioned as a comment on reproduction and consumption in a post-Internet (that is, fundamentally made possible through and concerned with the Internet), post-chillwave patchwork.
While the concept—a quasi-academic investigation into repackaging and commodity aesthetics—insisted on an avant-garde cultural critique, the form did not. Despite the heady conceptual underpinning behind the micro-genre, the fact remained that anyone with Internet access who could slow down 80s pop samples or loop muzak riffs could make vaporwave. This democratization that made the micro-genre possible proved its undoing. “Available to anyone with Ableton and computer,” James Parker and Nicholas Croggon (in their excellent article “The Trouble with Contemporary Music Criticism” for Tiny Mix Tapes) note, vaporwave exposed itself as a “weak,” inherently derivative style. As hollow and vacuous as the muzak it appropriated, vaporwave reneged on its promise for a productive discourse on music production, an empty, unfulfilled form. Thus the genre so “nmeshed” in the past faded back into it, its early-Internet-fetishizing, pastel-and-marble statue brand of aesthetics littering the same discarded and forgotten terrain upon which its criticism rested.
George Clanton, under the alias Esprit 空想, remained one of the few participants of this quickly vanishing tradition. But Esprit 空想’s output, unlike that of less self-aware vaporwave purists, stood defiantly conscious of its limitations as a genre—that is, the fact that vaporwave inherently asks little in the way of technical ability and contains minimal variation. One of the project’s more recent tracks, “Vaporwave,” jacks Skylar Spence’s era-defining lyric, “slowed some music down and called myself an artist,” and slows it down in turn. By wryly acknowledging his work’s detractors, Clanton distinguishes himself without abandoning the constraints of the genre’s tradition, managing to sound different in a genre that all sounds the same.
Under a new moniker, his own name, Clanton has liberated himself from the Japanese-character-appropriating New Age style of Esprit 空想 (as well, to a lesser extent, from the Tumblr-wave, sadboi veneer of his other project, Mirror Kisses). The music, too, reflects this turn toward radical self-empowerment: on 100% Electronica, the newest from the Brooklyn-based artist, Clanton emerges.
In especially stark comparison with his previous productions, Clanton’s 100% Electronica is compulsively danceable. Even the very first bass hit of “Never Late Again” serves as a declaration of intent, a sort of manifesto as to the ethos of 100% Electronica. The physically affective good time he fashions feels effortless and natural, organically fluid, and although Clanton
feigns a charming obliviousness by repeating “I don’t know why” in the refrain of “Never Late Again,” the precise drum fills and affecting steel drum stabs of the shimmering “Keep a Secret” suggest a precise knowledge of craft. "Oh’s” springing up in the background of “Wonder Gently” propel the song toward a saccharine chorus and sumptuous neon-synth melody—a glittering zenith sounding just sweet enough.
Clanton also displays stylistic flexibility, excelling through the ethereal pop of “Wonder Gently” to the beatific 80s thump of “Never Late Again” (which, interestingly recalls the songs sampled and slowed down by his vaporwave peers). “Warmspot,” with its coldwave buoyancy, shows off more variety still.
Despite his genre-hopping, though, Clanton still manages to conjure an atmosphere of cohesion via production throughout 100% Electronica—so effectively, in fact, that the record sometimes suffocates in its own imposed murky, synthy haze. The lyricism, too, at points verges on cloying and generic (take “someone else can give you all you need” from “Bleed,” for example).
That isn’t to say Clanton’s lyrics are devoid of meaning or even emotional heft; the dramatic crescendo and twinkling keyboards framing the declaratory “I want to kiss you today […] / […] I want to kill you in bed like this” from “Kill You in Bed” pack a punch, evoking a crippling, all-consuming longing. In both his lyrics and his musical experimentation (see the one-minute-four-second dollop of effervescence in mid-album bright spot “Purity”), Clanton defies and outdoes basic chillwave tropes in 100% Electronica.
Moreover, a human immediacy courses through the record. The first word spoken on 100% Electronica, “George,” announces Clanton as the primary subject of the work, affirming the link between this artist and his art. Especially in the context of Clanton’s live set, a performance challenging the bounds of artist/listener intimacy (in which Clanton jumps around, prostrates himself, and hugs members of the audience), the duality of art/artist extends itself into the realm of the listener. Clanton breathes life into genres (vaporwave and chillwave) typically predictable or cheesy, producing, instead, something starkly and unapologetically human.
Owing to this palpable immediacy of his stage presence, as well as the timeless pop sensibility of 100% Electronica, Clanton’s work feels undeniably present (cf Reynold's definition as summarized in "The Trouble with Contemporary Music Criticism"), immune to the instability and faddishness of chillwave and vaporwave. Clanton expresses this presence and forges this link between music, artist, and listener through a disarming sincerity. As such, the charge of self-deprecating and ultimately self-destructive irony frequently leveled at chillwave seem not to apply. Refracting the very music he repackaged (and satirized) under Esprit 空想 through this lens of sincerity and under his own name, Clanton not only makes very good music in 100% Electronica but also testifies to the transcendental power of pastiche. Fed through so many layers of deconstruction of reproduction, Clanton’s art supplants, even subsumes, that which it reinterprets. In 100% Electronica, the simulacrum becomes the original object; the signifier devours the signified in a challenge to the privileged status of authenticity in art. Clanton casts all dilemmas of representation away in—as his song titles exemplify—an “Innocence,” a “Purity” at which we, in the face of something so radical in its being, can only “Wonder Gently.”
George Clanton's music, including 100% Electronica, can be streamed and downloaded for free at his Soundcloud.