Against Chill: Apathetic Music to Make Spreadsheets To
Last fall, the students in one of my writing classes alerted me to a wildly popular YouTube channel, run by an organization called Chillhop Music. The channel’s description was gentle, unassuming: “We hope you enjoy these chill lofi hip hop tunes while studying / chilling / working,” it read. More than 2.2 million people had subscribed; several thousand were listening at that moment.
We called up the channel on the classroom computer. The video featured an animated raccoon wearing a peach hoodie and drinking a cup of coffee, in a dorm room strewn with generational signifiers: houseplants, seltzer, a turntable. Every once in awhile, the raccoon started typing or casually flicked its tail. Benign electronic music played. I found that the song evaded precise description—perhaps by design—so I free-associated on my notepad: koi pond, medical-grade marijuana, boutique hotel, hot-stone massage, European airplane, cool dentist. These days, to describe someone as “chill” is to propose that they’re slightly apathetic, but in a delightfully easygoing way. The rise of chill as an aspirational state suggests that perhaps the best thing to feel is not much at all. The song continued. Maybe it ended. I don’t know. “Do you enjoy this?” I asked my students.
They found the question silly if not fatuous—the music wasn’t really for liking, in the traditional sense. The music wasn’t for anything. It merely existed to facilitate and sustain a mood, which in turn might enable a task: studying, folding laundry, making spreadsheets, idly browsing the Internet. Spotify presently classifies chill as a genre, and there are an incredible number of playlists devoted to insuring a chill experience. Chill Hits. Chill Tracks. Chillin’ on a Dirt Road. Chill Vibes. Evening Chill. Chill as Folk. Boho + Chill. Acoustic Chill. Indie Chillout. Chill Singer-Songwriter. License to Chill. Indian Chill. Chill Covers. Lazy Chill Afternoon. Sunset Chill. Montréal Chill. Chill Instrumental Beats. Pop Chillout. Interestingly, as a musical ethos, chill has also eked its way onto the pop charts: SoundCloud rap, one of the most popular and lucrative genres of the decade, is marked by distortion, low fidelity, and a slurred vocal delivery that seems plainly indebted to anti-anxiety medication. SoundCloud rap is hardly as limp or as purposefully benign as Chillhop’s study music, but the genres do share a sort of practiced nonchalance, a heavy dedication to chill. Post Malone’s “Rockstar,” which was released in the fall of 2017 and now has more than five hundred million views on YouTube, feels a little like floating down a strange, curling river. It is the kind of song that simply happens to you.
Although I recognize the utility of listening to non-distracting study music, I nonetheless find it disheartening to see art being reconfigured, over and over again, as a tool for productivity—and then, when the work is finally done, as a tool for coming down from the work. It’s especially disconcerting to see the practice of active listening (which can be a creative act as well as a wildly pleasurable one) denigrated, dismissed, or ignored. Background music is hardly a new development, but, previously, these sorts of experiences were mostly relegated to elevators and waiting rooms; now the groundless consumption of music has become omnipresent. In a 2015 press release, Spotify declared itself “obsessed with figuring out how to bring music into every part of your life, wherever you are, whatever you’re doing, whatever your mood.” The idea of purposeful listening—which is to say, merely listening—is becoming increasingly discordant with the way that music is sold to us. (Anybody who has attended a live music concert in the last couple of years has already witnessed, firsthand, just how uncomfortable listening appears to make some people—so much so that frustrated musicians have started banning phones at shows.)
Maybe the popularity of chill is generational, or linked, in some way, to millennial-burnout culture: always be working or relaxing with vigor! I tried listening to the Chillhop channel again, later on, in my office. It made me feel more agitated than relaxed, as if I were being placed on hold for an indefinite period of time—possibly the rest of my life. I enjoy taking a load off as much as the next bozo, and I am grateful for the beauty of ambient music, which intentionally prioritizes mood and feeling over melody and rhythm. But the best ambient music is carefully and artfully composed; it aspires to spark personal catharsis or deep release in a listener. The chill playlists presuppose that listening to music is a passive experience, but one that can facilitate productivity, much in the way that setting the office thermostat to a particular temperature might make people work longer or more attentively.
In March, Warner Music Group’s Arts Division signed a twenty-album distribution deal with the German app Endel. The app’s proprietary algorithm “creates personalized soundscapes to give your mind and body what it needs to achieve total immersion in any task.” The company reports that its technology “is backed by science and uses personal inputs such as time of day, location, heart rate, weather to create custom sound frequencies to enhance one’s mood towards sleep, relaxation and focus.” Though I appreciate Endel’s creators not calling the app’s output “music,” I am nonetheless agog that my fellow-humans are comfortable with a late-capitalist robot voice telling them, “It’s 3:30 P.M. It’s a great time to get some work done,” and then generating electronic sounds designed to propel them deeper into their to-do lists.
The German philosopher Josef Pieper, in his signal essay “Leisure: The Basis of Culture,” from 1952, quotes the poet and critic Charles Baudelaire: “One must work, if not from taste then at least from despair. For, to reduce everything to a single truth: work is less boring than pleasure.” Pieper argues that Westerners in spiritual decline can’t “acquiesce to being,” but, instead, must “overwork as a means of self-escape, as a way of trying to justify our existence.” It makes sense that, in 2019, as we grow collectively more uncomfortable with our own quiet, inefficient sentience, we have also come to neglect the more contemplative pursuits, including mindful listening, listening for pleasure, listening to be challenged, and even listening to have a very good time while doing nothing else at all.