Wave Music Is a Marketing Tactic, Not a Microgenre

Like lo-fi house, it’s just an algorithm-friendly sound, packaged as a movement.

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May 12 2017, 3:28pm

Remember microgenres? At the turn of the decade, kids whipped themselves into a frenzy by throwing together a few signifiers and plastering the results across a new constellation of social platforms. There was chillwave, witch house, seapunk, shitgaze, vaporwave, cloud rap, and countless other niche sounds with gimmicky names. As soon as one microgenre flamed out, another would take its place, and with it a whole new set of beats, buzz artists, and fashion trends.

We know what happened next—the hype cycles sped up faster and faster, until the constant turn-over began to feel kind of grotesque. Eventually, the system burnt out, like an overclocked washing machine ripping itself apart. A generation emerged sheepishly from the wreckage, wiping their eyes and quietly putting platform boots, kanji-script hoodies, circle sunglasses, slime fonts, 3D Roman architecture, spiked chokers, pizza iconography, and ill-advised Ciara remixes back in the closet.

A pall of radioactive cringe has hung over microgenres ever since. Tastemakers and blogs largely pulled back from the rat race, leaving the kingdom to its rightful heirs—murky deep web in-jokes like hardvapour and virulent 4chan memes like fashwave. Teenagers once submerged neck-deep in microgenre lifestyles became twenty-something Porches fans. Balance, it seemed, was restored to the universe.

But memories fade quickly online. As a previous generation ages out, a new one seems to be chomping at its heels, ready to participate in the cycle all over again. Last week, Mixmag ran a piece called "WAVE: THE EMOTIVE NEW GENRE WITH ITS OWN ICY ECOSYSTEM," an effusive review of a London club-night dedicated to this alleged new sound, featuring European artists like Kareful, HNRK, Klimeks, and Skit. "Wave may well be the first form of music to have transcended the physical realm," gushes writer Sapphire Plant. "It's one of the new sounds of a generation that has no tangible reference point pre-world wide web, utilising the virtual space and the infinite possibilities offered by endless terabytes of memory."

This isn't true, at least not in the sense that Wave artists are doing anything particularly new. This belief in the power of the internet to create substantial musical scenes out of thin air was a very common one in the early 2010s; every new microgenre emerged with media fanfare about the utopian power of the internet to create new scenes, and every single one of them, from hypnagogic pop to vaporwave, used "virtual space" to "transcend the physical realm." Inevitably, those scenes disappeared as soon as another appeared on the horizon, revealing themselves to be little more than tumbleweeds blown by the trend tradewinds.

At first glance, Wave seems different—it's more generic than its predecessors, and thus harder to pin down. Take a listen to a typical Wave mix, and you'll hear a hodgepodge of SoundCloud tropes—trance and grime-inspired synth lines, 808-heavy hip-hop beats, atmospheric filters, videogame soundtrack riffs, and moaning vocal samples. The genre seems to have acquired its name sometime around 2013, when the collective Wavemob dropped a spacey instrumental hip-hop release by its founder, Klimeks.

But even four years ago, the sound wasn't new—cloud rap tropes were already ubiquitous, thanks to producers like Clams Casino, Ryan Hemsworth, Suicideyear, and Blue Sky Black Death. That sound proliferated further with the rise of Yung Lean and his stable of producers like Yung Sherman, who introduced trance-synth elements to the mix (themselves riffing on Araabmuzik's 2011 album Electronic Dream). Other musicians—including Wave producers— followed suit, and now you can find these dreamy sounds everywhere, even on songs by high-profile rappers like Skepta and Travis Scott. In fact, if you were to visit a high school anywhere in America and asked the first kid you saw with a five-panel hat and weed socks to send you a beat (or a kid in Britain with a Stone Island jacket, for that matter), it would very likely sound like Wave.

My point is not that Wave producers are ripping anybody off—being inspired by your contemporaries is totally fine, and a lot of Wave producers are very talented (I find British producer Deadcrow's chrome-plated soundscapes particularly appealing). Rather, the issue is with artists, fans, and especially bloggers trying to shoehorn a broad, nondescript swath of music into a constructed microgenre for the sake of buzz and branding. A 2016 HighSnobiety piece titled "Wave Music: Why You Need This New Genre In Your Life Right Now" noted, "Wave sits in the venn overlap of pretty much all of our electronic and hip-hop collections and playlists."

The entire Wave phenomenon calls to mind another confusing new microgenre—lo-fi house. As with Wave, the actual music coming out of the lo-fi house scene isn't markedly different from house music in the past. Rather, the phenomenon of how it's being marketed and discovered is new—the songs flourish on Youtube, racking up millions of plays because they catch algorithmic eddies on the platform's recommendation service. In a piece for THUMP, Rob Arcand describes how "lo-fi house represents such a varied collapse of styles that it seems like every dance music fan might be able to find something good in it." He explains how the neural networks that power YouTube's discovery algorithm reward sounds that combine genres, finding the "most attuned results for the broadest audience possible."

Recall the "venn overlap" quote above—like lo-fi, Wave combines elements from trap, grime, vaporwave, and other genres into an amorphous whole, perfectly suited for platforms that algorithmically reward genre amalgamation. Accounts like S o u l w a v e and E m o t i o n a l T o k y o post mixes like "Flight ///VaporTrap Mix\\\", and "TRAPPIN in H e a v e n," full of Wave-affiliated producers like Klimeks and Blank Body, which often rack up hundreds of thousands or even millions of views. Dozens of similar mixes and tracks appear in the recommended column, beckoning listeners into an ecosystem of related content. The visual branding also recalls lo-fi house, with videogame screenshots and trippy cartoon images, playing on the same druggy nostalgia as artists like DJ Seinfeld and Ross From Friends. Neither microgenre depends on sonic innovation for clicks; instead, they're brilliant exercises in exploiting the preferences of Youtube's algorithm to market existing sounds.

Wave is such an abstract conceit that it's cheerleaders have been forced to make some pretty strange arguments in favor of its existence. One such claim revolves around the notion that its melodic beats appeal to women in a way that other genres can't. In her Mixmag piece, Plant quotes someone she met at the party named "Robyn Allan, a marketing manager from Chingford," who gushes that Wave is "emotive: it's great for women, and also good for guys." Plant goes on to note, "While previous bass-heavy movements have had masculine energy at their core, Wave celebrates femininity and innocence." In the HighSnobiety article, Wave producer Kareful remarks, "We can bring our girlfriends and they're actually enjoying it….For us to cross over and make an electronic scene that attracts more women than men would be unique." Ignoring the whiff of sexism—boys like it hard, girls like it soft—the notion that electronic music has never relied on melody for its appeal would be news to fans of trance, happy hardcore, disco, EDM, Balearic house, and the trap-lite of Flume.

Ultimately, there's nothing truly harmful about Wave—the producers seem to be talented young people having fun online, and a lot of their music sounds great. Still, I can't shake the feeling that I've seen this all before. Even the term "Wave" reeks of déjà vu—it's a Twilight Zone parody of microgenre nomenclature, gesturing at the idea of a trend without staking any claim about what it stands for. We've placed such a high value on novelty that young producers are grasping at straws to repackage derivative sounds as a revolution. Consider pumping the brakes, eager young scene-surfers. The world is a beach, and there's always gonna be another wave.