The Musical Genre That Will Save the World

Plus, you can fold laundry to it.

Last November, New York’s leading smooth jazz radio station, CD101.9 (WQCD), unveiled a new identity: “New York Chill.” In musical terms, the change was no big deal; CD101.9’s program directors merely added a little down-tempo electronica—some Massive Attack, some Adani & Wolf, some Thievery Corporation —to a playlist that is still dominated by queasy saxophone solos, mellow guitar noodling, and Sade. But “chill,” the station insisted in a string of breathless press releases and on-air promos, is about more than music. It’s an “attitude,” a “lifestyle,” an “audio aphrodisiac” whose “smooth hypnotic texture” enables listeners to “transcend from stress.” Visit CD101.9’s Web site and you’ll find video testimonials by Chris Botti—a Ryan Seacrest doppelgänger, Columbia Records recording artist, and host of the syndicated show Chill With Chris Botti. “What [chill] does is what the name is,” Botti says. “It’s chill music—it makes you relax like you’ve never been relaxed before. It puts you in, like, this transported, altered state of sensuality and coolness and hipness. … I definitely think chill music is the next evolution for not only smooth jazz but for our society in general.”

Whether the combined forces of Moby and David Sanborn will be enough save “society in general” remains to be seen. But there’s little doubt that chill, or chillout, as it is more commonly called, is a music industry juggernaut. The last half-decade has seen an explosion in the genre’s popularity, from satellite radio channels to huge outdoor festivals to the release of thousands of compilation CDs offering a mix of ambient sounds and muffled beats. There’s The Best of Chillout Past and Present, The Best Chillout Ever, and The Very Best of Chillout Session. There’s The Ultimate Chillout Album, Chillout 05: The Ultimate Chill, and Ultra Chilled, Vols. 1-5. There’s Summer Chill and Winter Chill —not to be confused with Ibiza Summer Chill or Fashion TV Winter Chill. There’s Indian Room: Indian Chill Out and Vibes, Café Roma: An Italian Chill Out Experience, and Pure Celtic Chill. There are chillout CDs for Scots, Arabs, and Chinese, for yuletide revelers, yogis, cinéastes, oenophiles —even Aristotelians.

A perennial theme of chillout CDs is Ibiza, the Spanish island that for years has been the favorite holiday retreat of global clubbers. It was there in the 1980s, at the beachfront Café del Mar, that DJ José Padilla pioneered chillout as a soundtrack to the spectacular sunsets on the island’s western coastline. (The cafe’s CDs have sold more than 9 million copies worldwide.) The music was mellow and eclectic—unhurried tempos, synthesizer washes, snatches of bossa nova, dub, Latin percussion, and Arabic strings, with the occasional woozy vocal drifting over the mix. In spirit and in fact, chillout was inseparable from the drugged-up culture of Ibiza’s throbbing discothèques; it was recuperation music, music for the pause in the bacchanal. Today, dance clubs everywhere have chillout rooms, to which revelers repair for a break in the action, and a hundred subgenres and offshoots have flourished: acid jazz, trip-hop, ambient dub, illbient, neo-bossa, and countless others, including the current catchall style, downtempo.

Indeed, as chillout albums continue to flood the market, it’s become clear that there is no such thing as chillout, per se. Pop genres are famously nebulous things—just corner a music critic and ask him to explain postpunk or microhouse—but chillout may well be the most elastic category of them all, encompassing virtually any moderately laid-back music you can name. Consider the Best Chillout Ever compilation. The CD includes several tracks in the classic downtempo style—the kind of gentle electronica you hear tinkling behind car commercials. But there’s also Boz Scaggs, Nat “King” Cole, Norah Jones, Radiohead, Isaac Hayes, Pink Floyd’s “Wish You Were Here,” two recordings by the Academy of St. Martin in the Fields, and Samuel Barber’s Adagio for Strings. At the Big Chill, the chillout Woodstock held annually at Eastnor Castle Deer Park in Herefordshire, England, audiences “hear everything from classical to dance music, including folk, jazz, hip-hop, world music, funk, soul, blues, pop, lounge and ambient.” Listeners to Classical Chillout Lounge can groove to the sounds of Bach, Beethoven, Saint-Saens, and Mozart (a party boy who would have loved the Ibizan scene). And for those whose taste in chill runs medieval, there’s Gregorian Chillout.

The truth is, chillout is less a musical genre than an ideal—a vague state of New Age serenity, which, judging by the album covers, has something to do with day spas, white sand beaches, low-lit boîtes, midcentury modern furnishings, and the occasional Buddha statuette lurking in the middle distance. With chillout, it’s impossible to separate the music from consumerism and class aspiration; it’s no accident that the top-selling chillout CD series is affiliated with a swank Paris lounge bar, or that chillout mixes are ubiquitous in upscale boutiques and chain stores. (CD101.9, for its part, is holding a contest, “Win the Life of Chill,” with a prize package that includes a trip to Ibiza, an iPod Shuffle, an Apple iMac G5, and a Mercedes CLS—evidently the most chilled-out of all luxury four-door sedans.) Like Muzak before it, chillout exists largely to ease the flow of goods and services.

Music critics have generally been dismissive of chillout, mostly because its highest artistic ambition seems to be to lull listeners into a soporific state. But what, really, is so bad about relaxing music? Must all pop be gritty and provocative? There is a place for purely soothing songs, for music that calms, consoles, and even puts to sleep. It’s a hard life, and if it takes some lame Gotan Project track to help my neighbor unwind from his day at the office, who am I to judge?

What’s more, there happens to be some pretty damn good chillout music. Downtempo electronica can be insipid—think of the hundreds of terrible trip-hop records that were released in the wake of Portishead’s success—but in the hands of the right producers, the combination of electronic beats and atmospheric samples has breathed new life into torch ballads, cartoon music, bossa nova, and other old styles. And in a time of endlessly splintering genre niches and segregated radio formats, chillout compilations are refreshingly cosmopolitan. It’s hard to argue with a record that flits from the Albinoni adagio to rejiggered Brazilian carnival rhythms to Ennio Morricone. Background music has been a lot worse.

In any case, the apt comparison is not to Muzak—nor, as some of chillout’s more high-minded boosters would have it, to Claude Debussy, Erik Satie, and other godfathers of ambient music. Chillout really is just the latest brand name for easy listening, a genre that gets reinvented every decade or so. Lounge, soft rock, adult contemporary ballads, smooth jazz: As successive pop generations have rounded the corner toward age 30, each has lowered the volume, embracing music geared toward relaxation in the home. (Nineteenth-century parlor songs were the easy listening of their day—chillout for Victorians.) The current boom market in chill music is an indication that many former ravers now have jobs and mortgages and children, and have traded in nightlife for bourgeois domesticity. Sooner or later, every club kid has to grow up and make peace with dinner music.

But the genius of chillout is how it plays it both ways. The sounds are mellow, perfect for folding laundry to, but the sleek album-cover graphics, which could be on a club flyer, and the images of young bodies splayed on Balearic beaches, insist that the party’s not really over. Your hairline may be receding, the baby might be screaming; but stick a Hotel Costes CD on the stereo, and your living room becomes the Chillout Room. As altered states of coolness and hipness go, it’s hard to beat incipient middle age. For millions of record buyers, chillout offers an antidote.