I can’t work to silence. For some reason, my brain processes doing one thing at a time as wasteful and demands some sort of audio accompaniment to create the illusion of multitasking. This has proven tricky over the years because I also can’t work to most noises. If I listen to familiar music — the sort of pop and rock that’s crafted my musical tastes over the years — I find myself wanting to stop and sing along, or just languish in the nostalgia they evoke. Classical music makes me feel like I’m in a film and proves just distracting enough to prevent productivity. Sometimes, I can get the job done with podcasts or YouTube videos of people talking, but it has to be a hyper-specific tone and vocal range to work, which writes off most of the stuff I listen to for pleasure. Sorry, Jason Mantzoukas and Karina Longworth. Eventually, I did what everyone my age does and turned, once more, to YouTube, typing in ‘background noises’ until I found exactly what I was looking for.
ChilledCow and College Music are two of seemingly endless channels dedicated to providing what is typically described as ‘lofi hip hop radio beats to study/relax/chill to’. Both videos, which stream live 24/7, feature an endless loop of a cute anime-style girl at her desk, surrounded by books and notes and sometimes a cat. She is at peace as she works without distraction, the serene face of music that is just familiar enough to mostly ignore, but in the best way possible. I’ve become wholeheartedly addicted to this music. It’s what my easily distracted brain has been looking for all these years.
Wikipedia, that bastion of knowledge, defines lo-fi as ‘a music or production quality in which elements usually regarded as imperfections of a recording or performance are audible, sometimes as a deliberate aesthetic choice.’ Nowadays, it’s most often connected to chillwave or chillhop, which is characterized by slow temps and ambiance. It’s a bit New Wave, a bit jazzy, with a touch of ASMR and relaxing beat drops added for good measure, a genre united by its ‘made in your bedroom’ aesthetic. Samples are frequent and often highly esoteric (during one listening session, I heard a song borrow from a scene in BoJack Horseman). More often than not, each song will end with a needle scratch, as if the YouTuber running the channel is switching out the vinyl themselves. This genre is heavily associated with vloggers and YouTube overall. You’ve probably watched a video essay with some no-brand trip-hop music in the background that was cheap to license and creates the perfect mood to talk about movies or games. Many of these channels come with live-chats, full of people who are remarkably polite and welcoming given that this is still YouTube and we are universally bound as a species by the knowledge that one should never look at the comments section on any YouTube video. Everyone just wants to chill. It’s such a phenomenon on the internet that even Adult Swim and Rick and Morty got in on the fun.
As someone who makes their living on the internet, I am painfully aware of how overwhelmed I am by the compulsion to always be online. A moment not online is a moment that I have not optimized to its full creative and financial potential. It’s a cynical and exhausting way to look at the world but one my anxiety-riddled mine cannot shake off, especially in a time where my industry, age demographic, and the politics that define both are in endlessly precarious states. Pop culture has always had the ability to salve such pain, but whereas most of my tried-and-tested routes to relaxation have started to fail me, there’s something about these many YouTube channels providing music I can seldom remember two minutes after listening to it that’s getting the job done and then some.
It seems detrimental to the entire point of music to note that the thing I love so much about these lo-fi channels is my ability to easily ignore them, but it’s partly what keeps me returning to them. Each song blends into the one before it and there are almost no distinct changes in beat, tone, or tempo from one title to another. As I do other things, be it work or cooking or cleaning or trying to sleep (emphasis on the ‘trying’ part), these accompanying sounds solve my distaste for quietness without verging into distraction. All that and it makes me feel like I’m not wasting my time sitting in silence.
Ceaseless lo-fi acts as its own abstract form of productivity. I’m listening to something, so that constitutes work. During my most frantic bouts of anxiety, I would try to force myself to listen to things relevant to work, my studies, or other such parts of my life while I wrote articles and essays and dealt with an overflowing inbox. My logic was that multi-tasking should always be the default mode. Most of the time, this didn’t work out very well and I found myself smothered by the panic of not being able to get any one thing done because I couldn’t do it all at the same time. Yet I still felt driven by the need to try, even as my overworked brain demanded a reprise as much as it desired such satisfaction. It’s something I constantly yearn for, even when I’m self-aware enough to know it’s not a good thing to want.
That may be the main reason I’ve come to so heavily rely on these lo-fi channels, the audio equivalent of a warm blanket on a cool Autumn evening. They offer their own reminder that life goes on, the music never stops, and you don’t have to rush at a hundred miles an hour every day to get stuff done. This is work done by a group of nerds on the internet who just want to envelop the world in something in a lower key, a more homemade edge, an invitation to get away from it all for a few minutes, hours, or however long you need it.
Header Image Source: YouTube // ChilledCow