The otherworldly music genre, movement and aesthetic known as Vaporwave is a mélange of the mundane.
Things like elevator music, glitch art, general nostalgia, air brushed pastels & neons, Memphis design, 80s and 90s consumer culture stemming from the Japanese economic miracle, Greco-Roman statuary, palm trees, the globalization of the internet & meme culture and re-cut, slowed down samples of random songs. All these things make up the rich, bizarre tapestry that is Vaporwave.
Vaporwave’s existence as the movement we know it to be today, was a response to the sheer gravity of the societal forces we still find ourselves very much in the throes of, things like unchecked consumer capitalism, manufactured nostalgia and equal parts appropriation and globalization. Vaporwave is something of a social experiment in harnessing the collective unconscious to create a mirage of merged memories, that are re-packaged in confectionary colors and glitchy filters. All of this contributes to the feeling of Vaporwave’s design and how it creates a holographic hyper-awareness of the things that have gone, the things we glorify, and how those things evoke a sort of pining for a specific window into the past that we see through rose-tinted glasses and as something better than the present or the foreseeable future.
Vaporwave is the feeling you get when you see old photos of yourself as a kid on the beach or at the pool after a mall stroll, wearing a palm-tree printed tank top, neon orange fannypack, sucking on a similarly otherworldly-colored popsicle while your mom sunbathes in a lime green bathing suit and your grandmother sits with her friend, both of them wearing white pants and Miami Vice-style blazers as ethereal muzak plays through the resort’s speakers.
I never went to such a resort…and you probably haven’t either. But there are certain elements of that scene which are true, and which contribute to the general feeling of easy living and better days…mixed with the luxury so few of us were privy to in the 80s, but which was celebrated on the small screen with shows like Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous, Dynasty, Dallas and Entertainment Tonight.
That’s the praise for the genre, the feel-good part. But Vaporwave also has a cynicism to it that’s very indicative and typical of how many of us who are into vaporwave AKA Millennials feel about the soul-crushing corporate consumer capitalist rigmarole we find ourselves perpetually disadvantaged, disenfranchised and despised by. It’s a sarcastic response to the “glory” of “the American dream.” Work hard and play hard, join aerobics classes, have a super-fit beach bod, get some fro-yo at TCBY, get a big house, buy tons of glamorous cars, Rolex watches, have champagne parties while watching your MEGA screen 80s tv with all the satellite dishes from Japan and showing off all your state-of-the-art tech…I worked for that, I earned that. I created my own utopia by the sweat of my brow. Except…you didn’t. And chances are your only utopia is your small apartment, because you’ll never be able to afford a house.
Just as many people are doing better financially than they were previously due to emergency relief funding, unemployment benefits and stimulus checks…the concept of an ‘economic boom’ often only occurs following tragic circumstances. The money horded by the world’s wealthiest is typically only re-distributed in the direst of circumstances…and it still benefits only a select few (i.e., those who already have money) exponentially more than it does others. Being aware of the facts that you’ll probably never be able to afford that kind of jet-setting lifestyle, that there’s more comfort to be found in the realm of memory than reality, even if those memories are plumped up and re-colorized, is at the center of Vaporwave. It’s clear on whom its primary audience is, with a lot of Vaporwave’s aesthetic design centered around growing up in the late 80s and early 90s, and moving away from the ‘sex, coke and rock and roll’ ideal popular with kids from the late 70’s-early 80s to a more subdued ‘Netflix and chill, take your anti-depressants and listen to Vaporwave’ millennial philosophy for jaded 30-somethings.
Although some people have said that Vaporwave as a movement is dead, it’s not…subgenres like mall soft, future funk and similar music styles like witch-house, synth house, synth wave and dark wave are constantly evolving and being incorporated into new subgenres of their own. Musically, it’s still very much alive and aesthetics-wise, I find it hard to see it dying, because at its core, Vaporwave is an illusion and illusions, much like ideas, can only be created, never destroyed. This hearkens back to the ‘disco is dead’ movement, and similarly, disco had a very soft, artsy aesthetic. In fact, critics often compared disco, which was popular with women and the LGBTQ+ community in particular, to a beautiful, yet bimbo-type girl who was rich in style, but lacking smarts or substance. Vaporwave is similarly very big in the LGBTQ+ community and has endured many of the same criticisms…which, let’s face it, are rooted in misogyny. If it’s not hard rock, it’s not manly enough to listen to, or at least listen to openly. And, speaking of disco, a lot of those synth-sounding, upbeat melodies were, in a way, the ancestor of vaporwave…perhaps its sassy cousin, twice removed. Folding in the bombardment of new and exciting, cutting-edge tech like VCRs, sports cars, video games, phones and widescreen tv’s along with all the associated marketing, commercials and opulent neon signs of the industrial sector in the dreamscape that was Japan’s post-war economic miracle renaissance and you have the cornerstone of the aesthetic together with the foundation of its sound.
One such “foundation” would be Daniel Lopatin, widely credited as the founder of Vaporwave. He was a forefather of the noise genre who did something completely novel and unprecedented in 2010 with his release of the album Ecco Jams Vo. 1 under his ‘Chuck Person’ alter-ego. The album features chopped up remixes of 80s pop jams with the album’s title a nod to the art peppered throughout the accompanying YouTube Video footage showcasing Ecco the Dolphin, a beloved Sega Genesis game from the early 90s which featured some very pastel vaporwave-before-it-was-vaporwave aesthetic design itself. James Ferraro’s 2011 album Far Side Virtual and Ariel Pink’s lo-fi sound are also considered some of the foundations of vaporwave.
”Pop's Addiction to its Own Past, as saying these works "relate to cultural memory and the buried utopianism within capitalist commodities, especially those related to consumer technology in the computing and audio-video entertainment area.Critic: Simon ReynoldsQuoted in Retromania
There was a mass marketed, manufactured optimism to the 80s and 90s consumer capitalism dream, everything was upbeat. On the exterior, at least. This is mirrored by the up-tempo synth strings, sexy saxophone notes, relaxing elevator muzak and numbing, automated vocals. It is very much an auditory analgesic. The cure to the malady of disillusionment with the system. It’s essentially an ode to economic stimulus and shows us how the motives of such a move are hardly ever altruistic, which is similarly paralleled by the haunting, artificial, otherworldly and slightly disturbing overmanipulated texture of Vaporwave’s tones and the speed at which they play. Something as fragile as hope in an imaginary symbol, like money, which is essentially just paper imbued with value, is overstimulated, stretched out, handled to the point of breaking apart into a dystopia of sound. That’s the type of retrofuturism captured by Vaporwave and the kind of social commentary it espouses. Even the song titles of many Vaporwave artists tell their own stories “While Your Mac Is Sleeping,” “Lisa Frank 420,” “Palm Trees, Wi-Fi and Dream Sushi,” “Online Shopping” “Dow Jones Disco,” and many others imbue that sense of overly-stylized mall displays with meticulously-arranged plastic palm trees and the sweet promise of a luxury vacation you’ll never see. It’s advertising at its most deceptive tempered with “feel good” vibes…think SUPER REFRESHING Arizona Tea, itself a staple of the aesthetic, or smooth, mild flavorful cigarettes advertised as being a puff of delicious freedom.
What’s widely seen as the first official entry into the genre is Ramona Xavier AKA Vektroid’s 2011 album, Floral Shoppe which she released under her pseudonym of Macintosh Plus featuring Diana Ross’ “It’s Your Move” slowed down dramatically to a chill, droning earworm that’s at once haunting and mesmerizing. This format was subsequently mirrored by other Vaporwave artists and now, there are numerous artists out there whose names are synonymous with the genre. Of course, several artists like Xavier have also published material under a litany of psuedonyms so, the stable of talent may not be quite as varied as it appears, but whoever these artists are…they have been prolific, laying down tons of Vaporwave grooves which you can find everywhere from Spotify to YouTube. Some of my own personal faves aside from Macintosh Plus are Dan Mason and Blank Banshee
Vaporwave’s aesthetic design draws a lot from the opulent artifice of 80s and 90s mall aesthetic, which is probably why it’s a favorite of dead mall explorers. The aesthetic it’s based on can be observed in many interior design manuals of the time, specifically the ‘International Collection of Interior Design,’ ‘Visual Merchandising,’ ‘Showcase of Interior Design’ and ‘LIGHT: The Complete Handbook of Lighting Design,’ in artwork by artists like Pater Sato, Yoko Honda, Patrick Nagel, Ichiro Tsuruta, Lisa Frank, Dave Willardson and in some of the anime and video games incorporated into vaporwave pictures like Sailor Moon and Ranma ½, Ecco the Dolphin and Streets of Rage . Just as it’s appropriated and utilized pre-existing works and styles of art, Vaporwave has similarly been an inspiration to game designers, with lots of the latest forays into indie game design showcasing worlds that are brimming with elements from the Vaporwave aesthetic. Games like: Sayonara Wild Hearts (link), Slipstream, Soda Drinker Pro, Breakneck City, Hypnospace Outlaw and Broken Reality.
The design of Vaporwave has inspired everything from a crowd-funded tarot deck to coloring books and even the website Vapor95.com which sells a wide array of vaporwave-themed fashions and other goods like posters, blankets, home décor and more.
With Vaporwave having emerged from the internet’s dankest depths and having, since then, gone on to permeate the wider worlds of art and entertainment, it’s a pretty clear irony that the movement stitched together from transient elements of a bygone past that never was and which was even named after vaporware, which is literally software that never existed, will not only continue to transcend labels, but even perhaps…time itself.