Last year, as a deep lover of music, I felt as though I had reached a standstill. I had already had my formative discovery experiences of some of my favourite genres (for example rock, metal and hip-hop) and I wasn’t sure where to go from there. Thanks to a friend, however, I was introduced to something unlike anything I’d ever heard before. Something that completely altered my perception of what music means: Vaporwave.
Vaporwave is a microgenre of electronica. It was derived from Chillwave in the early 2010s and developed by making the most of ‘80’s and ‘90’s “mood music” samples: largely unappreciated styles such as lounge music, and muzak, which Vaporwave artists chop and screw into glitchy works of art. The genre soon adopted its own aesthetic, incorporating confusing dreamlike neon imagery of early computer technology, mixed with ancient and tropical elements. These pictures perfectly complement the chaotic neo-futuristic sound of the genre.
“The genre’s overwhelming contrast of opposing corporate sounds represents a dystopian future”
But the style was created as something far greater than just sonar and visual innovation: Vaporwave was made as a form of social commentary. Early founders of the movement, such as James Ferraro, utilised Vaporwave as a direct critique of the failures of late American capitalism. The genre’s overwhelming contrast of opposing corporate sounds represents a dystopian future whereby technology has run rampant. Ferraro inspired many future artists to explore this idea of hyperreality, or the intertwining of reality and technological simulation. However, since then, the genre has evolved past these foundational ideas into numerous different imaginative and conceptual ventures.
In 2011, Macintosh Plus’s hugely influential album Floral Shoppe was released, setting the core base from which the genre was to evolve, with its plunderphonic repurposing of old R&B samples. Vaporwave, which has always been almost exclusively online-based, soon attracted a huge network of passionate fans on several internet forums, most notably on Reddit, discussing and promoting the wide range of emerging musicians.
From 2012 onwards, the microgenre began dividing into nanogenres. Upcoming star Blank Banshee added hard hip-hop beats to his progressive sound, forming what is now known as “Vaportrap”. In contrast, Vaporwave frontrunners HKE and t e l e p a t h combined to create the super-duo 2 8 1 4, with their hugely experimental formation of “Ambient Vaporwave”. By transforming urban and weather sounds into music, the group transports the listener to a rainy night in a futuristic metropolis, surrounded by the white noise of traffic and commuters.
This element of “taking the listener elsewhere” is the main basis of numerous nanogenres. “Mallsoft”, for example, transport us to the distant world of early ‘90s shopping centres, whilst “Supermarket Vaporwave” artists like groceries explore the colourful world of ‘90s food markets. These serve as a commentary on the overwhelming presence that consumerist culture has on our everyday lives, but also work as nostalgic pieces which allow the listener to reminisce over the forgotten allure of a past time. This allure is especially present in “Future Funk”, which mixes the sample sounds of disco and ‘80s Japanese “city pop” to create addictive dance-inducing hi-fi loops, making the listener yearn for a simpler, youthful time.
“The blissful lack of awareness shared by all of these outlets represents the remnants of a fleeting era”
Vaporwave’s obsession with “the freedom of the past” does not seem to extend into the 2000s. Perhaps the main reason for this, as explored by Pad Chennington and various other Vaporwave commentators, is 9/11. One of the most important and praised Vaporwave albums of all time is Corp.’s NEWS AT 11, which uses samples of news broadcasts, the weather channel and various commercials from right before the tragedy to convey a sense of sorrow and loss. The blissful lack of awareness shared by all of these outlets represents the remnants of a fleeting era: the last breath of the fun-fuelled commercialism and gleeful adrenaline of the ‘80s and ‘90s, an innocence that would soon be replaced with fear, gravity and scepticism.
The romanticised narrative of the ‘80s and ‘90s throughout the genre is, obviously, deceptive. Under the guise of freedom and excitement, the era was full of corporate control, tensions and societal failures. However, although much of Vaporwave serves as a direct critique of these, it is ironic how the genre itself, as it has grown, has also revealed its own darker side.
Its overly-saturated online market, its gradual embrace of more commercialised forms of music consumption (such as physical copies) as well as its aesthetic being embraced by mainstream media, its various controversies regarding labels with excessive creative control, its copyright claims, some artists stealing music and promoting it as their own, some putting minimum effort into their music: along with a set of its own unique issues, Vaporwave has also become rampant with many of the problems that occur among several popular music circles.
But these incidents have only encouraged further artistic expression and opinion-based music. Albums such as the infamous FLORAL SHOPPE 2 have served as direct criticisms of the genre itself, as satirical takes on its lack of rules and exploration of how people can enjoy unstructured “anti-music”. Some have used these failures and the passing of the genre’s initial spark to claim that Vaporwave is dead, but as explained in an excellent Esquire article, Vaporwave can’t have sold out because it was never financially successful in the first place. An inherently underground movement, Vaporwave couldn’t have died because it was always dead.
“It is hard to define Vaporwave: some who have tried to dictate what the genre’s boundaries are have faced heaps of opposition from its community”
It is hard to define Vaporwave: some who have tried to dictate what the genre’s boundaries are have faced heaps of opposition from its community. Described by HKE (who himself is a widely controversial figure) as “anonymous music for anonymous people”, Vaporwave is an exploration of the extents of modern art, music and society.
It has elevated the careers of some of the most creative and enigmatic electronic musicians of today, who are using their platform to build on the genre’s paradoxical concept of futuristic nostalgia and to connect with its loyal and highly-dedicated online fan-base. Strangely, though, I, along with many other fans, enjoy Vaporwave because I find most of it extremely soothing to listen to, and occasionally even generating within me a sense of otherworldly ascension. I fell in love with Vaporwave because it is a style that fully immerses me in its emotional grasp and takes me to unique and distant lands, between past and future, between reality and dreams.
Music is truly always evolving. Thank you, Vaporwave.
Mateus de Sá
Featured Image courtesy of Bruce Fingerwood via Flickr.
Image use licence here.