To the ears of many, musical progression, lyrical genius and originality have arguably come to the point of stagnation. It is more convenient to browse through one’s favorite music forum to get the latest genres or bands than to go to the local music store and ask around. Times have changed. With the emergence of various micro-cultures around the web, it is no surprise that there is a plethora of musical sub-genres that are being created continuously. One such genre would be vaporwave.
Vaporwave is an odd thing. Imagine the generic lounge music in a dentist’s waiting room or a track from an ‘80s infomercial. Now slow it down. That is the basic gist of it. Vaporwave is sample-based music: the kind of music that utilizes chopped-up segments from various audio sources that are either recorded by the artist himself or taken from contemporary music. In particular, it takes samples from the ‘80s, such as infomercial dialogue, smooth jazz and elevator music. It then slows it down, loops part of the song, chops it up and does it again. The reason for this is taking something we are familiar with and distorting it, making it seem warped and unearthly. The samples are often cut, pitched and layered against each other in chopped up fashion, which results in parts of the song jumping to and fro each other. This gives the genre a very distinct feel that often leaves uninitiated listeners confused.
The name originates from the word vaporware, the process of computer products being announced but never being made available for commercial release — software lost in time. “The term is like a scarlet letter hung around the neck of software developers. Like any overused and abused word, vaporware has lost its meaning,” says Microsoft’s James Fawcett. This feeling of being lost is what vaporwave artists try and use to their advantage, sifting through hundreds of songs lost in time, chopping them up and creating whole new melodies and sounds that seem enjoyable. This hard work is summed up in one of the most well-known vaporwave tracks: the MACINTOSH PLUS track, Risafuranku 420 / Gendai no Konpyū (Lisa Frank 420 / Modern Computing), whose pre-chorus eerily repeats, “I’m giving up on trying to sell you things, that you ain’t buyin’”, a nod to the underlying socio-political themes this music genre tries to parody.
This demonstrates that along with the classical statues that clash with the spice of nostalgic paraphernalia, vaporwave attempts a satirical jab at capitalism through its constant mention of consumerism in its art — a dystopian future where everyone seems to go to the mall to buy consumerist products. It warns us of a lonely future driven by humanity’s greed and encourages us to embrace our demise. These underlying political themes seem to come off as “pretentious hipster garbage” to most newcomers yet ironically give this genre its novelty. Vaporwave reminds us of the feeling of being inside our favorite shopping mall. Particularly, when it is empty, it gives off an uneasy comfort, outwardly projecting an aura of leisure and ease but with the feeling of something sinister lurking in the background from the sterility and consumerism.
Another notable thing about the vaporwave genre is the aesthetic it tries to maintain. Vaporwave art often contains ’90s web design, outmoded computer renderings and classical sculptures mashed together, giving the viewer nostalgia and a sense of wonder. Japanese characters are prominent in both artist names and song titles, enhancing the music’s sense of tapping into the airwaves of global techno-capitalism.
All these show that technically, vaporwave is a sub-genre, branching out from electronic dance music with influences from seapunk and chillwave. Vaporwave has often been called a successor to the seapunk aesthetic, mainly due to the vivid gradient colors that complements the overall look of its art, along with the nostalgic use of ‘90s imagery such as Microsoft Windows, FIJI Water, Seinfeld, VHS tapes and Macintosh computers. However, what differentiates these from vaporwave is vaporwave’s recontextualization of pop culture. The designs also hark much further back to the superficial, faux-paradise iconography one might expect to find in a 1980s evening commercial. Coupled along with imagery of malls, corporate buildings and skylines, ‘90s homes and statues, vaporwave sets to deconstruct modern capitalism and shows us a sneak peak of a destroyed world filled with the discarded dreams of humanity.
The vaporwave scene primarily thrives on the internet, with websites like Soundcloud, Youtube and Bandcamp being its main outlets, as well as music forums where enthusiasts regularly convene to discuss their ironic socio-political views on the future and translate it to hypnotizing soundscapes that leave one wondering what is really going on. It is no secret that vaporwave is indeed an acquired taste, as with most sub-genres, but one cannot help but notice the wave of soothing nostalgia that overcomes the senses at the first hit, followed by the realization that it is essentially just slowed down music.
In the end, vaporwave makes us ask ourselves about how we perceive the future, whether we should still try and make effort to save it, or should we simply just applaud it and leave it as a faux-utopian dream controlled by the globalization and capitalism that shrouds our society.
Is vaporwave just a parody of our modern pop culture or is it the sad reality of what we’ve become?