Vaporwave, Revisited: A Second Look at the Forever-Mutating Genre
I’d like to start off by saying that the article I made on the topic of Vaporwave a few years back didn’t get the full picture- as a naive internet kid, I mainly saw its face value. Nonetheless, here’s the real picture I hoped I would be able to paint one day.
Starting as arguably the first internet-born music genre in 2010, Vaporwave attempted something that had never really been done in the realm of music: to create a nostalgia for something that never truly existed. With a focus on 80’s and 90’s consumerism and yuppie culture, cult electronic artists Daniel Lopatin (known as “Chuck Person” within Vaporwave) and James Ferraro created a new sound in music by creating songs reminiscent of old ringtones and manipulating old samples of songs long forgotten. They ended up being the stepping stones for a whole new breed of electronic musicians and a new musical philosophy altogether, which has grown diverse and more extensive than it ever intended.
Though Chuck Person’s Eccojams vol. 1 and Ferraro’s work started lifting things off the ground in 2010, the wave that came after that was what put the word Vaporwave into the minds of many curious internet users. Vaporwave stems from the business term “vaporware”, which means hardware that was advertised for and announced but never made it to the hands of consumers. While Eccojams looped classic tunes such as Toto’s Africa into sonic oblivion, the artists and albums that came after that breakthrough made the genre label make more sense. Artists like INTERNET CLUB and Diskette Romances simulated the ideal cubicle workplace, while Laserdisc Visions and Midnight Television took sampling to the point where it seems as though you’re channel surfing on an old TV. It was an over-amplification and exaggerated critique of our nostalgic consumerism, packaged neatly into albums on Bandcamp.com complete with 80’s and 90’s imagery, old technology, and an overall aesthetic that captivated many. The internet music scene was catching the attention of listeners everywhere, with James Ferraro’s Far Side Virtual even topping many music publications’ end of year rankings including being #1 of 2011 by The Wire.
During that 2011 period, an album was creeping under people’s radars and was picking up steam: Floral Shoppe by Macintosh Plus. The eerie-yet-grand samples of classic funk music and pitch-shifted haunting vocals wrapped together by the now iconic image of a bust of Helios, black tile floor, and pre-9/11 NYC skyline encapsulated everything the genre was trying to reach for. Without even listening to the music itself, the album artwork critiques our nostalgic consumerism with a touch of Marxism and wit. The tacky pink background belongs in your aunt’s introverted home, the NYC skyline is something we’ll never see again, and the overall look of dread that comes from Helios’ face adds a sense of anxiety that wouldn’t be there if it wasn’t added. It is by far one of the most thought-provoking and haunting album covers of our time in the age of the internet, but why?
Floral Shoppe, over the many times I’ve listened to it, unravels itself slowly. What starts as a chopped and screwed album reminiscent of DJ Screw’s work in some ways, becomes something much more grand as you focus in on how specific the song choices become. Lisa Frank 420 / Modern Computing, the most well-known song from the album, is a stretched and chopped rendition of Diana Ross’ It’s Your Move where the synth lead drives its way into your ears before the main vocals hauntingly come in with lyrics such as “Time is running out” and “Do you understand it’s all in your hands (head)?”. The 4th track Library brings forward a similar notion. It’s a slowed down variation of the Pages song You Need A Hero, repeating chorus lines like “You need a hero, someone to rescue you. Don’t run away I’m waiting to love you.”. The album becomes something ghostly from a time period that never truly existed- this grandiose caricature of the 80’s and 90’s that’s hopelessly existential and simulates the crumbling of an age of consumerism that died at the turn of the century.
This somewhat Marxist critique through such a small scope was what the collective of artists before Macintosh Plus were tapping into, but never were able to expand upon in the way Floral Shoppe did (and still does). Floral Shoppe stands out as arguably the purest form of Vaporwave out there, and its status was only made larger when it came out that the artist Vektroid (otherwise known as Ramona Andra Xavier) was behind the project and other notable Vaporwave releases such as Laserdisc Visions, INFO DESK VIRTUAL, PrismCorp Virtual Enterprises, and many other well-respected names. With this discovery, it made Vektroid into the epitome of Vaporwave- somehow able to release countless projects touching on many different topics as their own separate products while staying extremely mysterious overall. With Vektroid’s output still going strong, and an abundance of new artists hitting the scene looking to bend the genre in new directions, Vaporwave was becoming more serious than it was ever becoming in the past.
Just as all that was starting to boom, Vaporwave took a Nietzschean turn with many claiming the genre to be “dead” in late 2012. A predecessor of the genre, Seapunk, quickly came and went in 2011, but for a genre with as much depth as Vaporwave, how could that happen so fast? The genre has happened to “die” a number of times since then, but looking at it deeper, it just is one of the best examples of how the internet speeds up the process of our lives- what took the world ages for someone to step forward and claim the death of god took 2 years for someone to do with an internet-born music genre. Despite the negative context of death, it really was just a way for the genre to continue molting and branching into uncharted territory, leading to subgenre after subgenre after subgenre.
Many may think that it’s just a way of masking the fickle qualities of a shaky genre, but I think it is something that hasn’t been reflected upon enough in the grand scheme of music. Very few genres that are around today were originally developed over the internet, and trace back decades upon decades from before you could even log into any form of computer at all. I’d argue that many of the more deeply ingrained genres out there need to look back and attempt to reinvent themselves in some way- maybe not in as quick of a succession as Vaporwave has, but in a way that lets things really start to open up to a point where we can find interest outside of our established comfort zones. Though Vaporwave was born as a critique of a lot of music itself, it can also just as easily be a platform in which critique upon Vaporwave can trickle down into other genres and provide a progressive growth and understanding of the current musical environment within the online world we are all in.
After the first death of Vaporwave, the genre found a new take on the tacky retro sound it became known for which came to be known as Future Funk in 2013. Compared to its counterpart, Future Funk took the samples of Vaporwave and sped them up to create funky upbeat tracks that were more accessible to a mainstream crowd while sticking close to its roots. Artists like Saint Pepsi and MACROSS 82–99 burst through the Vaporwave bubble with their unique takes on old Japanese city-pop tracks, creating danceable grooves that sound nothing like the likes of Floral Shoppe or Far Side Virtual but still have that goofy nostalgic consumerist edge to them. This era of Vaporwave is what I like to think of as the breath of fresh air for the genre, taking a break from its existential anxiety and taking more of the fun and energetic route of the “choose your own fate” adventure that the genre had been becoming.
With this newfound popularity, many of the longtime fans of the genre questioned whether or not the genre had indeed died again. The new takes on it all were fresh and rejuvenating, but as mentioned before, they sounded nothing like the earlier releases. Once again, people started abandoning the genre’s hopes, and the 2nd main death of Vaporwave occurred. Imagine if a second person came forward in the way Nietzsche did and called the post-god world dead as well, what would be the outcome and aftermath of all of that? At least within the Vaporwave reflection of it all, it resulted in the destruction of what had been created- and the creation of a new world for the genre to inhabit.
In comes the team project of Hong Kong Express and Telepath, called 2814. While Vaporwave was recreating, a newfound ambient sound was finding its place within the overall scene, and it just so happened to kickstart the next step in the genre. Coincidentally titled Birth of a New Day, 2814’s 2nd album wasn’t about the creation of the uber-capitalistic and consumerist world that albums like Floral Shoppe created- it was about living in it. With a calming album cover from the perspective of somebody looking through a window at the rainy weather and neon lights of a shopping district in Japan, the album sets a tone from the get go. Each track takes sounds reminiscent of early Vaporwave but instead places them into a spacious zone that allows them to echo, melt, and transcend upwards song after song. The genre was no longer being viewed through rose-tinted glasses like 2013’s Future Funk spark, and people now found themselves settling into the world Vaporwave had created well-knowing what that world was full of.
Birth of a New Day became a closer reflection to the real world than to that of the caricature that was originally established through the genre it exists in. Though not all of us have experienced downtown Tokyo at midnight, all of us at some point have experienced the feeling of driving downtown and feeling surrounded by the glowing LED screens flashing numerous advertisements down at us. Chicago helped me understand this more, since a majority of my life until college gave me the opportunity to choose whether I wanted the lush natural landscapes of the world around me or the advanced architecture of a downtown Minneapolis or Saint Paul. We become deaf to the outwardness of capitalism around us and accept it as a part of our lives, and Birth of a New Day stands as a reminder of what we are surrounded by and how emotionally overwhelming it can all be.
Following 2814, Vaporwave really started to find where the healthiest place within its ironic take on nostalgic consumerism can exist. In 2015, the group Death’s Dynamic Shroud.wmv put out the album I’ll Try Living Like This, which did an excellent job of bridging the gap between the world-building of early Vaporwave and the existence and acknowledgment of 2814’s new atmosphere. The album samples everything from K-pop to Drake, all under the cloak of this dreamy haziness that adds this unnerving feeling. Overall, it’s a sign of Vaporwave’s self-discovery within a more diverse genre, and a sign of what’s to come.
Vaporwave is in one of the most (if not THE most) diverse states it has ever been in, and it’s wonderful to see. What started off as a mere philosophical concept explored through sound and consumerist tropes became an entire new musical world of existence, and it could end up being a good tool to predict what will happen within society in the future. What will happen when the majority of the population becomes self-conscious of the ridiculousness of the capitalistic world around us? Will we marvel at its massive landscape or find a way to mold it into something of our own control? Obviously an entire country with a complex series of politics and beliefs is non-comparable to a niche music genre, but it helps reflect upon the overall nature of humans in the modern day. We are growing increasingly acute to the actions of the world around us, and we ultimately find new ways to adapt and deal with all of it.
And that leads us to Vaporwave today, where there are countless creative minds reaching into new territory with the intent to create new worlds and critique the world we live in today. Vektroid, James Ferraro, and many other “classic” artists still crank out new material every so often, but many other faces are growing bigger too- with releases by Nmesh, Vaperror, Eyeliner, and many others catching the ears of various music review websites you would’ve never expected Vaporwave music to pop up on. This leads to another critique in its own right- how does a genre that parodies modern consumerism become something as marketable as it has become?
In the end, Vaporwave is a musical pathway through, well, whatever. It is a way to escape for many, but also a way to gather nostalgia from something that never existed. It becomes its own sort of mind-body problem, where it is ultimately up for you to decide whether the philosophy is needed to understand the music or if the music can speak for itself. To some, including myself, the idealisms of the genre outweigh the music itself in many ways, and through diving into the artificial ecosystem of Vaporwave you start to see a reflection of your own place within society, and what kind of path you want to follow down the line. To others, the genre might just be an output of goofy internet memes, and that’s perfectly fine- the point still comes across that this self-aware musical Marxist critique that was created almost a decade ago is relevant to the daily lives of the casual internet surfer. As a pathway through whatever, Vaporwave acts as one of the first musical gateways into a conscious consumerism many have been trying to get across to people for ages.
Thanks for reading!