Vaporwave and vintage clothes
JUNE 7TH, 2016 — POST 155
“Something strange this way comes”. That’s what a few publications, who over the last week or so have started picking up and writing articles about “Simpsonwave”, would have you believe. S I M P S O N W A V E is a video meme that sets effected excerpts from The Simpsons to the futurefunk and muzak sounds of vaporwave. These articles are fluffy, playing the “weird” and “trippy” angles of these remixes. Like so much fluff content before it, conversation around Simpsonwave revel in an “internet so crazy!” tone that wore thin years ago. Vice’s music vertical Thump did outsource legitimate analysis in pointing to the YouTube channel This Exists, whose host Sam Sutherland wondered allowed whether Simpsonwave and vaporwave generally exist “specifically to mock the commercial and corporate vibe of mall-type music”. Essentially, like conspicuously many cultural phenomena, what we’re dealing with is another eruption of some sardonic parody of a long-dead idea by the appropriation and pastiche of the original ideas forms. Or do we just have a bunch of commentators who are as superficially enamoured with postmodernism as their college professors were?
I wrote a while ago when I first discovered vaporwave, trying to work through exactly what was drawing me to it. I then described the genre as “extended intro music to technology infomercials of the early 1990s” but in reading back over this, I realise I don’t really know what the fuck I’m describing. I was born in 1992 so exactly what “technology infomercials” I was referring to, I’m not quite sure (do they even have technology infomercials?). And a lot of approximations of vaporwave feel like this. Even in Sutherland’s own descriptions seem to include a lot of guesswork. It’s now my suspicion that this “guesswork” is entirely the motivation of vaporwave.
Vaporwave’s aesthetic proximity to Japanese culture — specifically anime and games consoles and brands like Nintendo or Sony PlayStation — is not accidental. And the parallels between vaporwave and Japan are most obviously identifiable in vintage clothes. For anyone who’s delved into the world of men’s vintage, specifically pre-WWII American workwear, Japan is unavoidable. The most pristine examples of all manner of once-disposable garments, from basic workshirts to denim overalls, are sold for hundreds of dollars by Japanese vintage traders who seemingly have a monopoly on the market, far more so than the U.S. themselves. The traditional means to manufacture denim on shuttle looms that produced selvedge denim largely fell out of favour in the U.S. in the 1950s to be replaced by higher-yield projectile looms, despite resulting in a significant reduction in durability. Those shuttle looms — the machines capable of producing this denim — were decommissioned from Wranger and Levi’s (with fabric production moving outside the U.S.) and became coveted by Japanese companies. In a very real sense, Japan embraced custody of a heritage the U.S. didn’t seem to care to much about.
This has intrigued me since getting into vintage in my late teens. Why did the Japanese seem to identify so strongly with a heritage of another nation? The objects of their affection, products of a pre-WWII America, signal a heritage that a post-war Japan was forced to acknowledge. With their imperial tradition ousted in the dropping of two atomic bombs, the nation saw immediately its (at least immediate) future would be decidedly American. The U.S. stayed on in Japan to rebuild the nation as a colony-not-colony and swathes of the Japanese population sought to capture the historical context from which their future, as “American”, could be consistent. But the process of translation is always mediated. Their future and this surrogate history was never going to be a replica of the U.S. and instead created the utterly unique Japanese cultural aesthetic.
Vaporware, then, is our own process of recontextualising our heritage for a future we haven’t had a lot of say in. For those in my generation, those that do all the guesswork around exactly what vaporwave’s iconic features point to, technology and the internet is our future and a defining characteristic of our collective identity. The era of AOL and clunky personal computers, lead by Microsoft in the 1990s, is an era responsible for this future and vaporwave is our attempt to unpack it. Just like Japan never really got pre-WWII denim workwear as it existed in the U.S., vaporwave mines the oblique iconography of a historical context my generation only has secondary purchase into. Too young for true sentience, we missed out on the roots of an identity, bound up in technology and the internet, that we can’t help but have. But just like Japan, our process of translation is mediated through hindsight, through a retrospective evaluation of each icons' significance. Windows 95 was just an operating system, an update to the most popular personal computing operating system. But now operating systems mark paradigm shifts: like iOS 7 and Android’s Lollipop release introducing significant standardisation of digital design. So Windows 95 too becomes a posthumous monument in vaporwave, the hard squares wreathed in steely silver become canonical. And just like Japan, this translation produces a unique aesthetic and a unique identity.
Vaporwave is how we legitimise digital nativity.
Only the best stuff. In your inbox each week.
Sign up for one email per week with the best of the week before (and sometimes a little more).