In defense of vaporwave: A cultural eulogy

An obituary for a genre that never lived

K.A. Liedel
Oct 4, 2018 · 7 min read

“The thing that is in Room 101 is the worst thing in the world,” Big Brother operative O’Brien delivers matter-of-factly in 1984. For our hero Winston, that happens to be rats, but more generally, Room 101’s thing is a person’s greatest fear, deployed against political prisoners with ruthless precision to turn them against their friends, loved ones, and anyone they might have any emotional connection with, thereby cementing the totalitarian vice grip Ingsoc has on their minds.

Thinkpieces comparing some portion or other of our modern society to Orwell’s seminal novel are in no short supply nowadays, a trend that’s liable to accelerate now that Orwellian machinations have come for the internet’s favorite pastime: memes.

To meme merchants across Europe, the phrase “Article 13” — referring to the EU’s Committee on Legal Affairs’ recent passage of so-called Copyright Directive legislation — has become synonymous with Room 101. Article 13 deems the in-jokes, parodies, and deep-dive gags of meme culture to be naked intellectual violations, owing to the fact that nearly every meme is a riff on content pilfered from some other IP. Like Room 101, Article 13 manifests the worst fears of Europe’s self-proclaimed shitposters, trolls, and dank denizens, robbing them of their ability to skewer cows both scared and profane via artifact-laced screenshots, artwork, or similarly-rented fodder.

There’s some question as to whether that purview extends to phenomena on the peripheral of the meme diorama. One of the biggest is vaporwave, which, while not officially a “meme” in the academic sense, shares much of the same DNA.

Officially, vaporwave is a music genre, but as with every internet phenomenon, the details are on the viral level. Vaporwave tracks are produced much like memes: taking a slice of some cultural artifact — typically a pop, R&B, or J-pop track from the ’80s or early ‘90s — and re-purposing it into a mutant creation spliced with all sorts of consumerist shibboleths. The result isn’t just vaguely familiar music, but a whole aesthetic, the very term vaporists use to refer to the diaphanous mosaic of colors, imagery, and nostalgia that have come to define the genre.

My reference to vaporwave in the present tense would probably lead to an argument in many internet quarters: to more serious “music” people (read: journalists, Twitterati, and the like), the genre is already dead.

Of course, such a claim is beside the point: vaporwave never really lived in the first place.

There are two reasons for this, in my estimation. First, its dependence on lifting wholesale extended samples from other work, often barely altered, negated any chance for the genre to hit the mainstream. It will never have its “moment,” except in the forums, Tumblrs, and blogs where all memes breed.

Second, vaporwave is an inherently backward-gazing phenom. Much like Japan’s rockabilly subculture, the passé qualities are features, not bugs. What makes the genre so distinct and appealing are its odd, narrowly-defined signifiers, many of which have a stuck-in-amber quality more akin to abiding hobbies like stamp-collecting and HAM radio than elapsed musical genres such as witch house or seapunk.

Ostensibly, vaporwave began (and, as some say, ended) with Vektroid’s seminal release Floral Shoppe. If you’ve ever seen any sort of content from the now-deceased Vine, chances are, you’ve heard something from this album, most likely “Lisa Frank 420 / Modern Computing,” a track that has become as synonymous with the internet soundscape as “Never Gonna Give You Up.”

Vaporwave, however, can’t be rightly understood by examining its chronology. The genre is drenched in saudade, that indecipherable longing for something or someone that may not have even existed. In other words: feels, not facts.

Leave it to my wife, not the wordsmith in the family but ultimately the most intuitive one, to crystallize the spirit of it. I played her the slice of humid, sun-soaked vaporwave that is Phoenix #2772’s “Miami Love,” itself a fairly straightforward reworking of Gloria Estefan and Miami Sound Machine’s 1988 bubbly pop anthem “1–2–3.” The track’s 3-minute duration is padded by samples of the original’s intro and chorus, mashed together as all the best vaporwave is, and then pitched down a few steps and ladled with the best (read: shaggiest) reverb and tape delay effects modern PC software can muster.

Her reaction? “This reminds me of recording a song off the radio using some busted old tape deck.” The key portion there is this reminds me of…, which cuts directly to the heart to vaporwave’s appeal. For her, it was bootleg mixtapes cobbled together from radio happenstance. For me? That, yes, but also something seemingly unrelated: The towering Pioneer stereo in my parents’ living room, about a dozen different parts in all, polished to a silvery sheen but carrying, too, a kind of old and esoteric quality. That Pioneer was the first place I ever heard Gloria Estefan, her Latin pop earworms slithering through the cocoa-brown speakers that, at the time, stood as tall as me.

Hearing a vaporwave cut reminds all its listeners of something very much like that stereo, indelible threads of memory that crimp the heart in all the sentimental places but nevertheless remain just out of the reach of quantification. They might not even be memories specific to our individual lives, but collective; see the young vaporwave artists now who, despite never directly experiencing the 80s, are constantly trying to reconstruct a facsimile of it, both sonically and aesthetically. Vektroid is a child of the ‘90s and early aughts, but “Lisa Frank 420/Modern Computing,” owes its slinky muzak strut to Diana Ross’s 1984 cover of “Your Move.” The Floral Shoppe standout wouldn’t be out of place on the PA setlist of a Reagan-era RadioShack.

Of course, pop culture is currently going through a hyper-reflexive, self-congratulatory moment, so it’s no surprise that vaporwave’s primordial juices have a rose-colored tint. When a show like Stranger Things, mining the emotional and supernatural beats of properties like Stephen King’s It, can actually pave the way to a box office-busting feature remake of It which feels more like a riff on Stranger Things than an adaptation of the original novel (even lifting the same cast members), is it any wonder that a genre built from pilfering old pop fare is carving out a very well-dug niche?

Such a comparison might be a disservice to vaporwave. I enjoy Stranger Things, but I’m acutely aware of its cheapness. Its warmed-over familiarity is hardly latent, a mish-mash of nostalgic cues and generational obsessions repackaged into a celebration of the very viewers binging it. Vaporwave feels, counter-intuitively, more authentic — and, perhaps strangely, more melancholic. The syrupy refrains of old quiet storm sleepers, 80s radio standbys, and J-pop oddities, misshapen via a few simple filters and pitch effects, produces something at once familiar and alien, like a pleasant memory fuzzed and cracked by the weight of time. VHS Logos’ “Freq” is a slow, sludgy rework of Windjammer’s 1984 funk breezer “Tossing and Turning,” its new, colorless coat of paint creating something far more thick and beguiling than the gossamer source material. Saint Pepsi’s “Enjoy Yourself,” which mines the more readily familiar strains of Michael Jackson’s “Off the Wall,” and has become synonymous with forgotten fast food mascot Mac Tonight, carries a weight the original never did, conjuring a timelessness unrestrained by any one track, album, or artist.

Which brings us back to collective memory. There’s a long-held assumption that vaporwave is a parodic medium, skewering the excesses of capitalism, the West, and the vapidity of a decadent culture (see Michelle Lhooq’s Vice piece referring to it as “chillwave for Marxists.”) Like everything else nowadays, people are attempting to consign vaporwave to a side in the battle between those who swear to the inherent rot at the center of Western culture and those who think the rot is imagined by a delusional, self-hating sect of critical theorists.

Is vaporwave poking fun at capitalist excess? Perhaps. But what’s missing from that perspective is the fact that parody and satire are as much celebrations of their subjects as they are impalements. Scott Beauchamp hit on this point in his critique of the genre in the Brooklyn Rail. “Unlike punk,” he writes, “which channeled the raw energy of dissatisfaction into a kind of heated praxis, vaporwave wallows in its sense of loss.”

I’m far more enamored with vaporwave than Beauchamp is, but his description of its mourning quality is dead-on. Vaporwave artists aren’t simply aping and distorting the vulgarity and vanity of ’80s and ‘90s-centric consumerism for Internet shitposting giggles. On the contrary: they’re mining the pastel imagery and cut-out melodies for authenticity, pushing away the gaudy flesh to find whatever heart once beat under our slick, product-tested culture.

I would argue memes are trying to achieve just the opposite — that is, taking something complex and boiling it down into a top-text, bottom-text joke. Vaporwave might sit under meme culture tangentially, but the genre itself is chasing something far more complex.

For example, there’s a reason “Midnight Luck,” another superb cut-and-paste job from Phoenix #2772, is miles better than its cotton candy blueprint (Japanese popstar CINDY’s “Must Be Lucky.”) As cloudy as an old fish tank and stuck on an endlessly-repeating loop, the vaporized version yanks a lovestruck sentimentality out of a paint-by-numbers chorus, equivalent to some alchemic process that births gold from pyrite. The track, much like its genre, is celebrating the fact that real, genuine emotion can be summoned by a glossy, cellophane-wrapped product.

That distinction is probably too immaterial to save vaporwave from the soggy clutches of Article 13, at least as far Europe is concerned. But it should, at the very least, recuse it from dismissal as some crude, vacuous fad or jokey diversion, a neon-drenched flash-in-the-pan. However history might be written, anything that can give us the sort of inverse irony vaporwave has rendered — substance scraped out of a paper-thin shell, meaning squeezed from the gauze of an incoherent and sometimes fleeting memory — deserves far more than a footnote in the Encyclopedia Internetica.

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