I’ve been a music lover for most of my life. Around 5 years ago I started coming across a strange new style of music online called Vaporwave. This weird sample heavy album kept popping up in my youtube feed. It had this striking pink cover with a roman bust and there was the word Macintosh in its title.
I loved the pastel colors, kanji and references to 80s/90s tech and culture, but I recall giving Floral Shoppe a few listens and not being super interested musically. Regardless, it kept popping up along with other album covers in a similar visual style in my feed. I really must thank the tenacity of youtube’s algorithms. They knew before I did that this genre was for me.
James Ferraro’s Far Side Virtual is what really got me into the genre.
The sensibility felt like something completely new to me. Until that point I felt I had never listened to something that had so fully converted the sensibility of conceptual pop art into music. The indistinguishably sarcastic and celebratory quality to the album was delicious. You still see this in Ferraro’s output , especially in his brilliant tweets.
What is Vaporwave?
It involved a lot of sampling of old 80s and 90s pop. As well as embracing the aesthetics, particularly the corporate aesthetics, of this time. Like with Ferraro’s work, it was hard to place how critical or celebratory the genre as a whole was being in its depiction of 80s/90s consumerism and corporate culture. Maybe there was even something a little fun and counter cultural in unapologetically embracing the aesthetics of things previously deemed unaesthetic and derided (mall architecture, muzak, corporate stock photography, etc.). This appears to be a common phenomenon in fine art going back to Duchamp at least. The artist takes the aesthetic garbage of the immediately preceding generation and re-frames it into art for their own generation. The aesthetic garbage Vaporwave was working with was the aesthetics of my childhood.
I reached out to and spoke with Simon Chandler who is a music writer for Tiny Mix Tapes and writes the fantastic Bandcamp daily articles on Vaporwave which is how I first encountered his work.
I find his thinking on Vaporwave to be a good example of some of the more academic criticism which reads the genre as a critique of capitalism.
I asked Simon if he thinks Vaporwave can be criticized for not being more overt in that criticism. His opinion was that while you can perhaps criticize Vaporwave on that, it is also that subtlety and ambiguity which makes it stronger as art. I thought this was a great point. I’ve always found didacticism, especially of the moralistic variety, to be kryptonite to good art. Making good political art usually does require incredible subtlety, empathy and ambiguity. Maybe Vaporwave deserves credit for doing this successfully!
Commentary on Vaporwave ranges from this level to something more like this, which I found posted on Facebook by Frankjavcee.
I think this captures very nicely the aesthetic of the genre: It’s the future You have vhs tapes, you're lonely, you're high, you're in japan and in the sky.
Take me there please!!
I find information on Vaporwave to be relatively scattered and disorganized on the internet. There is this wiki, which is cool, but doesn’t cover Vaporwave all that much.
There is also the Vaporwave Library Project, which I remember from a few years ago. God bless who ever set this up. Unfortunately now it is only a mirror to the archive of 11gbs of music. It is a super cool and amazingly exhaustive resource. The music is no particular order though and there is no information to contextualize individual albums within the genre. Also there are no album covers or other visuals. These visuals I would say are as important and appealing as the music itself.
There is also a reddit community, which is very helpful. It has thousands of members, whom are quite active.
I would like to produce a Vaporwave exhibition/concert to both introduce a wider public to the genre and explain the roots of the genre to people already interested in it.
This kickstarter, which appears to maybe have been a joke. I’ve found actually really inspirational. The idea of bringing Vaporwave into the real world in its native habitat of an old suburban mall is brilliant.
I’m starting to think of locations around NYC that are Vaporwave. Queens Crossing in Flushing is one of the first things to come to mind. I remember going there when it first opened, a good five or so years before Vaporwave emerged, and absolutely loving the aesthetic. In retrospect Queens Crossing is totally Vaporwave :)
If you know some other great Vaporwave spaces IRL in NYC or beyond, or if you are just interested in the genre, I’d love to hear from you.
Also if you have any experience with staging a concert or exhibition or know any people you could refer me to I would love to hear from you.