Instead of subverting the system, vaporwave creates alternative realities that coexist with our current system. It undermines the commodification of nostalgia in an age of global capitalism, and it is infiltrating popular culture like a virus. Is vaporwave a way out?
“Am Heimcomputer sitz’ ich hier und programmier die Zukunft mir”, Kraftwerk.
Teenager Wade Watts can’t wait to become Parzival. Every free minute he spends in OASIS, a virtual world where he can be and do whatever he wants. By using Virtual Reality (VR), he escapes hell on earth.
Watts is the protagonist in Ernest Cline’s science fiction novel ‘Ready Player One’ (2011). Since this year it’s also a movie, directed by Steven Spielberg. The story plays out in 2045. Climate change and the worldwide energy crisis brought famine, poverty, disease, and war. Watts lives in the slums of Columbus, Ohio: trailer parks stacked on top of each other. His only escape is becoming his virtual alter-ego Parzival and entering OASIS, a video game — made by programmer James Halliday — turned into a virtual world were millions escape their dystopian reality. OASIS is full of references to the past, especially the eighties, and creates an alternative reality where neither time or place play a significant role. Instead of isolating people, OASIS connects. Eventually, it leads to some virtual revolution changing reality itself.
As with most sci-fi, ‘Ready Player One’ isn’t about the future, it’s about the now. The parallels are clear: the fear of the consequences of climate change, political polarization, the lost future and the dwelling in the past. The plot isn’t. Retreating from reality, or ignoring it, offers a better solution than fighting the forces that keep the status quo in place.
That notion isn’t new. Afro-futurism — a subculture that since the 1950s explores the developing intersection of African culture with technology — uses the same strategy. Retreat from everyday life into an alternative reality where you are a member of a secret ancient tribe that eventually will save you from your miserable life.
The strategy of actively countering the dominant culture is more usual. It goes back as far as the late 1800s with the Luddites, a radical group of workers in Engeland who destroyed machines as a form of protest, and the German idealists who read poems in German while walking through the woods as a protest to the Kaiser who adopted French as the language of the elite. In the 1930s swing kids in Hamburg threw secret jazz parties where illegally important jazz records were played, and beat up nazi’s in the streets if they had the chance.
But it wasn’t until the 1950s that counterculture in the west took off. With The Underground Press, Barry Miles gave a voice to a whole new generation. Young people growing up in the post-war west weren’t represented in mainstream media. They were better educated than their parents, grew up with modern pop culture, music, and fashion. The Underground Press introduced them to the work of the beat generation; Allen Ginsberg, William S. Burroughs, Jack Kerouac, and Charles Bukowski.
At the end of the 1960s, the tension between the traditional culture and counterculture led to clashes in almost every western country. Leading to the emancipation of a lot of different minorities.
According to sociologist Herbert Marcuse these minorities are essential to keep a society healthy. In his most influential book ‘One-Dimensional Man: Studies in the Ideology of Advanced Industrial Society’ (1964) he investigates how the working class in both capitalist and communist societies becomes an integrated part of the whole economic, political and cultural structure. In the west consumerism is the most dominant social force that kills every need to question or oppose the current practice of the status quo. We desperately need non-integrated forces like minorities, outsiders, and radical intellectuals, who promote radical and different ways of thinking and doing, to challenge the mainstream. This is, Marcuse thinks, the only way to guarantee a decent level of freedom for everybody.
Marcuse concludes his book with a quote by former Frankfurt school fellow sociologist Walter Benjamin: “Nur um der Hoffnungslosen willen ist uns die Hoffnung gegeben” (“It is only for the sake of those without hope that hope is given to us”).
‘One-dimensional Man’ isn’t a positive book. Marcuse detects two hugely successful social forces — repressive desublimation, and repressive tolerance — that aim at neutralizing ideas and actions that challenge the status quo. Repressive desublimation does that by liquidating critical elements in art or pop culture, turning everything into a commodity. Repressive tolerance neutralizes oppositional elements in society by incorporating them into mainstream culture. Marcuse witnessed this with the youth counterculture of the late 1960s. Around 1970 every youngster in the world listened to American or British pop music, drank Coca-Cola, and wore Levi jeans.
Marcuse painted a dark dystopian world that suffers from proceeding bureaucracy, and a system that sells totalitarianism as freedom. He was extremely critical on his students who hailed him as ‘the father of the new left’. Like his Frankfurt School colleague Theodor Adorno, Marcuse thought that the revolution at the end of the 1960s had failed. In a German television show Adorno fulminated about how unbearable protest music was: “And I have to say that when somebody sets himself up, and for whatever reason sings maudlin music about Vietnam being unbearable, I find that really it is this song that is, in fact, unbearable, in that by taking the horrendous and making it somehow consumable, it ends up wringing something like consumption-qualities out of it.”
It is easy to fall for Marcuse’s and Adorno’s fatal description of modern culture.
All hope is lost. Deal with it.
But their approach is limited. It focusses solely on systems, institutions, and industries. The individual is absent, powerless, a victim. Around the same time, media theorist Marshall McLuhan wrote his book ‘The Medium is the Massage: An Inventory of Effects’ (1967). In the work of McLuhan media and technology have a central place, and the media of his time — first television and then computer networks — would eventually bring down hierarchies. Big cooperations, governments, institutions, nation-states; they will implode because new media bring the power back to the people. McLuhan wrote this more than fifty years ago, but these kinds of developments take time.
The implosion of hierarchy is happening right now.
You versus group
Movements like punk, hip-hop and indie music — all, in essence, anti-establishment — changed the musical and cultural landscape. Even broke through to the mainstream, but a massive system shift did not occur. But the rise of electronic dance music in the late 1980s didn’t have the impact it could and should have. House and techno did hold the promise of radical change. The music was made with the same ‘do it yourself’ tools that changed society: computers.
Moreover, the ethics and values of electronic music culture matched those of the emerging internet culture, and, broader, the ideology of Silicon Valley. On the dance floor, individual and group weren’t opposites but blended. Keywords: bottom up, do it yourself, being yourself together, swarm.
Hello again, Marshall McLuhan!
All these elements come together in the video clip for ‘No Good (Start The Dance)’ (1994) by British breakbeat collective The Prodigy. In the middle of the clip a wall is taken down, the antagonist, a representative by traditional rock culture, is imprisoned. Move over 1980s, here are the 1990s.
In the excellent publication ‘RAVE: Rave and Its Influence on Art and Culture’ (2016), a co- production of Black Dog Publishers and the Museum of Contemporary Art Antwerp, the cultural critic Mark Fisher reflects on the disruptive effect of early rave culture. Raves broke with the traditional idea of pop culture. As Fisher writes: “Why should the rave ever end? Why should there be any miserable Monday mornings for anyone?”
Eventually rave also became a product.
Developments like this only strengthen the narrative of capitalism as inevitable, like nature. Capitalist realism, in the words of Mark Fisher. He wrote a book about it: ‘Capitalist Realism’ (2009). He uses the term ‘reflective impotence’ to describe how we fail to imagine something different than our current system: “They know things are bad, but more than that, they know they can’t do anything about it. But that ‘knowledge’, that reflexivity, is not a passive observation of an already existing state of affairs. It is a self-fulfilling prophecy.” Fisher quotes sociologist Fredric Jameson, who stated that “[It] is easier to imagine the end of the world than to imagine the end of capitalism.”
Is there a way out?
In ‘Ready Player One’ Watts found one in the alternative world of OASIS.
What if changing the status quo is only possible by ignoring it, by just acting like it doesn’t exist? Enter vaporwave, a cultural phenomenon in which the aesthetics of the 1980s and 1990s link to a certain feeling of (dis)pleasure. Vaporwave is like a warm bath of all kinds of references from the past that are haphazardly connected. Perfectly suitable to immerse yourself in and enjoy the moment. And that moment is, in fact, a moment that is separate from and has no connection with, past and present. A kind of filled black hole. Unlike predecessors like synthwave and outrun, vaporwave isn’t nostalgic. It doesn’t celebrate a historical period, like outrun does with Miami, 1984. It also doesn’t exaggerate historical references, like synthwave does by making the bright fluorescent colors even more colorful, and adding so many synths that the music sounds so dulcet it makes your teeth hurt.
The future is cancelled
Vaporwave, in contrast, is the slow cancelation of the future. There is no nostalgia, no past, no future. There is just this.
‘This’ is best understood by the third pill sociologist Slavoj Žižek introduces in his analyses of the movie ‘The Matrix’ (1999) in the 2012 documentary ‘The Pervert’s Guide to Ideology’. In the movie Neo, the protagonist, is asked to choose between reality and illusion, symbolized by a red and blue pill. However, according to Žižek that is an impossible choice since there is no reality without illusion and vice-versa. He introduces a third pill: not another fictional pill offered to Neo between reality and illusion but in itself an alternate look on reality and what we find to be real or not. Vaporwave is a third pill. It constructs an alternative reality out of fragments from our past and by gluing them together shows us reality in the illusion.
The movement started in the early 2010s as an internet meme. Songs from the 1980s are slowed- down and sound like they are played in an empty shopping mall. The accompanying artwork is a mixture of icons from the past, glitch art, anime, 3D-rendered objects, Asian typography, and cyberpunk tropes in fluorescent colors.
The most iconic vaporwave record is ‘Floral Shoppe’ by Macintosh Plus. Released on vinyl in 2011, it showed the genre was much more than just a meme. Since then vaporwave slowly infiltrated in the entertainment industry.
Nostalgia, move over
While vaporwave used to undermine the commodification of nostalgia in an age of global capitalism, it is now infiltrating popular culture like a virus, replacing nostalgia with an alternative view of the now. The lack of ideology is interesting, vaporwave as a counterculture doesn’t have an agenda, a practice. In unconditional accelerationism, the concept of anti-paxis is used to describe actions by individuals that don’t deliberately aim at subverting the system, but in the end, do. In that sense vaporwave is the ultimate anti-praxis.
The Netflix original series ‘Riverdale’ (2017–) represents an American high school movie from the 1980s, but also refers to other periods in time, making it impossible to define it in time and place. In another Netflix original ’13 Reasons Why’ Latino Tony Padilla, dressed in a leather jacket, white t-shirt, and torn blue jeans,gets in his red vintage Ford Mustang and plays a cassette tape by Joy Division. It doesn’t make sense, but it also does. The virtual world in ‘Ready Player One’ is the best example of vaporwave’s influence. OASIS is full of references to the past, but it isn’t nostalgic. It is a view on what could have been, instead of what is.
And it is showing us a way out.
Writer/musician Grafton Tanner concludes his book about vaporwave with the wish that “For now, we live in a mall, but I think it’s closing down. […] There is a way out of this cultural nightmare.”
This article was published in Nieuwe Vide’s Journal of Humanity #8: Counterculture Now (2019). You can order the print magazine here.
Sources and further digging
Ernest Cline (2011). Ready Player One. New York: Random House.
Steven Spielberg (2018). Ready Player One [motion picture]. United States: Warner Bros. Pictures.
Herbert Marcuse (1964). One-dimensional Man: Studies in the Ideology of Advanced Industrial Society. Boston: Beacom Press.
Theodor Adorno (1966). Negative Dialektik. Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp.
Marshall McLuhan and Quentin Fiore (1967). The Medium is the Massage: An Inventory of Effects.Penguin Books: London.
Nav Haq, Wolfgang Tillmans and Mark Fisher (2016). RAVE: Rave and Its Influence on Art and Culture. Antwerpen en London: Black Dog Publishers en Museum of Contemporary Art Antwerp.
Mark Fisher (2009). Capitalist Realism: Is there no Alternative? London: Zero Books.
Fredric Jameson (2003). ‘Future Cities’, New Left Review #21, May-June 2003.
Sophie Fiennes and Slavoj Žižek (2012). The Pervert’s Guide to Ideology [documentary]. United Kingdom: P Guide Productions.
Vincent Garton (2017), ‘Unconditional Accelerationism as Anti-praxis’, Cyclonograph II — Beyond the Horizon of Myth. June 12, 2017.
Grafton Tanner (2016). Babbling Corpse: Vaporwave and the Commodification of Ghosts. London: Zero Books.