Hyperreality and its Discontents: The Changing Definition of Vaporwave Music

By Jake Rochford

Left out of most features on the genre of vaporwave is that it does—or, rather, did—have a point. There was a question being asked through vaporwave; a criticism being voiced through the sonic palette of eighties and nineties synth-heavy throwback. Now the genre, which was once thematically interesting, has its heap of Bandcamp contributors producing mostly with visuals and aesthetics in mind. While that is not inherently bad, there exists an origin to Vaporwave that is more meaningful and consuming than what is its current oeuvre.

Back in 2010, Daniel Lopatin released a limited cassette named Eccojams Vol. 1 under the pseudonym Chuck Person. It was a challenging listen that looped slowed-down samples of old eighties and nineties pop songs (my favorite cut being one from “Africa” by Toto, slowed and looped beyond recognition). As this release spread, along with other experimental works by him and others, the sound  developed a definition. A play on the term “vaporware,” which refers to software that is announced but never released, vaporwave became a genre based on unidentifiable source material, modulation, and a distant coldness in the music due to its unknown origin. These tapes sounded alien and pointless, almost eerie in their implacability. Artists like James Ferraro, Laurel Halo, and Lopatin all influenced the start of vaporwave—and their works, while sourced from the bland, actually have deep contextual themes. They all question reality in a virtual world, the sense of identity as it exists online, and the idea of being consumed by technology. Vaporwave recontextualized the most boring and corproate music and ideas, creating genuinely interesting sounds and messages. At its start, the genre was an artistic endeavor, one which could polarize the music community into questioning the very identity of sound and, further, person, as both can exist in a virtual space. It’s a captivating question, what virtual identity means and how we as humans can—and should—occupy it. However, this heady, post-structuralist concept was ironically subsumed by artists who thought nineties glitch art and out-of-context Japanese was very cool. The vaporwave intent to parody the consumerism of the ‘80s became a genuine fascination with its retro technology.

 

At times, this aesthetic is still enjoyable. While I was listening to albums by progenitors of the Vaporwave / post-structuralist genre, I couldn’t help but notice the glitzy neon pink album covers of other suggested albums. They’re alluring, new, and especially with their odd formation and sometimes parodic sound, can certainly be seen as high brow “you just don’t get it” music. The problem, though, isn’t people not getting it, because almost all content from current vaporwave doesn’t have much for people to get. Even though it was born from an interesting concept, vaporwve in 2015 is bland. Most releases are style with no substance.

 

But can’t scenes exist just for the sake of being fun, being cool, pushing fashion, even just being danceable? Yes, vaporwave is allowed to be an aesthetic-based scene of nineties internet graphics and retro, slowed down loops. The only issue with this phenomenon is how the original concepts of vaporwave barely pervade current releases. James Ferraro’s 2011 release, Far Side Virtual, stands as an early influence on the growth of vaporwave. This album is a fast-paced parodic amalgamation of internet-based sound effects (the Skype login sound, a Windows shut-down melody) produced solely in Apple’s Garageband program. It is both a challenging and easily dismissible album. At times, it’s shrill and unlistenable. It isn’t as polished as other vaporwave releases—and that’s because it’s not trying to be. What it lacks in sexiness it makes up for in intent. Far Side Virtual is front and center with its message: within our futuristic, virtual present is an inherent dullness. It’s a critique, offering a challenge to the listener. It’s saying: you want this new internet world? You want to live in your high speed, hyperreal culture? Well, here it is in all of its weird, alien space. And at the heart of it all is a deep discomfort.

On the other hand, consider Macintosh Plus’s Floral Shoppe. It’s challenging too, yet not in the same way as Ferraro’s release. Floral Shoppe, a more definitive example of where vaporwave is now sonically, slows down and repeats samples of eighties pop songs with a creepy, pseudo-soulful result. Its cover features a faceless stone bust, neon green Japanese text, and geometric neon designs. It departs from the themes of James Ferraro’s work, trying to sound more fun and accessible while still using the same methods. But while both releases develop the aesthetic of vaporwave, there is an inherent difference in each album’s sound: one is boring and one is not. Far Side Virtual,’s abrasiveness creates room to think about his intent and message with the work. Floral Shoppe grows stale soon into its runtime because its samples are less captivating and it flounders in its lack of a point under the more accessible sound. Its dullness means it has little merit.

But maybe this criticism is too harsh. To say that vaporwave was seized and manipulated out of having any point is probably too accusatory, and it’s not a criticism unique to vaporwave either. Almost any genre from punk to hip-hop has had to deal with these growing pains. But current vaporwave producers  usually look either towards the past or the future, creating either a more nostalgic or futuristic aesthetic instead of creating an actual critique of today’s culture. This has been the fundamental shift in focus. Instead of this shift itself being bad, maybe this is indicative of problems in our mass understanding of music as art.

When it comes down to it, especially in this century, music naturally becomes a brand. We love musicians when there’s a world to dive into, an aesthetic to wear, a person to envy or a style to express. In a way, music is digested in much the same way as most forms of technology, with a desire for novelty driving innovation—and that’s the same message that inspired Far Side Virtual and made it popular. We don’t listen to vaporwave because we like what it’s saying or because we savor it as art. We consume, digest, and wear the related apparel. We buy a bright pink shirt with the album cover of Macintosh Plus’s Floral Shoppe, and we grab the limited cassette too if we have enough cash. The consumerism vaporwive satirizes is exactly what’s driving the genre. And for everything that vaporwave sought to reveal, it ultimately became another way to turn personality into just a style with no substance.

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