What Is Vaporwave?

Homesick for a place I'm not even sure exists

Vaporwave is everywhere but no one is talking about it.

Proving that culture is in everything humans touch, there’s this genre based on bland corporate music from the eighties like mall muzak, advertising jingles and computer sounds.  Vaporwave is also an art movement. It’s remix culture centered on the  bold geometric shapes, glitch art and clip art of the 1980s. It’s neon, especially pink, purple and aqua. But it is these things deconstructed; the music is slowed down, distorted, so the refrains from an earlier, more innocent time have a haunting effect.

Daniel Lopetin (“Chuck Person”) – EccoJams 1: a weird mishmash of eighties slow jams, one of the first vaporwave songs, started as a joke:

But the Internet will prank you harder by creating a real music genre from your joke.

You may be thinking, “hrm, what an interesting obscure little tiny recent thing, this vaporwave,” but you would be wrong. Vaporwave is ten years old this year, and it includes hundreds of artists, many deliberately anonymous, and endless subgenres.

The  genre-defining vaporwave track is  Macintosh Plus – Computing of Lisa Frank 420//Contemporary, Better known by its Japanese name, “リサフランク420 / 現代のコンピュー.” This is Diana Ross slowed down slow enough to sound like a man, just the section where she sings, “it’s all in your head” repeated over and over.

Doesn’t that transport you somewhere? Doesn’t it finally answer the question, “do android dream of electric sheep?” Blade runners dream of palm trees and neon pink skies.  Androids dream of the computers meant to free us from our drudgery, while knowing they are those computers, and those dreams were never meant for them.

Remember how punk music was a celebration of the amateur, that perfect production matters less than people, in a room, playing music? Vaporwave is the same. It is truly a genre born of the Internet, by kids in their basements. But instead of messing around with a beat-up guitar, they’re stealing snippets of smooth jazz from 1982 and reconstructing it into a dream. I would say a nightmare, but vaporwave isn’t the nightmare. It’s the dream, where the nightmare is the waking world. The accompanying dread is so much worse, because the nightmare is what’s real. In the Mad Max world, vaporwave is what the gay/sad War Boys would listen to, with tattered Pepsi ads pinned to their walls.

My favorite vaporwave song is Ideoforms – Windows 95 Startup Sound (slowed 4000%). This is not a metaphor; it is what it says on the tin. So simple, yet so perfect. Who knew that this nine seconds of nostalgia hid an epic soundtrack of longing and sadness?

It’s beautiful how culture will reinvent itself in unexpected ways and contexts. Vaporwave is both punk as fuck, and completely the opposite of punk. It’s both experimental and nostalgic. It’s both a joke and way too serious. It’s both utopian and dystopian, both escapism and catharsis.

W h a t    I s   V a p o r w a v e ?

Night Terrors neon sign captures the vaporwave aesthetic

Vaporwave is about nostalgia pushed to the point of pain. Happy music heard in a broken future, where over-produced euphoria can only be found in snatches and distant memories. And even then, the memories it’s based on were never real. The promise of corporate suburbia was always a lie, and vaporwave presents the familiar lie of comfort and kitsch in the context of dystopian truth bombs. But vaporwave doesn’t show you that dystopian future. It shows you a scrap of the past as it might be reflected through the darkest timeline. It’s the sound of vaporware. It’s the end of Brazil

Or maybe the dystopia vaporwave is made for is now. Now is the lost generation. The aesthetic of corporate monoculture hearkens for a time when people were happy and prosperous enough to believe in the promise of the American dream. That’s what 90s kids were promised, but that generation knows dreams are under water, distorted, fractured lies. Vaporwave is the perfect soundtrack.

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4 responses to “What Is Vaporwave?”

  1. Thank you for making me aware of vaporwave. I have been listening to that and Simpsonwave for days since reading this post.

    • Right on, Prison Hipster. Is it just us, or do you see it everywhere now? Every time I see something with a nod to the eighties, but that’s sort of corporate and stylized on purpose, I wonder if it is a nod to this genre or a coincidence. For example, Contrapoints on YouTube makes subtle Vaporwave references all the time.

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What Is Vaporwave?

by Karma Bennett time to read: 3 min