Vaporwave’s Hall of Mirrors

by Derek Hopper

It’s kind of hard to remember what life was like before the world wide web. We work on it, communicate on it, socialise on it, and shop on it. Just like the computer on the USS Enterprise, it’s indispensable to us and practically omniscient. The existence of Wikipedia alone means that anyone in the world with a 3G phone carries around in their pocket the closest thing we have to the collected sum of human knowledge. If we suddenly “lost” the web, our world would be changed unimaginably, for it involves itself in almost every aspect of our lives. Yet just 25 years ago most people had never heard of the internet. As recently as 1994 there were fewer than 3,000 websites. By 2014 that number had exploded to one billion—a 33 million percent increase in just twenty years.

According to research carried out by MIT’s Matthew Gray, just 623 websites existed at the end of 1993. Rewind another six months to the middle of 1993—back to the internet palaeozoic, when Jurassic Park was in theaters—and you find a mere 130 websites online. So the web is relatively new, yet just old enough to have witnessed a generation grow up with it.

Our gilded age

The 1990s were good years for the United States. The economy grew at an average of 4% per year between 1992 and 1999. The New York Times reported in 2015 that an average of 1.7 million jobs a year were added to the workforce, versus around 850,000 a year during the 21st century so far, and that “the unemployment rate dropped from nearly 8 percent in 1992 to 4 percent—that is, effectively zero—at the end of the decade”. The country had a federal budget surplus and saw a 41% decline in the murder rate and an end to the HIV/AIDS nightmare we had endured throughout the 1980s. Furthermore, the Soviet Union had just collapsed. This meant the US was the sole superpower in a world rapidly thawing out after the decades-long Cold War.

Arriving amid all of this economic and political prosperity was Microsoft’s Windows 95 operating system, launched in the August of its eponymous year. James Titcomb of the Telegraph writes that the OS was “a technological breakthrough” and “an unprecedented cultural phenomenon”. Its release seemed to come at just the right time. Home PCs were becoming more affordable and Windows 95 was followed a week after its release by Internet Explorer 1.0. PC sales boomed.

A person who was 15 years old in 1995 and listened nightly to their modem connect to the web would have been in their thirties by the early 2010s, when vaporwave first appeared.

Dreams of the ’90s

Vice has described vaporwave as “chillwave for Marxists”, “post-elevator music”, and “corporate smooth jazz Windows 95 pop”. They ask readers to “imagine taking bits of 80s Muzak, late-night infomercials, smooth jazz, and that tinny tune receptionists play when they put you on hold, then chopping that up, pitching it down, and scrambling it to the point where you’ve got saxophone goo dripping out of a cheap plastic valve”. In an article entitled “Soundtrack to Austerity”, Stylus said vaporwave was “a micro-genre of electronic music that draws on the corporate sonic ephemera of the 80s and 90s—such as lift muzak, ad soundtracks, ‘hold’ music and cocktail jazz—to satirise the emptiness of a hyper-capitalist society”. Vaporwave, then, is a genre of music. But it is also an aesthetic. On the rare occasions when vaporwave records are given a physical release it’s on cassette tape, with artwork that normally contains some combination of the following themes: classical sculpture, 1990s web imagery, tropical landscapes, surrealism, low-poly computer renderings, “glitch art”, VHS recordings, and Japanese text.

Image of spoof album cover "Now That's What I Call Vaporwave"
The vaporwave “aesthetic” features ironic appropriation of ’90s pop culture tropes.

The highest ranked—and oldest—vaporwave album on the music site rateyourmusic.com is Chuck Person’s Eccojams Vol. 1 (2010). (This makes vaporwave highly unusual in having peaked for many people as a genre upon its very first release). On the opening track the familiar strains of 1982’s “Toto” by Africa are slowed down and chopped and screwed, and listening to the record one can imagine window shopping in a Florida mall during the mid-90s while on Vicodin. Many of its other warped samples will be instantly recognisable to anyone who lived through the decade. The album’s cover is a collage of 16-bit imagery referencing the 1992 Sega Mega Drive video game Ecco the Dolphin, which was described by one Vice writer in an essay about the game as “the scariest I’ve ever played”.

Cover art of Chuck Person’s Eccojams Vol. 1

Ecco the Dolphin was a bestseller and had a significant effect on a subculture of American kids. Daniel Lopatin (the artist behind Eccojams) was ten years old when it was released. Entering one’s teen years is always a formative period but for Lopatin it happened to coincide with the period relevant to our discussion; the last American “golden age”. Other tracks sampled on the album, such as “Baker Street” by Gerry Rafferty and “The Lady in Red” by Chris de Burgh, were part of the easy-listening soundtrack to this gilded era, the pre-9/11 world. And so, aside from the economic prosperity and optimism for the coming internet age that characterised the 1990s, nostalgia for a more geopolitically innocent time should also be considered as a factor in the emergence of vaporwave.

If Eccojams was the first vaporwave record, then 2011’s フローラルの専門店 (Floral Shoppe) by Macintosh Plus is its defining one. Macintosh Plus is the single-serving nom de guerre of a Portland, Oregon-based graphic artist and producer, Ramona Andra Xavier, also known as Vektroid. It is Xavier who is most responsible for vaporwave as people understand it today. Esquire wrote that previous albums may “have pointed the way, but Floral Shoppe is the lodestone that embodies all the most salient elements of vaporwave”.

The cover of Floral Shoppe features most of the tropes that would become essential elements of the vaporwave aesthetic: lurid colours, a Roman bust to the fore, rendered landscapes, a garish pink and orange photo of a city skyline, and song titles in Japanese. The music itself met with some serious acclaim. Sputnikmusic gave it a perfect 5.0 score, saying that “it could well be the future’s first masterpiece”. The standout number on the album and perhaps vaporwave’s defining track is “リサフランク420 //現代のコンピュー”. It features a Diana Ross song, “It’s Your Move”, slowed down to something that sounds like a prozac daydream. Adam Downer’s review of Floral Shoppe for Sputnik discussed the obscurity of the samples used, “as though it was the internet spitting back what we’ve been feeding into it”. Here was mainstream acknowledgement that internet culture was being recycled and presented to us in new forms.

Cover art for Floral Shoppe by Macintosh Plus

Certain elements of the vaporwave aesthetic are present for obvious reasons. If vaporwave is nostalgia for the technology and cultural aesthetics of 1980s and 1990s then the frequent Windows imagery makes perfect sense. We can assume, given the immense growth in home computer sales during the mid- to late-90s, that for many vaporwave artists Windows was not just the first operating system they used but also perpetually and nostalgically emblematic of a rapidly “computerising” world. It was aptly named too, since it was their window out onto this fascinating new thing called the internet.

During the development phase of Windows 95, Microsoft executives commissioned Brian Eno to develop a piece of music to play when the operating system started up. Eno said that they wanted “’a piece of music that is inspiring, universal, blah-blah, da-da-da, optimistic, futuristic, sentimental, emotional’, this whole list of adjectives, and then at the bottom it said ‘and it must be 3.25 seconds long’”. The end result is one of the most iconic sounds in nineties cyberculture. A number of vaporwave artists have used Windows samples in their music, but perhaps the most notable example is Blank Banshee’s “B:/ Start Up” from 2012. If you want to arouse nostalgia in your listener then sampling a sound people heard every day for years during a boom-time is a stroke of genius.

The vaporwave fascination with classical statuary is less easily understood, but one Reddit user gave a reasonable explanation as to its presence: “Statues are a big part of the vaporwave aesthetic because they are materially perfect (or supposed to be) but spiritually inert, empty. If you see [Michelangelo’s] David as an aesthetic ideal of what a man should look like, fearsome, chiseled (pun intended), very handsome, etc., it kind of makes you feel inadequate in the same way a lot of popular media does (buy this to be better-looking, etc.). It can be seen perhaps as a critique on capitalism that we are presented with beautiful bodies that force us to consume, and classical statues seem to evoke this same kind of ‘perfect human’ idea”.

Is vaporwave political?

This analysis makes certain assumptions about the philosophy underlying vaporwave, specifically that it is anti-capitalist. Certainly this is a common view among commentators. Esquire said the genre was born of a “cynicism about capitalism”. Another outlet described it as “a dystopian critique of capitalism”, and a leading figure in vaporwave believes “it’s anticapitalist and antiglobalist”. A 2012 article by the musicologist Danny Harper went even further, suggesting a link with Marxism; “The name ‘vaporwave’ is reminiscent of a famous passage from Karl Marx’s Communist Manifesto, ‘all that is solid melts into air’, referring to the constant change society is subjected to under bourgeois capitalism”. It is hard to tell if these are fair and accurate summations or simply the projections of a liberal milieu whose job is to find sociological meaning in the latest fad.

In a Reddit AMA, Daniel Lopatin was asked who his favourite philosophers are. He mentioned modern names such as Manuel DeLanda, Bruno Latour and Alexander Galloway. Among the canonical thinkers he listed—Kant, Heidegger, Leibniz, and Deleuze—Marx was notable by his absence, and one of them, Martin Heidegger, is a controversial figure whose affiliation with Nazism has long affected if not tarnished his reputation. A New York Times article from 2009 posed the question “Does a Nazi Deserve a Place Among Philosophers?” Emmanuel Faye, author of Heidegger: The Introduction of Nazism Into Philosophy (2005), argues that “fascist and racist ideas are so woven into the fabric of Heidegger’s theories that they no longer deserve to be called philosophy”. Combine Lopatin’s interest in Heidegger with his public rejection of any political readings into his music—a common trait of politically right-leaning artists—and suddenly the assumption that vaporwave’s appropriation of capitalist imagery is merely ironic is not so tenable. It should go without saying that none of this means Lopatin is a Nazi or even necessarily right-wing. But it does mean there is a degree of ideological diversity present in the movement, and this perhaps sheds some light on certain recent developments in vaporwave.

The plague of frogs

In January 2017 Vice published an article on “far-right appropriation” of electronic music. This claim is interesting in itself as it presupposes that leftism is the a priori, factory-setting political position inherent in all electronic music, and that rightist political expression in the genre is a deviation from an assumed universal norm. The essay documents the rise of “Trumpwave” and “Fashwave”, two vaporwave offshoots that incorporate elements from across the right-wing spectrum, ranging from Donald Trump to actual fascist and even Nazi aesthetics and slogans. The piece reported that “leading vaporwave producers were gathering in Montreal for an emergency summit to discuss ‘creeping fascism’ in the scene”, a meeting that happened in early 2016. (Surely this is one of the most unusual sentences ever to appear in journalism.) One vaporwave artist said he loved making music, “but if Neo Nazis keep using my tracks in their propaganda videos, I might have to stop releasing more albums. I don’t want to help enable their hatred. Music should be about bringing people together, not about establishing a 4th Reich under God Emperor Trump, Lord of the Americas, or whatever the fuck it is that fascists are trying to do”. One fashwave video—“Galactic Lebensraum” by C Y B E R N ∆ Z I—features a Hitler bust, classical columns, ferns, and the usual garish colours that make up the vaporwave palette.

But there is a deep irony at work in the rejection by the vaporwave “establishment” of far-right entryism. Ramona Xavier (of Floral Shoppe fame) is on record as saying “I always assumed it was transparent through my work that I leaned left”. But the thing that made vaporwave possible in the first place was easy access to the cultural detritus of the ‘80s and ‘90s. When Xavier was producing the abstruse social commentary of Floral Shoppe in 2012, filled as it was with samples taken without permission, there had to be an understanding that cyberanarchy works both ways.

In American Psycho, Bret Easton Ellis’s pitch black, searing commentary on the empty materialism of Wall Street brokers in the 1980s, Donald Trump is namechecked multiple times. Patrick Bateman idolises Donald Trump, who in 1991 (when the novel was written) was just a celebrity real estate mogul—albeit the kind of celebrity real estate mogul who appears as a guest on the Oprah Winfrey show. Trump was something of a pop culture phenomenon in the 1980s and early 1990s, with cameos in several movies and TV shows including Home Alone 2: Lost in New York and The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air. CNN found in a review of thousands of hip-hop lyrics that Trump was mentioned 318 times between 1989 and 2016. For decades the world viewed Trump as the reification of American Dream economics. His positive association with this rose-tinted era in American history almost certainly contributed to his election and also assured him a place in the early days of the vaporwave aesthetic, though whether that is still the case is debatable. So when something like “Trumpwave” comes along (Xurious’s “Hail Victory” featuring samples of Trump telling a rapturous crowd that they’ll “get bored of winning” best exemplifies the subgenre), nobody can be surprised that some people don’t “get the joke” about vaporwave, that they don’t realise its embrace of capitalist imagery, ‘80s/’90s culture, and soulless corporate ephemera is just ironic, hipster posturing.

Donald Trump’s cameo in Home Alone 2 (1992)

Nostalgic seduction

Bryan Bierman at the Philly Voice has written about the idea of nostalgia as drug. Regarding its role in vaporwave he says, “unlike regular nostalgia for things you remember experiencing, the young age of many vaporwave artists means that many of them weren’t even alive or cognizant enough to see any of their vaunted late ’80s/early ’90s relics in action. It’s a peculiar sense of nostalgia, a sort of imagined memory, pieced together with fragments of the aftermath”. This, he believes, is significant. “This sort of pick-and-choose revisionism can snowball into a false past utopia that for a lot of younger people, then becomes the truth”.

We see something similar in the resurgence of vinyl as a medium. Rudy Van Gelder, the American recording engineer who is considered one of the most important in jazz history, said that he was “glad to see the LP go. As far as I’m concerned, good riddance. It was a constant battle to try to make that music sound the way it should. It was never any good. And if people don’t like what they hear in digital, blame the engineer”. The Conversation’s Lee Barron believes “the revival of vinyl could be similarly motivated by mere nostalgia for the antithesis of digital streaming: large and fragile discs in cardboard sleeves that manifest a distinctly un-digital crackle when played on the similarly redundant technology of the record player”. None of this is meant to deny vinyl’s merits, but it illustrates the power of nostalgia, and substantiates Bierman’s assertion that it clouds reality. Bierman says that “young artists are imbued with an ingrained nostalgia for the same capitalist images they’re disgusted by”. The implication is that mass confusion is at work; that the vaporwave generation is both fascinated and repelled by the nihilism of techno-capitalism.

The art of vaporwave has now gone viral. In an event reminiscent of the 1962 symposium in New York which announced pop art to the world, the A-side B-side gallery in Hackney, London launched “Vaporwave.exe” in December 2016. Hanging on the walls of the gallery were prints of exactly what you would expect at a vaporwave exhibition: classical statues, lots of pink and teal, skulls, bottles of Fiji mineral water, tropical scenes and Nintendo screenshots. There were also obsolete home electronics, ferns, VHS tapes, and most interesting of all, actual canvases of Pepe the Frog that were painstakingly painted by hand—Pepe being an anthropomorphic cartoon frog that debuted in 2005’s “Boy’s Club” cartoons. Since 2005 the cartoon has spread through online communities such as 4chan, 8chan and Reddit, and been embraced by the “alt-right” to the point where the Anti-Defamation League (ADL) added it to their database of hate symbols. However, the curator of Vaporwave.exe, Marvin Watkins, refuses to analyse the movement too deeply. “I don’t really subscribe to the political connotations of vaporwave. I understand for some it reflects an anti-capitalist movement, but personally I just enjoy the aesthetics”.

Watkins is not the only one who appreciates vaporwave on a superficial level. When Barbadian pop singer Rihanna performed on Saturday Night Live in November 2012 with seapunk visuals as a backdrop, it caused outrage among the niche online community that made up the scene. Seapunk is (or was) a precursor to vaporwave and characterised by “computer screens with ’90s 16-bit aquatic video game GIFs, mops of turquoise Manic Panic dye jobs, and retro-futuristic 3D collage art featuring floating dolphins and chrome-metallic geometric shapes”; a “rave-in-Atlantis”. New York rapper Azealia Banks was next to incorporate seapunk/vaporwave, this time in her video for the November 2012 track “Atlantis”. That month saw a spike in Google searches for both vaporwave and seapunk, though it is the latter that has faded away and the former that has gone from strength to strength, despite repeated declarations of its demise.

Eternal return

The claim that ‘vaporwave is dead’ has long been a running joke among insiders. As early as 2013 and perhaps even 2012 (just a year after Floral Shoppe was released) people have been attributing death to something that continues to flourish in multiple cybercultural contexts. In 2015 Motherboard announced that “Tumblr and MTV Killed the Neon Anti-Corporate Aesthetic of Vaporwave”. Supposedly this happened in June 2015 when, quite independently of one another, these outlets rebranded themselves by “turning vaporwave”. Perhaps for the purists vaporwave really has died. It is admittedly hard to see how the “critique of capitalism” exegesis stands up when corporate behemoths and fascists see something they like in your aesthetic and successfully appropriate it. But art often begins as cage-rattling political statement and ends up neutered by its own popularity. Consider that Igor Stravinsky, Elvis Presley, and the Sex Pistols, who once outraged people, now reside in the tastefully-lit glass cases of the Museum of Western Culture.

I have attempted to address the idea that vaporwave is both a product and a producer of culture simultaneously. I have looked at how several of vaporwave’s aesthetic components were appropriated from the cyberculture of the late ‘80s and ‘90s: primitive web design, Windows 95, Apple Macintosh computers, AOL-era visuals, low-poly computer renderings, strange neon grids, “glitch art” and VHS fuzz. The ubiquitous Japanese text acts as a kind of Saidist techno-orientalism, enigmatically representative of an era when the Japanese were thought to be on the verge of “taking over”, until their economic bubble burst in the early-90s. e have also examined how vaporwave became aproducer of cyberculture, not only in its midwifing of “fashwave”, but also in its ability to reach the very pinnacles of popular culture, shaping artists and corporations alike in its image. We’ve even now seen the opening of the world’s first ever “vaporwave mall” in Miami.

Jordan Pearson in his Motherboard piece noted that “MTV may have just dragged [vaporwave] over the precipice. And this is where the genre’s holy boundary is crossed. This is where the cynical impulse that animated vaporwave and its associated Tumblr-based aesthetics is co-opted and erased on both sides—where its source material originates, and where it lives”.

Erased on both sides. Think about that.

The ancient experience of time was very different from our own modern, linear understanding. For the Greeks, Etruscans, Aztecs, Iranians, Hindus, and even for backward-looking modern prophets like the poet W.B. Yeats, time was not perceived as something flowing uniformly and indefinitely, but rather as a cycle, in which every period had its own meaning and specific value in relation to all others, as well as its own uniqueness and purpose. When confronted with a cultural phenomenon like vaporwave, we must ask the question: is it even possible to destroy something that breathes life elsewhere? Or is culture like time as the ancients understood it: cyclical, a series of eternities, both product and producer simultaneously?

Featured image by Flickr user thelastvoice (CC-BY-2.0)

Gnostic Love in Tristan und Ysolde

Last weekend my wife and I went with another couple to see Wagner’s Tristan und Ysolde. This opera is in many ways the quintessential modern re-telling of the medieval tale of two doomed lovers, vexed by duty, misunderstanding, and jealousy, and toiling under a magical enchantment.

The medieval legend, as told by Malory, is straightforwardly melodramatic. As the earnest of a peace treaty, the Lady Iseult of Ireland is to marry King Mark of Cornwall. Mark’s nephew and knight, Sir Tristram, is given the task of escorting Iseult across the Irish Sea in safe passage to Mark. Iseult bitterly hates Tristram, since she alone knows that he is responsible for the death of her brother in a contest of arms. While on the ship, the two enemies mistakenly drink a love-philtre intended to cement the union of Mark and Iseult, with tragic consequences. Eventually Tristram is discovered in Iseult’s bedchamber and slain by a jealous Mark, and Iseult, overcome by grief, falls down dead over Tristram’s body.

Wagner raises the story to a higher degree of tragedy. Fate plays a much larger role in Tristan and Ysolde’s downfall, especially since Mark eventually relents and releases the lovers to be together. As in any good tragedy, this news comes to the lovers too late, since Tristan is already dead, but it would not have made a difference. The love of Wagner’s Tristan and Ysolde is not the natural affection of spouses, nor even the star-crossed passion of ill-fated lovers, but a particular kind of fatal enchantment.

Ysolde’s Revenge

In the early part of the opera, Ysolde tells her maid Branganë of her hatred for Tristan, how as an enemy of her people Tristan came to her under an assumed name for healing after a battle, and how she discovered through the notch in his sword that he was the killer of her betrothed. Nevertheless, she did not exact revenge on him or reveal his identity to her relatives. This strays not too far from the medieval legend, in which Iseult begins to love Tristan against her will.

In Wagner’s telling, Ysolde’s mother, a renowned sorceress, has prepared various potions for her use: some for healing, one for undying love, and one for death and oblivion. Ysolde tells Branganë that she will drink the death-draught with Tristan, and so avenge both her love and her honor, which was compromised when she refrained from killing him. Branganë pleads with her not to do this, and instead of the death-draught, gives them the love-philtre to drink. Tristan, suspecting foul play, drinks it for the sake of honor, and is confirmed in his suspicions when Ysolde snatches the half-drunk cup and finishes it, exulting that she has atoned for both her lover’s death and her own dishonor.

The Love-Philtre

As the potion takes effect, both expecting to meet death, they realize that they have come under a spell more subtle but no less awful. They become possessed of a heedless, consuming passion for one another. The irony of the “love-draught” is that the “love” it instills is identified with death. Tristan comes to see himself as fated for death; the love between him and Ysolde is the love of a “death-devoted heart.” In the love scene in Act II, Tristan curses “daylight’s lies,” singing that he is a child of the night. Not the moonlit night of romance, though, but the black night that is the opposite of day; the absence of being and personality; nothingness. The love-philtre makes him reject the real world in favor of a spiritual void in which, somehow, everything about him and Ysolde is obliterated except for their transcendent “love.” Ysolde at first protests, but by the end of the duet she too is devoted to this eternal love that is an absence of personality.

In this way, Ysolde’s hatred of Tristan and of herself, the doom of death she planned to carry out, is fulfilled in a more terrible way than she imagined, as the lovers renounce life and earthly happiness in favor of death. Wagner himself called this duet “Liebestod” or “love-death,” although most apply this term to Ysolde’s final aria, which Wagner himself, fittingly, called “Transfiguration.”

Gnostic Love

This idea of a disembodied spiritual “love” clearly fits the Gnostic mold. Gnosticism teaches that people are fragments of the Divine Spirit that have been imprisoned in the “evil” material world. Gnostics try to escape the influence of the body and all other aspects of the material world, to become once again pure “spirit.” This directly contradicts the Biblical tradition in which human beings are a unity of body and spirit, created to live in the physical world as their natural home. Christianity adds to this the belief that the son of God took on the nature of humankind. Many early Christian heretics were Gnostics who attempted to deny, in some way or another, that Jesus was indeed fully human and fully divine, because they thought that for God to be truly incarnate would diminish the glory of the Divine.

The Christian and Western understanding of love and marriage stems from the knowledge of human beings as rightly incarnate souls. Human marriage is a “one flesh” union encompassing souls and bodies, and integrating a couple within the world through children and family ties. By contrast, the ‘love’ that Tristan and Ysolde experience as a result of the enchantment is strongly gnostic in its character, demanding total separation from the world and abandonment of the lovers’ own physical existence and individual personalities. But I think it would be wrong to say that Wagner is unreservedly advocating this kind of love.

It is shown throughout the opera that Tristan and Ysolde are both psychologically troubled. Tristan’s death-fixation seems to be the result of being born an orphan. He feels that he has been marked by death from the beginning. This seems very Freudian, although it predates Freud. Ysolde also explicitly embraces death in her morbid hatred of Tristan, even before they drink the love-philtre. To what extent did the potion cause this gnostic equivocation between love and death, and to what extent was it the result of the lovers’ unresolved neuroses?

Surrealist painting "Tristram and Isolde" by Salvador Dali
Salvador Dali, “Tristram and Isolde” (1944)

Fatal Passion in Context

The other characters in the opera are normals, apparently designed to offset the morbidity of the lovers. Branganë, Ysolde’s maid, and Kurwenal, Tristan’s bodyguard, typify common sense and conventional notions about life and love. When Ysolde orders her to pour the death-draught, Branganë substitutes the love-philtre instead, presumably out of a belief that even a dangerous, inconvenient, forbidden love is better than death. For Tristan and Ysolde, though, love and death are precisely the same thing. Branganë operates in the mode of melodrama suggested by the medieval legend, while Ysolde is seeing things in an opposite light. In Act II, Branganë reasonably fears a trap and urges Ysolde not to signal Tristan to come to her chamber, while Ysolde recklessly extinguishes the warning torch. As the lovers sing of love and death, Branganë’s voice breaks in, warning of the dawn and the return of the king: “Take care! Take care!” Wagner’s musical contrast between the lovers and the maidservant is breathtakingly sublime, as the music perfectly reflects the contrast between the opposite worldviews.

Similarly, Kurwenal acts out the conventions of the faithful friend. While in Act I Tristan retreats in a mist of doubt and doom, Kurwenal jauntily boasts of his master’s prowess to Branganë, inflaming Ysolde’s wrath. In Act III, Kurwenal carries the wounded Tristan back to his ancestral home and nurses him, summoning Ysolde to come and work her healing arts. Tristan, though, still “death-devoted,” ruins his servant’s hopes. When he sees Ysolde’s ship landing he rips off his bandages and dies just as she arrives, achieving (as he believes) the unity of love and death.

Finally, King Marke, the jealous, churlish villain of the medieval legend, is transformed in Wagner’s rendering into a truly noble and sympathetic character. He is deeply grieved by Tristan’s betrayal in Act II, yet refrains from violence. Instead, Tristan is betrayed and stabbed by Melot, an envious friend who Wagner seems to have invented just for the purpose. Marke, by contrast, goes so far as to pardon Tristan and Ysolde in the final act, releasing them to be together (although Tristan already lies dead). Marke’s brief aria would place the opera in the sublime realm of classical tragedy, and in a conventional opera he or the chorus would have the final word. Here, though, Ysolde steals the final scene. Still under the influence of the love-philtre, she now recapitulates the themes of the love-duet and ends in a triumphant musical climax, joining Tristan in death as the curtain falls.

How to Listen to Tristan und Ysolde

When experiencing this opera, it is a good idea to be aware of the use of leitmotifs, tunes and musical phrases which reference specific ideas. Wagner uses leitmotifs to great effect in Tristan, achieving a unity of music, words, and ideas. Leitmotifs allow Wagner to shade the sung text with meanings beyond those expressed in words, and create subtle or even bold effects of foreshadowing and fate. For instance, the motif for death appears when Ysolde is singing of the love-philtre, reminding the listener that the distinction between the two potions is less clear than it might seem.

Let’s Go Downtown: What Arcade Fire Is Really Saying About the Suburbs

Arcade Fire, "The Suburbs," 2010
Arcade Fire, "The Suburbs," 2010

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“When you meet a modern man, he is always coming from a place, not going to it,” G. K. Chesterton once wrote. Arcade Fire is a band that is certainly aware of where it has come from; how else to explain their 2010 concept album about where they came from, which sent them to the 2011 Grammy Awards to collect an Album of the Year trophy on behalf of all the good music that is predictably overlooked year after year by the awards industry? That album’s title character, The Suburbs, is an easy villain to hate. Snobs and hipsters hate the suburbs because they are not authentic, and because they are slow and boring. Agrarians and localists (if I may stereotype) hate the suburbs for perhaps similar reasons: the suburbs are not an authentic place, if by “place” we mean a location that encourages community; a landscape that constrains us and shapes our growth; or, to return to Chesterton’s statement, somewhere we can meaningfully speak of ourselves as coming from—somewhere we can call, if not our home, our place of origin. Or somewhere we are headed towards: a destination.

That’s the simplest view of the album: it’s a systematic excoriation of that peculiarly mundane manifestation of the American dream, the suburbs. Having set up this straw man, I will now boldly proceed to knock it down. I submit that the two broad condemnations of the suburbs, the urban critique and the rural critique (or, the big-city critique and the small-town critique), don’t have that much to tell us about the easily-demonized suburbs. In fact, I think the genius of the album lies in the way that its surface message—suburbs are lame—is revealed to be superficial, as its protagonists grow up, leave the suburbs, and return. Continue reading Let’s Go Downtown: What Arcade Fire Is Really Saying About the Suburbs