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.
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”.
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.
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.
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.
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?