Vaporwave: A Brief Overview

Floral Shoppe album coverChuck Person's Eccojams Vol. 1


When it comes to music, few genres ever began exclusively as an online phenomenon – the Internet certainly made access to centuries of different songs and compositions easier, but it wouldn’t be until the 2000s before Internet-specific musical trends emerged. Genres that appeal to (and sing about) particular subcultures such as nerdcore definitely began around the time the Internet became a ubiquitous piece of American culture, and AMV production grew considerably thanks to online communities – however, vaporwave established itself as a microgenre that originated on the Web, very much an online phenomenon. But how would one begin with tracing the genre’s history? Who pioneered the trend, and how has vaporwave developed since its origins? In order to understand vaporwave, it would be pertinent to begin with its influences, specifically the comprehensive catalogue of songs from the 1980s and 1990s heavily sampled in vaporwave albums; the 1980s had numerous styles, but the synthesizer had special prominence in the decade as a popular instrument. Models such as the Yamaha DX7 (introduced in 1983) and Fairlight CMI (introduced in 1979) enjoyed popularity among musicians such as Peter Gabriel and Alan Parsons – the DX7’s use in songs such as “You Belong to the City” (written specifically for Miami Vice) and “Take On Me” helped the instrument achieve great success in the decade, and establish a distinct sound found in such genres as synth-pop and new wave. To give an example of synth-pop, Diana Ross’ 1983 album Swept Away contains her rendition of “It’s Your Move,” first recorded by Doug Parkinson the same year; Ramona Xavier (under the pseudonym Macintosh Plus) sampled the song for her 2011 album Floral Shoppe, specifically the song “リサフランク420 / 現代のコンピュー”.



Floral Shoppe codified the vaporwave template: reduced speed; a “chopped and screwed” process of segmenting and rearranging songs; heavy use of sampling, particularly from albums and video games from the 1980s and 1990s (Vektroid drew from the 1997 game Turok: Dinosaur Hunter, for example, as well as bands and musicians such as Diana Ross and Pages). The album’s cover image consists of a combination of elements, including a bust of the Greek deity Helios, neon and pastel colors, a photo of the New York City skyline, and Japanese text – these images evoke the sort of nostalgic reminiscence of the 1980s, where such designs were common and popular. The 1980s bear a special significance to vaporwave, as both music and imagery draw explicitly from the decade – reviews of vaporwave albums (such as the one for Floral Shoppe by Pitchfork) note the evocation of muzak in such works, as vaporwave songs tend to sound eerily similar to what would be played over a shopping mall’s speakers. This may be deliberate: bands who perform within the genre select primarily synth-pop and smooth jazz songs, combining them with advertising art and early Internet imagery and altering the sound to mimic the comparatively poor quality of a shopping mall’s audio equipment, thereby connecting the genre to the consumerist optimism and ubiquity of the 1980s and 1990s. Many reviewers thus interpret this unique aspect of vaporwave as a sort of criticism or condemnation of the consumerist mentality of the time – American households were bombarded with numerous television advertisements for various products and services, ranging from breakfast cereal to toothpaste to toys (the 1980s and 1990s had numerous different kid-oriented cereals that never lasted beyond that period in history, such as ones based on the Nintendo Entertainment System and Steve Urkel), and many compilations of vaporwave and future funk songs echo this sentiment by pairing the recordings with ephemeral images of commercials and station bumpers. Clearly, the decades in question had a lot of nostalgic value for artists, and seeing such a rapid progression of video samples from the period evokes a fondness for a time when many people listening to vaporwave were children, growing up on equal amounts of American and Japanese products such as Thundercats and the NES; the 1980s represents both a time of economic optimism and wasted potential, as the U.S. experienced great economic uncertainty following the decade (with cities such as Detroit suffering heavily during and after this time).


Angel by Daniel LopatinDaniel Lopatin video


Vaporwave’s appropriation (and subsequent recontextualization) of ’80s and ’90s pop culture, particularly from the United States and Japan, echoes the practice of its immediate predecessors – hypnagogic pop acts such as Daniel Lopatin and James Ferraro similarly used sounds and images from the same period to inform their own work. The phrase “hypnagogic pop” originates from a 2009 article in The Wire, where author David Keenan coined it to describe the style adopted by Ferraro and his contemporaries in the lo-fi scene; Keenan identified other artists of the time, such as Ariel Pink and Pocahaunted, as working within the hypnagogic pop genre, with albums such as Before Today (Ariel Pink, 2010) providing the foundation of both that and subsequent genres influenced by the sound generated by said bands. Songs identified as hypnagogic pop works have an ethereal, dreamlike quality to them – a listener might experience a feeling of traveling through the “liminal zones” described by Keenan in his article, suspended in a dreamscape composed of late 20th-century images and sounds. To achieve this particular environment, artists apply a perspective pioneered by lo-fi – artists deliberately maintain imperfections in the tracks they produce, following the same DIY ethos found within the punk scene of the 1970s. One of the most influential musicians in this regard is R. Stevie Moore, the “godfather of home recording”; since 1959, Moore produced a variety of recordings in different genres, releasing a few albums through New Rose in the 1980s. His first album, Phonography (1976), attracted an audience of punk and new wave bands – initially released with only 100 copies pressed, Phonography remains his best work and a landmark independent recording. Daniel Lopatin released a few influential videos on YouTube, through his channel sunsetcorps – an example, a video entitled “nobody here,” loops a line from the song “The Lady in Red,” found on Chris de Burgh’s 1987 album Into the Light. Lopatin’s work shows the sort of foundational development that would later influence vaporwave – computer imagery, video games and commercials that reflect the omnipresence of technology in the 1980s and 1990s. James Ferraro’s 2011 album Far Side Virtual also had a profound effect on the genre; the songs contained on the album consist of MIDI representations of instruments and soundbites lifted from such sources as Second Life (reflected in the title of one of the songs, “Linden Dollars,” a reference to Second Life’s digital currency). The album makes no pretenses about the “artificial” nature of its music – it evokes the dominance of digital media, as computers asserted themselves into American consciousness as important pieces of technology.


Lo-fi and hypnagogic pop both thrived within the independent community, where people with access to cassette decks and recording technology could produce not only original work, but derivative works based on sampled audio; the ability to edit and rearrange song sequences became easier and more affordable when digital sampling technology emerged in the 1970s, and the home computer revolution of the 1980s allowed artists to release audio sampling within the digital realm of the World Wide Web. The Internet helped make people from around the world connect to each other and share video and audio recordings – people gathered on sites such as Reddit and Bandcamp to display their own skills and recording vaporwave, and through that an interest in physical copies emerged. The recent revival of vinyl records meant that vaporwave artists could release their material physically, upon technology that originated in earlier decades; although the CD had become a dominant force in the industry in the 1980s, older forms (such as tapes and vinyl) made a resurgence as people wished to maintain physical versions of albums that initially got released as digital files. Nostalgia for older media had been ingrained in vaporwave since its inception – one can find various compilations on YouTube that purposefully evoke capitalist trends, with titles and images that reflect advertising of the day.


Vaporwave 176

Vaporwave 17


In fact, the most common images associated with vaporwave have a distinctly pixelated or ’80s-reminiscent motif to them – the two shown above are typical examples of the sort that evoke landscapes, with the beach and Japanese architecture being the most prominent. Other vaporwave art pieces include elements from the Internet in the 1990s, as well as video game footage; AOL Online and early Windows OSes feature within them, as do images from video games such as Final Fight and the Super Mario Bros. franchise. The period they evoke can be seen as a “golden age” of the arcade – both Japan and the United States had thriving arcade scenes, with such popular releases as Mortal Kombat and Galaga dominating. As mentioned earlier, advertising from the same period also appears prominently in vaporwave compilations – television of the 1980s and 1990s can also be seen, with the long-running animated series The Simpsons being an extremely popular example. In fact, so noticeable is The Simpsons that vaporwave-style tracks featuring footage from the show became known as Simsponwave; one of the first examples of Simpsonwaves combines scenes from the show with the Blank Banshee track “Teenage Pregnancy,” released as “Sunday School” by Lucien Hughes on YouTube in 2016. The video in question includes various elements unique to vaporwave – distorted visuals evoking an old CRT television, a saturated color palette, and a heavy neon palette. Simpsonwave tracks typically include a somber, reflective tone, as if inviting the audience to reminisce of sad moments in their life; the songs are accompanied by images of Simpsons characters in a moment of reflection, thinking about important moments that helped define their lives.


After having emerged as a genre around 2011, vaporwave expanded considerably – new, related genres such as future funk, chillwave and synthwave emerged as branches of the original form, all improvising on the nostalgia and critique of the 1980s that vaporwave established. Future funk itself also derives from nu-disco, a form of house music popular around the turn of the 21st century – the genre also heavily relies on samples, many of which are Japanese. Many Japanese tracks sampled by vaporwave artists are categorized as city pop – the term has no concrete definition, but applies generally to songs in various genres (such as R&B and AOR) that appeal to a more urban audience and have city themes. City pop’s popularity faded by the 1990s, but its significance as a source of nostalgia can be found through its inclusion in vaporwave tracks. City pop’s significance thus is similar to the American music being appropriated – they become part of a nostalgic fondness for days gone by, when synthesizers and neon had been prominent aspects of our cultural identity. For Japan, the 1980s marked the final decade of their economic good fortune; the market collapsed by the end of the decade, and the 1990s became the “Lost Decade” due to the country’s declining economy. Japanese commercials frequently appear with vaporwave tracks on YouTube, showing the consumerist connection between the genre and the period it explicitly draws from – anime also can be seen, especially shows like Sailor Moon and Neon Genesis Evangelion, which may suggest the appeal the genre has with people interested in Japanese culture. As Keenan said in his article about vaporwave, this combination of ephemeral culture and music helps put the audience in a sense of surreal travel through “liminal zones” – the 1980s and 1990s now exist in a metaphysical sense, their echoes continuing to resonate into the present day through vaporwave.

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