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Love in the Time of VHS: Making Sense of Vaporwave

On December 9, 2011, the artist Macintosh Plus released Floral Shoppe. A dream-like concoction of chopped and skewed new age hits, ‘80s funk, and glittery elevator music, Floral Shoppe propelled the entire genre of vaporwave to a new level of popular recognition. When I first dived into the nascent genre, critics and Internet commenters were already arguing about what defined vaporwave. It was “anti-capitalist,” “corporate smooth jazz Windows 95 pop,” “nostalgic,” “a gimmick,” and “lazy.” In the years following, other vaporwave albums also achieved popular success: Hologram Plaza, 札幌コンテンポラリ (translated “Contemporary Sapporo”), and 슈퍼마켓Yes! We’re Open. While its boundaries are fluid, vaporwave is primarily defined by heavy use of sampling, layering, distortion, chopping, screwing, and invocation of ‘80s and ’90s culture. It owes much of its development to two albums: Daniel Lopatin’s 2010 Chuck Person’s Eccojams Vol. 1, and James Ferraro’s 2011 Far Side Virtual.

Eccojams is a collection of micro-samples of ‘80s pop songs stretched and distorted beyond recognition, turned into an eerie whorl. The first track takes Africa, the 1982 adult contemporary hit by Toto, and picks out the line “Come on boy, she’s waiting there for you.” From this line, minutes of music are extrapolated. The line is made to sound hollow; the original emotion is lost, and it begins to bleed sardonic. Such compositions, dubbed “echo jams” by Daniel Lopatin, helped form the basis of Floral Shoppe. The effect is both calming and disconcerting, a contrast to the maddeningly quick nature of Far Side Virtual.

If you really want to understand Far Side [Virtual], first off, listen to Debussy, and secondly, go into a frozen yogurt shop. Afterwards, go into an Apple store and just fool around, hang out in there. Afterwards, go to Starbucks and get a gift card. They have a book there on the history of Starbucks—buy this book and go home. If you do all these things you’ll understand what Far Side Virtual is—because people kind of live in it already.

—James Ferraro, artist of Far Side Virtual

Far Side Virtual in an intense flurry of cultural artifacts. To listen is to be barraged by the grainy and bombastic beeps of Windows, Mac OS, Skype, and the Nintendo Wii. Synthetic robotic voices carry us through a strange virtual world:

Welcome to i-cuisine

Here you go monsieur, please take a look at the virtual sushi menu.

The unabashed blips bring to mind Karl Marx’s thoughts on capitalist society: “All that is solid melts into air, all that is holy is profaned.” While Eccojams more heavily influenced how vaporwave would sound, Far Side boldly declared how vaporwave would make us think. Carried through the virtual world it creates, one cannot help but recoil at the insincerity of the kitschy sound effects, corporate buzzwords, and digital hyperreality. We are trapped in a horrifying game of the Sims or Second Life to which there is no escape. As the album progresses and increasingly familiar sounds hit closer and closer to home, we realize this world is in fact our own.

Vaporwave’s signature obsession is insincerity; particularly in the way it uses cultural artifacts emblematic of consumer culture. This is all done, as digital culture blogger Christian Ward writes, “to satirize the emptiness of a hyper-capitalist society.” By re-appropriating products of corporate techno-utopianism, vaporwave makes the sterile seem hollow, and the perfect seem uncanny. While Far Side Virtual primarily draws from the 2000s, vaporwave has since come to draw mostly from 1980-2001. This is no coincidence. Japan’s economic miracle reached a plateau in the ’80s, as did corporate exuberance. During this time Muzak elevator music was heavily propagated in Japan and America, just in time for the heyday of the mall. Funk flourished in the Japanese underground, while dance and new age music achieved popular success in America. In the ‘80s and ‘90s, cyberpunk exploded as a Japanese artistic movement and subculture. VHS achieved widespread use, and the distortions of old VHS tapes became a particular source of inspiration for vaporwave artists. The ‘90s brought a treasure trove of digital graphics and software, with Windows 95 creating an entire pixelated world. With Japan’s Lost Decade came America’s dot com bubble and a sudden spurious optimism in World Wide Web. The vaporwave era of inspiration thus generally ends in 2001, after the dot-com bubble burst and 9/11. The intact twin towers appear on many vaporwave album covers, including Floral Shoppe, as a symbol of the era. From these two decades, vaporwave artists greedily sample weather reports, funk music, and everything in between.

I used to live close to a fairly large mall that was periodically empty, and I’d often sit on a bench under one of the staircases that overlooked most of the mall and just take everything in under the glow of purple neon with lo-fi smooth jazz and gaudy disco playing over beaten speakers…it gave off an uneasy comfort; outwardly projecting an aura of leisure and ease, but with the feeling of something sinister lurking in the background from the sterility and consumerism.

—Disconscious, creator of vaporwave album Hologram Plaza

But is this really all vaporwave can be? The elevator music of Marx? An Internet exhibition of kitsch? Vaporwave is a genre of music; it can be used not just to parody antiquated cultural artifacts, but to revere them as well. Artist マクロスMACROSS 82-99’s Sailorwave is an example of the more jazzy, upbeat side of vaporwave. The album Sailorwave pays homage to ‘80s Japanese funk and beloved cultural references (including its namesake anime Sailor Moon). The second track heavily samples the legendary cyberpunk anime film Akira (1988). The whirr of motorcycles, the booms and echoes of a futuristic reconstructed Tokyo, and the energy and atmosphere of the eerie world are all portrayed with a heavy sense of nostalgia. Works like Sailorwave embrace the dynamism of hyper-capitalism with open arms, and oh, it is funky. Even a mass produced ‘80s solo cup “solo jazz” (featuring intersecting turquoise and purple waves) has become worshiped by vaporwave artists for its quintessentially ‘80s and ‘90s aesthetic and iconic nature.

These musicians can be read as sarcastic anti-capitalists revealing the lies and slippages of modern techno-culture and its representations, or as its willing facilitators, shivering with delight upon each new wave of delicious sound.

Adam Harper, Music Critic, Dummy Magazine

The vaporwave artists I have discussed so far seem like two ideologically opposed camps: nostalgics who take pilgrimages to defunct blockbusters to worship the ruins of VHS, and anti-consumerist crusaders against the kitsch of capitalism. But vaporwave is a musical genre ultimately defined by its sound. It can be lighthearted or self-mocking, and artist intent can vary. One of my favorite works is SEIN, by SEIN波, a vaporwave album based on Seinfeld samples. One track, “The Assman,” uses lines from the episode in which Cosmo Kramer is referred to by that name. It finishes with the line “Goodbye Assman,” spoken in Japanese. True to its subject matter, the album’s online description is “The concept album about nothing.”

This a video on how to make vaporwave. This is some pretty advanced level shit. First, it’s best to look for the most obscure sounding ‘80s soft jazz rock instrumental…Next, in the playlist, stretch it kind of like stretching dough or stretching something stretchy, now press play. Beautiful.

—FrankJayCee, “How to Make Vaporwave

Vaporwave detractors call the genre a gimmick and claim that it wears the guise of social commentary as a shield against accusations of laziness. After all, Floral Shoppe’s most famous track is just Diana Ross’s “It’s Your Move” slowed down and lightly edited. In response to such accusations, some artists such as Hong Kong Express have avoided sampling, and instead achieve the qualities of vaporwave with an entirely original production. But I choose to defend the Duchamps of music, the internet Dadaists turning digital detritus into aesthetic masterpieces. The re-appropriation of corporate cultural artifacts is vaporwave. In the tradition of found art, the amount of work—which, incidentally, such critics are erroneously underestimating…it takes a lot of time to find the perfect 1988 Japanese weather report sample—is irrelevant to the artistic message. It matters not if SEIN波took three hours to make or three thousand; the genius was in its very creation.

In 2015, MTV unveiled a major re-branding. Vaporwave art (glitchy collages of palm trees, mall aesthetics, ‘90s computer graphics) and vaporwave music had replaced punk in its transitions and shorts: MTV had co-opted vaporwave overnight. The Viacom executives had decided it was this that would surely reach those millennials. In the greatest of ironies, Vaporwave itself was sublimated by the corporation. Vaporwave, which had been subject to accusations of death as early as 2013, now finally seemed exhausted. But its ideas continue, in one form or another. On December 11, 2015 (exactly 4 years after the release of Floral Shoppe), the artist Sandtimer’s released a tongue in cheek eulogy to vaporwave, in the form of an album called Vaporwave is Dead. Sandtimer’s online declaration promised that new genres would carry on Vaporwave’s legacy:

On the fourth anniversary of the birth of vaporwave, we are delighted to inform you that vaporwave is, at last, dead.

Welcome to the new era.