In 2011, a year in which technology and social media helped stage big rallies such as the ones known as Occupy Wall Street and the Arab Spring, a new type of manifestation emerged on the internet. This type of audio-visual expression was authentic, ironic, and challenging. Vaporwave is believed to have started as an internet musical subculture with the 2011 release of "New Dreams LTD., an album of lo-fi hypnagogic pop" (Galil, 2013). The album, recorded by Laserdisc Visions, included an eponymous song that summarized the characteristics of what is now known as Vaporwave. The music is a combination of electronic music, smooth jazz, chillout tracks, and a lot of samples. The result is then altered at the will of the artist with editing software. The accompanying videos are probably even more interesting because they complete the esthetics of the genre with an eclectic vision created by mixing advertisements from the 80s and 90s, images with computers from that period, and Japanese art and culture. In late 2011, after taking a closer look at Laserdisc Visions, "producer Will Burnett (also known as Internet Club and Ecco Unlimited) attached the term vaporwave to it" (Galil, 2013).
The name of the movement "is a spoof of the term vaporware, nonexistent products that companies announce and heavily promote as a corporate strategy to keep their competitors at bay" (Lhooq, 2013). With this name, Vaporwave brings a certain critique to the sleazy strategies of the corporations. Still, there is more to this form of expression than just condemning the methods of capitalism. Vaporwave artists also value irony and that is why they also use consumerist images to attract the public. They understand the power of advertisement and maybe by using it they not only bring a strong critique toward this practice but they send a message that there is no escape from it.
Vaporwave music consists of an idiosyncratic combination of the genres mentioned in the introduction with a heavy accent on sampling songs from well-known, usually commercial successful artists. However, for these artists, "parodying commercial taste isn't exactly the goal" (Lhooq, 2013). As mentioned, this movement values irony so their collages of underground genres and commercial artists like Michael Jackson send a slightly different message. While the critique of capitalism and established music is obvious, there is also a hint that the individual should enjoy the hedonist nature of the dominant system, rather than taking a stance against it.
Another important aspect of Vaporwave music is its apparent low quality and accent on the 80s and 90s sound. Being lo-fi is important for these artists because they react to the music created in cutting-edge studios and because they want to give their listeners a sentiment of nostalgia. This movement removes the context from certain musical sensibilities and places them in a space of pure nostalgia, which highlights both the craft and philosophy of Vaporwave artists.
The visual component is possibly even more important than the musical one. The videos were the ones that gave the underground music the exposure that it needed to leave the realm of audio websites like Soundcloud. The use of old advertisements and product placement is so audacious that the videos become self-parodies and the socio-economic critique turns into something else. The artists simply want their public to enjoy the compressed images of capitalistic happiness, without thinking about money, markets, or products. Discussing nostalgia, author Simon Reynolds argues that this type of visual style "relates to cultural memory and the buried utopianism within capitalist commodities" (Reynolds, 2011, p. 81). While Reynolds is right about the movement`s way of playing with the memory of the consumerist boom in the discussed decades, Vaporwave is also concerned with the future, and more importantly, with the future of technology.
Vaporwave music videos include a lot of images of old computers, electronics, and VHS tapes. This references the fact that in the 80s and 90s, this type of technology was new and it was considered a valued commodity. Nowadays, technology is omnipresent, yet it still presents an alien aspect. Music educator Grafton Tanner argues that Vaporwave artists force us to “recognize the unfamiliarity of ubiquitous technology” (Tanner, 2016, p. 10). While at the end of the past century the rapid spread of technology made people anxious, Vaporwave shows that the present day is plagued by unknown images of seemingly uncontrollable technical progress.
To discuss globalization and the boundlessness of capitalism, Vaporwave emphasizes the use of Japanese art and culture. For these artists “this is the music of non-times and non-places" (Tanner, 2016, p. 39). To represent the image of consumerism, the movement chose a fairly advanced but remote society. The overuse of Japanese imagery in the videos plays with the many misconceptions of westerners about the East and creates a parody of America's obsession with Japan.
One of the most important Vaporwave artists is called Saint Pepsi. Starting from the name, it is clear that he (Ryan DeRobertis) wants to emphasize that certain brands have become so popular that they can compare with religious figures. He mostly combines synthesizers and vocal samples with different tracks that fit with the Vaporwave artistry. Due to the obscure nature of the movement, it cannot be said for certain if the Youtube videos associated with his songs are also made by him.
One of his most well-known songs is called Enjoy Yourself. It is unknown if the title refers to his music or of the wonders of capitalism, which is represented in the video as the fast-food experience. At only 2 minutes long, the collage consists of a pianist with a moon-shaped head singing on a hamburger, while the McDonald’s logo appears along with the famous fries. Musically, it includes an altered version of Michael Jackson`s song, Off the Wall. The audio-visual construct seems to urge the public to enjoy one of the most commercial musicians and one of the most famous fast-food chains. On the other hand, it can also be an enjoyable example of advertising and a representation of the fact that some sounds and logos are too big to be ignored.
The song Cherry Pepsi is basically a commercial for the brand the artist took his name from. The video consists of beautiful women drinking the product, crowds of people enjoying it, and flashing pictures of the brand. Moreover, most of the people are smiling in the video and the general atmosphere is a very pleasant one. The music is upbeat and again it samples the voice of Michael Jackson. And yet, the video does not seem like a commercial, because it shows the brand too many times. This device takes the product out of context and it puts the accent on the happiness of the people. This is a significant example of the way Vaporwave deconstructs the ad formula by placing it in a music video esthetic, transforming the brand into a simple flash of color.
The work of Saint Pepsi is thought-provoking, original, sometimes cheesy, and most of the time ironic. Additionally, the visual culture developed around his songs encapsulates the essence of Vaporwave and challenges the public to rethink its relation to consumerism and nostalgia.
Can this underground internet movement ever break out into the mainstream? After more than a decade since its creation, given the low exposure outside the internet, the answer is probably negative. Many say that the very integration of Vaporwave in the mainstream means the death of this movement. After MTV and the popular website Tumblr used the genre's esthetics to rebrand, some artists were outraged and decided the movement should stay underground or disappear. The bottom line is that this wave of artists is not compatible with mainstream media, and not because they view it with a critical eye but because of its complex and ambiguous concepts. Nevertheless, the movement has had an important impact on the esthetic of the internet and has amassed a significant online cult following.
Galil, L. (2013, February 19). Vaporwave and the observer effect. Chicago Reader. https://chicagoreader.com/music/vaporwave-and-the-observer-effect/
Lhooq, M. (2013, December 28). Is Vaporwave The Next Seapunk?. VICE. https://www.vice.com/en/article/3de8mb/is-vaporwave-the-next-seapunk
Reynolds, S. (2011). Retromania: Pop Culture's Addiction to Its Own Past, Faber and Faber Limited
Tanner, G. (2016). Babbling Corpse: Vaporwave and the Commodification of Ghosts, Zero Books