Five years ago a genre of music called vaporwave was born on the internet. During its existence it has been criticized, killed, subsequently reborn and, through it all, struggled for validation. This is what vaporwave tells us about the future of music in the internet age.
Digital Voyager, an 18-year-old recent high school graduate sits in the darkness of his childhood bedroom in Ohio rooting around in a cardboard box before pulling out an old VHS tape.
“Sometimes the entire tape has nothing worth using on it, the only thing worth using was the logo at the beginning that had a cool little geometric animation,” says Digital Voyager, pointing at the forlorn-looking VHS. He proudly holds up the box which he says he found at a nearby flea market and shows me the antiquated Pansonic Omnisvision TV set he uses to play the tapes. Though his bedroom may seem straight out of 1990, the year is 2015 – and Digital Voyager is part of a very important movement.
All the most significant movements in the history of music have at least two things in common: they were all started by young people and they all began somewhere. Jazz started in New Orleans, hip hop in New York City and punk in the United Kingdom. A person can point to these places on a map. Vaporwave, however, while created by kids, was born entirely on the internet.
Vaporwave, a micro-culture which gets its name from vaporware (a term for a product that was announced but never released) is celebrating its five year anniversary this August. It’s more of a culture than genre because it is made up of equal parts art and music. You can’t have one without the other.
While it’s impossible to say exactly how big vaporwave is, or roughly how many listeners it has, the largest known forum of vaporwave enthusiasts is on social networking site Reddit, which at the moment boasts roughly 15,000 subscribers; hence the prefix micro.
To properly understand the importance of vaporwave and how its evolution defines what it means to make music in 2015, you first have to understand what Vaporwave is, which is a bit like explaining colour to a blind man.
While hard to understand, vaporwave is easy to make.
“It has a really low barrier to entry, pretty much anyone can learn how to make it if they want to,” explains VHSテープリワインダー, a vaporwave artist whose name translates from Japanese as VHS Tape Rewinder.
At its most banal, the fundamental principles of creating vaporwave involve chopping up samples of old music, looping them and slowing them down. That’s it. The formula is so simple that it’s democratic – anyone equipped with the right software can be a vaporwave artist.
The artist’s ability doesn’t depend so much on sample manipulation as choosing the right sample – which can be anything from obscure corporate lounge music to 80’s Japanese pop hits. The only requirement for acclaim by the genre’s fan base is that it sounds good, so it’s not much different from anything else in that regard. The nature of heavy sampling has lead most of the genre’s artists to keep their music free and their identities a secret.
VHS, as is typical of vaporwave artists, prefers to remain anonymous. They even requested to keep their age and location a secret, stating only that they live in the United States and that they are between 18 and 21 years old.
“[Anonymity] is a big part of [vaporwave]. Everybody likes to not put a face on this kind of music,” says VHS. “I think it’s a good thing because the music maybe exists in kind of a legal grey area, because of all the sampling involved. But overall, I think the artists want to maintain a mystique and an anonymity that makes it more about the music and what you are presenting than about the person behind it.”
Wolfenstein OSX, a vaporwave artist and documentarian who also wanted to keep his identity a secret, believes that discretion in vaporwave is more musically driven than legally.
“I think it’s just because of how glorified artists are in music today,” says Wolfenstein. “The sense of anonymity helps the listener pay more attention to the music and less so to who is actually making it. It’s a good counter against top 40 radio and these superstars that are forced upon us as icons.”
Legal precedent aside, anonymity is an important part of the whole confusing ensemble that makes up vaporwave’s aesthetic.
“Vaporwave is at least 50 per cent visual in my eyes,” says VHS. “It is really more of an umbrella term that covers a whole bunch of different sounds that people are making right now, and what ties it all together are the visuals and the aesthetic and the presentation.
While the music is easy to describe, the art and rules that accompany the scene’s community are as impenetrable as the websites that spawned it. Vaporwave is not meant to be accessible. It was made by young people for young people, and it was created on their turf – the internet.
Where precisely the first instance of vaporart started is still a contentious point, but the general consensus is that it first cropped up on sites like 4chan, Bandcamp, Reddit and Tumblr around 2011. And much like anything spawned by impenetrable internet forums and image boards, the rules behind what makes something vaporwave are intentionally convoluted.
Take the following video for instance.
This is one of the most iconic vaporwave songs from arguably the most famous album in the genre’s canon. All seven minutes and 21 seconds of the track are simply Diana Ross’s “It’s your move” slowed down and looped continuously.
But beyond being a sterling example of vaporwave music, it’s also a good illustration of the genre’s aesthetic. The image has bright neon pink colours, an ancient Greek bust, a futuristic feel, the artist incorporates technology in his name and the song title has Japanese characters (translates from Japanese to “Lisa Frank 420 / Modern Computing”). These are all key elements that make something vaporwave.
Other aesthetic elements included in typical vaporwave album covers but not pictured in the image are: Japanese anime, glitch art, tropical scenery, the fetishization of retro-futuristic technology and pop culture nostalgia from the 80’s and 90’s.
The recipe for vaporart is deliberately confusing and its ingredients arbitrary. The intentional obfuscation of the foundation of vaporwave is akin to an invented language or code shared between teenage siblings to keep their parents out of the loop. If you have to ask what vaporwave is, you’re probably missing the joke.
Everything about vaporwave’s nature is meant to fight the principles of mainstream music: the faceless artists who change names, the mix of Japanese and English words that make it difficult to share and the endless criteria for what makes something vaporwave.
More importantly, vaporwave is a reflection of the internet. Or at least, the corner of internet that belongs to bored, rebellious millennials who understand the web better than their parents ever will.
Its’ hard not to draw parallels between vaporwave and punk, both are DIY movements started by kids fed up with their parents’ music. In his mini-documentary, Wolfenstein OSX points out the same comparison.
“Looking on the vaporwave genre tag [on Bancamp] you’ll find stolen music made mostly by young adolescents in the basements of their suburban homes all across the world. It’s been described by some as a digital punk movement with ideals that counter most national concept of ownership by making vaporwave an anonymous art for anonymous people.”
Wolfenstein isn’t the first person to draw comparisons between the two wildly different sounding genres. Co-founder of the online underground music collective SPF420, who goes only by Liz, was quoted saying in the documentary SPF420:
“Vaporwave, in my opinion, is our current punk scene, the digital rebels, those who steal others’ music just to manipulate it and chop it up a bit.”
The rise and fall of vaporwave
In August 2010, producer Daniel Lopatin released an album called Chuck Person’s Eccojams Vol. 1 under the moniker Chuck Person. The release was comprised of chopped up 1980’s pop hits such as Toto’s “Africa” stretched, slowed down and looped.
“[Eccojams] is considered the very first vaporwave album. The first time I heard it I thought it was too slow, I thought the quality was terrible and I couldn’t understand why the quality was so bad until I realised it was supposed to be bad,” says Digital Voyager.
Five years on, the album is credited with inspiring the sound of the entire internet-based genre.
While stylistically unique, vaporwave is not alone in its status as a net-born micro-scene. The early 2010’s were rife with similar phony sounding web-cultures stealing headlines everywhere from Vice to the New York Times such as witch house, chillwave and, most notably, seapunk.
It is impossible to talk about vaporwave without mentioning seapunk, the nautical grandfather of vaporwave.
In 2011 a Brooklyn DJ under the Twitter handle Lil Internet posted this.
This tweet spawned more similar tweets and Tumblr posts which inevitably developed into an aquatic rave-themed micro-scene that the New York Times described as a “web joke with music”.
Once mainstream media and celebrities like Rhianna got their hands on it in 2012, seapunk promptly died. Like with any meme, the minute it becomes too popular, it implodes. Much in the same way an eye-rolling teenager doesn’t want to be seen liking the same thing as her parents.
Some qualities of seapunk did leave a lasting impression on people however, namely the vibrant colour scheme and obsession with 90’s cyber culture. Sound familiar? The remains of what was left of seapunk would eventually morph into vaporwave’s aesthetic.
Later in 2011, riding the waves of seapunk’s success, came an album called Floral Shoppe by then unknown artist Macintosh Plus. Floral Shoppe was credited by music sites and magazines like Wire, Tiny Mixtapes and Sputnik Music as being the defining sound vaporwave.
While it undoubtedly lit a fire under the genre and spurred on the creation of numerous similar sounding albums, Floral Shoppe also nearly killed vaporwave by creating a torrent of memes that almost caused the genre to collapse in on itself.
In 2012, Dummy Mag’s Adam Harper wrote an article claiming the genre to be an anti-capitalist music movement, citing vaporwave artists like Internet Club and James Ferraro as challenging conceptions of global capitalism by recycling corporate muzak to send a message.
Adam Harper’s article became the de facto say on vaporwave. Overnight, the genre became synonymous with anti-capitalism and corporate culture, despite the fact that that sentiment wasn’t universal within the community.
“That thought had honestly never crossed my mind [when making music],” says 21-year-old Dallas Cotton, better known by his pseudonym Yung Bae.
The article divided the fan base into those who agreed with the criticism and those thought it missed the mark entirely.
“You have two sides of the fence. You have this side of the fence, the people that make [vaporwave] for nostalgia or for the corporate thing. They care about everything but the music itself almost. They just care about the concept,” says Digital Voyager. “To me a lot of that is nonsense. Then you have this side of it. People that just want to make cool music to listen to. Music for the sake of music. At the end of the day, the music has to stand for itself.”
Whether or not Adam Harper’s article was accurate, it caused a media domino effect. Vaporwave began to find itself in the headlines. Between increased popularity and the recycling of exhausted memes within the genre’s community, it began to suffer.
In the same way that online popularity invites fans it also attracts the scorn of internet bullies, and the genre soon fell victim to the rapid saturation of satirical music that cheapened the genre. That spoof music was dubbed broperwave, a portmanteau of ‘bro’ and ‘vaporwave’. Broperwave flooded bandcamp, youtube and soundcloud with faux-vaporwave that expounded on the worst tropes of the genre (example below).
Finally, in 2013, Ramona Andra Xavier, a young female producer and graphic designer who had been moonlighting as prolific vaporwave pioneer Vektroid, said she was retiring from the genre. Vektroid claims on her website to have released over 40 unique works since 2005 (most vaporwave), all under different pseudonyms like Macintosh Plus, Laserdisc Visions, 情報デスクVIRTUAL, New Dreams Ltd. and PrismCorp – essentially making up the lion’s share of vaporwave’s most loved artist. Imagine if The Who, The Rolling Stones and David Bowie had all abandoned rock music at the same time. It was as if half of the genre disappeared over night.
“Vaporwave is dead” became the new motto of the web.
Surviving the big squeeze
In today’s social media climate, where everything is digested and dismissed in the blink of an eye, it’s almost not worth caring about anything on more than a dispassionate, ironic level.
Neil McCormick, music critic at the Telegraph, believes that in the internet age things aren’t given a chance to grow.
He says: “How can a scene germinate when you’re last week’s news as soon as you’re this week’s news? Those are all the problems that new scenes in music have.”
The new test, which vaporwave may be the first to pass, is surviving the big squeeze – the moment when an idea has its day in the digital sun. If an idea has the legs to stand under the weight of trending on Twitter, people will eventually grow bored and leave it alone. Only then can it truly grow and evolve, nurtured by a genuine fan base that think of it as more than a passing fad. This is a reality that all movements may have to deal with in the future.
This graph of Google search trends tells the story of two similar genres. How they both experienced a spike in popularity, with only one coming out alive. And vaporwave, for being an allegedly dead genre, is still very much thriving. If this graph is any indication, its heart is beating stronger than ever. The question is whether or not this is because the media dogpiled seapunk more so than vaporwave or because vaporwave had more substance and a stronger community to support it.
“I think the reason why vaporwave is still around is because it’s become more than it was initially created to be,” says Wolfenstein. “Floral Shoppe was created to be slowed down 80’s elevator music, and that’s where vaporwave started. But now over the years it’s incorporated other forms of music. It doesn’t have to be about the 80’s and 90’s. It could just be experimental ambient music with a weird conceptual theme.”
Vaporwave has undergone an evolution that normally takes a music scene decades to achieve. It’s gone from Daniel Lopatin’s joke to an anonymous micro-culture of kids stealing music, to becoming the punchline of the internet. And now finally out of the limelight, vaporwave has developed into a healthy community with multiple subgenres of its own and a handful of legitimate music labels. It owes the acceleration of its lifespan entirely to living under the microscope of the internet.
Even the aesthetic has changed, for better or for worse.
“I think for the music to grow the aesthetic needs to develop as well,” says Wolfenstein. “If you look at all the different album artworks now, It’s mostly becoming more about trying to make something look like it’s found somewhere random, like an archived image that you stumble upon, which is kind of something that’s a relatively new phenomenon, especially with the internet because there is so much information you can find anything you want.”
Not everyone is pleased with the changes to the genre. Artist Yung Bae said that he believed vaporwave to be “on the decline”.
Whether or not the genre has strayed too far from its roots, its journey through the gauntlet of dismissive cyber culture is unfortunately indicative of what the next generation of dreamers and creatives have to look forward to. But not everyone is so pessimistic.
“I think it can only go up from here. People keep saying vaporwave is dead, I don’t think it’s ever been more alive,” says Wolfenstein.