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Drown yourself beneath the vaporwave

Music is one of the best art forms to follow if you want to track cultural shifts. How telling is it that the biggest musical right now is a retelling of the American Revolution set to hip-hop?

One of the largest cultural influencers of the past two decades has been the internet. While techno music has reflected machinery’s impact on society since the 1980s, the internet is a different beast with unique artistic needs. If you’re in the mood for music for today’s meme-filled online world, throw yourself to the currents of “vaporwave.”

What does today look like? The 1950s had a look. The 1960s had a look. The 1970s definitely had a look. But it seems like society left distinctive cultural style behind at the new millennium along with the monoculture. There’s a reason why no one guessed 2011 film The Final Destination was actually set in 2000. Aside from the technology, the two years don’t immediately look all that different, and some say tech is to blame.

To make complex new tech more approachable, designers tend to employ real-world analogues like the desktop metaphor on computers or a note-taking app modeled after a physical notepad. But while that does help the progress of technology, it also tethers us to aging visual language and slows down that language’s evolution. Combine that with the sweet temptation of nostalgia and we’re basically running in a stylistic circle. Vaporwave was born from this loop.

What is vaporwave? Just mention it on one of the chiller parts of the internet and you’ll soon learn the answer. But here’s a rundown if you don’t have time. Vaporwave is an electronic music microgenre from the early 2010s. Its stylistic influences include chillwave, smooth jazz, chopped and screwed, new-age, and pop. To explain it in words kind of ruins the point. Vaporwave is the muzak that plays in an elevator in a mall in a futuristic Japanese cyberpunk dystopia. It’s the music sedated freaks listen to on the neo-dance floor. It’s the jams your funky smartphone mediates to when it’s running low on power and is cool with it. It’s a word that can’t be shouted, only coolly whispered. Vaporwave isn’t vaporware, it’s real.

Vaporwave isn’t just something you listen to either, it’s something you experience, and experiences include visuals. Vaporwave visual art, simply referred to as “aesthetics,” is varied but tends to honor some core tenets. If you’re looking at something pink and teal with a marble classical bust and a glitchy Windows 95 logo, you’re probably looking at a vaporwave aesthetic. If you’re watching a YouTube video with a title written in a weirdly soothing stretched out font, you’re probably watching a vaporwave aesthetic.

If you haven’t guessed by now, vaporwave is a bit of a joke, or more accurately, an internet meme. Vaporwave’s trippy immediate artistic ancestor “seapunk” was a running inside joke on Tumblr during 2011 about fashion and art and music inspired by the ocean. The look and sound of a psychedelic club run by a hipster Ariel from The Little Mermaid is a pretty accurate summation. Neon seapunk imagery even found its way into Rihanna’s 2012 Saturday Night Live performance, confounding many viewers with its colorful and stylish but garish, cheap, and seemingly unprofessional grainy green screen look. The exact difference between seapunk and vaporwave is blurry, but as far as I understand vaporwave trades the aquatic focus for a fascination with the emptiness of aging and/or amateur glossy commercialism. It’s the music playing behind an infomercial for public access purgatory.

Not content with my own descriptions, I asked a few friends and co-workers to summarize the microgenre and got back some great responses.

Vaporwave’s foundational text has to be 2011’s Floral Shoppe, a landmark album by musician Ramona Andra Xavier A.K.A. Vektroid. For many, that album’s cover alongside its biggest single “リサフランク420 / 現代のコンピュー (Risafuranku 420 / Gendai no Konpyū Lisa Frank 420 / Modern Computing)” defines vaporwave. I can’t blame them. That song does amazing things by slowing down “It’s Your Move” by Diana Ross into a whole new type of sound. It’s practically the national anthem for memes. Floral Shoppe is a genuinely great and soothing ambient experimental album. “”ピコ” (Piko I Am Pico)” in particular sounds like living inside a freshly used saxophone bong on VHS tape. Unsurprisingly, some critics loved the album whereas others failed to understand it. But as its importance to the burgeoning art form has crystallized, its stock has only risen. Vektroid is an extremely prolific young artist, and has produced and released over forty albums and EPs under various pseudonyms in the past ten years.

If you want to dive deeper into the scene there are plenty of other great artists to check out. We’ve already mentioned Saint Pepsi’s affinity for McDonald’s magnificent spokesmoon Mac Tonight, but Late Night Delight is a dope album. My favorite single from his, though, has to be the refreshing “Cherry Pepsi” from 2013’s Hit Vibes. His remix of Carly Rae Jepsen’s “Call Me Maybe” is another sleepy success. Meanwhile, on the visual side, Lucien Hughes on YouTube is doing pioneering work with the Simpsonwave aesthetic. The videos are certainly better than the actual cartoon at this point. Simpsonwave also demonstrates the flexibility of the vaporwave style. Simpsonwave videos sometimes feature songs that wouldn’t be classified as vaporwave on their own, like rap or intense techno, but combined with the wavy video clips of everyone’s favorite yellow family the overall work is still profoundly vaporwave.

I said earlier that vaporwave was born of the tech-fueled nostalgic loop that informs so much of whatever you could call today’s cultural aesthetic. So let me get even more pretentious. Vaporwave is such a thoroughly internet art form. It exemplifies identity defined by lack of identity, remix culture. It grabs personality from other past sources like cheesy 80s slow jams or the Japanese funk of Sega Genesis video games. Vaporwave recognizes we’re just far enough removed from the 1990s, AOL-esque incarnation of the internet to be nostalgic style for that style, too. Vaporwave is dripping with irony. New Sincerity is all the rage these days with the youth, but vaporwave on some level is still about mocking how bad the things it’s referencing are.

The means by which vaporwave is created and spread also reflects its roots in internet culture. It’s made entirely by manipulating samples and beats on a computer, so if you’re tech-savvy you can still produce it even if you aren’t the greatest musician. It’s spread in weird underground ways like in stupid message boards or boutique online stores so it catches on like a meme. There’s also a meme quality to the markers that signify vaporwave like the color scheme and marble busts and fonts. If you recognize Vektroid’s “420” track, hearing it show up again and again in unexpected context gets funnier and funnier. I also think the style of the music itself is a great fit for internet culture. It’s relaxing and silly and doesn’t take itself too seriously. It’s the benign pothead to the fast, intense, and coke fiend techno music genres that dominate the mainstream. Just slow down, enjoy yourself, and vape.

I also think it’s hilarious how much contempt some music producers have for the genre. There’s already a stigma around electronic music because some believe it takes no skill to create. Vaporwave, meme music, sounds even lazier since you can just slow down old songs, add a drug haze atmosphere, and laugh at the results (although it’s harder than it looks, trust me, I bought FL Studio). Check out this vaporwave tutorial from musician FrankJavCee. He’s partially doing a bit, sure, but he doesn’t respect vaporwave in the slightest, even though he makes an awesome track!

Does vaporwave have a future? It’s been five years since Floral Shoppe dropped and we’re still talking about the genre as more people discover it. But there’s also a chance the gag will get old, if it isn’t already. People were not happy when Tumblr and MTV adopted a vaporwave look, since corporations adopting an inherently anti-corporate comedic aesthetic kind of ruins the joke. However, art is an evolving and organic thing, and we can already see vaporwave influencing other emerging music trends. Saint Pepsi eventually rebranded himself as Skylar Spence, and while I wouldn’t call his new album Prom King vaporwave per se, it has a similar appeal.

Better yet, as kids raised online grow up and internet culture just becomes culture, what if vaporwave impacts all kinds of mainstream media? Think about watching a vaporwave comic book movie, learning the joys of vaporwave cooking, reading a vaporwave manifesto, or playing a vaporwave video game. VaporWave Race? Mad Men vaporwave. Don Draperwave? This wave could break bigger than we could possibly imagine.

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