Vaporwave: Genius or Finger-pointing?
Seemingly inseparable from a visual aesthetic possibly more camp than Christmas at Vanilla Ice’s house during the height of his career, Vaporwave struck a chopped and screwed chord with Millennials. For Boomers and Xers, however, the post-internet musical microgenre probably just another reason to blame the young ‘uns for sending the world as we know it to hell in a handbasket.
Basically, if Pablo Picasso and Andy Warhol had a joint MySpace account in the early 2000s, Vaporwave is pretty much what you would find on their page. Inspired by indie dance sub-genres such as bounce house, chillwave, seapunk, and witch house, as well as 80s, 90s, and early-mid 2000s smooth jazz, lounge, and elevator muzak, the micro-genre was birthed online in 2011, with its hotbeds having been sites such as 4chan, Bandcamp, Last.fm, and Soundcloud.
As with most things Millennial, Vaporwave has a strong intersectional approach. Visual elements are just as important as the music, and perhaps offer one of the greatest insights into the spirit that drives the micro-genre.
Millennial Mood Music
Early to mid-90s music are the primary sources of the samples so lovingly chopped, screwed, slowed, and looped to produce Vaporwave. Producers Ramona Xavier, James Ferraro, and Daniel Lopatin are among those who launched the microgenre. In fact, Xavier’s 2011 Floral Shoppe is regarded as the touchstone of Vaporwave.
The microgenre developed further as more and more amateur and professional producers were captivated by its sound and visuals. A year after Xavier’s ground-breaking album, the microgenre gave rise to its hardvapour, future funk, and mallsoft spin-offs.
On the whole, Vaporwave is not music to dance to. It is influenced music to influence mood. Its originality is found in how it blends together music that, even at the time, was regarded as non-descript, and a mish-mash of visuals rooted in pop culture.
Music to Be Seen
As much as Vaporwave is a musical microgenre, its visual aesthetic is arguably its most identifiable feature. Album artwork and the imagery used in music videos often appears to be little more than a collage of pop culture that spans almost 30 years.
Anime and Japanese characters abound, as do Greco-Roman statues, early 3D graphics, glitch art, 90s web imagery and design, and items such as bottles of iced tea. In creating personas for themselves, Vaporwave artists such as Sweden’s Yung Lean favour 90s and early 2000s hip-hop fashions, not unlike those that were sported by the Fresh Prince, Vanilla Ice, and a host of others.
Social Commentary or Childhood Nostalgia?
A number of music critics have stated that Vaporwave’s aesthetic and memes are nothing more than social commentary and critique in the spirit of Warhol’s pop art. The engagement with the imagery used appears to be driven mostly by nostalgia, but, as with most things Millennial, it is not without subtle irony or satire.
Vaporwave’s aesthetic can also be interpreted as harshly critical of a world in which consumerism has gone mad. Products recognisable to most viewers abound in much of the artwork, but they generally do so without recourse to the blatant commercialisation so often associated with those products. Rather, the imagery takes a surrealist turn.
This could well be the microgenre’s producers stating their case that they have inherited from their elders an unreal world that is, with apologies to Withnail, free to those who can afford it, but very expensive to those who can’t.
Of course, it could simply be that Millennials are longing for a simpler time. A time when their every whim where indulged by a single parent whose brain was addled by 80s coke. A time when they did not have to work for the money they spent to keep up with the cool kids. A time when the most difficult thing in life was trading duplicate Pokémon cards. A time when they truly believed that, if they could dream it, they could do it.
Whether Vaporwave is a sign of musical things to come, simply fades away when the next fad begins, or is a warning shot that Millennials are about to do to music what they did to the bar soap, casual dining, beer, casinos, and paper napkins industries remains to be seen – and heard.