Essay: Vaporwave: An Electronic Music Subgenre

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  • Subject area(s): Music Essays
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  • Published on: January 9, 2019
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Vaporwave is a musical subgenre and culture that came to fruition in the modern digital age. The term “vaporwave” was coined in 2011, by record producer Will Burnett after hearing the works of many artists of the time (Galil). Vaporwave is an American based genre with roots in chillwave, ambient and avant garde music. The subgenre relies heavily on visual art; a song is inseparable from the album cover or art created with it. Common motifs include the shopping mall, old obsolete technology, Greek busts, Japanese art styles, and the ocean (Chandler, Escaping Reality). These images, though seemingly regular, reflect on American consumerism, and the inevitability of the fall of capitalism.

Artists in the vaporwave “aesthetic” ally themselves heavily with a group called the Situationists, an international radical group active in the late ‘50s who declared that “Capitalism hides its true nature by distracting us with an endless series of ’spectacles’” (Chandler, Music of the Spectacle). The spectacle, as they believed it, penetrates through the lives and minds of all people by mass amounts of media and propaganda in every area of daily life. The goal of creating music in the vaporwave genre is to make you view images – like a shopping mall or bedroom – and no longer feel comfortable or normal in those spaces. What starts off as a slow rendition of an old 80’s nostalgic hit, becomes the bittersweet recognition that material items do not last. At the same time, many of the artists in the Post Cold War Era of the late 1990s and early 2000s wanted to create a socially inclusive utopia for listeners (Chandler, Genre As Method). This seems like a contradiction; why would one create a socially inclusive piece of work when their own ideals are radicalized on the other end of the spectrum? The media does not discriminate against who comes across each television commercial, radio ad, or street sign; there is just a constant flow of stimuli from the media to anyone around to see it. If mass media does not select certain demographics for its listeners, then neither should artists. This creates a “non-discriminatory social utopia” (Chandler, Music of the Spectacle).

These musicians tend towards lean to another branch of philosophy, known as accelerationism. Accelerationism is “the notion that the dissolution of civilisation wrought by capitalism should not and cannot be resisted, but rather must be pushed faster and farther towards the insanity and anarchically fluid violence that is its ultimate conclusion, either because this is liberating, because it causes a revolution, or because destruction is the only logical answer” (Jones). Nick Land is a huge proponent of the ideology, and directly influenced James Farraro, a prominent vaporwave artist. Farraro’s works are meant to celebrate the future dissolution, instead of fear them. His albums FSV and Condo Pets were both records that forced listeners to face the gimmicks used to make humans excited about the future of technology, instead of focusing on the end that comes along with it (Jones).

One of the first vaporwave artists is a woman of many names, including Macintosh Plus and Vektroid, among others. Her song “リサフランク420” (which translates to “Lisa Frank 420”) from debut album Floral Shoppe is one of the earliest vaporwave songs recorded, released in 2011. For many, it is an introduction into vaporwave. After this project, the artist began more heavily producing under the pseudonym of Vektroid. Of all the names the artist goes by, this is the one under which she produced the most content (Chandler, Music of the Spectacle). Her vaporwave aesthetic bases around surrealist ideas and obsolete technologies, evident in the digital art featured on her album covers.

Blank Banshee is the most successful artist in the vaporwave movement. He was heavily influenced by the Situationist belief. Vaporwave, to him, meant giving in to the consumerism and materialistic joys that distract humans from the realities of their world (Chandler, Music of the Spectacle). Blank Banshee’s works “often us[e] both chopped up vocals in tandem with quick drum hits and reverb-drenched synth waterfalls” (Baghale). “Frozen Flame” is a good example these techniques, featuring layers upon layers of tracks and heavy drum usage. His albums, Blank Banshee 0, Blank Banshee 1, and MEGA are all committed to making the same cohesive vaporwave aesthetic.

One genre closely related to vaporwave is hypnagogic pop. The term was coined to “encapsulate a recent trend of underground American musicians utilizing lo-fi, reverb saturated sounds and revisionist nostalgia (…) relating to, or occurring in the period of drowsiness immediately preceding sleep ” (Kaylar). This means that hypnagogic pop is meant to evoke the feeling of being somewhere between sleeping and waking, while bringing a dreamlike quality to the past. Both hypnagogic pop and vaporwave have the goal of sparking nostalgia. However, while vaporwave sampled audio from the late 1980’s-90’s, hypnagogic pop focused on the pop culture in the late 1970’s to early 1980’s. Vaporwave took the idea of celebrating the past from hypnagogic pop and subverted the the tunes to be almost sinister, painting the deaths of music long past.

The vaporwave movement brought to fruition many new subgenres. Mallsoft, one of the many, is a subgenre of vaporwave that focuses on the feelings of materialism and consumerism that come with being inside of a shopping mall. Many songs in this group were meant to be the ideal song for listening to while entrapped in the technologies and blinding propagandas within a shopping center (Chandler, Genre As Method). This offshoot was most likely caused by the large amount of vaporwave art starring shopping centers and malls. The next step for artists was to connect their philosophies and beliefs about consumerism to music that they felt represented best what it feels like to be inside of a mall.

Future Funk is a subgenre of vaporwave that’s main focus is the nostalgia. Many of the samples used in this type of music are from the 1970’s, predating the music generally used to create vaporwave (Chandler, Genre As Method). This is where the “funk” part of the name comes from. The goal of this genre is also quite different from the theme of vaporwave. Instead of throwing consumerism in the face of listeners to force them to accept it, future funk aims to keep listeners away from consumerism. Future funk artists create music that is nostalgic and beautiful, meant to distract listeners from becoming caught up in the consumerist media surrounding them (Chandler, Genre As Method).

Vaporwave itself is a sublet of the electronic music genre. The term of electronic music can apply to any sort of music produced by electrical or digital means; however, “for music to be precisely electronic then the composer of the music must interact with the electronic medium and electronic processing applied to his musical concept” (Misachi). In this way, electronic music is more a process of creating music than a genre. Vaporwave artists apply an electronic process to previously made songs or sound clips to create a completely new sonic image. Artists directly interact with the tracks within their works, adding resonance, echo features, new rhythms, synthesizers, and many added extra layers. By processing every track and portion of a song, vaporwave artists are very active in using the electronic and digital world to create their works. The musicality in vaporwave, though not always aurally pleasing, is present inherently in the piece created. A political point on the destruction of humanity through capitalism, the vaporwave movement has been a completely unique addition to the music industry.

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