FEATURE: Vaporwave, what is it and why should you care?

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It’s 2014, and to the ears of the discerning listener musical progression and the notion of music tribes has arguably reached a point of stagnation. Genres and scenes don’t originate in the same way as they used to, Post-Punk was a musical revolution, while Post-Dubstep was largely considered a joke.  But why is a new form of unity in musical sound or identity not considered a scene anymore? The answer primarily is location, or in the case of all the internet sub-genres that have spawned in the last five years, dispersion of location across the internet. These genre tags have been seen as restrictive, but they ultimately allow a collective of people interested in a very specific subset of music and interests to come together to share, create, and turn something they enjoy into a unified entity.

 

Vaporwave is the latest sub-sub-sub-genre to have been spawned through the new channels of scene spreading (music forums, blogs, bandcamp) and this is why you, the cultured music listener should take it seriously and not expel it to the depths of your desktop’s recycle bin with chillwave and seapunk.

The term vaporwave is not as lazy as you might expect, rather than being thrown together by neck-beard stroking bloggers to cumbersomely denote the music’s actual sound the name in fact derives from vaporware, the process of computer products being announced but never made available for commercial release. Software lost in time. The term was lampooned in 1985 by Microsoft big-wig James Fawcett who said “The term is like a scarlet letter hung around the neck of software developers. Like any overused and abused word, vaporware has lost its meaning.” It’s this notion of ‘the lost’ that vaporwave artists thrive on, using techniques of plunderphonics to unearth and sample the casualties of computer software and audio wreckage, endeavoring to salvage them to make something altogether enjoyable. It’s all summed up aptly in perhaps the vaporwave song that has gained the biggest traction, the Macintosh Plus song ‘リサフランク420 / 現代のコンピュー’  with the repeated and hypnotic vocal refrain the track hinges around of “I’m giving up on trying to sell you things, that you ain’t buyin.’”

Many vaporwave purists seem to believe vaporwave originated out of an existing trend within wider electronic music. That being the plunderphonics employed by more ambient and avant-garde artists, masterfully demonstrated on Oneohtrix Point Never’s Replica album,  now seminal amongst vaporwave’s hardcore elite. But what is the meaning behind the music? “In theory it’s the recontextualisation of corporate trash muzak that is devoid of emotion or purpose into something that might be considered emotionally stimulating or passionately expressive” notes key vaporwave pioneer, anonymous producer Disconscious. “Physically I’m curating abandoned samples and presenting them in a new format.”  Arguably it’s this sense of abandon and discovery that makes vaporwave seem much more exciting than its predecessors like chillwave, a scene which mimicked the sounds of the 1980s unlike vaporwave which actively searches for ideas that have already been and until now, were frozen in time. This idea fascinates Disconscious, notably on his break-out free Bandcamp release Hologram Plaza, a concept album about an atypical American shopping mall lost in time. “I used to live close to a fairly large mall that was periodically empty, and I’d often sit on a bench under one of the staircases that overlooked most of the mall and just take everything in under the glow of purple neon with lo-fi smooth jazz and gaudy disco playing over beaten speakers. Particularly when it was empty, it gave off an uneasy comfort; outwardly projecting an aura of leisure and ease, but with the feeling of something sinister lurking in the background from the sterility and consumerism.” His concept is very much synonymous with many other vaporwave artists who have created the genre’s more ambient side (the other side being more upbeat and funk inspired pioneered by Saint Pepsi) The music takes something previously consumerist and mysterious and transforms it into work of real artistic ambition and merit.

The technology behind the making of vaporwave, for a genre that revels in the inaccessible, seems surprisingly accessible. “I use Audacity for prepping found samples and loops, Ableton Live for VSTs, effect chains, and sequencing, and Reaper for recording, importing, and prepping self-recorded samples.” Notes Disconscious of his software, all of which can be easily obtained and downloaded from the internet for free. His hardware however, tells another story and gives an insight into the depth of passion vaporwave artists actually infuse into their music; “I use a really wonky behemoth of a midi keyboard for manual sequencing and a clunky JVC recorder – both from the early ‘90s by necessity – for field recording samples.” The use by “by necessity” from Disconscious is also telling of the seriousness and entitlement to validity vaporwave artists want to express, shrugging off all notions of the music being in any way a novelty or a gimmick.

For every blog praising vaporwave, there are several anonymous forum users ready to detract it. Despite the well-versed response from the genre’s artists, many deem vaporwave as a gimmick and dub it a flash in the pan scene. Drowned In Sound forum user ‘no-class’ had this to say “The music by and large strikes me as disposable rubbish , the websites/writers increasingly pushing it as a thing  I find really needy. I’d like to think it’s all an elaborate troll to pull in music journalists who like to theorise about Web 2.0 and want to write their own version of The Wire hypnagogia article” while another user noted “I predict vaporwave will live up to its name.” It’s not only the implied throwaway nature of vaporwave’s music that is ridiculed; the iconography the artists use to accompany their releases is also one that provokes much debate and controversy.

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Through artwork, you can spot a vaporwave release a mile off. Neon colours, Japanese iconography and a sense of humour are the three key ingredients you need to pull of genre identity legitimacy. The style also lends itself hand-in-hand with the more upbeat leaning artists, who largely have been at the forefront of breaking vaporwave. Saint Pepsi’s music certainly emits and aura of bright colour spectrums, with his reconstruction of primarily 80s disco and funk, in contrast to the trash muzak utilised by Disconscious. But why have vaporwave artists picked this design? It’s arguably an evolution from Seapunk imagery that sprung to prominence and even permeated the mainstream through Rihanna and Azealia Banks (vaporwave is yet to sport a gateway superstar) in the past three years. But the designs also hark much further back to the superficial, faux-paradise iconography you might expect to find in a 1980s Miami casino. In a strange way the vaporwave artwork is visually exciting, even if it is in a “What the fuck is this piece of internet trash?” way, and could even be seen as promoting a whole new style of abstract art. Plus who wouldn’t rather see neon leopards and Pokémon frolicking on a faraway beach branded with Japanese language, than your average substandard face-on-the-cover pop album art?

Ultimately though, the internet has been the genesis for every element of vaporwave, without it you’d struggle to see it being made at all. The fact nearly all vaporwave releases are also brought out available for free download, is certainly telling of internet understanding in that people rarely buy music anymore and furthermore music word-of-mouth is no longer acted out in person, but largely through social networks and internet forums. Disconscious is clearly very aware of this: “Now there are zero restrictions for making and promoting music, and as such there’s a seemingly infinite barrage of producers out there exploring a new front of ideas in music. In such a situation, the birth of vaporwave, as well as its new breed predecessors was inevitable, and a necessary step in the progression of both sample-based music and electronic music as a whole to wherever it is we’re ultimately heading to in this new era of music.”

The question still remains as to whether vaporwave will stand the test of time, and the answer is not a straight-forward one. One thing is for certain though; the music and the artists making it are no joke and have a deep understanding of the ways of the internet and perhaps where music is heading as a whole. Oh, and the music is pretty great too.

Toby McCarron

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