Vaporwave Nostalgia: Remembering Past Futures
Born in the midst of the dot-com boom, my childhood was defined by the end of Bill Clinton’s presidency, the death of Michael Jackson, and disappearance of the floppy disk. The nostalgia I feel for my childhood is nostalgia for this fractured past, and the ghosts that it left behind live on in the background of my hazy first memories. The almost-forgotten media of this era, experienced through its remnants rather than directly, seemed to promise a brighter future with technology than the post-capitalist and post-Internet culture that characterizes modernity.
The emergence of the vaporwave genre in the underground music scene, described as a form of “hypnagogic pop,” has its roots in this compensatory nostalgia felt for a more idealistic world portrayed as the future in the 90’s corporate media. By employing slowed down, repetitive samples of elevator music and hit songs from previous decades, combined with a “vaporwave aesthetic,” which emphasizes images of old advertisements and retro-futuristic computer imagery, vaporwave artists highlight the disparity between the “false future” portrayed in this media and the present. This can be interpreted as both a nostalgia for our past optimism and a critique of the current state of the world. Vaporwave also bears similar characteristics to the punk genre as a modern, nostalgic renewal of the movement, albeit less politically motivated.
One of the key elements of the vaporwave genre, and the reason that imagery which employs the “vaporwave aesthetic” is as key to the genre as the music itself, is the concept of the “virtual plaza,” the imaginary and subliminal space which reflects the retro-futuristic world portrayed in “high-tech” advertisements of the past. Tanner defines the virtual plaza as “… the structure comprised of all the gleaming towers of commerce built upon the code-destroying nexus of capital. It is the ultimate ‘non-place’ … Vaporwave is the sound of the virtual plaza reframed and thrown back at us in an attempt to reveal for us capital’s stronghold on our existence ...” (36). While Tanner is correct in asserting that the virtual plaza is defined by consumer culture and kitschy imagery, vaporwave does not intend to be critical of it. The virtual plaza does not represent the modern post-capitalistic control that corporations have over our collective lives, but instead the literal optimistic and idealized world which was portrayed in the past. The virtual plaza represents the “dawn” of the early online world, sometimes somewhat literally, as images of a rising sun sometimes feature prominently in the visuals. Vaporwave is intended to satisfy the nostalgia felt for returning to this space, through the use of sound and imagery which “transports” the listener to it. This experience is even possible for listeners mostly unfamiliar with the original media: “… in vaporwave listening experiences, the listener draws upon their own repository of past experience but only in order to ‘plug into’ the complex and collective (re)production of memory … Memory is ‘crowd-sourced’ to and from the vaporwave aesthetic to produce this form of compensatory nostalgia” (Glistos 105).
A key element of achieving this virtual plaza “experience” lies in the anonymity and ambiguity which vaporwave artists employ to maintain little attribution between themselves and the music they create. Glistos writes that “Vaporwave artists rarely emphasize their locality … This is probably because, geographically speaking, vaporwave has no material origin … Vaporwave is constructed as a globally ambiguous and an ostensibly ‘anonymous’ phenomenon in that the artists generally identify themselves using ‘handles’ rather than real names” (104). In extreme cases, one artist may have more than 10 handles, each of which has a distinct musical style. The anonymous origin disassociates the music from the present, while the heavy reverb and slow tempo make it sound as though it is being filtered over a great spatial or temporal distance. The traditional lines drawn between past, present, and future are “vaporized,” as it were, and the music seems to come from nowhere, or some far-away place. Artist names and album/track titles are frequently composed wholly or partially of Asian lettering, such as the title of artist 2814’s album 新しい日の誕生. Since vaporwave music is mostly produced and consumed by English-speaking people, the names are intentionally foreign to most listeners, further enhancing the unfamiliar quality of the music and the uncertain origins of the artist. Carswell also hypothesizes that “… there is a certain relationship between, say, 1980s America and 2010s South Korea; these are the eras, roughly speaking, that these countries entered into rapid periods of economic growth adjacent to a technological renaissance …” (“World of Ecco”). The use of Asian lettering links the target of vaporwave nostalgia (80’s America) with a modern equivalent (2010’s South Korea, for example). Through the appropriation of these foreign cultures, an artist associates their music with a modern society which, ostensibly, still has hope for attaining the future that vaporwave nostalgia longs so desperately for. Carswell notes that the symbols “… demonstrate that there is a feeling of affinity, even envy that Eastern mainstream cultures are currently at their height of innovation, compared with the sense of ‘lost futures’ which Western culture was never quite able to fully realize” (“World of Ecco”).
Vaporwave carries many similarities to the former punk movement of the 70’s. Tanner takes notice of this, writing that “Vaporwave is as much a community as a genre and has its roots in the DIY attitude. In this way, vaporwave has become something like the ‘new punk’ or the ‘Internet punk’ – coming from the online underground yet growing with an emphasis on welcoming others” (37). Part of the appeal of the movement is that because the music can be composed of tracks which were “borrowed” from an earlier time period, and then simply slowed down, it is possible for just about anyone to produce vaporwave music. This has at times resulted in other online users being critical of the genre, asserting that little skill is required to produce what is considered “good” vaporwave music. Such criticisms contributed to the multiple revivals of the genre over the past few years, which have redefined what can be considered vaporwave multiple times in attempts to keep the genre alive.
The result of this, however, is that the genre is increasingly experimental. Some albums such as Floral Shoppe 2, which consists of almost random noise, are closer to an art form than a musical piece. Such albums exist as a response to the growing mainstream popularity of other vaporwave subgenres such as future funk, and question the importance of an album’s presentation as compared to its actual content. The recent release of the album Vaporwave is Dead by Sandtimer draws parallels to how punks once declared that “punk is dead” due to its increasing mainstream appeal. The irony in this statement is that vaporwave was “dead” from the beginning – the first albums considered to be part of the genre such as Far Side Virtual by James Ferraro are intended to highlight the “lifeless” sound behind corporate music, to the point of making the listener feel uncomfortable. Tanner invokes this as well, saying “That mixture of dread, nostalgia, and transcendence I feel while listening to something like James Ferraro’s Far Side Virtual is akin to horrific awe … Vaporwave takes the fit, smiling, white-teethed mask off Muzak and replaces it with a more sinister face – the dead stare of unfettered capitalism” (34). Tanner characterizes this “proto-vaporwave” music as critical of the uncanny way that corporate music is engineered to inspire nostalgia in us – Svetlana Boym’s “ersatz” nostalgia.
The distribution of vaporwave music, in another parallel to the punk genre, occurs primarily through physical media such as cassette tapes rather than in digital form. Cassette tapes have modern appeal as a return to consuming music in a tangible, physical medium. The limitations of a physical medium divide media consumption into discrete intervals, allowing the listener to escape the information over-saturation and endless availability of music prevalent in our culture. While the effort required to share music over the Internet is small, vaporwave and other underground artists move in the opposite direction, as a nostalgic return to how mixtapes and other less mainstream creations were distributed locally during the punk era. Tanner, however, is critical of this form of nostalgia: “We pine for the analog technology and readily consume the myth that we can hide safely in the pre-digital warmth of the past’s media technologies” (44). There is a fundamental difference, however, between how media was consumed in the past and how it is consumed in the present: “First music was reified, turned into a thing (vinyl records, analogue tapes) you could buy, store, keep under your own personal control. Then music was ‘liquefied,’ turned into data that could be streamed, carried anywhere, transferred between different devices” (Reynolds 122). The limited information capacity of physical media, once perceived as an annoyance, now serves as an important haven for nostalgics who are disillusioned with the limited attention span that we have developed as a response to modern information overabundance.
While vaporwave as a genre and a movement has many similarities with previous musical genres and stylistic movements, it is ultimately uniquely defined by a simultaneous nostalgia for the future world which was portrayed in past media, and a criticism of that same media for popularizing an image of an ultimately unattainable future, primarily to serve the needs of consumerism. As the vaporwave movement continues to grow, it becomes increasingly experimental, and parallels can be drawn between the progression of vaporwave in the modern age with the progression of the punk movement in the past. This paints vaporwave as a nostalgic renewal of the punk movement, adapted to the different technology and ways of consuming media that exist in the 21st century. Vaporwave’s recent emergence is no coincidence, and stems from the equal accessibility of past and present media made possible through the technological advances of the past decade. While vaporwave nostalgia is felt primarily by people who lived through the 80’s and 90’s, it can also be a form of compensatory nostalgia felt by those who have only lived in the periphery of this pre-Internet era. As the recent mainstream “reappropriation” of vaporwave aesthetics by the American media and corporate culture has led some enthusiasts to declare the genre as dead, one asks whether vaporwave music was intended to have authenticity in the first place, considering its origins in mall and elevator music, the “lifeless” background of capitalist consumption. As vaporwave’s existence is made possible by the very technologies which created the world that it is trying to subvert, it too will eventually fall victim to the fleeting nature of modern consumption; many other related underground genres already have. In the words repeated by many vaporwave artists, “Vaporwave is dead. Long live vaporwave.”
1. 2814. 新しい日の誕生, dreamcatalogue.bandcamp.com/album/--18.
2. Chuck Person. Eccojams Vol. 1, youtube.com/watch?v=unN7QvSWSTo
3. Sandtimer. Vaporwave Is Dead, dreamcatalogue.bandcamp.com/album/vaporwave-is-dead.
4. Carswell, Joshua. “World of Ecco: A Look Back at Chuck Person’s Eccojams Volume 1.” Orbistertius, Wordpress, 30 Jan. 2016, orbistertiusnet.wordpress.com/2016/01/30/world-of-ecco-a-look-back-at-chuck-persons-eccojams-volume-1/.
5. Glitsos, Laura. Vaporwave, or Music Optimised for Abandoned Malls. Popular Music, vol. 37, no. 1, 2018, pp. 100–118.
6. Tanner, Grafton. Babbling Corpse: Vaporwave and the Commodification of Ghosts. Zero Books, 2016.
7. Reynolds, Simon. Retromania: Pop Culture's Addiction to Its Own Past. Faber and Faber, 2012.