Meditations on the Vaporwave Wikipedia Page
by John Facey
If you are a straight up nerd like I am, chances are you spend a sizeable portion of your free time leisurely scrolling through the volumes of infinite knowledge Wikipedia has to offer. Oh, sure, you occasionally glance at Buzzfeed and Youtube like any normal person, but Wikipedia is where all the gems are buried. It is currently the most monolithic source for general knowledge available to the armchair-browsing public; so why not get lost in some amateur academic research from time to time? Wikipedia: it is at the top of any serious Google search. It’s the site where you check your facts and, for better or worse, your facts check you. It is the truest marker of fame in the Millennial age. Let’s face it: if you’re on Wikipedia, you’re famous. And now, friends of Amdiscs, Vaporwave has become famous. We did it.
The Wikipedia entry for “vaporwave” is a fairly new one, with zero sources from before the year 2013 cited within the content. Recently, my casual Wiki-browsing found me here, reading the entry for “Vaporwave” aloud to some friends over a few beers and laughs. (Vaporwwave is now on Wikipedia, we must be getting old…”)
Being that this particular Wiki links to a number of artists featured originally on Amdiscs, I felt it would be appropriate to offer a bit of close reading commentary to accompany your understanding of this newborn movement. Wikipedia defines it as follows:
Vaporwave is a musical genre that has emerged from indie dance genres such as seapunk or chillwave, and, more broadly, electronic dance music, as a satirical genre serving both as a critique of consumerist society and the ’80s yuppie culture, and a parody of New Age music, in the early 2010s. The genre has a borderline dystopian, cyberpunk connotation and takes place in a hypothetical universe where the ongoing cultural and economical dominance of Japan is palpable, hence the excessively prominent use of Japanese characters in vaporwave works, signifying its popular culture impact. Musically, it is characterized by its heavy use of samples from “the most reviled forms of music in the recording era,” including ’80s lounge, smooth jazz and Muzak.” These samples are altered in various ways such as slowing down, layering, pitching down and chopping up in order to create vaporwave music.
The article continues on to list a number of prominent vapor artists, all of which are worth checking out on your own time. Probably the best known vaporwave record out right now is the independently-released Floral Shoppe by Macintosh Plus. It’s not an Amdiscs release, but it is (in my opinion) an excellent album, and today’s foremost example of the genre. The repetitious, druggy sampling on this release has often been appropriately compared to the super-slow chops originally made famous by the monumentally influential DJ Screw. Also, I feel this and many similar vaporwave records tend to incorporate newer sounds; such as those used on records by Washed Out and Com Truise. The rhythms to which I refer are digitially-updated throwbacks to the cheesy MIDI synths of the late 80s, obscured through gratuitous echo and envelope filters. When I first heard Floral Shoppe, I mentally associated my interest in the music with my taste for the sample-heavy, plunderphonic hits of the 90s and early 2000s; cuts like The Avalanches’ Since I Left You (2000) and Aphex Twin’s Windowlicker (1999) came to mind, as Mac Plus’s trippy and similarly inventive vocal samples drew a bold contrast to the obscure, dreamy melodies keeping them afloat.
Beyond the aural qualities of this music, there is an apparent political undertone which was not immediately obvious to me when I first started hearing it. I realized it was an offshoot of recent movements like seapunk and chillwave, but I was not entirely sure why it felt different. Something was darker about it, but it took me a few listens to develop an opinion as to what that something was. And then it hit me: all of these samples are distinctively corporate; pornographically so. In fact, it sounds like elevator music on acid. Commercial jingles on quaaludes. It is a freaked-out, spaced-out version of music we all might have overheard in the consumer tech boom of our fading youth; a psychedelic nostalgia-trip through the golden era of Apple and Microsoft. A 2013 Vice article by Michelle Lhooq confirms that I was not alone in my observations:
Everything about vaporwave is tied to capitalist sleaze; even its name is a spoof of the term “vaporware,” nonexistent products that companies announce and heavily promote as a corporate strategy to keep their competitors at bay. Vaporwave’s deliberate affiliation with techno-capitalism distinguishes it from seapunk’s pastel land full of prancing sea mammals. Unlike seapunk, vaporwave is actually “punk,” in that it’s driven by a subversive political objective: undermining the iron grip of global capitalism… by exposing the alienating emptiness underneath its uncanny sheen. (Michelle Lhooq)
When I first got into vaporwave, few of the social nuances mentioned in Lhooq’s Vice article even occurred to me (though I must admit these observations came to fruition over time). The hypnotic transfixion upon the strung-out sounds of the 80s and 90s was immediately apparent, but the subliminal meanings embedded in these sounds took me a few listens to perceive. Nowadays, a lot of Vaporwave music is being produced by people my age or younger. Kids these days are growing up with Ableton, and the desktop sampler could in many ways be considered the 2014 equivalent of the acoustic guitars and harmonicas associated with the neo-folk craze which took place in this country over 50 years ago. Everybody wants to be a producer these days, just as everybody in the beat era wanted to be the next Bob Dylan or Woody Guthrie.
This new generation of creators seems to see through a lot of things that I didn’t see through growing up. TV sets and VHS tapes might as well be considered antiques at this point, DVDs are being phased out in favor of Blu-Ray, and soon the idea of disc-based hardware alone will seem quaint and old-fashioned. To many contemporary teens; the internet is their TV. It’s a fact: the game has changed. Like the stagnant American 1950s in their transition to the technologic and social explosiveness of the 60s, the nostalgic 90s culture us Millenials grew up with was born to detonate. One might say the consumer tech industry really blew up.
Before you stop reading this article on behalf of my stupid puns, let’s get back to the music. A number of albums on Amdiscs could be classified as Vaporwave, both in their sound and in their visual aesthetics. A few of my favorites which immediately come to mind include Luxury Elite’s With Love, Esprit’s Summer Night, and Drip-133‘s <3, all released in ‘13. While Amdiscs fans have enjoyed a wide and inclusive variety of genres since the label’s inception in 2010, one might say 2013 was a particularly good year for the vapor heads. 2012’s Airsports self-titled is a good example of the genre’s initial development, with the album art still yielding to many of the characteristic tropes of earlier “seapunk” imagery. Emoji palm trees, Asian logograms and an aquatic color pallete? All there; but the symbols of international currency, coupled with the darkly-corporate tones of the music, provide an additional vapor edge to give the whole package a slightly more serious resonance.
The aforementioned Drip-133 is a better example of the colder aspects of contemporary vaporwave. The packaging of his work is distinctively office minimal, as if mounted on chilly white marble that might be found paving the lobby of some swanky skyscraper in 90s-era Tokyo. The sounds bear the same vapor tropes we’ve been focusing on, but offer something more for the intuitive listener. Drip’s razor-sharp sampling cues, likely influenced by classic G-rap and new jack swing, offer a unique sound that’s hard to classify with any contemporary genre or label. If you couldn’t already tell, his work is some of my favorite on Amdiscs, and certainly worth checking out! As for a more recent candidate for your vapor interests, check out Nmesh’s Dream Sequins and Nu.wav Hallucinations box set (2014); another collection of mesmerizing tracks which far exceed the general expectations of the genre.
Vaporwave is, by my observation, a psychedelic reevaluation of the consumer and business tech boom of the 80s and 90s; a nostalgic testament to the blinking LEDs and jaundiced plastic of the typical pre-9/11 office space, coupled with an appreciation for the offshore engineering which made it so. It was still a relatively “safe” time for the art of business: pre-recession, pre-Bush, pre-Patriot Act. The wonder with which we approached all that would come with personal computers, cellular phones, and the internet seems naive in retrospect. How young we were. But here we are now, only a decade and a half into the New Millenium, and we are already able to look back upon the machinery of our upbringing in retrospect. But instead of turning to a pillar of salt, we turn to a bust of marble: cold, hard and mysterious, yet glistening with beauty at once natural and manmade. Or something like that, at least.