Vaporwave, the music of a future that never existed...
Vaporwave is a musical style as well as a particular aesthetic that was born on forums such as reddit and Tumblr, and that has gradually become mainstream. Artistic oddity and pure web creation, critics differ as to whether it is a radical critique of capitalism or on the contrary an excessive apology.
Imagine a shopping mall crowded with haggard-minded shoppers, hundreds of vending machines stimulated by the countless brand logos, the bright artificial light reflecting on the icy, smooth architecture of this church of consumerism as their thousands of steps spontaneously, almost instinctively, follow a route laid out in advance by a few clever architects in collaboration with the owners of this vast shopping complex.
The shops, each a microcosm in its own right, are swarming with merchandise at the disposal of even the smallest wallet, and swinging in plain sight noisy slogans, magnetic screens and ever more sophisticated machines. We are in paradise of comfort, sumptuousness and convenience.
Now think for a moment about the background noise: chances are you won't be able to do it, and for the most attentive among you, only the foam of the melodies, sometimes soft, sometimes rhythmic, probably remains in your consciousness.
The Vaporwave is the ghost of this universe, the digital satire of the atmosphere of the world of neoliberal consumer capitalism. A musical genre made on the net, borrowed from melancholy and fascination, those of the heirs of a mercantile utopia having degenerated into a dramatic comedy. A strange revival, in short, which acts like a digital Proust madeleine: the music, cut, slowed down, repeated, buzzing covers of obscure funk songs, smooth jazz, commercials or muzak - this elevator music programmed to manipulate more or less workers as consumers - will remind some people of the evenings of the time, others of the manga that passed at the Club Dorothée (hello French people c: ) or in Cartoon Network for example, and for the most part a strange reminiscence of unknown times.
A brief history of the Vaporwave
It's hard to talk about a genre that has already been proclaimed dead and replaced in recent years. Yet the vaporwave continues to make noise. While integration into mass culture allowed him to inspire both MTV and the singer Drake.
Of course, any definition of a point of origin is arbitrary, as Esquire magazine notes: "In the case of Vaporwave, are we going back to electronic music from Detroit in the 1980s? The early DIY scene? No Wave? Stockhausen? The dialectic is so broad, my God, and my ship so small."
Still, Vaporwave is above all a musical genre born on the internet. For this reason, it has a very special history. Let's go back in time. One day, there was Seapunk, a kind of heteroclite genre where figures of 1990s hip-hop and techno-surrealist aesthetics were mixed, with images of dolphins, poor quality digital seas, and a horribly turquoise hue. As we told you five years ago, it was a pure product of the internet counterculture, coming out of the depths of Tumblr.
Of course, any definition of a point of origin is arbitrary, as Esquire magazine notes: "In the case of vaporwave, are we going back to electronic music from Detroit in the 1980s? The early DIY scene? No Wave? Stockhausen? The dialectic is so broad, my God, and my ship so small."
Nevertheless, the vaporwave is above all a musical genre born on the internet. For this reason, it has a very special history. Let's go back in time. One day, there was seapunk, a kind of heteroclite genre where figures of 1990s hip-hop and techno-surrealist aesthetics were mixed, with images of dolphins, poor quality digital seas, and a horribly turquoise hue. As we told you five years ago, it was a pure product of the internet counterculture, coming out of the depths of Tumblr.
This quirk inspired the aesthetics of the vaporwave, also born in forums such as Reddit and Tumblr. It was produced by a generation that knew from the 1980/90's only waste - kitschy advertisements, videos of smiling and well-dressed young dynamic executives, technophilia dripping with lyricism - and the successive crises that followed them. The beauty that emerges from this purely virtual genre is that of great nostalgia reconstructing and distorting an era in which those who fantasize about it have generally lived little or nothing.
But the origins of this music are multiple, and one has to go back to two "founding fathers" to understand the musical inspiration behind this genre. It is in the bubbling of the experimental electronic music scene that the seeds that would later give rise to the vaporwave were sown. In 2010, the artist Daniel Lopatin, also known as Oneohtrix Point Never, released for laughs the album Eccojams Vol. 1 under the pseudonym Chuck Person.
The album is a strange and hypnotic assemblage of bits of songs from the 1980s, 1990s and 2000s, slowed down, repeated over and over again for far too long, and occasionally sprinkled with the typical sound effects of the technologies of the time. The cover -as well as the title, reminiscent of the Mega Drive Ecco the dolphin's cult game- is reminiscent of the cases containing the cassettes of the consoles of the 16bit era.
The atmosphere is set, the foundations of the Vaporwave are beginning to emerge. As critic Simon Reynolds wrote in the book Retromania, these productions "relate to cultural memory and utopianism buried under capitalist commodities, especially those related to consumer technology in the world of computer and audiovisual entertainment".
The Vaporwave in 2011
In 2011, another album will be released, also generally associated with the foundation of the genre. James Ferrero then composed the album Far Side Virtual, influenced by Lopatin while distancing himself from a musical point of view: we have here a more playful, more harmonious music, pleasant to listen to and drawn from the musical universe of consumerism in the 1990s.
As Ferraro says in an interview quoted by Esquire
"Far Side Virtual mainly refers to a space in society, or a mode of behavior. Most of these things operate in synchronicity: e.g. ring tones, flat screens, movies, cooking, fashion, sushi. I don't want to call it "virtual reality", so I call it "Far Side Virtual". If you really want to understand Far Side, first listen to Claude Debussy, and then go to a frozen yogurt store. After that, go to Starbucks and get a gift card. They have a book on the history of Starbucks - buy that book and go home. If you do all these things you'll understand what "Far Side Virtual"- because people are already living in it."
Uncertainty and fear
We could have added other precursors such as Fatima Al Qadiri, Gatekeeper, Laserdiscs Visions or INTERNET CLUB, which forged the very term vaporwave. Robin Burnett, whose real name is Robin Burnett, a Texan musician, explained to Dummymag that this genre "reminds him of foggy environments - places where everything is obscured and uncertain" and he added: "it is often based on uncertainty and sometimes fear". Above all, replace a letter with vaporwave and you get vaporware, a pejorative term for those software or hardware projects that are announced to the public but after a while don't come to fruition.
These are ghost products," says Grafton Tanner, author of Babbling Corpse: vaporwave and the Commodification of Ghosts, "stuck in limbo between conceptualization and creation. Vaporwave is based on nothing and represents Capital in its most shapeless appearance. It's the ghost of corporate music, a kind of tomb for empty shopping malls. If everything solid melts into the air, then the vaporwave is a critique of music created in the vacuum of capitalist society".
The other origin of this word comes from a rather famous passage in Karl Marx's Communist Party Manifesto, where he says about the capitalist dynamic that keeps changing whole sections of society, that "everything that was solid and permanent goes up in smoke". A reference that anticipates the anti-capitalist criticism that some may have detected behind this musical genre.
To conclude, it is MacIntosh Plus, also known under the pseudonym Vektroid (and many other aliases), of his real name Ramona Andra Xavier, who will produce the most eloquent synthesis of the genre with his album Floral Shoppe, by far the best known and most popular album.
The song "リサフランク420 / 現代のコンピュー" has been seen more than 24 million times. Everything is there: funk music from the 1980s - "It's Your Move" by Diana Ross- remixed to produce a sparkling, dreamlike and nostalgic atmosphere, where some hints of anguish and dull melancholy escape. The title, written in Japanese, literally means Lisa Frank 420 / Modern Computing and has no other use than to refer to the Japanese pop culture of the 1980s. A decade that in the land of the rising sun was marked by the famous financial bubble, and during which exacerbated consumerism walked hand in hand with a hedonistic Japanese youth, eager to forget the austerity of the post-war period to go and have fun on the backdrop of City pop, during the day at the beach or in the city at night.
"Vaporwave seeks to express new life through dead matter - obsolete technology, disposable kitsch, garbage culture, worthless corporate objects, etc.".
There is, finally, the cover that will consolidate the famous "vaporwave" tab. A purplish, purple image, in which a low quality polygon stands next to a Roman sculpture, a vesper urban landscape and a title in capital letters. These various elements will be found more or less in all that the vaporwave will generate in the albums of SAINT PEPSI, S o u l W a ve, 2 8 1 4 with the same -until the political recoveries with the trumpwave and the fashwave.
A typical image of the "trumpwave", recovery by Trump's supports of the vaporwave.
Many authors seem to agree on the latent critique of capitalism that transpires from all these productions. The vaporwave is a kind of digital punk movement: cynical, transgressive, anti-commercial and easy to reproduce. As Grafton Tanner, whose book can be translated as Corps Bavards: Vaporwave and the commodification of ghosts, has explained:
"The image of talkative bodies represents something dead but still able to speak. I took it from The Rime of the Ancient Mariner, a poem that could be interpreted as a commentary on the technological changes of Coleridge's time. Vaporwave seeks to express new life through dead matter - obsolete technology, disposable kitsch, garbage culture, worthless corporate objects, etc. - which is then transformed into a new life. Vaporwave often brings to the forefront the real fact that our media technologies, while extensions of ourselves, are certainly not ourselves.
The old fear of seeing our analog technologies come to life has more or less changed shape with the emergence of ubiquitous digital technologies, but the vaporwave reminds us of our old anxiety to see technology get rid of the human being who stands in its way. The subtitle of my book refers to late capitalism's urge to commodify everything, including the ghosts of the Western past."
Robin Burnett claims to be a situationist. Asked by Dummymag, he explains that he wanted to do "something very debordenian, about how this capitalist society has generated a dehumanizing hyperreality by focusing on an infinite generation of ideals conveyed by commodities. I see society as entering a hyperreal state. The way it happened defines in part what INTERNET CLUB is.
And the sound distortion effects he uses are said to be there to "defamiliarize things that we are so used to that we don't even notice them anymore", because capitalist culture would have "denied justice in the name of appeasement and false promises". The Vaporwave would thus be a kind of detour of capitalist culture, following the example of what the situationists did in May 1968...
But not everything is that simple. In fact, like many internet cultures, the vaporwave is full of ambivalence, and one could see it as much a criticism as an apology, sometimes delirious, of capitalism and its way of life. According to Dummymag, this could be compared to the "accelerationist" current. Inspired by Marxism, but also by philosophers such as Deleuze, Lyotard, Guattari and Nick Land, he postulates that instead of trying to oppose capitalism, it would rather be a question of accelerating it, of pushing its various logics to their limits.
The dissolution of any civilization, the concentration of capital, the acceleration of time, individualization, technological progress being positive creations of capitalism, accelerationism pleads in favor of such an impulse, whether it is to provoke a revolution one day, or because it is simply the logical and ultimate conclusion of capitalism. The accelerationist manifesto is unambiguous: the achievements of capitalism, especially in the field of technology, "did not need to be reversed in order to return to an earlier state, but to be accelerated beyond the constraints of the capitalist form of value".
Yet, after all, a large part of his musical or visual references were born in capitalism, either to serve it or because it provided the context for the emergence of these artistic styles. It is in this fascination with capitalist art that lies the paradox of the vaporwave, which also pushes to the absurd the consumerist and technological outburst of capitalism, as well as the commodification of everything - and James Ferraro is said to have composed his album as an "ode to capitalism".
"This potentially accelerationist pop fills and creates the spaces in which the business of capitalism is conducted," says Dummymag, "be it the motivational seminar on innovation or the propaganda of representation, covering them with an artificial aura that makes them meaningful. It may have been called a muzak or lounge at one time, but the spaces in which it operates are now wider, brighter, more connected and more impersonal than the house or the elevator. Today and tomorrow, capital lives everywhere, in our TVs, telephones and minds, but nowhere is it more sacred than in the glittering temples that serve as the interface with the public - the office lobby, the hotel lobby, and more than the entire shopping mall. This music belongs to the plaza, in the literary sense as well as in the literal sense, real or imaginary - the public space that is the center where an infinite number of social, cultural and financial transactions take place, and the place of their greatest activity and spectacle".
Is the Vaporwave already dead?
For misteramazing, videomaker having made a documentary on the history of the movement, in my opinin, at its creation, the vaporwave was indeed punk, but today I would not agree with that anymore. On the contrary, I see vaporwave becoming more and more a mainstream consumer product more than anything else. All the artists that I would have considered punk have moved elsewhere and do other things, even if they are still catalogued as vaporwave: Blank Banshee, Vektroid, 2814 (HKE and t e l e p a t h), Dan Mason, Christtt, Dank Vibes, PZA, Skylar Spence, Sangam, Jude Frankumn Vaperror. Many of them have left this scene.
Many people today think that vaporware is dead or even "stillborn" (Traxmag). Nevertheless, this subgenre of seapunk has given birth to an incredible amount of subgenres through which it continues to live, from the more dynamic and funk-focused future funk to the strange simpsonwave, a mix of Simpsons, purple codeine filtering and visual VHS tape sizzle.
However, the amateurs most attached to the underground character of their music have since abandoned the ship in the face of its recuperation by mass culture. Between the flood of memes spreading everywhere on the Internet and the high-budget productions that take up the canons of the genre, it is difficult to perceive its subversive or transgressive character anymore.
But, in the end, wasn't this the logical conclusion of what the vaporwave carried within it? Can we really hope to keep an "authentic" character in a world where the inauthentic reigns - and a fortiori by diverting the art that this world has produced? Contrary to seapunk, it would even seem that it is this massification that has allowed it to survive, in a virtual world where any spontaneous creation generally lives no longer than the beating of a butterfly's wings.