|Cultural origins||Early 2010s, cyberculture|
Vaporwave is a microgenre of electronic music and an Internet meme that emerged in the early 2010s. The style is defined by its appropriation of 1980s and 1990s mood music styles such as smooth jazz, elevator music, R&B, and lounge music, typically sampling or manipulating tracks via chopped and screwed techniques and other effects. Its surrounding subculture is sometimes associated with an ambiguous or satirical take on consumer capitalism and pop culture, and tends to be characterized by a nostalgic or surrealist engagement with the popular entertainment, technology and advertising of previous decades. It also incorporates early Internet imagery, late 1990s web design, glitch art, anime, 3D-rendered objects, and cyberpunk tropes in its cover artwork and music videos.
Originating as an ironic variant of chillwave, vaporwave was loosely derived from the experimental tendencies of the mid-2000s hypnagogic pop scene. The style was pioneered by producers such as James Ferraro, Daniel Lopatin, and Ramona Xavier under various pseudonyms. A circle of online producers were particularly inspired by Xavier's Floral Shoppe (2011), which established a blueprint for the genre. The movement subsequently built an audience on sites Last.fm, Reddit, and 4chan while a flood of new acts, many operating under online pseudonyms, turned to Bandcamp for distribution. Following the wider exposure of vaporwave in 2012, a wealth of subgenres and offshoots emerged, such as future funk, mallsoft, and hardvapour.
Vaporwave is an Internet-based microgenre that was built upon the experimental and ironic tendencies of genres such as chillwave and hypnagogic pop. It draws primarily on musical and cultural sources from the 1980s and early 1990s while also being associated with an ambiguous or satirical take on consumer capitalism and technoculture. Early incarnations of vaporwave relied on the sampling of sources such as smooth jazz, retro elevator music, R&B, lounge music, and dance music from the 1980s and 1990s, with the music made of "brief, cut-up sketches", cleanly produced, and composed almost entirely from samples, along with the application of slowed-down chopped and screwed techniques, looping, and other effects. Critic Adam Trainer notes the style's predilection for "music made less for enjoyment than for the regulation of mood," such as corporate stock music for infomercials and product demonstrations. Musicologist Adam Harper described the typical vaporwave track as "a wholly synthesised or heavily processed chunk of corporate mood music, bright and earnest or slow and sultry, often beautiful, either looped out of sync and beyond the point of functionality."
The style's visual aesthetic (often stylized as "ＡＥＳＴＨＥＴＩＣＳ", with fullwidth characters) incorporates early Internet imagery, late 1990s web design, glitch art, and cyberpunk tropes, as well as anime, Greco-Roman statues, and 3D-rendered objects. VHS degradation is another common effect seen in vaporwave art. Generally, artists limit their source material between Japan's economic flourishment in the 1980s and the September 11 attacks or dot-com bubble burst of 2001 (some albums, including Floral Shoppe, depict the intact Twin Towers on their covers).
2009–2011: Origins and early scene
Vaporwave originated on the Internet as an ironic variant of chillwave, drawing on the retro style's "analog nostalgia" as well as the work of hypnagogic pop artists such as Ariel Pink and James Ferraro, who were also characterized by the invocation of retro popular culture. "Hypnagogic pop" was coined by Wire journalist David Keenan in August 2009, only a few weeks after "chillwave", to describe a host of new underground acts who were inspired by the memories of their childhoods in the 1980s. The two terms were often used interchangeably with each other. According to Vice, vaporwave was one of several short-lived internet genres to emerge during the era: "there was chillwave, witch house, seapunk, shitgaze, vaporwave, cloud rap, and countless other niche sounds with gimmicky names. As soon as one microgenre flamed out, another would take its place, and with it a whole new set of beats, buzz artists, and fashion trends." Ash Becks of The Essential notes that sites like Pitchfork and Drowned in Sound "seemingly refused to touch vaporwave throughout the genre’s two-year 'peak'."
The template for vaporwave came from the albums Chuck Person's Eccojams Vol. 1 (Daniel Lopatin as "Chuck Person", August 2010) and Far Side Virtual (Ferraro, October 2011). Eccojams featured chopped and screwed variations on popular 1980s pop songs with album artwork that resembled the packaging of the 1992 video game Ecco the Dolphin, while Far Side Virtual drew primarily on "the grainy and bombastic beeps" of 2000s media such as Skype and the Nintendo Wii. According to Stereogum's Miles Bowe, vaporwave was a fusion between Lopatin's "chopped and screwed plunderphonics" and the "nihilistic easy-listening of James Ferraro’s Muzak-hellscapes". A 2013 post on a music blog presented those albums, along with Skeleton's Holograms (November 2010), as "proto vaporwave".
Inspired by Lopatin's ideas, suburban teens and young adults used Eccojams as a starting point for what would become vaporwave while drawing on the postmodern, surreal themes explored by Far Side Virtual and Eccojams. Vaporwave artists were "mysterious and often nameless entities that lurk the internet," academic Adam Harper noted, "often behind a pseudo-corporate name or web façade, and whose music is typically free to download through Mediafire, Last FM, Soundcloud or Bandcamp." According to Metallic Ghosts (Chaz Allen), the original vaporwave scene came out of an online circle formulated on the site Turntable.fm. This circle included individuals known as Internet Club (Robin Burnett), Veracom, Luxury Elite, Infinity Frequencies, Transmuteo (Jonathan Dean), Coolmemoryz, and Prismcorp. Following the release of Ramona Xavier's New Dreams Ltd. (credited to "Laserdisc Visions", July 2011), a number of producers took inspiration from the style, and Burnett used "vaporwave" to tie the disparate group together. Xavier's Floral Shoppe (credited to "Macintosh Plus", December 2011) was the first album to be properly considered of the genre, containing all of the style's core elements.
Vaporwave found wider appeal over the middle of 2012, building an audience on sites like Last.fm, Reddit, and 4chan. After a flood of new acts turned to Bandcamp for distribution, various online music publications such as Tiny Mix Tapes, Dummy and Sputnikmusic began covering the movement. In September 2012, Blank Banshee released his debut album, Blank Banshee 0, which reflected a trend of vaporwave producers who were more influenced by trap music and less concerned with conveying political undertones. Bandwagon called it a "progressive record" that, along with Floral Shoppe, "signaled the end of the first wave of sample-heavy music, and ... reconfigured what it means to make vaporwave music."
Following the initial wave, new terms for offshoot genres were invented, some of which indicate the non-seriousness of vaporwave, such as "vaportrap" and "vaporgoth". In 2015, Rolling Stone published a list that included vaporwave act 2814 as one of "10 artists you need to know", citing their album Birth of a New Day (新しい日の誕生 Atarashī Ni~Tsu no Tanjō). That same year, the album I'll Try Living Like This by Death's Dynamic Shroud.wmv was featured at number fifteen on the Fact list "The 50 Best Albums of 2015", and on the same day MTV International introduced a rebrand heavily inspired by vaporwave and seapunk, Tumblr launched a GIF viewer named Tumblr TV, with an explicitly MTV-styled visual spin. Hip-hop artist Drake's single "Hotline Bling", released on July 31, also became popular with vaporwave producers, inspiring both humorous and serious remixes of the tune.
Vaporwave was one of several microgenres spawned in the early 2010s that were the brief focus of media attention. Pitchfork contributor Jonny Coleman defines vaporwave as residing in "the uncanny genre valley" that lies "between a real genre that sounds fake and a fake genre that could be real." Also from Pitchfork, Patrick St. Michel calls vaporwave a "niche corner of Internet music populated by Westerners goofing around with Japanese music, samples, and language". Michelle Lhooq of Vice wrote that "according to commenters in various music forums, it's 'chillwave for Marxists,' 'post-elevator music,' "corporate smooth jazz Windows 95 pop". She explained that "parodying commercial taste isn't exactly the goal. Vaporwave doesn't just recreate corporate lounge music – it plumps it up into something sexier and more synthetic."
Music writer Adam Harper of Dummy Mag describes vaporwave as having an ambiguous or accelerationist relationship to consumer capitalism, writing that "these musicians can be read as sarcastic anti-capitalists revealing the lies and slippages of modern techno-culture and its representations, or as its willing facilitators, shivering with delight upon each new wave of delicious sound." He noted that the name itself was both a nod to vaporware, a name for products that are introduced but never released, and the idea of libidinal energy being subjected to relentless sublimation under capitalism. Music educator Grafton Tanner wrote, "vaporwave is one artistic style that seeks to rearrange our relationship with electronic media by forcing us to recognize the unfamiliarity of ubiquitous technology ... vaporwave is the music of 'non-times' and 'non-places' because it is sceptical of what consumer culture has done to time and space".
Speaking on the adoption of a vaporwave- and seapunk-inspired rebrand by MTV International, Jordan Pearson of Motherboard, Vice's technology website, noted how "the cynical impulse that animated vaporwave and its associated Tumblr-based aesthetics is co-opted and erased on both sides—where its source material originates and where it lives". Xavier described her 2012 album Contemporary Sapporo (札幌コンテンポラリー) as "a brief glimpse into the new possibilities of international communication" and "a parody of American hypercontextualization of e-Asia circa 1995". Critic Simon Reynolds characterized Daniel Lopatin's Chuck Person project as "relat[ing] to cultural memory and the buried utopianism within capitalist commodities, especially those related to consumer technology in the computing and audio/video entertainment area". Speaking about the "supposedly subversive or parodic elements" of vaporwave in 2018, Reynolds said that the genre had become redundant, in some respects, to modern trap music and mainstream hip hop: "What could be more insane or morbid than the subjectivity in a Drake record or a Kanye song? The black Rap n B mainstream is further out sonically and attitudinally than anything the white Internet-Bohemia has come up with. Their role is redundant. Rap and R&B ... is already the Simulacrum, is already decadence."
The Brooklyn Rail's Scott Beauchamp proposes a parallel between punk's "No Future" stance and its active "raw energy of dissatisfaction" deriving from the historical lineage of Dada dystopia, and vaporwave's preoccupation with "political failure and social anomie". Vaporwave's stance is more focused on loss, the notion of lassitude, and passive acquiescence. Beauchamp writes that "vaporwave was the first musical genre to live its entire life from birth to death completely online". Cultural theorist Dominic Pettman, professor of Culture and Media at the New School for Social Research, notes that the internet causes users to have micro-experiences of "hypermodulation". Beauchamp suggests that expressions of hypermodulation inspired both the development and downfall of vaporwave.
Offshoots and subgenres
—Rob Arcand, Vice
- Vaportrap integrates trap beats. It was popularized by Blank Banshee 0.
- Mallsoft magnifies vaporwave's lounge influences. It may be viewed in connection to "the concept of malls as large, soulless spaces of consumerism ... exploring the social ramifications of capitalism and globalization".
- Future funk expands upon the disco/house elements of vaporwave. It takes a more energetic approach than vaporwave. It incorporates elements of French house, albeit produced in the same sample based manner as vaporwave. Most of these samples are drawn from Japanese city pop records from the 1980s.
- Simpsonwave was a YouTube phenomenon made popular by the user Lucien Hughes. It mainly consists of videos with scenes from the American animated television series The Simpsons set to various vaporwave tracks. Clips are often put together out of context and edited with VHS-esque distortion effects and surreal visuals, giving them a "hallucinatory and transportive" feel.
- Fashwave (a portmanteau of "fascist" and "synthwave"), is a largely instrumental subgenre of vaporwave and synthwave that originated on YouTube circa 2015. With political track titles and occasional soundbites, the genre combines Nazi symbolism with the visuals associated with vaporwave and synthwave. The offshoot Trumpwave focuses on Donald Trump.[nb 1]
- Hardvapour emerged in late 2015 as a reimagination of vaporwave with darker themes, faster tempos, and heavier sounds. It is influenced by speedcore and gabber, and is viewed as oppositional to the vaporwave aesthetic. According to Vice's Rob Arcand, the genre lies somewhere between vaporwave and distroid, writing that hardvapour uses similar music software tools "not out of any special fixation with them, but simply because they're now the cheapest and most accessible tools around."
- According to Bandcamp Daily's Simon Chandler, as of 2016, there also existed "broken transmission" (or "signalwave"), "utopian virtual", "post-Internet", "late-night lo-fi", and "vapornoise".
- Blank Banshee
- Daniel Lopatin (Chuck Person, Oneohtrix Point Never)
- Giant Claw
- James Ferraro
- Ramona Xavier (Macintosh Plus, Vektroid, Laserdisc Visions)
- Ryan DeRobertis (Saint Pepsi, Skylar Spence)
- In 2017, Vice's Penn Bullock and Eli Penn reported on the phenomenon of self-identified fascists and alt-right members appropriating vaporwave music and aesthetics, describing fashwave as "the first fascist music that is easy enough on the ears to have mainstream appeal". Vice writes that Trumpwave exploits vaporwave's perceived ambivalence towards the corporate culture it engages with, allowing it to recast Trump as "the modern-day inheritor of the mythologized 80s, a decade that is taken to stand for racial purity and unleashed capitalism". The Guardian's Michael Hann notes that the movement is not unprecedented; similar offshoots occurred in punk rock in the 1980s and black metal in the 1990s. Like those genres, Hann believes there is little chance fashwave will ever "impinge on the mainstream".
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Finally, we truly come full circle with the oldest and, oddly, the most recently popular entry on our list. Indeed, the prevalence of music made with samples of Japanese city pop has led to a reappraisal of the genre by modern listeners. In other words, fans of future funk got sick of cut product and went straight to the source.
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Tout a commencé sur Tumblr, avec le vaporwave, un genre de funk rétrofuturiste, qui est allé puiser dans la City Pop une esthétique liée à la culture pop japonaise des années 1980.
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- For early 2010s microgenre of electronic music, see Tanner 2016, p. 3. For Internet meme, see:
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... this musical microgenre/internet meme's obsession with obsolete technology ...
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Vaporwave is a total meme, but there’s really cool stuff about it.
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The next-level gambit paid off with second album 新しい日の誕生, an unparalleled success within a small, passionate pocket of the internet.
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