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I learned about the genre of vaporwave in my senior year of high school. At lunch, my friend asked me if I had heard of the music genre. I said I hadn’t, but I proceeded to look into it that night, starting on a 22 minute documentary describing the history of the genre from its inception to today. Needless to say, I was hooked from the start by the music and the art that came with it.
Now, what is vaporwave? To start, vaporware is both an aesthetic style and a music genre. The music genre started off as the slowing down, remixing, and chopping up of 80s music hits to create an otherworldly and slightly unsettling ambient groove. For example, the most popular vaporware album, Floral Shoppe by Macintosh Plus, includes the most iconic example of this style, in which the track “Lisa Frank 420/Modern Computer” (this title is actually a translation—all the song titles are in Japanese) cuts up and slows down Diana Ross’s song “It’s Your Move.” At first, it may feel like “God, how can I listen to this for longer than 20 minutes” to looking up 1-hour mixes. The music genre has plenty of subgenres, including Mall Soft (music that tries to mimic the sounds of a mall only in a virtual world), Vaportrap (the vaporwave sound with an addition of computerized high hat drums), or Future Funk (one of my favorites—sampling of 80s funk or pop and remixing it). While the branches of vaporware may sound different, all of them either sample or affect the sound of the 80s and 90s while also putting it through a fantastical yet slightly dystopian filter. I’ve found myself looking into the original songs that the vaporwave song samples to compare both of them. I also love it when artists put in old commercial jingles or news announcers.
Vaporwave is not just a type of music. It also has a specific visual style. To couple with the visual style of vaporwave, the visual style includes plenty of outdated visual graphics (think Windows ’95 ), Japanese imagery, and consumerism. Often vaporwave visuals will use old 80s commercials, mall footage, old anime (Japanese animation) clips, and, oddly enough, Roman busts. The color palette often encompasses bright pinks, blues, and greys, and purples like it’s an 80s scene (but it still feels like something is off). These elements combine to create a style that feels like it’s from the 80s or 90s, but it also feels none of this is from the 80s or 90s. My personal favorite trend is the use of old tv commercials or footage of old weather news along with the music. There’s also a lot of uses of recognizable brands such as Adidas, Pepsi, and Arizona iced tea (I actually started drinking way more Arizona green tea for the aesthetic after getting into vaporwave (It’s also pretty tasty)).
Vaporwave as a trend has been attributed to a critique of extreme materialism. Personally, I’ve never really gathered that feel from the music and aesthetic. I would rather attribute Vaporwave’s underlying theme to a word used by author C.S. Lewis called sehnsucht, a feeling of nostalgia for something never experienced. Vaporwave invites the listener or viewer to go back to a certain time, an idealistic feeling of the 80s and 90s, a time of innovation and technology before the we learned of all the terrifying results such as a lack of privacy. It invites us to think of a time of prosperity and innocence, but the aesthetic knows fully well that this was never really a real time. The glitches and emptiness only signal the fact that our nostalgia is misplaced, making the genre both compelling and unsettling. I may not be from the time that vaporwave hopes to mimic, but I still can get the values and visual appeal of the genre.
Vaporwave is a fascinating visual and music movement that riffs off of nostalgia for something that never happened, a way of signaling that we can’t really go back to the past, even if we wanted to as well as an invitation to look into our materialistic society today; however, no matter if you garner some deeper meaning or lack thereof, vaporwave is a music genre that you should absolutely try at least once. If you are into 80s and 90s music, you should definitely check out some of the tracks to listen to some of your favorites in an entirely weird and cool new way. For those who haven’t heard the original samples, it’s nevertheless a cool genre that’s worth a listen. The history and evolution of the genre is abundantly intriguing. To get you started, I’ve linked the youtube video of the history of vaporwave that got me into the genre. If anything, it’ll give you a great idea of what the movement is about and also includes some pretty neat tunes. You never know—it could turn out to be your next obsession too.