At the point where nostalgia meets consumerism, where Muzak meets dreamscapes and where the web meets shopping malls, lies vaporwave, one of the Internet's most curious subcultures.
Track 1 (Introductions, Atriums and Roman Busts)
Vaporwave is a concept and culture that defies easy definition. Part ironic parody, part serious artistic movement, it somehow manages to continually fascinate and perplex me.
Born on the net, circa 2010, and quickly exploding across virtual space where it maintains a well-filled niche, vaporwave is probably best summed up as a genre of music.
Of course, that definition is woefully incomplete, because not only is very little of the music actually original, but much of it isn’t even really music. While, by and large, vaporwave consists of slowed down, chopped up and edited versions of old Muzak-style songs (the kind you might have heard in an elevator or walking around a shopping mall, if you were inclined to do those things, circa 1990), nearly as many tracks are digitally destroyed television, radio or in-store advertisements (for an extreme example of this latter, see Prism Genesis by Fuji Grid TV).
Vaporwave is also unique as a genre because it is not just aural. It is intimately married to a form of visual art that relies heavily on nostalgia, early web culture and pastiche. Album covers and related art might evoke the faux classicism of a stereotypical ’80s business office, or the haunting feeling of an empty grocery store.
Even the song titles are part of the aesthetic experience, with many making use of Google-Translate (and often nonsense) Japanese.
Take, as an example, the gold standard of the genre, リサフランク420 / 現代のコンピュ by MACINTOSH PLUS from the album entitled Floral Shoppe (the song title, by the way, loosely translates to Lisa Frank 420/Modern Computing).
Listen to the track, and immediately you are confronted with the uncanniness of this genre. You see the Roman bust staring at you from what could easily be the main image of Microsoft Encarta from 1995. Then the slow, almost-but-not-quite relaxing sounds of a track you may nearly recognize starts to play (in fact, the original sample is Diana Ross’s It’s Your Move).
It can be thoroughly disturbing, especially in an album like Computer Decay by Infinity Frequencies, where each track is too slowed down to be recognizable, but something nonetheless remains.
Vaporwave, as music, is also usually incredibly boring. These tracks almost invariably drone on to the point of mind-shattering when-will-it-end-ness. But this boredom serves a purpose, and I am convinced it is why, unlike so many ironic, meme-y Internet effluvia, vaporwave seems determined to stick around.
Track 2 (Analyses, Lingering Dreams and Total Flow)
Boredom, paradoxically, is incredibly interesting. Look at people, especially young people, when they’re bored and you see something entirely contradictory. You see people listening to music through headphones, playing with their phones, even watching TV, all while obviously bored out of their minds.
I’ve done it. Been immensely bored for one reason or another and yet unable to turn off the TV. Often, I’ll even have the TV on in the background while scrolling through my phone and still be bored.
Late writer and educator Mark Fisher has a name for this activity of engaged boredom. He calls it “depressive hedonia.” Unlike generic depression, which is usually characterized by anhedonia (an inability to feel pleasure), Fisher described depressive hedonia as an inability to do anything but pursue pleasure or, in this case, distraction.
There is a type of content that is perfectly suited to a condition of depressive hedonia, and that is Muzak.
Originally designed to fill space and to distract, Muzak was a brand of easy-listening, inoffensive music played throughout the mid-to-late 20th century in shopping malls and workplaces to keep workers productive and shoppers shopping. Both are activities in which an engaged boredom is wonderfully useful.
Ads and commercials, too, play a similar role in what philosopher Fredric Jameson describes as television’s “total flow.” Jameson remarks that television streams its content constantly, without interruption, or rather “the interruptions – called commercials – are less intermissions than they are fleeting opportunities to visit the bathroom.”
They don’t so much break up the flow as allow it to continue without becoming boring, in and of itself.
This seems to me the perfect way to conceptualize vaporwave. By taking these tools of distraction (Muzak, ads) that allow us to remain in our depressive hedonia, and then distorting them, it forces us to directly confront boredom without allowing for the possibility of distraction or engagement.
Fisher’s use of mental health in his analysis (tying engaged boredom to a form of depression) is also highly illustrative. In other words, when vaporwave reflects our own boredom back at us, raw and unmediated, it also reflects the anxieties that are its ultimate cause.
Fisher notes that mental health is the key affliction of young people in the U.K., and this is a trend that proves true around the world. Chronicle Herald reporter Andrea Gunn, in a Sept. 5/18 story, notes Canada has one of the highest rates of suicide in the developed world. In 2016, Nova Scotia alone saw more than 800 hospitalizations for mental illness.
This is what makes vaporwave so powerful among certain groups of people and is why it has embedded itself so thoroughly in online culture. It isn’t just rosy-tinted nostalgia, or memes gone awry. It is an expression of an underlying symptom of modern society; one with which even we, in our rather out-of-the-way peninsula, are not unfamiliar.
Vaporwave has become, in many ways, part of the very fabric of the Internet, with the aesthetics and themes reconstituted in mutated forms ubiquitously throughout the web.
From new tracks, to Twitter avatars, to forum comments and everything in between, vaporwave’s reach extends like tendrils through digital channels. And although vaporwave exists, was birthed and will eventually die in the Internet’s negative space, the anxieties that it reflects and expresses live in us, in the real world, as well.
Jesse Scott is a writer and cartoon-watcher who spent too much time and money in school. He lives in Halifax with his cat.