An internet “microgenre,” ill-defined as lazy, unimportant, slowed-down elevator music, embodies the outlook of millennials, Generation Z and even some of the more disillusioned members of earlier postmodernity. The music itself is characterized by this aimless nostalgia, one that conflates the aesthetic themes of the mid ‘80s to late ‘90s. It uses corporate iconography, greco-roman architecture and japanese text as imagery and melts together “loungey” genres such as smooth jazz, R&B and other choice elevator muzak (background music for businesses/public establishments) from the last two decades of the 20th century.
There are many notable artists within this internet genre, but Ramona Xavier, best known as “Macintosh Plus,” is the one credited with drawing widespread attention to a genre that originally started as a satirical off-shoot of “chillwave.” Her magnum opus is Floral Shoppe, best known for the single titled “リサフランク420 / 現代のコンピュ.” The album is an archetype for the aesthetic and sonic appetites of the genre, providing the most confused sense of nostalgia with “garish Pepto Bismol-pink art with mint green Japanese type, a glossy cityscape, and a marble bust staring vacantly upward,” according to Pitchfork’s review. To them, “the music inside made less sense” than the wandering nostalgia of its cover. Ramona Xavier releases music under her primary Vektroid alias, as well as dstnt, Laserdisc Visions, New Dreams Ltd., Virtual Information Desk and PrismCorp Virtual Enterprises. All of these names are nods to office/corporate culture, the thing that vaporwave mocks the most.
The theme of nostalgia for a sanitized, psychologically constructed past that subsumes and omits components of the decades it reaches towards further solidifies this album as a “post-internet” piece. In the same Pitchfork review, the author discusses what “post-internet” music is — a collage derived from an infinite library of music provided by the internet. An entire generation of children grew up on file-sharing services subject to overwhelmingly diverse influences. Every genre, subgenre and microgenre is available for artists to pick at like a charcuterie board. But vaporwave is more than a symbol for genre and decade-bending. It’s a symbol of the disillusionment, even disgust that we now hold towards the internet’s supposed wonder, the illusion of American exceptionalism and the absurdity of consumer existence. There’s a quote from Miles Bowe, a contributor for Pitchfork that is especially poignant:
“Social media has distorted reality with global consequences, giants like Spotify threaten to reduce music to Muzak one mood-generated playlist at a time, tragedies are live-streamed, and we all get battered into numbness by a feed we can’t really turn off,” said Miles Bowe, the author of the Pitchfork review for Floral Shoppe. Every generation has a period of disillusionment, when the great innovations of the world flip over, exposing their adverse underbellies. Every media revolution has its drawbacks.
Vaporwave reflects a mind made lazy, apathetic and detached by the existential anxiety the internet breeds. Every song is awash, modulated to death and slowed down to half-speed, embodying the hypnagogic dream state. The genre actually emerged as a sardonic response to “chillwave,” a genre that served as one of the original millennial responses to global capitalism — shoulder-shrugging energy from 20-something-year-old artists staring down an economic and cultural conundrum.
Songs like “Deadbeat Summer” by Neon Indian are considered archetypes for chillwave. You can feel his apathy executed through a neo-disco, ‘80s new-wave, electro-pop palette.
With vaporwave, it chooses different but in-the-same-realm sonic influences. But it does so carefully, using what is considered watered-down or commercialized genres of music, like smooth jazz. Staunch jazz purists used to condemn smooth jazz as “somewhat repetitive background music” that made too many “artistic sacrifices” after Kenny G popularized its sound around the mid ‘80s. It then took over the ‘90s, occupying public spaces like malls, hotels and bars. Smooth jazz was in every title sequence, every elevator and almost every commercial. It found itself closely associated with corporate branding and consumerism by turning into the kind of muzak designed for mindless activity. It already embodied the sense of detachedness from the world that gets fully flourished in vaporwave. “Smooth sounds for a rough world” was the tagline for a smooth jazz station called The Oasis, 107.5 FM. It was this music that gave corporate iconography life, and created this strange consumerist-centric ethos for the genre. Vaporwave focuses on this “mall music,” waters down the already watered-down, and distills four- to eight-bar samples from smooth jazz/elevator music, making it melt further into the background while simultaneously demanding your attention with intentional glitches placed within. It is a response to the overstimulation of advertising, of big bright neon-signs — a foreclosure of all the senses after being overwhelmed by hyper-capitalistic advertising. I think the description for the r/vaporwave subreddit speaks volumes when discussing this idea of the American Mall, corporate aesthetics and “empty” background music:
“Global capitalism is nearly there. At the end of the world there will only be liquid advertisement and gaseous desire. Sublimated from our bodies, our untethered senses will endlessly ride escalators through pristine artificial environments, more and less than human, drugged-up and drugged down, catalysed, consuming and consumed by a relentlessly rich economy of sensory information, valued by the pixel.”
Vaporwave is a thesis — that consciousness is constantly being waterlogged by advertisement and muzak that hypnotizes instead of stimulates. These “artificial environments” are the malls, amusement parks, casinos and other manmade behemoths of pleasure that are unique to our young country. In response, it satirizes these spaces, creating a hyperreal dimension that is distinctly drugged up and hypnotized, emphasizing the real aridity of a late-capitalistic pleasure centers that wear the veil of excitement and promise. Malls look great, and they overstimulate us with promise, but we are stuck in a loop of consumption and false fulfillment. Capitalism is ugly, and we know it to be. That’s why vaporwave is a synthesis of boredom, disillusionment and a “fuck-it” mentality. The shoulder-shrugging feeling of vaporwave is apparent — its response to capitalism is a hyperbole of the music that defines its consumerist peak in the mid ‘80s to late ‘90s. There’s a unique radicalism in holding a mirror up to what you despise, but a sense of laziness as well. There is nothing more defining for the post-internet generations than the idea of apathy versus activism.
We are alienated, burdened and stupefied by the world of capitalism. Vaporwave perfectly embodies the feelings of a generation becoming aware of their deep desperation, and the bittersweet, drugged-out communion this engenders.