Vaporwave is a genre of music that spawned from a semi-underground internet aesthetic. On various internet forums, a small community of people bonded over their love of 80s and 90s pop culture, early graphic design, pixels, roman busts, Japanese culture, and music from the 80s, namely new age, funk, and smooth jazz. Unbeknownst to them a bizarre, experimental style of music would soon merge with this existing nostalgic niche.
Before the term “vaporwave” even existed, a handful of artists were unknowingly creating the roots of the genre-to-be. In 2010, experimental electronic artist Daniel Lopatin, also known as Oneohtrix Point Never, released Eccojams Vol. 1 under the pseudonym Chuck Person as “a simple joke”. The album is filled with 80s, 90s, and early 2000s pop songs that are chopped up, slowed down, and looped for minutes on end. Lopatin never intended for Eccojams to take off, let alone be taken seriously. In 2011, another experimental electronic producer named James Ferraro released Far Side Virtual, an album that “used themes of globalization and internet culture [to create] a digitalized ode to a rapidly changing world” (Wolfenstein OS X).
Common elements from these albums were combined to create one of vaporwave’s most famous albums, Macintosh Plus’s Floral Shoppe, released in 2011. Macintosh Plus is one of many aliases used by Portland-based producer Ramona Andra Xavier, known best by her recording name Vektroid. Floral Shoppe hosts a collection of droning edits and loops of 80s elevator music, heavily inspired by Lopatin and Ferraro. It’s most popular track is entitled “リサフランク420 / 現代のコンピュー”, roughly translating to “The Computing of Lisa Frank 420 / Contemporary.” The track samples Diana Ross’s “It’s Your Move” and revolves around the misheard lyric, “It’s all in your head.” While Vektroid had been releasing experimental music for a couple of years at this point, Floral Shoppe was among the first releases to kickstart vaporwave as a genre.
The term “vaporwave” was first used by Texas-based producer Will Burnett (Internet Club, Ecco Unlimited) in response to Vektroid’s releases on the Bandcamp label, Beer on the Rug. The name itself stems from a combination of pre-existing terms: “vaporware”, a term used to describe a product that is announced to the public, and a Marxist term that describes society’s change in response to being subjected to capitalism. In Marx’s notorious Communist Manifesto, he states “All that is solid melts into air.” In this passage, Marx describes sublimation, “the transmutation of libidinal energy…[and] the name of the physical process that turns a solid into a gas” (Dummy Mag). This newly-named music gave rise to a digital punk movement. Producer Wolfenstein OS X explains that “[vaporwave] glorifies the stealing of other people’s art and marketing it under something else with foreign languages” (WosX). In this way, vaporwave functions as a critique of contemporary music and the mechanics and ideals of capitalism. The genre as a whole goes against modern ideas of ownership and is often described and marketed as anonymous music for anonymous people. Vaporwave artist Eco Virtual strongly agrees with this sentiment: “In a world where nothing is private, it is refreshing to find something that feels like it was found in the dumpster of a thrift shop…where it does not matter where it came from or who made it, but rather that it takes you elsewhere, somewhere distant from reality.”
In 2012, Internet Club released two albums, Modern Business Collection and Vanishing Vision, both of which were built on the theme of accepting corporate ideals. This changed vaporwave’s focus to chopping up and redistributing advertisements and commercials.
Not long after these releases, many artists were caught in a rut of overusing capitalism as the basis of their albums. Many releases began to sound the same and countless albums were being made as jokes. Most releases in this phase were created to overthrow vaporwave’s original roots and ideals. However, the rediscovery of an experimental album influenced many artists and further pushed vaporwave forward as a genre.
Skeleton’s self-titled album, 骨架的, was released in 2010, around the same time as Ecco Jams and Far Side Virtual. The tracks on this release are scary, eerily slowed-down songs that drone and make the listener feel uncomfortable. Skeleton’s varying style inspired many artists to steer from vaporwave’s existing roots of 80s nostalgia and capitalism and progressed vaporwave forward into more diverse styles and sub-genres of music.
Another album that vastly progressed vaporwave was released by an artist named Hong Kong Express. In 2014, Hong Kong Express released 浪漫的夢想, translating to “romantic dream.” This album started the Bandcamp label Dream Catalogue. 浪漫的夢想 is described by Hong Kong Express as “A mysterious and romantic trip through the neon haze of a night in hong kong. A journey of subway carriages and fast cars, a love both lost and found, and a connection between souls.” This release was made to be overly melodramatic and cinematic and served as a catalyst for future vaporwave releases. Dream Catalogue operates under the philosophy that vaporwave isn’t about irony or capitalism, rather that it tells a narrative through music. The label hosts many concept albums that carry themes of melancholic dreams of escapism. The release of 浪漫的夢想 and the formation of Dream Catalogue changed the way in which concept albums were made and helped bring in a new wave of artists that changed the sound of vaporwave.
There have been many artists outside of Dream Catalogue who have helped to change the sound of vaporwave. One notably different release was Blank Banshee’s Blank Banshee 0, an album that remixed new age songs with trap influences, often dubbed as vaportrap. Another sub-genre of vaporwave was created with the release of Saint Pepsi’s Hit Vibes in 2013. Hit Vibes coined the term future funk and featured upbeat 70s grooves with vaporwave influences and production techniques. The same year, Disconscious created a sub-genre called mallsoft with the release of Hologram Plaza. Mallsoft embraces the idea of writing music for a certain area or setting. In this case, the music sounds like it was recorded in an old shopping mall. While the idea of mall music is nothing new to vaporwave, this album perpetuated the theme of capitalism in a much more accessible fashion through its use of elevator and mall music. Finally, a recent collaboration between Dream Catalogue’s Hong Kong Express and t e l e p a t h テレパシー能力者 has been pushing to become the new sound of vaporwave, replacing Floral Shoppe. The two artists combined to create the moniker 2 8 1 4 and released 新しい日の誕生 in early 2015. In an interview about the album and on vaporwave in general, Hong Kong Express stated that “Not every album has to be completely unique or have a heavy concept behind it. And I’m not against heavy sampling if it is done inventively, but if you’re just treating vaporwave as any other genre like house or drum n’ bass and trying to copy a formula because you think it has to be that way then it shows a complete lack of inspiration. I think the most important thing to aim for in vaporwave as a producer is to make something cinematic in effect. Make the listener feel inexplainable feelings which is helped by the surreality of the music. Culture is so fast-paced now that all this music is just passing noise — disposable, almost — and I like that aspect of it a lot.”
There’s something to be said about the overarching theme of capitalism in vaporwave —whether it’s embraced or satirized — in that conceptually some artists reject capitalism but musically they emulate it by having it sound like elevator or shopping mall music. Of course, not all artists approach capitalism thematically or musically. While one could argue that sample-based music goes against common concepts of ownership and intellectual property, I believe that vaporwave approaches this in a much more artistic fashion. In the end, the point of vaporwave isn’t always to criticize capitalism through samples and song content; rather, the point of the music is to make the listener feel inexplainable feelings and to take them elsewhere.