Vaporwave, I think, is a bit of a misunderstood genre on the internet. The discussion around it seems to always skirt around what exactly it is both sonically and thematically. Whilst the genre is still fairly controversial on the internet I think that it stands as an important relic of the internet culture of the mid 2010s.
What it was like as a community, in the early days, is perhaps lost to time. But with any art movement we can trace the influences and try to understand exactly where the music stood culturally. I don't even necessarily think it was the best music of its time but rather an interesting product of a lot of cultural shift that occurred on the internet around the time of its genesis.
To chart the sonics of vaporwave, DJ Screw is a good place to start, by no means is it the only place to start but it's a place that which heavily influenced the sound of psychedelic electronic music in the 90's and throughout the 21st century so far.
DJ Screw was a Texan DJ who pioneered a sound that became eponymous with himself ("screwed and chopped") the music he produced was at - base-level - a slowed syrupy version of the southern rap (and later east and west coast).
A surprising amount of the music that he made was very focused on the feelings of isolation, class struggle etc. On the track "Inside Lookin Out" there's a brutal passage at 3m33s where Screw repeats "they found me guilty and sentenced me to 20 to life" 3 times in a row, he points directly the moment of pain from the original track in such a powerfully emotional way and completely transforms the song because of it.
DJ Screw worked with a lot of the artists he 'remixed'. And often got people to freestyle over beats from other people. It's clear he was a community conduit for both the performers and the consumers of his work.
Moreover, he didn't limit himself just to hip-hop. There are quite a few examples of pop music that he remixed including Phil Collins - In the Air Tonight. This version is largely untouched apart from the slowing, some reverb, and a lot of vinyl crackle; the slowness of this track just builds and builds towards the famous drum riff and gives it a completely new feel of tension that the original doesn't have. Screw builds the tension in a way the original perhaps overlooked , the original Collins song's build feels like spacey but still stands as a song. Screw leaves you waiting for four minutes and thirty seconds just knowing what's about to happen, he recontextualises the build into this much more tense emotion. The technique of slowing the music allows the listener to much better explore the emotions in the music and forces them to think about what's happening currently in the song rather than what is coming up.
Perhaps one of his most bizarre tracks is an 11 minute version of genius of love that is mixed with an SNL skit about Ronald Reagan, the original that's been slowed down is a 1982 release: "Rich Little - Presidents Rap". The slowing gives it this bizarre space to it, everything is slurred and blurred and the timing feels off. This sort of warping of reality is used to portray the delirious drug use of the southern rap scene (of course codeine use being a large part of said scene, and led to the eventual death of Screw himself).
DJ Screw's aesthetic sensibilities and effective creation of a psychic space to describe the use of drugs like codeine still looms large over the hip-hop scene, recently people like A$AP Rocky have directly used it (curiously, in 2011 which seems to be a date to remember). Ron C, another Texas DJ and collaborator as dedicated himself to keeping the Screw legacy alive and is still often cited as an influence for artists. The Oscar-winning movie Moonlight also uses this style in its soundtrack (with Ron C, The Chopstars contributing to a remix of it too), this time using orchestral music.
Daniel Lopatin is a now-famous musician performing under the name 'Oneohtrix Point Never'. Nowadays his music takes on a much more song-like structure (starting with Replica (2011)) but before then he was involved in a litany of side projects. Most of this music was a lot less structured and took on this dreamy bliss state that was also at time reached by Screw.
Games was the name of the project between Lopatin and Joel Ford with only one EP releasing (That We Can Play) before it changed its name simply to 'Ford & Lopatin'. Games also released three 'screwed and chopped' style mixes: Heaven Can Wait I-III. These were in the style of the DJ Screw remixes but much more focused on pop, italo disco, and eurodance; music that is often seen as 'cheesy' perhaps now. Perhaps it lost some of the emotion but it was definitely on the way to defining the vapor sound.
The creation of these mixtapes also seemed to precede the creation of the Chuck Person (also a pseudonym of Lopatin) ECCOJAMS album. This took the screwed and chopped style laid out in Heaven Can Wait to the extreme. This release took repetition to the max, each song having usually just one or two sampled lines repeated and very little in the way of a traditional song structure. But it remains to be one of the most psychedelic vapor-adjacent releases because of its ability to create a head-space with the hypnotic nature almost like being in a washing machine. A lot of the lyrics repeated are very mantra-like and often somewhat philosophic or existential in nature (something we'll get to later).
The most famous video from the ECCOJAMS project (nobody here, uploaded by 'sunset corp' which was later found to be Lopatin himself) shows this recursive sound almost perfectly with a snaking video-delay rainbow road set to the backdrop of a generic American set of corporate looking buildings. ECCOJAMS is dated to have been started at least in 2009, almost immediately after the 2008 financial crash (and formally released in 2010). ECCOJAMS being present on the web before it was officially released also helped cement and mythologise its creation, no one really knew it was Lopatin until a few years after release so for that time the cult classic. Lopatin himself said that he'd hope people would copy the style much like he'd copied it in part from DJ Screw.
Working in a similar sonic space James Ferraro created works like Far Side Virtual which were much more focused on the culture of the early internet, Far Side Virtual explicitly references things like The Sims, Second Life, and early 2000s brands like Starbucks and the like. A lot of the textures are very reminiscent of corporate 80s and 90s training or informational videos. Music like this was very formational in the sound of vaporwave.
Vaporwave obviously draws from the above influences but infuses it with a strong 80s new-age and at times Jon Hassell-style fourth world. This is of course in support of it's parody ultra-capitalist worldview through which things yield entirely to consumer and corporate culture. Vaporwave imagines a world in which all of culture is replaced by product, including music. Drawing from the world of new-age and packaged spiritual music, music made just to sell and not for any particular artistic intent.
Further it looks to music that is explicitly made as a product: Library Music. Studios like KPM, Bruton, and the BBC Radiophonic Workshop all existed to create music to be used in productions. Often these are cited as 'preceding' the vapor aesthetic but I think this is narrow-minded as to what exactly vaporwave is setting out to achieve, the idea that the music itself is an ultra-capitalistic product. It should not be surprising, then that vaporwave calls back to the types of music that existed before it to be exactly that.
Similar observations have also been made to Muzak, a genre that is actually a company. That is Muzak was a company that supplied music for public spaces, offices, and similar sorts of more populated areas. Muzak goes further than Library Music in that later on in the company's progression they sought to make music that affected people's patterns of thought. Muzak would create a programme of music for the whole day, sending out records (and later, tapes) that would be placed in special machines to ensure continuous playback throughout the day. This also included silence, they recognised the need for a break from the music, and thus could tailor the times of the day when it was best to play certain types of music; they called this concept stimulus progression in their marketing material.
Vaporwave is music that's made for the internet. This might seem obvious but with the litany of un-cleared samples and circles in which it rose could have only occurred on the internet. This music was made for the internet, but it's also trapped in the internet physical releases of these albums are rare and usually bootleg or 'under the table' because of the legal problems and even just the demand due to just how geographically widespread the members of this movement are. Contrast this with DJ Screw's yearning for a life outside of the 'gangster' there's a narrative of being trapped but it's recontextualised from purely capital in the sense of money in the 80s and 90s to an expansion into the social capital at which the internet is so good at becoming the medium for.
An example of the transformation of previous work into a capitalist frame can be seen in what most will consider the archetypical vaporwave song, リサフランク420 / 現代のコンピュ by Macintosh Plus, sampling "Diana Ross - Its your Move". The song takes the line "I've given up on trying // To sell you things that you aren't buying" and repeats it a good few times, this repetition is much like DJ Screw's and it draws sharp focus to the line which in the aesthetic of vaporwave has a much different meaning; after the 2008 financial crash and subsequent decline of American product culture (Floral Shoppe came out in 2011). The capitalist culture had given up on trying to sell things that people were not buying. It sits at this point of mourning the consumer culture of the 20th century but making fun of the logical extremes of the same culture. This yearning feeling is amplified through the music. A lot of producers of the genre would have perhaps lost housing or watched their parents struggle financially in the years after 2008.
The idea of repetition in music to hone a point is clearly not unique to either DJ Screw or vaporwave. 'Mantra-rock' bands like Stereolab and John Maus use it often, most of the time those songs repeat a phrase over and over to draw the focus intently on words and feelings through them. Vaporwave's use of delay also seeks to add to the repetition, capitalism is mediated by repetition adding more repetition seeks to create the feeling of an overwhelming feeling, sensory overload. This isn't something ignored by the vaporwave scene either, the release VHS Logos - Mantra is perhaps a nod towards this.
Of course these aren't the only influences in the vaporwave genre, the 80s Japanese consumer electronics market also features heavily another example of consumerism that has since (at least partly declined). City pop and similar Japanese genres from around that time are oft sampled. City pop is a genre that relies pretty heavily on the popularity of the star (idol) with unseen session musicians often playing on hundreds of different tracks with different stars featured. VHS also plays a large part, notable for being the first wide-spread format to enable people at home to watch video at home, VHS had a large market and was later on when it was cheaper to do saturated with releases not only of movies but of 'videos', non-narrative often times instructional content.
Clearly drawing from the music of capitalism past to imagine capitalism future is something vaporwave was actively doing, but standing at the threshold of the 2008 financial crisis, what happened to these futures? How does it express the yearning to not be trapped in a reality mediated by capitalism?
Digital Lost Futures
In 2009 the NHS and DWP held a conference in the virtual world game Second Life, this foray into the idea of holding meetings online was not particularly new but the idea that we could have a virtual physical presence and that this could enhance the experience for a real governmental organisation. At the time the virtual conference held around 74 people.
This utopian vision of the internet as a space for us a no-borders and almost no-limits world of possibility was pretty rooted in the 2000s. There was just enough technology to show the possibilities of the idea of Virtual Worlds such as Second Life and worlds.com. But there was not a large corporate presence online yet. BBC was an early adopter and still looked like below when Second Life was released.
Even MMORPGs like Guild Wars, World of Warcraft, and Runescape existed to create this idea of a purely virtual community that you were a part of and contributed to. Many World of Warcraft guilds from the 2000s are still quite tightly knit groups of friends today still.
This recent poetry piece sums up the feelings of growing up on the net with the death of the internet and the move into adolescence, perhaps even making the act of growing up and even more violent act with a hard severage from the world that we knew as a pre-teen. Capturing the times past and the innocence of childhood has been a theme in all sorts of media throughout the years but this is an entire morphing of the environment, there is no childhood hometown to visit emotionally anymore. The landscape is razed and replaced with corporations and monetisation. The best we can do is sit and look through the lens of the wayback machine at pages with media missing.
The death of flash and rise of the web framework only helps to make the internet more of a monoculture. With a lot of the larger tech companies creating their own design languages (e.g. Google's Material (2014), Twitter's Bootstrap (2011)) and even defining how the web's architecture is created (Facebook's Opengraph (2010), Google's Angularjs (2016), Facebook's React (2013), Cloudflare (2009)). Gone are the days of the small, entirely custom webpage; the modern web consumer, and they are a consumer, expect features that are only maintainable as part of a larger codebase. This relatively simple website itself is using at least some of those technologies as you read this.
Larger corporations have also narrowed the scope of possible online identity, where once you could essentially be anyone you choose. Famously Google+ required real names but Twitter, Facebook, etc. all require some part of you to be tied to them whether it's a phone number or government ID they make it very hard to get away with throwaway emails and will often even record locations of access. All of this seeks to ground the internet in the real world and the breakdown of this utopian
What Ferraro did was not purely explore this character in a way that was painted in a purely optimistic, utopian viewpoint but rather as a semi-cynical look at the digital lost futures would have been brought about by the virtual optimism of the time. This optimism echoes the modernist post-war utopian thinking in that it is limited in scope but imagines a world through which all interactions are modelled rigorously; only this time it's trapped in the computer mediated by concepts of human-computer interaction.
The dream of online as a place for us was over, No longer did we have "Playground of Endless Terrain" for us to explore instead a complete corporate totalitarianism over the internet world with only a few companies becoming the assumed point of contact for everyone online, there's an assumed default presence at at least one of them. People would much rather go and look for a brand on Google than guess that their website might be brand.com. Or even looking through social media like Twitter or Facebook.
However there have not been any real material changes to the architecture of the web, there's nothing to stop you creating a website or joining an IRC channel. More that capitalism has created a web that exists to monetise our presence on platforms both through advertising and data harvesting that they are designed to make us want to use them and exclusively them. In 2009 Facebook introduced the ability to 'like' pages, this brought content from outside of the people you chose to be friends with to your feed, in 2011 Facebook switched to a purely algorithmic news feed breaking any sense of chronology on the net (twitter did similar in 2016). This breakdown of chronology of content only makes it easier to slip in commercialised content (whether it be ads, product placement, or content marketing).
In fact platforms themselves are being developed entirely under this pretence, that they will capture players with a large cultural importance and then people will be able to consume the product. A wildly popular example of this recently has been Fortnite and its events with Marshmello, Disney, and Travis Scott.
It is important to realise how much the atom of content matters to today's internet, I'm generating it now by writing this article. Content exists both to make money itself but also solidify the relationship of these internet 'assumed point of contacts' to the user: 'all the best content is shared on reddit.com!' Content is a commodity.
A lot of the big name vaporwave artists and pioneers of the genre seem to have become bored with the concept in a way that DJ Screw never seemed to be through his music; perhaps the formulaic (or folk-ic) nature of the genre lead it to be watered down. Or perhaps the idea that their anti-capitalist content itself had become a commodity that was being copied lead to a decline in interest to create the artform. Labels like Beer on the Rug and Dream Catalogue still release music to this day, and often to a decent number of sales. Business Casual seems to have segued more into the space of nu-disco and future funk, but still retain the aesthetic.
It reminds me a little bit of the movement from punk to post-punk, a lot of the 'true punks' had left and even hated the movement by time it gained wide-spread popularity. Post punk then sought to do similar criticisms of the power structures of which punk was challenging but through different lenses, the adoption of sonic elements from beyond the electric guitar and incorporation of a much larger gamut of influence from around the world.
Perhaps Macintosh Plus has had the last laugh here, only last year releasing a twelve minute vapor-inspired but removed from this Screwed sound deconstructed club track. It does feel like a little bit of a 'fuck you' to the still-existing vapor community that worships Floral Shoppe.
Thanks for reading, and thanks for all the people who helped proofread for me. For those that are on mobile or otherwise would just like it here's a playlist of all the music embedded in this post