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Vaporwave, Dadaism, and the New Age of Anxiety
August 13, 2018
“To think that Dada will ever die is an absurd. Dada will always emerge anew one way of another, always when too much stupidity has amassed”
Vaporwave is dead. And we have killed it. Vaporwave was a microgenre born on internet forums, Bandcamp, and YouTube in the early 2010s. An offshoot of chillwave, hypnagogic pop, muzak, and other forms of electronic music. What does Vaporwave sound like? An amazing description by Vice’s Michelle Lhooq asks you to “imagine taking bits of 80's Muzak, late-night infomercials, smooth jazz, and that tinny tune receptionists play when they put you on hold, then chopping that up, pitching it down, and scrambling it to the point where you’ve got saxophone goo dripping out of a cheap plastic valve. That’s vaporwave.” The 2011 album Floral Shoppe released by electronic musician Vektroid (Ramona Andra Xavier) under the alias Macintosh Plus has come to define the genre. Vektroid takes samples from funk, R&B, dance, and the video game Turok: Dinosaur Hunter, slows them down, loops them, and combines in way that feels both familiar and alien. The effect is soothing, eerie, and jarring all at the same time. Floral Shoppe soon attracted a cult following on the internet and became meme-ifed to a near obnoxious level. Not long after, Vaporwave was declared dead (a phrase which itself has become a meme). Artists didn’t want to be associated with genre widely regarded as a joke and its narrow confines made experimentation and growth difficult. Despite it’s death, new Vaporwave continues to be made and new fans continually find the genre. Vaporwave’s lasting success may be due to a hidden depth. In this post we will examine Vaporwave’s appeal in our current age of anxiety, explore it’s similarities to Dadaism, another absurdist artistic movement, and identify the anti-capitalist undercurrent that permeates through the genre.
Vaporwave is more than just a sound, the visuals accompanying a track or album are critical to the “a e s t h e t i c”. Like the music, the visuals are also heavily sampled from bygone eras for the purpose of producing a warm nostalgic glow. Graphics that could have been produced on machines from the 80s or 90s, advertisements from the same era, and pages that look like they were made on geocities are all widely utilized. While most listeners (and artists) are likely too young to remember the music being sampled, the visual samples are specifically tailored to bring back hazy memories of childhood days and late-night sleepovers. Clips from video games, cartoons, and anime are widely used in vaporwave videos, often chopped up and distorted to produce the same dream-like quality as the music. Subgenres (nanogenres?) dedicated to specific games or shows have sprung up including Zeldawave and Simpsonwave. These videos are cozy and calming, creating a nostalgia for a time that never really was. It’s partly this quality that keeps this dead genre as popular as it has ever been. Vaporwave’s peak popularity, as measured by frequency of Google searches, was sometime in late 2016 early 2017 and has only experienced a mild decline since then. There are still numerous active forums dedicated to the genre across the internet, r/Vaporwave for example has over 100,000 subscribers.
What factors underlie this fascination for Vaporwave-styled nostalgia? It may not be a coincidence that Vaporwave exploded in popularity in 2016. For many millennials the 2016 election would crystalize a growing sense of disillusionment around a number of issues related to progress. Social progress, economic progress, and progress on climate change all came under threat during the lead-up to the election, and came under assault the day after. Since then the world has felt hyper-volatile with new disasters, scandals, and crises occurring daily. In 2018, the Doomsday Clock, a symbol of the likelihood of a man-made global catastrophe maintained by the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists’ Science and Security Board (which has 15 Nobel laureates), was moved to just 2 minutes to midnight, due to “the failure of President Trump and other world leaders to deal with looming threats of nuclear war and climate change.” This is the closest to midnight the clock has been since the US and Soviet Union tested their first thermonuclear devices in 1953. It’s no wonder an art style that feels like a Percocet experienced a surge in popularity.
Anxious and turbulent times breed new forms of expression and art. Interestingly, many of Vaporwave’s hallmarks share a strikingly similarities to another art movement that arose during a time of global anxiety, Dadaism. Emerging out of post-WWI Europe, Dadaism was a response to the horror and devastation of the war and a rejection of the ideas they felt contributed to societal suffering, including logic, reason, science, and modern capitalism. Like Vaporwave, Dadaist artists made wide-spread use of sampling. Collage, photomontage, cut-up writing, and sound poetry were all commonplace in the movement.Der Kunstkritiker, “The Art Critic”, by the Austrian artist Raoul Hausmann uses magazine cut outs and a fragment of a German banknote to call out capitalist forces controlling the art world. Hannah Hoch, one of the few women in the movement, created stunning photomontages examining gender roles and the in the rapidly industrializing world. Her piece Das Schone Madchen, “The Beautiful Girl” (pictured above), explores the commodification of the female body by combining female body parts, car parts, and BMW logos. Another stylistic similarity between Vaporwave and Dadaism is a penchant for surrealism. The Dadaist’s embrace of the irrational and absurd heavily influenced the surrealist movement that followed it. In the Manifesto of Surrealism, André Brenton defines Surrealism as “the belief in the superior reality of certain forms of previously neglected associations, in the omnipotence of dream, in the disinterested play of thought.” Ramona Xavier, the producer behind Vektroid and Macintosh Plus, described the goal of her New Dreams Ltd. project was “to create some rift between reality and fiction.” She elaborated that “it seems like the world has been slowly tuning out of reality for the last 20 years and that fascinates me. There is a big undertone of surrealism to everything that was going on at the time.” While the Surrealist’s of the 1920’s turned to dreams of the unconscious for inspiration, Vaporwave artists turn to our digital dreams, creating soundscapes of an imagined past and a future out of reach.
Underneath the memes and the jokes, Vaporwave shares a philosophical and political ideology with Dadaism as well. The Dadaists were relentless in their criticism of capitalism, with Hausmann’s Mechanischer Kopf (Der Geist Unserer Zeit), "The Mechanical Head (The Spirit of Our Time)" (pictured above), being one of the best examples. A Marxist critique of Hegel’s noble view of the mind, “Hausmann turns inside out the notion of the head as seat of reason, an assumption that lies behind the European fascination with the portrait. He reveals a head that is penetrated and governed by brute external forces”. Political leaning Vaporwave takes aim at capitalistic enterprises as well. Often described as music for “abandoned malls”, Vaporwave exposes the emptiness of techno-capitalism. By taking muzak, R&B tracks, and dance tracks that could easily have been (or were) used in commercials, infomercials, or a corporate elevator, slowing them down and stripping them down the artists demonstrate the shallowness of the endeavor. When combined with images and video from the time, as in Saint Pepsi’s Enjoy Yourself (video below) the effect is synergistic. An even more absurd example is METALLIC GHOSTS/Chaz Allen's The Pleasure Centre, a Vaporwave concept album, takes the listener on a tour of the world’s largest mall circa 2026 including a stop at the Stank Booty Gift Store. Even the term Vaporwave is a shot at capitalism and technology companies. Vaporwave is a riff on Vaporware, a term for software or hardware that is announced to the public, and greatly advertised or hyped, but never released, often with the intent of keeping customers from switching to competing products or dissuading rivals from even developing competing products.
At first glance Vaporwave may appear to be a narrow joke of a genre, more about memes and color schemes than musical or ideological content. But appearances are often not what they seem and the Vaporwave stream runs deep. This deceptiveness or illusiveness is why people keep making it, searching for it, and discussing it. Or maybe people just enjoy relaxing a bit and being wrapped up its warm glow.