It’s something any child of the ’90s can picture: computer-generated dolphins diving into a pixelated, purple-and-pink sea; sprinkled ghostly vestiges of Windows 95 error reports; old-school Japanese ads for Atari. Visual samples like these are the distinguishing feature of a niche Internet music scene, controversially named “vaporwave.” This sonic aesthetic has a small but devoted fan base that enjoys the music’s “chill” beats and earnest, unaltered sampling of the commercial sounds of the recent past.
“At its finest,” Ian C., a self-described synthesizer enthusiast, says, “vaporwave is sampledelic ’90s-cheesiness worship.” Translation? Vaporwave is a micro-scene born solely of the Internet, carried and nurtured through channels like Bandcamp, SoundCloud, and of course, Tumblr, the last of which provided it with a medium for expansion beyond simple “sound” and into a more nebulous culture or “vibe.” “Sampledelic” refers to its reliance on samples from a variety of ’90s sounds, combining soundtracks from 8-bit games, easy-listening tracks, and other elements to form a relaxed, trippy composition.
Like its name implies, the inspiration behind the music is foggy at best. The etymology of “vaporwave” is best understood as an ongoing Internet joke. In 2009, the artist known as Pictureplane allegedly named the “witch house” genre. After its departure came something called “seapunk,” marked by turquoise colors and a punk-goth look. In March of last year, the New York Times ran a piece headlined “Little Mermaid Goes Punk: Seapunk, a Web Joke With Music, Has Its Moment” and claimed that “Like LOLcats and pedobear, [seapunk] is an inside Web joke that feeds off its own ridiculousness.” And while many claim vaporwave came from seapunk, continuing the “joke,” that’s not entirely accurate. After all, Ian C. states, the first vaporwave musicians didn’t even have a name for their music when they began mixing; someone else decided to label them. So while the name might reflect the ridiculousness of “seapunk,” its music has an entirely independent genealogy—hence the worry that “vaporwave” is killing vaporwave: that thanks to this label, musicians are losing their credibility and individuality, as well as respect among those who move in their circles.
Because the exchange of culture on the Internet is such a nebulous process, it seems pointless to seek out the origins of these interlacing terms. But the terms are important, and artists are often dismayed when they are carelessly interchanged and misused. There is, in fact, a resistance within all microcultural phenomena to naming and labeling. The Chicago Reader ran a story earlier this year exploring the anti-label attitude in relation to vaporwave. Metallic Ghosts, a 17-year-old musician, told the Reader, “As soon as you name something, it’s going to take off and die.” Accordingly, the Reader ran another story just last week commemorating the confusing one-year “anniversary” of the birth-and-death of vaporwave.
Another artist whose music had been haphazardly labeled “vaporwave” by the first Reader article is Jonathan Dean, who records under the name Transmuteo. He feels it’s time to set the record straight about what exactly “vaporwave” is and, perhaps more importantly, what it’s not. “I’m still not sure if I have ever made something that could be classified as ‘vaporwave’ in the most precise sense of the term,” Dean states. His track “Executive Lightbody” is part of Hi-Hi-Whoopee’s vaporwave-scene compilation, but “that track so self-consciously co-opts the techniques and aesthetics of vaporwave that it achieves a kind of conceptual detachment all its own.”
In fact, the track “could be viewed as a satirical jab at vaporwave perversely delivered during the flush of its growing visibility,” says Dean. Importantly, it “bears little resemblance to the rest of [his] work.” The track purposely exaggerated what are considered common characteristics of the vaporwave genre. Dean used “Ableton Live’s warping tools, added reverb, and EQ’d the track until it took on some ‘shopping mall jam’ qualities.” In highlighting these aspects, Dean responds to the label “vaporwave” by parodying it and pointing out its inaccuracy. Coincidentally, he emphasizes how un-vaporwave the rest of his music actually is.
Dean was also concerned with others using “vaporwave” interchangeably with “chillwave.” The terms, he says, “are only useful with reference to specific and distinct qualities that merit the coining of a new genre.” That is, they should be used to point out differences, not similarities, between sounds. In the case of chillwave versus vaporwave, “vaporwave is distinct in that it is a technique as well as a set of generic qualities.” Where “chillwave evokes nostalgia by cleaving towards the hackneyed synthesizer presets and standardized structures of retro pop,” vaporwave “doesn’t recontextualize or evoke the past, it recapitulates the past with subtle mutations ... which render the past dreamlike, meditative, euphoric, or regressive.” The difference between chillwave and vaporwave is thus one between pastiche and collage.
Dean’s focus on the word “nostalgia” is worth examining further. Vaporwave falls in line with a more “retro-futuristic” nostalgia, or a nostalgia for a future that existed in the imagination of a past era. Instead of placing “retro” around the post-war boom of the ’50s and ’60s (think The Jetsons), the future being yearned for is the one dreamt up by the economic prosperity and Cold War thawing of the ’80s and ’90s (think the dystopian visions of The Matrix, the hacking “lone gunmen” of The X-Files, or the English-Chinese pidgin spoken on the TV show Firefly).
But trying to decipher what exactly vaporwave reflects or embodies defeats the genre’s purpose. This is where the “vapor” part comes in. The word itself is a play on the tech-world concept of vaporware, which refers to software or hardware that is unveiled and advertised but never realized. Vaporware is a commercial ghost, never released nor confirmed to be an abandoned project. “Vaporware” has multiple meanings under the umbrella of undelivered promise. It can be both a forgotten project and a calculated fiction, intended to keep customers loyal to a given corporation. Some have called the promotion of vaporware akin to “selling smoke,” making the name quite literal.
Vaporwave is an undelivered genre, existing only in the vapors of cyberspace, if at all. It summons eye rolls and fragmented explanations from those who know it for what it is: a placeholder. The place it is holding, and the thing it is holding it for, seem inscrutable. Some would argue that that is the point: striving for inscrutability in the age of information.
To embrace the impossibility of naming or qualifying vaporwave is to embrace the ’90s, the ambitious visions of reaching an impossibly clean, huge technological future that the sci-fi media of the time described. Vaporwave is a way to embody this future that never came—or, perhaps, a way to make fun of it.
Turn up the volume, kick back, and take in the familiar sights of Windows 95 screensavers and choppy CGIs. It’s perfectly fine—and encouraged—to not understand.