What do hip-hop, 3D renders, and American corporate capitalism have in common? Vaporwave. Depending, on who you ask, Vaporwave is either a musical and visual aesthetic, or a silly meme. Through the course of this article, I shall attempt to explain not only what Vaporwave is, but also why it is so polarizing.
But before we get into that debate, I must confess something. I came into this expecting to conclude, that indeed Vaporwave was nothing more than a bad, played out joke. However, I knew I could not criticize the meal without trying any of the dishes. So, I decided to listen to Vaporwave artist Macintosh Plus's album, Floral Shoppe. For the uninitiated, Floral Shoppe is the peak of Vaporwave's popularity, but it's not on streaming services, of course, the samples on it are probably all unlicensed.
As I listened to the album, I heard a lot of the tropes and clichés I was expecting to, from the Dance Pop samples, to the extremely minimal music-making style. However, as I soon found out, this album is by no means a comprehensive picture of Vaporwave music. You see, the genre has grown and evolved past albums like Floral Shoppe. This is great for fans, but it makes writing about it slightly more challenging, so, for the sake of simplicity, let’s start at the beginning.
Vaporwave started out as millennials on the internet mocking the American corporate culture and consumerism prevalent in the 1980s. They did so by repurposing and remixing a lot of Corporate American iconography, especially, from advertising to create surreal and warped songs and videos. As all the material that influenced Vaporwave was drawn from a specific time and place, it created a distinct nostalgic aesthetic.
Gradually, as with most things on the internet, the focus of vaporwave began to shift. It went from its original satirical intent to a more earnest form of nostalgia. It began to morph into what it was created to parody.
This ideological flip-flop also resulted in a shift in the content that Vaporwave was influenced by. The source material for Vaporwave mixes now became anything that sounded or looked like it was from the '80s, this included old Pop, R&B, and Dance music. These new influences brought about the genres peak in popularity. When most people think of Vaporwave, this is what they think of.
Macintosh Plus’s Floral Shoppe comes from this era of the genre. The music from this era is largely indebted to screwed and chopped (a hip-hop remix technique involving chopping up and looping samples, the technique was created and popularized by DJ Screw). However, unlike DJ Screw, the Vaporwave artists were a lot more reserved with how many chops they made. Furthermore, loops they used were often very long sections of the sample in its entirety.
Naturally, this birthed the criticism that Vaporwave was lazy. Its detractors claimed its appeal came entirely from the quality of the original songs it sampled and thus it was not a legitimate genre. I am not going to comment on this viewpoint. Instead, I am going to attempt to explain why this is no longer a debate we should be having.
Evolution and the Birth of Originality
After the genre peaked, a lot of its fans were quick to pronounce it dead. But, while it was no longer as popular as it once was, Vaporwave was far from dead, it was evolving. The genre that had been about strictly '80s nostalgia now became more inclusive, with mixes that incorporated music and visuals from Nintendo 64 games becoming more and more commonplace in the genre. The nostalgia stayed, but the timestamp didn't.
This new broader approach meant as long as something sounded like Vaporwave its origin no longer mattered, it was Vaporwave. And it is my belief that this brought about the genre's biggest sea change yet. Because, for the first time since its inception Vaporwave began to stray from its sample-based past.
Today, artists like 2814 and George Clanton are making entirely original music in the genre. And this is why you cannot call Vaporwave's legitimacy into question anymore. You can certainly critique the tropes and aesthetic of the genre but you cannot argue that it isn’t a musical genre.
Hello, I am Kaihan Behramkamdin, a second year college student who enjoys consuming music, memes and mediocre cup noodles at 5am. I'm also very tall; hopefully that makes the articles more interesting.
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