By Tanner Kinney
The internet is a place filled with many strange things. If this column has covered anything, it’s the bizarre and oddly specific nature of internet obsessions. Some things may start as jokes, fun memes that originate from small communities. Then it spreads, and suddenly people that would never expect to stumble upon something strange end up on some bizarre website. But that’s enough about the forum for weirdos who chew ice, we’re obviously here to talk about vaporwave. First, start up this song, which is the first result when you type “that one vaporwave song” into basically any search engine. It’ll get you into the a e s t h e t i c mood.
Now, dear reader, your first question is probably what is vaporwave? Well, that or “why is this so pink?” or “what is the statue head doing there?” or “isn’t this just a Diana Ross song slowed down with some synth put over it?” I’m not going to answer those questions, because I don’t think anyone knows the answer. I do, however, know much about vaporwave. Vaporwave is a music genre that originated in the early 2010’s as an ironic version of chillwave which is a subsection of synthwave which spawned from electronic music. One of the earliest known songs to use the vaporwave name was a song called “Laserdisc Visions” in 2011. This song shares all the hallmarks of vaporwave: chill beats, stanky 80’s synth and midi loops, and parts of the song seemingly getting stuck and jumping back like a scuffed music CD. It’s all very a e s t h e t i c.
The video accompanying it also does a good job showing that delicious vaporwave aesthetic. It’s very 80’s, loaded with washed out, neon colors. In most cases, blues and pinks are used, combined with distortions on parts of the image, and use of Japanese text I can’t read, but I’m sure it means something. Actually, I’m not sure anyone making vaporwave with Japanese text can read it either, but it’s a key part of it. Old tech, like bulky computers and ancient Windows/Macintosh logos are also a part of aesthetic. Particularly, the Windows 98 GUI finds itself in a lot of vaporwave aesthetic images. These images are also loaded with dated references to things that would be only found on old internet. I’m not sure why a dolphin is trying to convince me it isn’t a virus, but that’s just suspect.
But that’s just base level vaporwave, and most of that is the publicly known meme side of vaporwave. Vaporwave, however, has deep lore and a number of artists that go beyond the ones already mentioned. My favorite Spotify playlist to listen to is a vaporwave playlist, which consists of artists like James Ferraro, VAPERROR, Black Banshee, Saint Pepsi, death’s dynamic shroud.wmv, 18 Carat Affair, and artists who have a lot of Japanese characters in their names. Even though much vaporwave is best when listened to as a full album from front to back, somehow shuffling all these different artists and music styles blends together into an aesthetic soup that is just addictive. I drink this soup by the gallon straight out of the pot and even though it burns my soul, I keep doing it.
Another staple of vaporwave is using soundbites and imagery from advertisements in the 80’s within the music, or creating a mock of those sort of soundbites. The album v i r t u a l r e s o r t ™ by the group CYBEREALITYライフ is a good example of this, as the lead on that album uses various text-to-speech programs (another very aesthetic thing) to introduce a fake website that’s actually a real website: http://virtualresort.org/. The website, of course, plays that song as well, which is just beautiful. The amount of care and effort put into something that seems like a complete joke is phenomenal and I wish I cared as much about things in my life. Saint Pepsi had a widely popular music video on YouTube that uses “Mac Tonight” from 80’s McDonalds commercials to accompany a song that really is a jam. Now, while Mac Tonight may have a… questionable image nowadays thanks to some little Fasclets on /pol/, the song is just so good, like the whole album.
A lot of vaporwave music videos (made by fans of the music more often than the artists themselves) use this kind of grainy VHS footage of old advertising to go with the songs, and it fits together very well with the aesthetic of the music. Particularly, videos that use clips from bizarre Japanese advertisments are my favorites, because Japanese culture is also a part of that vaporwave aesthetic. It may all seem a little strange, but that’s just how it is. I didn’t make it, though I sure wish I had. I’d love to have that tied to my life history, instead of just being a fraud.
Of course, all of this is still kind of a meme. Things like Simpsonwave or other pop culture icons with the word “wave” attached on the end seem to stem from vaporwave, even though vaporwave itself is a legitimate genre of music. Synthwave itself has a number of meme songs that aren’t considered vaporwave even though vaporwave is that sort of meme genre. This is just one of those times that the joke is so high quality that I actively want to listen to it. Vaporwave is like the Poe’s Law of music: you can’t tell if it’s satire or genuine until you ask the creator themselves. Then again, does it matter if the music is good? Even Simpsonwave is good despite being a meme. I’d say my particular favorite kind of vaporwave are songs that sample old video game sound effects, particularly Mario’s voice from Super Mario 64. I don’t know why I like it so much. I don’t know why I like any of this so much. I stopped worrying about it long ago. Don’t you understand? It’s all in your head.
And that’s about it for vaporwave. Does that explain anything? No, it probably doesn’t. There’s so much about vaporwave and its aesthetic that just seemed to spawn out of nowhere and our collective unconscious just accepts that it’s how life is. Of course vaporwave uses Japanese text and sculpture heads, why not? Even vaporwave itself just seemed to appear one day and had a small group of people latch onto it and spread it out beyond their subculture. Then the normies find it and are no longer normies because they understand vaporwave. Fun fact: I once tried to create a new genre of music that mashed up vaporwave and nightcore. I still have them buried deep in the hard drive of my computer. They’ll never see the light of day again. Trust me, it’s better that way.
Images: YouTube, Reddit, bandcamp
Tanner is both a Telecommunications and Theatrical Studies major. Tanner keeps a large collection of gaming related stuffed animals. Self-proclaimed expert in all things related to former Indiana governor Paul V. McNutt. Has beaten the PSP version of Final Fantasy in under two hours.