Let’s talk about Vaporwave.
This is an art movement—digital graphics, poetry, music, and video production style—in its entirety born on and borne by the internet. It emerged from webforums like tumblr and aesthetic art movements conjoined with very millennial views on nostalgia and consumerism in the age of information, an age when all of everything is at our fingertips. Vaporwave takes a political and emotional stance on these topics and confronts it with political and emotional art.
The style is characterized by a fascination with consumerism (especially malls and mass consumerism), an 80s-esque starry-eyed view of technology that is now obsolete, Japanese writing, neon signs, the city of Miami, the background music of malls and elevators, suicidal ideation, the feeling of being purposeless and anonymous in a massive generation, concepts of decadence and luxury from the 80s, 80s pop, greek statues and aesthetic, early versions of the Windows OS (pre-ME), 80s/90s computers, virtual reality, VHS artifacts, weed, and glitch art.
See the Further Reading section at the bottom of this post for more info.
Vaporwave has become a bit of a cult with active forums, facebook groups, and IRC channels dedicated to uniting people who connect to this music. Many of these people are nostalgic old punkers from the 80s, or disaffected millennials. This music hits home for people I think because it’s rooted in philosophy and nostalgia—two of the things that are very unique and intensely personal to an individual. On the venn diagram of people who enjoy memes, anti-capitalist sympathizers, and those in possession of the musical patience necessary to process new musical movements, vaporwave lies in the minuscule center. This is necessarily small, and a genre like this is only possible because of the access granted to it by the internet.
But how does something like this come to be in a larger cultural context?
After the deregulation of the advertising industry under Reagan in 1983, the ban on advertising in children’s programming was lifted. Likewise, merchandisers were also now allowed to make consumer products based on children’s shows. 1983 saw the cancellation of many popular (but ultimately unprofitable) education-based television shows for children (think: Schoolhouse Rock!) and the premiere of many merchandisable television shows and movies, creating an explosive consumer demand for toys, action figures, and branded merchandise based on television programs. These practices grew more and more predatory, infiltrating all aspects of a child’s visual media experience (magazines, television, etc). The dawning of the age of television caused the so-called “atari crash” of 1983-85, when the video game industry nearly collapsed due to the shift in young consumer interest FROM video games and TO television. After years of depression, the video game industry stepped up their game and began producing games with stories not unlike the stories children would watch on television, leading to a major shift in focus for the video game industry that lasted until the smartphone boom of the late 00’s. Video game companies also made partnerships with television brands, releasing branded video games. The competition for the attention of middle-class children was so intense that it drove innovation not only in media, but in technology. As computer chips shrank, science fiction because science reality and transported children into a living fiction that escalated their connection to the consumer market. This ran amok until it was scaled back with the Children’s Television Act of 1990, which put back some of the regulations on advertising in children’s media. While the CTA did effectively scale back advertising, the culture of the preteenage experience had already been permanently changed. Advertising to children was still happening, the toy industry went global and raked in billion-dollar profit margins year after year, and a whole new generation was reared with consumerism engrained into their cultural experience.
Children’s media is almost entirely designed with the goal of educating the child. Usually this education happens subtly through moral teachings (Spongebob, Scooby Doo), storytelling (Are You Afraid Of The Dark?, Clarissa Explains It All), problem-solving (Dora the Explorer, Blue’s Clues), and modeling of appropriate behavior (Mr. Rogers, Sesame Street). By relying on media to teach the child these lessons, the child is less dependent on the parent and the parent is free to pursue their own activities while the child is watching television. Many parents trust children’s media to aid them in raising their child. Many parents allow their kids to watch a lot of television. Those kids are in turn exposed insidiously to consumerist propoganda and subliminal messaging (not in a conspiracy sort of way, but the whole point of advertising is to work a product into your brain’s subconscious so that you don’t even realize the advertising is really affecting your behavior or thoughts, right?). Kids who have watched television AT ALL since 1983 have been exposed to this. Thus, it should be no surprise that when those kids grow up, some of them will realize the truth of this. It should follow then, also as no surprise, that some of those people would use these tools (video game music, pop music, advertising, logos, and the oft-capitalized ideals of wealth, prosperity, and leisure) and to create art and music that acts as commentary on these things, and to achieve a sociocultural criticism they wish to make. It should be no surprise at all that art is being made from these things. Vaporwave is the philosophical treatise of the millennial generation. The tools of vaporwave—consumerist icons and imagery—is part of the cultural currency of this generation of artists. Every vaporwave artist and fan shares the common experience of resenting the manipulation of their ideal of prosperity for profit by a capitalist market.
I know less about Japanese cultural history but it’s my understanding that they have a similar story, and that many Japanese philosophers and psychologists of the Gen-X and Millennial generation believe they as a society are a casualty of rampant consumerism and unregulated advertising. I think there’s a natural connection between Japan and the US for this reason, and thus vaporwave’s fascination with Japan fits right in to the issues underlying the genre.
I hope this helps you understand the genre. Please enjoy the links below to learn more and start some listening. It’s great background music, and it’s enjoyable even if you don’t go very deep with it.