James Webster, design for Virtual Utopia Experience album by Death’s Dynamic Shroud, released on Ailanthus Recordings, 2014. Image courtesy of the artist.

This story was originally published in the “Utopias” issue of Eye on Design magazine.

 

Vaporwave is a thoroughly internet-birthed phenomenon unlike any sonic or visual style before it. Taking its name from a play on “vaporware,” the musical genre emerged around 2010 as an eerie amalgam of loungy elevator muzak, television, advertisements, infomercials, and video game samples.

Vaporwave’s visuals were like ghostly, neon-lit dreamscapes of childhood nostalgia: metallic but sweet, like fortified breakfast cereals packaged in saccharine colors and MS Paint aesthetics. Its entire ethos is digitally constructed—a subversion of hypercapitalism dusted with the ashes of Gordon Gekko-like hubris, and its designs have been so aped to have become an established part of our visual lexicon. Take, for example, the cover of electronic musician Macintosh Plus’s 2011 release Floral Shoppe, which is a mix of pixelated computer graphics, a disembodied Grecian bust, Japanese lettering, and sickly sweet pink. It’s since been parodied ad nauseum, with its creator Ramona Andra Xavier rarely referenced by its imitators.

Vaporwave designs are like posters that promise the bubble hasn’t burst, thrust in front of the eyes of those who know it definitely has. They sell us a Bitcoin-built time-share utopia we will never be able to afford, and probably wouldn’t want to stay in anyway.

Both sonically and visually, vaporwave relies on looping and fetishizing familiar trash culture motifs (infomercials, retro video games, ’80s and ’90s TV, old-school Word Art) and rendering them queasily unsettling. In his 2016 book, Babbling Corpse: Vaporwave and the Commodification Of Ghosts, author Grafton Tanner explains why the genre makes us so uncomfortable: “Vaporwave is the music of ‘non-times’ and ‘non-places’ because it is skeptical of what consumer culture has done to time and space.” The genre presented a unique critique of the marriage of art and capitalism in a way that’s both earnest but utterly insincere, emerging just after the 2008 global financial crash and, interestingly, at a time when the Muzak corporation went bankrupt.

Vaporwave as we know it really started to accelerate around 2010 and 2011, mostly through Turntable.fm, Soundcloud, and Bandcamp, where the likes of Internet Club (Robin Burnett), Luxury Elite, Infinity Frequencies, Transmuteo (Jonathan Dean), and Ramona Andra Xavier (under numerous aliases, including Macintosh Plus) emerged. Those years also saw two of the touchstones of vaporwave released by Daniel Lopatin/Oneohtrix Point Never (Chuck Person’s Eccojams Vol. 1) and James Ferraro (Far Side Virtual), and both artists’ work has since far transcended the genre.

With most vaporwave music distribution happening digitally, things like materiality and printing costs were rarely a concern. But in both online and physical releases (usually cassettes or CD-Rs), the cover designs are characterized by a warped version of utopia that merges internet-age insignia and pop-art tropes. The “style” of vaporwave is (unsurprisingly) very “internet”—often spelled out as full-width characters “AESTHETICS”.

Vaporwave music videos mostly lean on kitsch sincerity. Using neon-heavy, glitchy, net art-like imagery, they often shift CGI versions of classic art (Greek sculptures, for instance) into “uncanny valley” territory. This is achieved through “ugly-design”—stretched fonts and screensaver graphics; eerie, often marbled, 3D geometric shapes; glistening bubbles and architectural renders; alien landscapes; gradients in soothing variations of pink and teal; yuppie-ish emblems (palm trees, skyscrapers, pyramids, etc.)—all tarnished with the unpredictability of analog technology like VHS graininess. As adroit Format journalist Genista Jurgens surmised, “People have been quick to dismiss the trend as an indulgent in-joke between unemployed suburban music producers and freshly graduated graphic designers.”

The sleeve for Lopatin/Chuck Person’s Eccojams Vol. 1, for example, mixes the shimmering turquoise beloved of ’80s video games with fragments directly ripped from the cover art for Mega Drive video game Ecco the Dolphin. The dolphin is no accident: the creature is the poster boy for gaudy-glamorous vacations, the star of aspirational billboards promising sunshine and a faux-New-Age sense of escaping middle-management drudgery for a more “meaningful” experience. 

Where Ferraro’s Far Side Virtual critiqued what he termed a culture of “frozen yogurt” consumer blandness, Fatima Al Qadiri’s early-2010s work took well-worn cliches of hip-hop into the vaporsphere—or more precisely, into the spa. Her video for Hip-Hop Spa, by Kamau Patton, used collage and glitches to conflate the idea of prison’s solitary confinement with that of the solitude of a luxurious spa experience. Things get even darker in the Vatican Vibes video, by Tabor Robak, which also conflates two similar but opposing power structures. In Al Qadiri’s words, the video “constructed an imaginary architecture for a Catholic video game, adapting many of the religion’s signifiers and symbols for the digital realm.”

Vaporwave’s sound and visuals are about terribleness, and satirize that terribleness to the point of making it good again.

Vaporwave’s use of typography in artist and track names is significant. It’s almost exclusively bold, all-caps, and frequently displayed in Chinese and Japanese characters indecipherable to most Western eyes. This underscores both vaporwave’s smash-and-grab approach to sampling, and its allegiance with the whirring, oblique, hidden machinations of global capitalism. Some critics have argued that this use of non-Western characters is a form of cultural appropriation. “Japanese text was an inescapable attribute of vaporwave’s visual identity, but most producers were often young white men in the West, channeling a language they, troublingly, associated with ’80s tech affluence,” writes Rob Arcand on Noisey. “But then again, is geographical legitimacy really all that meaningful in the post-internet era, a time where ‘place’ seems to matter so little anyway?”

That sense of nihilism—albeit nihilism painted in bright colors—is perhaps what makes vaporwave so fascinating. Vaporwave’s sound and visuals are about terribleness, and satirize that terribleness to the point of making it good again. By consuming it, we’re accepting the foibles and awfulness of capitalism, bad graphic design, war, technology, heck, even ourselves. And we’re getting in on the joke. In that way, vaporwave is ultimately postmodern—almost Dadaist—merging high and low; good and bad. It’s blindly, optimistically futuristic.

By 2012, vaporwave had garnered wider acclaim, spawning inevitable offshoot genres including “mallsoft,” “vaportrap,” and “vaporgoth,” among others. Its early pioneers soon moved on from the vaporwave internet in-joke: By 2013, Daniel Lopatin (also known as Oneohtrix Point Never/Chuck Person) had signed to Warp Records, wrote the score for Sofia Coppola’s The Bling Ring, and was collaborating with artists like Jon Rafman.

In just a few years after its emergence in 2010, vaporwave had gone mainstream. A 2015 Rolling Stone “new artists you need to know” list that namechecked vaporwave act 2814 and a number of vaporwave producers’ remixes of Drake’s Hotline Bling put the previously “micro” genre under a more macro lens. Many see 2015 as the year that signalled the end of vaporwave, as its formerly niche “AESTHETICS” were swallowed up and churned out for the masses. When Richard Turley joined MTV in 2014, the channel’s new look was distinctly vaporwave: gaudy pinks, deliberately glitchy, off-kilter motion graphics, hyperactive fusions of user-submitted content, and ’90s-esque computer game graphics. When vaporwave—at its heart, a Baudrillardian simulacra of consumerist trappings—becomes itself appropriated as a corporate brand, it’s probably safe to say that its time is nigh. By December 2015, it even had its own eulogy, Sandtimer’s album Vaporwave is Dead.

In the years since the aping of the style to sell music television, things became even more absurd as vaporwave’s style embedded into meme culture. In 2016, then-19-year-old student and YouTube user Lucien Hughes dreamed up Simpsonwave, which morphed and spliced Simpsons clips with rudimentary Adobe Premiere and After Effects to create a bizarro version of classic vaporwave aesthetics (pool-water reflections, glitches, faux-analog TV fuzz, Gameboys, Greek sculptures, titles like TAMAGOTCH I). The clips were, naturally, set against fittingly chill soundtracks. At times, Simpsonwave feels incredibly and surprisingly moving. Like vaporwave itself, this made-for-meme remodelling evokes both poignant reveries of the innocence of childhood TV-watching and adult ennui provoked by the sad nature of existing in a screen-based world. Things get more sinister with “Fashwave” [or  F∆ϟHW∆\/E], which started surfacing around 2016 from self-identified fascist musicians like C Y B E R N ∆ Z I and Xurious. The visuals for these acts lean on vaporwave tropes and throw Nazi insignia into the mix.

Vaporwave flourished, in both its sound and design, because it’s one of the few aesthetics that so succinctly sums up the rapid and terrifying pace of change we face today.

Vaporwave’s relatively short existence offers us a different type of nostalgia today. In the decade since vaporwave first appeared, the digital world has significantly re-shaped our sonic and visual language. The early 2010s were the halcyon days when no one, thank god, said “wheelhouse.” We snarfed gluten-laden office cookies as our Windows Squares danced on. Even retro-futuristic vaporwave seems kind of retro now. In 2019, we don’t yearn for the simpler times of Sega Megadrives; we miss the time when people didn’t shout “Hey, Google” to avoid looking at a fucking clock.

Vaporwave fans recently created a Discord channel to celebrate the genre’s 10th birthday, where they submitted sounds, videos, and artwork for a compilation. The designs don’t exactly demonstrate an evolution in vaporwave style as much as they show a deeply ingrained understanding of what that style is. The still-fervent vaporwave community seems to have unanimously coalesced on what the genre “looks like” rather than intending to push it forward, despite the reams of new music being created today in the genre. Crucially for graphic designers, such internet-based projects demonstrate how intrinsic and easily identifiable vaporwave’s signifiers are, even to those who have never heard the term.  

Vaporwave flourished, in both its sound and design, because it’s one of the few aesthetics that so succinctly sums up the rapid and terrifying pace of change we face today. Change, especially with such rapaciousness, is frightening: vaporwave’s sonic and aesthetic amalgamation of nostalgia and the utopian/dystopian future summed up this fear perfectly. Vaporwave fetishizes both analog technologies and the new, ever-evolving online platforms that allow it to be disseminated. It coddles the television and games of our childhood while placing them on the platforms that ultimately killed those shows and games. As Redmond Bacon puts it, “By criticizing the naivety of the past, vaporware shows how poorly the present has gone.” Vaporwave merges nostalgia with dramatic irony: As viewers in a play, we see what’s wrong with the world and feel powerless to stop the narrative unfolding.