This article investigates various aspects of the popular online music genre known as vaporwave in order to understand how it functions as a form of socio-economic critique while problematizing aspects of identity. It begins by discussing some of the prominent features and objectives of vaporwave. Although there is much ambiguity in the overall attitude and message of vaporwave, its main unifying ideology is the re-configuration of pop music from the 1970s and ‘80s in order to critique and parody consumerism and corporate culture. With an analysis of one of the most well-known examples of vaporwave, Macintosh Plus’ Floral Shoppe (2011), the article explores the relationship of vaporwave to techno-Orientalism and the genre’s recent pernicious co-option by the conservative alt-right movement in the forms of Fashwave and Trumpwave.
One of the more enigmatic yet original music genres to have emerged since the early 2010s is one loosely known as “vaporwave.” Attempts to understand precisely what constitutes vaporwave are notoriously slippery, and this article does not intend to provide any conclusive definition. Nonetheless, vaporwave is composed of several distinctive characteristics that have led to its being understood as its own genre. Embracing a decidedly “do-it-yourself” (DIY) ethic that incorporates a mix of traditional composition, DJ-ing, and/or production, vaporwave heavily relies on the creative manipulation of samples of mellow adult-contemporary pop music and Muzak that date from the 1970s, ‘80s and ‘90s. The subculture surrounding vaporwave is often associated with an ambiguous or satirical take on consumer capitalism and popular culture, and tends to be characterized by a nostalgic and often surrealist engagement with the popular entertainment, technology and advertising of previous decades. As such it also has ties to the trends of 2000s lo-fi and post-noise music, such as “hypnogogic pop,” in which varied artists began to engage with elements of cultural nostalgia, childhood memory, and out-dated recording technology.1
This article investigates various aspects of vaporwave music in order to understand how the genre functions as a form of socio-economic critique while problematizing aspects of identity. While vaporwave is an effective and empowering form of musical cultural critique for some, it nonetheless has reinforced many previous stereotypes regarding identity. Beginning with some of the prominent features and objectives of vaporwave and its generally negative critical reception in the media, this analysis moves to one of the most well-known examples of vaporwave, Macintosh Plus’ Floral Shoppe (2011). Track リサフランク420 - 現代のコンピュー, in particular, offers the opportunity to understand the artistic choices and subtleties of production that make this a particularly powerful example of the genre. Moreover, this work and vaporwave more generally call for a discussion of their reliance on racially reductive tropes of techno-Orientalism. Finally, this study focuses on the recent co-option of the genre by the alt-right movement in its pernicious manifestations of fashwave and trumpwave that play off and distort the genre’s leftist protest of millennial capitalism. Drawing on Dominic Pettman’s ideas regarding “hypermodulation” and Bernard Stiegler’s notions of “hyper-diachronization,” I posit that, rather than engendering powerful political collectives, many internet musical genres such as vaporwave and its offshoots are appealing to idiosyncratic individual tastes, resulting in a fragmented politics of individual ideologies that attract radically disenfranchised and alienated right-wing adherents. A genre that relies on the re-imagination of the identity of previously existing works in service of left-leaning consumer critique is itself being co-opted to serve and promote radically conservative ideologies and identities.
VAPORWAVE: AESTHETICS, PRACTICE, AND RECEPTION
Producers of vaporwave digitally loop and fragment samples of pre-existent songs, altering the pitch and dramatically slowing the tempi to a lethargic state in which vocals and other identifying features of the original become almost unrecognizable. Loops often gradually sonically evolve or are interrupted with intentionally poorly edited samples that add an element of glitch and an aesthetic of potential brokenness to the mix. The overall effect has been variously described as “absurd, hilarious, unnerving, and sometimes boring.”2 Critic Adam Harper characterizes the typical vaporwave track as “a wholly synthesised or heavily processed chunk of corporate mood music, bright and earnest or slow and sultry, often beautiful, either looped out of sync and beyond the point of functionality.”3
Subtleties of production differ from producer to producer, but the emphasis on the enigmatic repetition and alteration of various samples are hallmarks of the style. Although there is much ambiguity in the overall attitude and message of vaporwave, its main unifying ideology appears to be a simultaneous critique and parody of consumerism and corporate culture. The term “vaporwave” itself is thought to be derived from the “vaporware,” a term in the computer industry for hardware or software that is announced to the general public but never actually manufactured. In 1982 Ann Winblad, president of Open Systems Accounting Software, was told by Microsoft engineers that development of their “Xenix” operating systems had stopped and that it was only ever “vaporware,” a practice which she later described as “selling smoke.”4 Of course the commercial sale of any form of music or sound in its ephemeral, largely metaphysical state that is further heightened in digital and online music can be likened to selling intangible “smoke,” though vaporwave directly calls attention to this fact and exacerbates it in that its content comprises only pre-existent music.
Vaporwave music is often accompanied by a visual component (frequently stylized as “A E S T H E T I C” with full-width capital letters) that is also a central feature of the genre. Like the musical content of the scene, it is entirely digitally created and typically combines pre-existing graphics from old pre-millennial techno culture that are often incongruously juxtaposed with historic art or commercial images (corporate logos or products for example). Typically featuring Day-Glo neon or bright pastel colours, it often incorporates early 2D video game art and late-1990s pixelated web images and design. Sometimes the images are purposely distorted or “glitched” to give the impression of television static or an out-dated VHS tape with poor tracking. The images are intended to be surreal and fantastical. Perhaps the best word to describe the style’s visual aesthetic is retro-futurist.
Vaporwave is music that, created from digital manipulations of previous digital recordings, exists entirely online; there are no live concerts, only streamed or downloadable tracks. It falls into the category of digitally mediated music, of which there are many closely related musical examples. Vaporwave, for example, is often linked with Seapunk, an internet-based micro-culture centering on an aquatic, oceanic aesthetic. It is frequently likened to Synthwave, an instrumental style that plays with cliché 1980s analog synth and drum machine sounds, and Chillwave, a style that is fascinated with dreamy retro 1980s soundscapes. Vaporwave is also loosely derived from the work of hypnagogic pop artists such as Ariel Pink and James Ferraro, which was characterized by the invocation of retro pre-millennial popular culture, as well as from the “analog nostalgia” of Chillwave.
All of these styles are, or were, largely internet-based and concerned with modifying sounds and styles from the 1980s or ‘90s. Though these stylistic categories are not hard definitions, vaporwave stands apart from them in at least two ways. First, it became far more popular online, with some tracks reaching 40 million or more downloads.5 Second, it is also far more overtly concerned with a political critique and/or satire of techno-consumer culture. The increased popularity and the wider exposure of vaporwave has led to a wealth of subgenres and offshoots that include futurefunk, mallsoft, and hardvapor.
Despite being one of the most widely appreciated and practiced online musical genres, vaporwave has received little attention in academia. This stems not only from the relatively recent rise of the genre, but also from its non-traditional location—it resides entirely and exclusively on the internet. That most files are available as free downloads on Bandcamp, SoundCloud or, increasingly, YouTube places the genre somewhat out of the eyes and attention of traditional or mainstream media culture. Indeed, non-academic popular media have often criticized music internet culture. Cultural critic Scott Beauchamp, for example, sees little musical value in the genre:
I wouldn’t go so far as to say that once you’ve heard one vaporwave song you’ve heard them all, but the truth isn’t too far off. The gauzy, recycled echoes of smooth jazz playing in an empty mall only allow for so much variation. Whatever pleasure I get from listening to the music is predicated more on being on the inside of a kind of sad, nostalgic joke, than on the music actually being all that compelling.6
Pop culture journalist Simon Reynolds has also decried what he perceives to be a general, bewildering oversaturation of internet-based music styles, such as vaporwave:
Musicians glutted with influences and inputs almost inevitably make clotted music: rich and potent on some levels, but ultimately fatiguing and bewildering for most listeners. The problem is most acute on the hipster fringes of music-making: free of commercial considerations, which push musicians towards accessibility and simplicity, they can explore the info-cosmos of webbed music, venturing into remote reaches of history . . . This is one of the big questions of our era: can culture survive in conditions of limitlessness?7
In another article, Reynolds similarly derides the “unlife” of James Ferraro’s Far Side Virtual, a generally critically acclaimed album and seminal vaporwave work that UK music magazine The Wire named as the number one release of 2011. Reynolds, however, characterized the album as
Ferraro’s attempt to compose a “symphonic music” whose basic cellular vocabulary comprises ringtones, computer start-up chimes, and the ultra-brief refrains that serve as IDs for TV production companies at the end of programs. Made quickly by soundtrack composers toiling solo in their home-studio sweatshops, this audio filler sounds cheap and nasty precisely because it relies on digital simulations of acoustic instruments like horns, piano, strings (the sonic equivalent of fake wood paneling). Ferraro’s heightened deployment of this ersatz palette—so close to “the real thing,” yet falling fatally short—creates a creepy feeling of unlife that is similar to animatronics.8
Despite mainstream suspicion of the genre, several critics have nonetheless defended vaporwave, particularly finding value in its relaxed and often sonically lush production techniques. In his review of Far Side Virtual, for example, Joseph Stannard of The Wire wrote: “In contrast to the audio soup of Ferraro’s earlier recordings, these tracks have a spacious, architectural feel that recalls Laurie Anderson, Philip Glass and Rush.”9 To some extent, vaporwave indeed evinces ties to classical or avant-garde forms of art music. The reliance on repetitive but slowly changing sampled loops, for example, evokes comparisons with the tape phasing of early minimalist works such as Steve Reich’s “Come Out” (1966). Longer track times, often over seven minutes, and elaborate sampling and studio editing techniques, can also evoke an association with art music complexity. Aside from Stannard’s journalistic support, British musicologist Adam Harper has been the leading scholarly voice in defence of vaporwave and similar internet music genres. Harper has particularly looked to defend the genre from accusations (such as those of Reynolds) that it is a representation of the degenerative de-humanizing effects of digital culture, and has also explored its capacity for satire.10 Several other authors have offered academic definitions of the genre, though often from a position that lies beyond the boundaries of peer-reviewed scholarship.11 Regardless of whether one appreciates or comes to a complete definition of the genre, it seems clear that it manifests some new approaches to popular music and concomitant political content. Among the most overt of these is its effectiveness as a vehicle for consumer and political critique as well as its approach to issues of identity.
FLORAL SHOPPE AND CONSUMER CRITIQUE
One of the most well-known and celebrated vaporwave albums to date is 2011’s Floral Shoppe, also known asフローラルの専門店. The album was composed by American producer and graphic designer Ramona Andra Xavier. Xavier, primarily known by her main alias Vektroid, released this work under the alternate pseudonym Macintosh Plus. In keeping with the enigmatic refusal of commercialism characteristic of vaporwave, Xavier has released music under myriad aliases, including dstnt, Laserdisc Visions, New Dreams Ltd., Virtual Information Desk, and PrismCorp Virtual Enterprises. These aliases, along with those used by many other vaporwave artists, employ a language of empty business names that evoke a dystopic and vaporous, if not vapid, techno-corporate world. Indeed the album title Floral Shoppe in itself conjures up a blossoming yet non-existent business. One of the first albums to attain popular recognition based on internet downloads alone, it is generally regarded as a defining work of the genre. At the time of writing, the entire album had received more than 4 million YouTube views with its most popular track, リサフランク420 - 現代のコンピュー, boasting more than 40 million.
The Floral Shoppe album cover has become a viral meme in its own right. It features a digitally altered picture of a marble bust of Helios, the ancient Greek sun god, set on a checkerboard digital grid, all of which foregrounds a heavily violet tinged pre-911 picture of the New York skyline featuring the World Trade Center buildings. The dominant colors include a bright neon pink background with a pastel lime green that highlights the Japanese characters of the title. The aesthetic distinctly recalls the gaudy neon fascination of the 1980s while the juxtaposition of the decaying Greek bust (and its association with historical fine art) with the pre-911 skyline seems to comment on the merging of East and West and portend the evolutionary decline of commercial empire.
Vaporwave is also commonly linked to accelerationist social trends that may be understood, drawing from the philosophical work of Gilles Deleuze and Nick Land, to push for the intensification of technology and capitalism (and associated merging of the digital and human) as an ironic means to an ultimate liberating revolution against both or as their logical conclusion.12 Accelerationism as it applies to vaporwave here, primarily relates to the speed at which such new genres are born and spread online—a capitalistic proliferation of disposable products. The sheer number of micro-genres and offshoots (Seapunk, Chillwave, Mallsoft, Eccojams, Future Funk, Broken Transmission, Hardvapor, Vaportrap, Simpsonwave, Nature Wave, and Vapor-Rap, to name but a few) testify to the rapid pace at which online musical culture evolves. The speed at which online music in general and vaporwave in particular are changing and evolving, as well as something of the social critique and disenfranchisement among adherents into which vaporwave taps, is evident on a Steemit blog post by Kevin Wong:
Maybe we’re just pretentious tastemakers. But the point is whatever—we made it, we love it, we name it whatever the hell we want. The game is moving at exponential speeds. We don’t sit down for 500 hours coming up with a potentially disposable masterpiece. We just keep doing and we just keep moving. Knowledge is being passed around at an accelerated pace, with softwares that enable producers to do just about anything in a laptop, and then we have YouTube with its infinite music library and audio rippers.
. . . Most of Vaporwave are products of free-labor. The producers mostly do it without any need for money or recognition. It’s all disposable and not to be held on dearly. Just like all the broken dreams of society. We were told to dream. We were told to do what we love. But the realities of our socioeconomic system only allows for cogs that can fit in in between. Go find a real job, they said.13
The light-speed evolution and apparent disposability of most vaporwave works underscore what some critics have decried regarding online music culture in general. Our ability to endlessly download, stream, and buy music has, for some, resulted in oversaturation, overexposure, and overconsumption of music that renders it ever more impotent as a meaningful art form.14 Vaporwave is, however, by its very nature, inherently paradoxical. A genre that generally disavows capitalism and consumerism, it is nevertheless becoming, by virtue of its increasing popularity and media visibility, an economic force that is actively consumed by millions. Though, as Wong advocates, the end product is supposed to be “disposable” and created “without the need for money or recognition,” the success of its message has, at least to some degree, ironically undermined these ideals. Leading vaporwave artists such as Xavier, Chuck Pearson, and James Ferraro are beginning to gain international fame and the millions of YouTube views translate into active revenue for these artists, despite there being few other commercial revenue streams associated with the genre. Xavier, under her Vektroid alias, has even launched a line of tank tops and hoodies featuring a variation of the Floral Shoppe album cover. Though individual albums and tracks are potentially downloadable for free by a “name your price” policy, Bandcamp currently offers all 29 of Vektroid’s album releases for a minimum of $33.17 USD. The metamodern irony of a musical genre that simultaneously manages to celebrate and disavow consumerism is likely not lost on most of its fans. Given the tens of thousands (at least) of free or nearly free available online tracks, vaporwave inherently promulgates the capitalist consumption of music, though in a manner that advocates the notion of an active consumer, a consumer who is enabled to create based on previous creations—what some might term a “prosumer.”15
Indeed vaporwave evinces an activist aesthetic of creations based on pre-existent works that are, in turn, cannibalized in ever new incarnations by other producers in a sort of infinite feedback loop of re-imagined content. In their attempt to perform a digital ethnography of vaporwave through a study of user web links, Georgina Born and Christopher Halworth, citing Bourdieu, claimed that “vaporwave evidences little separation between producers and fans, approaching those ‘self-sufficient’ publics characteristic of avant-gardes that Bourdieu identifies as ‘producers who produce for other producers.’”16 The anthropophagic internet ecological re-cycling and re-use of previous vaporwave tracks in the creation of new and evolving music is nothing new, of course. The practice of creating sound collages out of sampled sounds and previous fragments of recordings has existed since the advent of commercial samplers; and electronic dance music DJs, in particular, have long been creating tracks with the knowledge that they will likely be used as fodder for other DJ sets. What is new with internet music genres such as vaporwave is that everyday people now have access to technology to create remixes and collages themselves—and, though ironically using the works initially created by others, to express their individuality. As composer John Oswald, who coined the term Plunderphonics in his 1985 essay “Plunderphonics, or Audio Piracy as a Compositional Prerogative,” writes, “After decades of being the passive recipients of music in packages, listeners now have the means to assemble their own choices, to separate pleasures from the filler” (Oswald). Vaporwave is the most recent and perhaps also the most overt manifestation of this push to DIY individuation of creativity.
リサフランク420 - 現代のコンピュー (“LISA FRANK 420/MODERN COMPUTING”)
Vaporwave and many of its offshoots are typically tied to a notion of online anonymity, with producers and online consumers often using a variety of aliases. Aside from referencing an invented jargon of dystopic corporate or commercially related business names (à la Saint Pepsi, or Macintosh Plus), one of the most recurrent signifiers of the genre is its reference to Japanese culture and language. This is seen most overtly in the prevalence of katakana and kanji characters used in many vaporwave artists’ names and album tracks. Every track on Xavier’s Floral Shoppe, for example, is listed using Japanese characters. リサフランク420 - 現代のコンピュー (roughly translated as “Lisa Frank 420/Modern Computing”)17 is the second and most well- known track from Floral Shoppe.
Xavier’s consumer critique is already underlined in the title of this latter track, which references Lisa Frank, founder of Lisa Frank Incorporated, whose company rose to prominence in the 1980s. Frank specialized in selling school supplies, lunch boxes, toys, and tee-shirts, all of which were decorated in whimsical, bright neon-coloured animals and rainbows and that were particularly marketed to middle-school-aged girls. The track, which lasts more than seven minutes, is constructed from dramatically slowed down, chopped, and looped segments of Diana Ross’ song “It’s Your Move” from her 1984 album Swept Away. The original song is an ode to efforts directed at salvaging a potentially lost relationship:
The lyrics are filled with commercial terms such “Business”, “sell,” or “buying’” that Xavier variously loops and exploits to turn the song into a critique of the disillusion of a post-millennial lost relationship with consumer/corporate culture.
The distinctive opening sample comprises the drum machine and cloyingly melodic synthesizer instrumental introduction of Ross’s song. The instrumental sample continues until it reaches the opening syllable “I” (of the line “I don’t understand”) and then loops back to the instrumental beginning, rendering the “I” almost undecipherable. Throughout the introductory looped samples, a filter gradually, almost imperceptibly, opens up to create a sense of movement from the past to a more immediate sonic presence. The opening filter allows higher frequencies (predominantly the higher frequency percussion instruments) to build in intensity and creates the effect of sounds being brought from a slightly muffled background (past?) into a more pristine or forward-sounding sonic present.
The track gradually evolves towards more fully discernable sampled lyric segments, though these are still slowed down to the extent that Ross’s voice is transformed into an unrecognizable, drowsy masculine baritone. Indeed a double level of identity masking is at play here, as Xavier, under the alias Macintosh Plus, in turn masks Ross’s voice. Increased reverb in the rhythm tracks, ca. 2’30,” sees an overlap with the main melody—and is the first sign of the darker fragmentation that is to come. At 4’ 20” the track ostensibly reaches a vocal climax with two loops of the line “I’m giving up on trying to sell you things that you ain’t buying.” The lyric, presented in its lethargic, chopped, and screwed format, is perhaps the most overtly ironic moment in the work: it serves as a metaphoric comment on the arcane commercial intentions of Ross’s music and of the entire mainstream pop music industry, juxtaposed against the DIY, pay-what-you-want ethic of vaporwave.
The dramatically slowed tempo and consequent drop in vocal pitch of the lines “Do you understand/It’s all in your hands,” the latter phrase of which gets looped at 5’ 40”, has the (perhaps unintentional) aural effect of transforming the lyric into the more cryptic sounding “It’s all in your head.” It is an effect that furthers the ethereal sense of unreality that characterizes the opening of the work. At this point in the track, significant digital glitches are introduced, making samples sound as though they were either faulty or broken, an allegory of the broken utopian commercial dream they reference. The track then dramatically begins to break apart, moving from its consonant, relaxed and lounge-like vibe that marks the first two-thirds into a morass of increasingly dissonant digital fragments. The original opening loop slows down even more dramatically to an ominous creep that has the effect of foregrounding the mechanistic throb of the drum machine, now transformed into a dark and threateningly alien mechanical hammering. The ending mirrors and figuratively underlines the collapse of the utopian artificiality and optimistic futurism surrounding 1980s consumer culture that marks much vaporwave alienation from present-day consumer culture. The track is transformed into something resembling what futurist Nick Land conceived of as “manically dehumanised machine-music.”18
In a further ironic twist, I would argue that the marked deceleration of the musical tempo throughout the track, combined with the disintegration of overt signs of corporeal humanity, underscores and reinforces the notion of an accelerationist collapse of the fantasy of capitalist progress. The track embodies the collapse of a fictional space, constructed by commercialism, corporate marketers, and the music industry alike, into the reality of accelerated mechanical production. In some sense it recognizes the reality of ourselves as merely productive machines in service of the capitalist dream. This is accentuated by the fact that the humanity of Ross’s voice is lost when it is digitally slowed and altered. The track, through its radical shift in mood from a dream-like utopian vibe to a darkly mechanistic dissonance, also highlights a similar fear of the loss of the corporeal to the corporate machine and is simultaneously a metaphoric comment on the immanent breakdown of capitalist order that accelerationism points towards.
It is also worth mentioning that the mechanical alteration and distortion of Ross’s voice plays into a trope of black women as robotically subhuman. Beyoncé’s Metropolis-suit performance at the 2007 BET Awards, L’il Kim’s video for “How Many Licks,” and Janelle Monáe’s Cindy Mayweather android personae, among other recent examples, see many black female performers portraying themselves as machines or consumer products to draw attention to the constructed nature of the music industry and to themselves as contemporary manifestations of an objectified sub-human slave. In the words of Robin James, “black women are stereotyped as both . . . closer to nature and “authentic” humanity, and as robots/aliens/sub-humans.”19 But in the case of リサフランク420 - 現代のコンピュー Ross has no say in the matter as her voice is co-opted by an anonymous DJ going by the alias Macintosh Plus, and is thus treated literally as another product subject to modification.
VAPORWAVE AND TECHNO-ORIENTALISM
Aside from the co-opted identity politics inherent in Xavier’s alteration of Ross’s song and voice, the reference to Japanese culture, manifest in the song’s title, and in many vaporwave works, represents another form of co-option of identity that is common to the genre. Xavier, who has also released an album called Sapporo Contemporary (札幌コンテ) (2012) under the alias 情報デスクVIRTUAL (roughly translated as virtual information desk), is not alone in her use of Japanese characters and references. Many other vaporwave artists employ various brands of techno-corporate exoticism that play off tropes of hi-tech orientalism, such as US-based AUTO, マ, マクロスMACROSS 82-99m (a Mexican producer), 猫 シ Corp. (“cat system corporation,” a producer whose SoundCloud page states: “We are cats. We own your corporate world. Buy us, feed us, love us”), and t e l e p a t h テレパシー能力者 (who features pictures of female Japanese models from the 1980s on all of his albums). It should be noted that some artists employing Japanese characters are located in Asia. ESPRIT 空想, for example, is a vaporwave producer from Singapore. Various album titles using Asian characters include FOCUS LIFE 永遠に愛して, and ストリート知性. In 2015, Rolling Stone published a list that included UK-based vaporwave act 2814 as one of “10 artists you need to know, describing their album Atarashii Hi no Tanjō新しい日の誕生 (Birth of a New Day) as “a late night cruise through the cyber-future dream highway” (Rolling Stone). The accompanying visual references for many of these artists often are directly based on Japanese imagery from the 1980s and 90s period or evoke Japanese popular culture, largely as manifest in pixelated screenshots from older video games.
The prevalent use of Japanese imagery and text in vaporwave is perhaps not surprising. In its lost promise of techno-economic utopia, Japan, to some extent, can be viewed as the national equivalent of vaporwave. In the late 1980s and early 1990s, the Japanese economy was booming and was at the forefront of corporate and consumer electronics culture. This economic bubble, however, burst when the late 1990s and early 2000s saw Japan enter into a prolonged economic recession that lasted roughly until 2010, a period that the Japanese sometimes refer to as the “lost decade.”20 Nonetheless, much of the world’s image of Japanese popular culture revolves around what Eri Izawa has termed “the heartless, flat image that many people hold of Japan.”21 Indeed, many Westerners still imagine Japan as populated by robotic salaryman workers and obsessed with technology and consumerism. Such stereotypes have hopefully been eliminated following tragedy of the March 2011 earthquake and tsunami, however Japanese society is still often regarded as being extremely formally regimented with individuality and imagination taking a back seat to the greater good of the country or company.22
The Western stereotype of the Japanese is based largely on their ability to produce and refine pre-existent technology, such as automobiles, computers, televisions, video games, or robotics. Japanese music technology, such as Sony Walkmans and Roland and Yamaha musical instruments, similarly revolutionized musical consumption and production. The Japanese mastered the ability to appropriate pre-existent, predominantly Western technologies, and creatively refine them to the degree that they became representative of uniquely “Japanese”-identified products. Such an approach actively resonates with vaporwave and its equivalents that are similarly grounded in an aesthetic of creative appropriation and adaptation of pre-existent historical sounds, images, and technologies.
Against the 1980s and early 1990s rise of Japanese economic and techno-cultural power, however, a reductive discourse emerged in the West, what David Morley and Kevin Robins termed “techno-Orientalism.” Writing in 1995, they claimed:
If the future is technological, and if technology has become “Japanized,” then the syllogism would suggest that the future is now Japanese too. . . . Japan is the future, and it is a future that seems to be transcending and displacing Western modernity. In so far as the nation’s sense of identity has become confused with its technological capability, these developments have, of course, had profoundly disturbing and destabilizing consequences in Europe and in the United States. The West has had to try to come to terms with everything that this “emasculation” entails.23
In this manner Japan became a technologically dehumanized Other against which the West could project its own superiority. In such a dialogue, the West maintains its supremacy, both morally and culturally, by projecting a dehumanized picture of a technology-driven Japanese society: “Within the political and cultural unconscious of the West, Japan has come to exist as the figure of empty and dehumanized technological power. It represents the alienated and dystopian image of capitalist progress.”24 The Western conceptions of a futuristic Japanese techno-Orientalism were reinforced by influential cultural products, such as William Gibson’s novel Neuromancer (1984) and Ridley Scott’s film Blade Runner (1982). As Wendy Hui Kyong Chun, has recognized, these works portray a “grim Japanified future, [in which] cyberspace appears to be a Western frontier in which U.S. ingenuity wins over Japanese corporate assimilation.”25 Such representations suggested the analogous threat of the exotic Asian Other and played on Western fears of the hyperconformity promised by the increasing reliance on machines and technology in the future.
To a large extent vaporwave actively plays off and with such techno-Orientalist stereotypes. In its ubiquitous adoption of Japanese characters and artwork featuring Asian technology and in its general critique of Japanese pre-millennial corporate culture, vaporwave often seems, perhaps unintentionally, to reinforce these stereotypes—though often cloaked under the guise of irony and parody. Indeed Xavier described her 2012 album Sapporo Contemporary (札幌コンテ) as “a brief glimpse into the new possibilities of international communication” and “a parody of American hypercontextualization of e-Asia circa 1995.” (MR P, 2012) To some extent Xavier satirizes the Japanese (and later Korean) process of self-Orientalization that, through the development of a cultural branding and soft-power strategy based on the export of popular Japanese youth culture and related products, started shifting technophobia into techno-philia, conferring and projecting positive interpretations into the previously negative techno-Orientalist stereotypes that globally influential Western sci-fi movies and literature had helped formulate.
As outlined earlier in Wong’s support of the genre, among that of other fans, vaporwave ostensibly represents an empowering form of music that critiques the dominance of consumerism and corporate culture in contemporary life. For many it is viewed as a liberating, often DIY, form of musical culture that has entertained, creatively and politically engaged, and captured the imaginations of millions of online fans. By any metric it is a successful and meaningful musical art form. Vaporwave, however, is also linked to some darker and more disturbing trends and consequences. In its ironic critiques of 1980s consumerism, it is inherently concerned with political failure, cultural decline, and the misplaced hopes of a utopian economic future that corporate consumer culture seemingly promised in the 1970s and ‘80s. The DIY, hyperconnectivity of disaffected politics resonated with many conservative-minded youth and, much as the often overtly racist alt-right movement was fed by the internet and online culture, music offshoots of vaporwave that are radically conservative and typically racist have begun to emerge.
ALT-RIGHT AND THE CO-OPTION OF VAPORWAVE
One of the most pernicious spinoffs from the vaporwave phenomenon is the rise of neo-Nazi fashwave. Fashwave is a combination of the terms “fascist” and “synthwave” or “vaporwave” and is a primarily instrumental genre with aggressive political track names and often uses loops of radical political soundbites from speeches by Hitler or Donald Trump. Indeed, Trumpwave is a closely related cousin to fashwave and typically features images of Trump set against vaporwave imagery of ‘80s retro art and Japanese characters. Trumpwave exploits vaporwave’s ambivalence towards the corporate culture it engages with, allowing it to recast Trump, in the words of one critic, as “the modern-day inheritor of the mythologized ‘80s, a decade that is taken to stand for racial purity and unleashed capitalism.”26
The musical techniques and sound of both fashwave and Trumpwave draw from and model those of vaporwave. If not for the overtly political titles such as “Demographic Decline,” “Team White,” or “Death to the Traitors,” one would be unable to differentiate between fash/Trumpwave tracks and the vaporwave they ape. According to at least one source, fashwave has become pop-cultural propaganda for the neo-fascist alt-right movement and has become “the de-facto soundtrack to a new era of white nationalism.”27 It is likely no coincidence that the alt-right movement grew online in the early 2010s during the same period that vaporwave and related online musical genres were emerging. With Donald Trump’s election, the spread of far-right parties in Europe, and as manifest in the murderous violence of the Charlottesville “Unite the Right” riots in the summer of 2017, the alt-right movement still appears to be on the ascendancy. In emulation of its Nazi and Italian fascist forerunners, it apparently wants to infiltrate and remake popular culture. And fashwave, with its sonically inoffensive, largely lyric-free instrumentals, is the first fascist music that has the potential for mainstream appeal. Just as cartoonist Matt Furie’s Pepe the Frog character, originally an icon of benevolence, became a meme appropriated by the alt-right to the degree that the Anti-Defamation League branded it a hate symbol in 2016 (ADL), so too are vapor- and synthwave slowly being debased by right-wing extremists.
Fashwave was the soundtrack at the now-infamous National Policy Institute conference in November of 2016, where alt-right figurehead Richard Spencer led several Nazi-saluting white nationalists in chants of “hail victory” and “hail Trump.” Xurious, a UK-based fashwave artist whose roughly 30 songs on SoundCloud average about 3,000 plays each, was billed as an official musical guest on the website detailing the event.28 The alt-right even appears intentionally to be using fashwave as a way of making its message more appealing to a mainstream, and potentially unsuspecting, public. As quoted in a recent online article about the phenomenon:
On 4chan’s/pol/, the web’s unofficial alt-right headquarters, posters talk frankly of fashwave as a “trap to make our ideas seem friendly and approachable,” as one user wrote. Another warned that the slogans on fashwave-related art work needed to be softened for wider consumption: “Careful guys, the phrase needs to be oblique and vague, not direct ‘GAS THE KIKES’/pol/memes. Try some subtlety.”29
A producer operating under the alias Cybern∆ zi is currently the most popular fashwave artist, with about 300,000 streams on YouTube.30 “Galactic Lebensraum” and Cybern∆ zi’s album of the same name (released via Bandcamp) established a model for the new genre. It replicates vapor- and synthwave’s retrofuturist sounds and use of Japanese characters, but blends them with the themes and imagery of contemporary Nazi and white-nationalist fiction. The album’s song titles, including “Right Wing Death Squads,” “~ ∆ R Y ∆ N 卐 F V T V R E ~” and “Cyber Kampf,” overtly reference Nazi Germany’s conceptions of a master race but update them with techno-futuristic themes. Furthermore, many white nationalists reject mainstream music that employs what they consider to be “African rhythms,” and particularly denigrate various forms of electronic dance music (EDM) as “degenerate”—a term borrowed by the alt-right from Hitler’s approach to modernism in art— as a catchall pejorative for any music deemed “un-American” or racially impure.31 Indeed the term “degenerate” has even been applied to vaporwave in critiques of its degeneration of human presence and the increase of digital mediation.32
The Guardian’s Michael Hann notes that the co-option of legitimate forms of— typically leftist or liberal—protest music by radically right-wing conservative groups is not unprecedented. Punk rock was a vehicle for Nazi skinhead “Oi” music in the 1980s.33 Heavy metal and English folk music sowed the seeds for similarly racist and fascist-leaning politics found in some Norwegian black metal and neo-folk in the 1990s.34 Like those genres, however, there is little evidence that fashwave will ever truly “impinge on the mainstream.”35 This may be so; however, outside of popular music the co-optive right-wing tactics have successfully played out on the larger political stage. As manifest in the ascendance of Donald Trump and Brexit, neo-liberal populism has at least partly outflanked what is now often viewed as the “false consciousness” of left-wing political protest. The right has effectively stolen the language of the left, often referred to as the “liberal elite,” and used it as a decoy to propagate policies that often punish the poorest and most disenfranchised. The term neo-liberalism itself disguises a decidedly non-liberal, right-wing agenda. The term alt-right, short for alternative right, is used to underscore disaffection from mainstream conservatism and similarly appropriates a typically leftist stance, like the one commonly associated with alternative rock. Well-known alt-right associate and former senior editor at Breitbart News, Milo Yiannopoulos, a gay man of Jewish descent, has been critical of Islam, feminism, social justice, and political correctness yet describes himself as a cultural libertarian while, in contradistinction to its traditional image of empowering the disadvantaged, the left is characterized by the alt-right as authoritarian in its attempts to limit or prevent what is regarded as hate speech of historically privileged groups.36 The ironic and or paradoxical flipping of the script by which radical conservatives liberalize their image and portray themselves as victims while casting the left as authoritarian has been recognized in several recent academic works.37 The similar tactics of an ironic co-option of popular left protest music, however outside the mainstream they may be, are clearly part of the same enterprise and should not go unnoticed or unmentioned. The increasing emphasis on concepts such as virtual reality and the attention to hyper-ironic music as manifest in vaporwave have seemingly opened the floodgates to a sea of more pernicious manipulations of reality and the rise of objectively misleading and manipulative concepts, such as fake news and alternative facts.
Cultural critic Scott Beauchamp, for one, perceives direct links between the rise of vaporwave and the upsurge of the alt-right in their similar appeal to and growth in online communities of disaffected and isolated practitioners:
Vaporwave was the first musical genre to live its entire life from birth to death completely online. You wouldn’t go to a vaporwave show; you would listen with earbuds. It’s only fitting that the soundtrack to nostalgic anomie was created by and for people alone on their computers at 3:00 in the morning—the secret lives of sad young Americans mediated by routers and laptop screens. Unsurprisingly, it’s the exact same isolated petri dish that the alt-right was grown in. The alt-right subreddits and forums on sites like the Daily Stormer are like weird magnets, gathering together the most random and isolated people to form their own online societies. Or, another way to look at it is that these sites (and more generally the internet itself) splinter dissatisfied people—both alt-righters and vaporwave enthusiasts—from the forced heterogeneity of off-line life and into their own odd, isolated, homogeneous digital tribes.38
Indeed vaporwave and its more ideologically prurient cousins are born from a similar socio-economic disaffection and manifest sonic critiques of both political failure and the failure of utopian dreams of 1980s corporate capitalism.
In trying to understand the popularity of both vaporwave and its pernicious right-wing manifestations, one needs to look at the political dynamics of social media and the internet in themselves. To a large degree, social media, online culture, and the internet more generally, facilitate the creation and coalescence of various political and/or fan-based participatory communities. But they also simultaneously foster forms of hyper-individuated experiences that can, ironically, result in radical alienation from conventional forms of government, such as that associated with the alt-right movement. Although social media and the internet have the power to galvanize people into unified actions, they also have the power to separate them through their capability to induce a seemingly limitless variety of individual experiences. In his book Infinite Distraction, cultural critic Dominic Pettman outlines the internet’s tendency to force us into individualized micro-experiences that he calls “hypermodulation.” He asks:
What if the raison d’être of so-called social medial is to calibrate the interactive spectacle so that we never feel the same way as other potential allies and affines at the same moment? In this case, it is quite deliberate that while one person is fuming about economic injustice or climate change denial, another is giggling at a cute cat video . . . That nebulous indignation which constitutes the very fuel of true social change can then be redirected safely around the network . . . [W]e might want to call this strategic phenomenon hypermodulation . . . deliberate dissonance. Productive delay. Staggered distraction.39
Pettman here draws from Bernard Stiegler’s concept of hyper-synchronization, that is to say the acceleration of the experience of temporality and “the cynical, corporate-governmental control of attention, behaviour and thought,”40 made possible by contemporary technologies, such as smartphones, laptops, GPS, and synchronized social media that cross these devices. What Stiegler calls “hyper-synchronization” can trigger “hyper-diachronization”: a breakdown of the individual-collective dynamic, a loss of self and collective.41 Indeed we are increasingly being modulated and defined by restrictive network protocols, such as being limited to 140 characters or “like” button options. For Pettman, so-called internet democracy is entwined in a deliberate dissonance that, rather than facilitating larger communal action, instead divides us into small ironic dystopias. Baudrillard also foretold this collapse into the obsession with the self:
Formerly we were haunted by the fear of resembling others, of losing ourselves in a crowd . . . All that matters now is only to resemble oneself, to find oneself everywhere, multiplied but loyal to one’s personal formula . . . an infinite differentiating of the same. 42
It is a potential state of affairs in which social media, instead of creating and encouraging solidarity and collectivism around a revolutionary movement, collapse under the infinite freedom that the internet offers as we become infinitely distracted by our own self-obsessions. In its prosumer WEB 2.0 DIY ethic and seemingly limitless online presence, vaporwave and its innumerable offshoots and relatives simultaneously celebrate the collective power of online creativity but also underline the ironic disconnection, the deliberate dissonance that individuals feel from society and often from each other. Donald Trump, of course, specializes in the spread of deliberate dissonance. The intentional muddying of the waters among fact, alternative fact, and fiction, between reality, hyper-reality, and unreality is his stock in trade. Moreover, the deeper we descend into the void of rationality and fact, the more we lose sight of any comparative benchmark from which to distinguish accurately what is dissonant, true, real, or even un-ironic, and what is not. If one immerses oneself in sonically dissonant music long enough, one gradually loses the ability to perceive and understand the dissonant intervals as dissonant. In other words, the dissonance becomes normalized.
To some extent vaporwave evinces the ultimate irony of cultural and identity co-option. It is a genre that consists entirely of open-source democratic reconfigurations of pre-existing music. It typically co-opts pre-millennial digital sounds and music and intentionally manipulates them into ironic critiques of the consumerism that originally engendered them. Producers, under innumerable aliases, also co-opt Japanese and Asian texts and images for the same purpose, apparently reinforcing techno-Orientalist stereotypes, while attempting to maintain their own anonymity. It is also somewhat ironic that a genre so essentially based on satirical co-option has in turn been co-opted by the far right for ideological purposes that run overtly counter to the anti-establishment socio-cultural critique that vaporwave attempts to promulgate. In the end vaporwave’s open and enigmatic ideology is perhaps its biggest weakness. Much like the internet in which it resides, its very openness and ambiguity renders it susceptible to (mis)appropriations on all sides.