Vaporwave: The Eclectic Aesthetic about Time

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Thoughts/Code by Mary Truong
The Vaporwave Aesthetic is a collage aesthetic: it puts together a seemingly disparate mish-mash of things and hypersaturates them in fluorescent blues, greens, and pinks. Commonly seen are Roman busts, Japanese kanji, old technology (like Windows XP icons), sunsets, and paradisal palm trees. Why these items? What's so compelling about these items? What do they signify?
If we think about Vaporwave, we should look back to its musical origins. It’s an artistic movement that started in the early 2010’s, that manipulates 80’s/90’s graphics and sounds. The seminal work of the genre is Vektroid’s (pseudoname Macintosh Plus’) album Floral Shoppe; specifically, Lisa Frank 420/Modern Computing. This song is literally a slowed down Diana Ross song. In fact, most vaporwave involves some sort of musical distortion: some skipping, some slowing, but never in a harsh way: it's been likened to elevator music. It's been claimed that Vaporwave was the first musical genre to be born and die on the Internet.
There's something important to consider about the "elevator" music quality and the time displacement in using 80's/90's songs. Embedded in these choices are economic systems at play. Elevator music is something you hear at work or in a shopping mall. The 80's is also characterized by Reagan's conservatism, the end of the cold war, and the triumph of American capitalism. But these elements aren't being exactly celebrated within Vaporwave music: they're being distorted, turned into something familiar and yet distant. The word "vaporwave" actually comes from a Marxist tradition.
Vaporwave is coined from two things: the first being a marketing term, vaporware- referring to when corporations publicize a product that they never intend to release- so the product disappears like vapor. The second influence was taken from Karl Marx’s Communist Manifesto: “All that is solid melts into air.” In this passage, Marx describes sublimation, “the name of the physical process that turns a solid into a gas”- basically he says social reality vaporizes under capitalism.
Vaporwave music is criticizing the promise of capitalism: it takes nostalgic relics from the 80's and distorts it into pleasant but consumable music. Originating from the internet is important too: it's retaliatory. The music is distributed freely and anonymously- with little profit or recognition. In a neoliberal society where capital penetrates every niche of existence, this is a reprieve. Vaporwave is both critical and calming media that is available for all.
But what exactly does this have to do with the aesthetic symbols found in vaporwave art? Perhaps you can justify the old Microsoft icons, but sunsets don't exactly make in this context. And yet, I would argue that it does make sense, again within an economic context. The 80's in America recalls the end of the cold war- the triumph of capitalism and celebration in excessive materialism. And there was a promise, too, embedded in this win- that capitalism would result in a prosperous world for all.
But of course, we see that this isn't the case: inequity is astounding in developed nations. We were promised paradise, but instead we received alienation and isolation through segmentation with money. And that's what I think is at play within vaporwave art... a promise of a capitalistic, technological paradise that has dissipated: a representation of vaporware.
What I mean to say is that vaporwave is a function of time: it recalls what we thought our future would be. Why are there so many palm trees and soft drinks in vaporwave art? Because we associate those images with vacation and paradise- a promised future. Similarly, why are there Japanese elements? To Americans (and many other western nations), Japan is the model of Asian modernity: a bastion of foreign technology. A good example of this is Akira, which has been the defining work for the entire science fiction genre, one that you will see referenced in movies over and over again. And science fiction is rooted in our imagination of what our future technology might be. So Japan represents this parallel reality of technological paradise that we have not achieved (and that they have not achieved either).
Why do you often see old Windows/Apple logos or obsolete technologies (like CD’s or old controllers)? It’s about our modern past. The same past when our future was promised to us. The beginning before our tremendous technological growth. It’s our personal past. That recent history is paired with antiquated history- an elevated history in the form of Roman busts and pillars. We hold onto these past promises and keep resurfacing them in visuals and sounds, but we distort them- make them uncanny and bright.
And what we are left with is an art form that is endlessly mimetic and reproducible. Above this writing is a vaporwave image maker: you can add stickers and swap out backgrounds, change the hues of layers, etc. But the thing is, it always feels the same. The images are different, but the aesthetic is both instantly recognizable and forgettable. It's as dissolved as the promises we once had.