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Is Vaporwave The Next Seapunk?

THUMP's Year in Review

By Michelle Lhooq

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Where were you when seapunk died? Let’s never forget how Twitter shuddered like a baby that just got its favorite toy yanked away, then exploded into a histrionic chorus of WAH WAH RIHANNA STOLE MY SEASHELLS WAAAH! That shit was ridiculous. But even though seapunk was the first Internet-fueled subculture to be thrust so awkwardly into the mainstream, it definitely won’t be the last. 


credit: PrismCorp Virtual Enterprises Tumblr http://newdreamsltd.tumblr.com/

Already gearing up as seapunk’s bigger, flashier and coming-this-summer-with-10-times-more-explosions sequel is vaporwave—the next lucky hashtag that could end up on SNL. Like seapunk, vaporwave is another Tumblr-spawned micro-genre that’s obsessed with Geocities graphics and spacey electronic music… but with fewer dolphins this time. 



credit: Marilyn Roxie RYM Box Set cover art http://marilynroxie.com/

What is vaporwave? According to commenters in various music forums, it’s “chillwave for Marxists,” “post-elevator music,” “corporate smooth jazz Windows 95 pop,” and (my personal favorite) “better than that witch house shit.” 



credit: Macintosh Plus Facebook page https://www.facebook.com/modern.computing

To put it another way, imagine taking bits of 80's Muzak, late-night infomercials, smooth jazz, and that tinny tune receptionists play when they put you on hold, then chopping that up, pitching it down, and scrambling it to the point where you’ve got saxophone goo dripping out of a cheap plastic valve. That’s vaporwave. 



But even though sampling “cheesy” and “trashy” music is vaporwave’s M.O., parodying commercial taste isn’t exactly the goal. Vaporwave doesn’t just recreate corporate lounge music – it plumps it up into something sexier and more synthetic. Vaporwave makes the banal sound luscious, like the kind of beats you’d twerk to at the top of an empty skyscraper looking out across Dubai. 

Everything about vaporwave is tied to capitalist sleaze; even its name is a spoof of the term “vaporware,” nonexistent products that companies announce and heavily promote as a corporate strategy to keep their competitors at bay. Vaporwave’s deliberate affiliation with techno-capitalism distinguishes it from seapunk’s pastel land full of prancing sea mammals. Unlike seapunk, vaporwave is actually “punk,” in that it’s driven by a subversive political objective: undermining the iron grip of global capitalism… by exposing the alienating emptiness underneath its uncanny sheen. 

With these philosophical undertones, it makes sense that the poster children behind vaporwave’s newfangled sound skew towards the intellectual end of the electronic music spectrum—like the Kuwait-born, avant-garde beatmaker Fatima Al Qadiri, who scrambled the gyrating booties from hip-hop culture into oversaturated dreamscapes in her video for “Hip Hop Spa,” and the multitasking James Ferraro, whose Far Side Virtual from 2011 was one of the first albums to patch together digital detritus into a glossy, blank-eyed ode to capitalism. In two separate interviews, Ferraro called his album both an “opera for our consumption civilization” and “16 ringtones you can download.” To me, these two quotes perfectly capture how vaporwave works—by becoming a product of the techno-futurist commercialism that it is trying to be about. 



Of course, there are many other lesser-known vaporwave artists than Al Qadiri and Ferraro—some are completely anonymous, like the Portland-based producer Vektroid, whose NEW DREAMS LTD. album was considered “scene-defining” when it dropped in 2011. NEW DREAMS LTD was actually released under one of Vektroid’s other aliases, Laserdisc Visions (he or she goes by many different names that all sound like extras from the Matrix: Macintosh Plus, esc 不在, and情報デスクVIRTUAL. (About those last two: Japanese characters are ubiquitous in the vaporwave world, partly because of an obsession with Japan as a cyberpunk wonderland, but also because these unreadable characters act as signifiers of a globalized and impenetrable future.



As for what vaporwave looks like, at first glance, its aesthetic looks pretty similar to seapunk’s: screensaver graphics, cloudy horizons, a giant David sculpture with his dick covered by a neon pink triangle, etcetera. But even though they share the same nostalgia for 90's Internet culture, you won’t find a stray pastel seashell in the vaporwave universe. Instead, you’ll find virtual renderings of model homes, Shibuya billboards, and alien landscapes—exactly the kind of soulless imagery that pairs perfectly with vaporwave’s corporatized music. If seapunk’s visuals can be summed up as internet pirates wearing barnacle-studded track jackets, then varpowave is Japanese businessmen grinning like Aphex Twin's Come to Daddy video.

chris††† - quivering (Music Video) from John Zobele on Vimeo

But not all vaporwave imagery has to be virtually-rendered. I consider these photos of #HDBOYZ, a satirical boyband, in keeping with the vaporwave aesthetic—everything from Ryder Ripps’ techno-punk bondage gear to their deadpan aping of Mickey Mouse Club boyband culture smacks of vaporwave influences. The #HDBOYZ add an extra element to the picture: humor. The guys are smirkingly self-aware of their ridiculous corporate fetishism. 





From DIS Magazine's "The HD Boyz Defined" 

I have to acknowledge that my prediction that vaporwave will be this summer’s seapunk runs against the prevailing opinion. (According to some publications, vaporwave is totally oooover before it began. As the Chicago Reader noted, a vaporwave festival called SPF420 that took place on Tinychat in January was supposed to be the genre’s “final eulogy,” at least according to the producer Metallic Ghosts.) 

But judging from the fact that another SPF420 show took place in March, a new vaporwave collective launched in June, and the vaporwave subReddit is still alive and kicking, I think these prognostications of its impending demise are totally full of shit. 

Vaporwave will keep on building steam, if only because it’s perfectly synchronized with the times we live in: our world is choking on the invasive omnipresence of corporate and government forces. Our financial system is being slowly disrupted by the increasing viability of Bitcoin. Our cultural appetite for high-definition imagery and stock photography knows no limits. Our technology is moving so quickly, the iPhone in your hand is already looking a little retro. Vaporwave’s deadpan embodiment of our hi-fi reality coudn't be any more relevant. Seapunk started as a joke and ended that way. Vaporwave won’t.

For more on vaporwave’s guiding philosophy, I suggest reading Dummy Magazine’s excellent analysis here

Michelle Lhooq is growing a kombucha mushroom the size of the Arctic Circle and trying to figure out how to buy Ryan Gosling's panties on Bitcoin. Find her on Twitter at - @MichelleLhooq

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