Superficially, the politics of vaporwave isn’t really politics. With such canonical records as Floral Shoppe, Nu.wav Hallucinations and Deep Fantasy evoking a world gone numb with consumerism, the genre is seemingly more interested in drowning itself in the alienating effects of omnipresent media and commodity fetishism than in spelling out a viable political program that might alleviate these effects. If the music were to be interpreted politically, a surface level reading of Blank Banshee 1 or ATMOSPHERES 第1 would suggest that vaporwave involves little more than giving in to consumeristic detachment and alienation, and to the rampant media and materialism through which we anesthetize ourselves against the drudgery of modern life.
However, beneath the glossy surface of the genre, and beneath its apparent submission to the illusions of advanced capitalism, there’s something distinctly political going on in vaporwave, something that is most evident in the ’classics’ of the genre. Take VANISHING VISION by INTERNET CLUB, an album that’s heavy in the kind of ethereal muzak and kitsch synthesizers that typically soundtrack a shopping mall or motivational video from the ‘80s. On one level, there seems to be no criticism or judgment of modern-day political realities in such a proudly tacky style—not least when campy songs like “BY DESIGN” abound in a thick ’inspirational’ atmosphere that, in its promise of limitless materialistic gratification, suffocates any attempt to think critically.
Albums like VANISHING VISION appear to represent a seductive, peaceful, and frictionless liberal society in which everyone is accepted and there’s no discrimination of any kind. This is evident not only in the placid, aggression-free atmospheres of an Initiation Tape or a New Nostalgia, but also in the placeless, anonymous artwork attached to such digital journeys. Tellingly, the vast majority of vaporwave album covers never include a picture of their creators—or any other actual human being, which suggests a world in which norms dictating the way people should look and be have been erased. If you want to be an optimist, the faceless luminosity of VANISHING VISION’s cover—a street scene, as glimpsed through a fogged-over lens—represents an enlightened, permissive environment, where personal identity is null. Instead, the media and the objects we consume determine our worth.
But a closer read of VANISHING VISION reveals a series of blemishes, or ’tells,’ that seem to criticize the harmonious society much of vaporwave depicts. One of those blemishes is the stop-start glitches that abruptly punctuate so many of the album’s tracks. These sudden digital seizures and jolts imply that the supposedly perfect world conjured by a “RENDERS” isn’t quite as perfect as it first seems. These recurring musical tics subtly suggest that there’s something dysfunctional about a society based far too much on consumption, and that as a result this society is ultimately false.
In making this damning statement, vaporwave ends up aligning itself with the culture jammers of the late 20th Century, an informal cluster of artists and dissidents who attempted to subvert capitalism by taking its brandings and advertisements and distorting them. More profoundly, it also allies itself with the Situationists, an international organization of radicals active in the late ‘50s who declared that capitalism hides its true nature by distracting us with an endless series of ’spectacles.’ And this is just what the syrupy mall-jazz of, say, Vektroid’s 札幌コンテンポラリー or waterfront dining’s NOICE すてきな embodies: the spectacle, penetrating our lives and minds in the form of the mass media and consumerism that insert their deceptive propaganda into every area of modern existence.
But vaporwave’s relationship with advanced capitalism and its spectacles is much more nuanced than semi-veiled disapproval would suggest.
They depend on the sampling of palpably outdated, tasteless, and unfashionable music, but at the same time they insert chops-and-screws and slowdowns in such a way as to allow any listener uncomfortable with the tackiness of such music to listen back to it with a degree of ironic distance.
In the same way, society for decades has been pursuing consumerism and neoliberal capitalism when it’s often accepted that neither are perfect, and the way some of us have coped with this is through adopting a position or attitude of irony (cf. David Foster Wallace). We’ve mocked politicians on both sides while continuing to elect them and we’ve ridiculed McDonald’s while continuing to buy Big Macs, and vaporwave has masterfully symbolized this social phenomena by subverting clichéd samples while relying on them to a massive extent. Through the heavy sampling of 식료품groceries’ Yes! We’re Open and Saint Pepsi’s Hit Vibes, to name just two, vaporwave has turned this wryly detached political stance into sound, a sonic mirror of every culture jammer or hipster who’s ever made the flawed world around them bearable not by changing it, but by treating its flaws as something to be laughed at from afar.
And yet, vaporwave and its irony aren’t static; they’ve evolved considerably since Eccojams and Far Side Virtual were released in 2010. The genre’s most prominent offshoot to emerge has been dubbed “hardvapor”—which, rather than drowning in visions of consumerist utopias, confronts vaporwave with the ugliness it ignores and with the unsavory implications of its own irony. As heard in mission statements like Sandtimer’s Vaporwave Is Dead and Welcome to Pripyat pt. II by KlouKloun, its gabber-derived musical attack leans heavily on pounding beats, menacing industrial noise and fractured sampling. But it also leans on uncompromisingly bleak Eastern-European imagery, with prominent label Antifur employing an iconography that invokes cybercrime, urban decay, chemical warfare, workplace exploitation, the sex industry, and even Islamic terrorism.
In nodding to such damaging blights in such an irreverent way (the label’s Bandcamp page is full of tongue-in-cheek descriptions of its “v.hard” releases), Antifur and its artists seem to be showing vaporwave how wholly inappropriate and irresponsible it is to deploy its characteristic irony in such a fraught and dangerous world as ours.
Nonetheless, it can be argued in vaporwave’s defense that, like much uncompromising music and art, the genre’s ‘mission’ appears to be focused more on mirroring our imperfect world than on reforming it. It may not offer any solutions, but it almost perfectly depicts a political domain in which media-generated images have alienated us from reality, and in which a minority of us have drifted into self-conscious irony as a way of coping with an imperfect environment (we think) we can’t change. In representing our world in this way, artists such as Vektroid, INTERNET CLUB, Infinity Frequencies and Eco Virtual (and many other vaporwave acts found through the Bandcamp tag) have aligned themselves with radicals like the Situationists, while also half-sincerely invoking a non-discriminatory social utopia in which the goals of identity politics have been attained. As contradictory and ambiguous as this juxtaposition makes vaporwave seem, it nonetheless qualifies the genre as a thoroughly progressive and liberal one. At the very least, it will do nothing to hurt its reputation as one of the most intriguing branches of electronic music to have emerged in the 21st Century.