Music of the Spectacle: Alienation, Irony and the Politics of Vaporwave

Music of the Spectacle: Alienation, Irony and the Politics of Vaporwave

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.

It’s not hard to notice just how ironic albums like Computer Death by Infinity Frequencies or THE PATHWAY THROUGH WHATEVER by MEDIAFIRED feel.

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.

—Simon Chandler


  1. Tristan Kavanagh
    Posted August 26, 2016 at 4:08 am | Permalink

    I do think there’s a strong Ieftist undercurrent in vaporwave+other associated genres, altho there are definitely people who are apolitical and just like the visuals and music associated. I disagree when vaporwave is presented as some kind of adbusters style anti-consumerism, or something defined by irony mostly/entirely, and associated with the dismissal of “consumption” that is represented by the trend towards local, organic, and “authentic” of 2000s indie culture or groups like the situationists. Vaporwave is something very different than that, and in fact I would venture to guess that many vaporwave artists would reject ascetic calls for more “simple living” and “less consumerism”.

    Leftism at its core isn’t getting rid of markets or ads or luxury goods, but rather the workers owning the means of production that produce the objects in the market. In such a society the most harmful and intrusive aspects of consumer culture could be minimized, and the benefits distributed to all rather than for the few. im sure there are vaporwave artists who are sympathetic to anti consumerist views, but it isn’t inherent to the genre. The visions of society presented in many of these works were good, and it was capitalism that failed to fulfill these visions. Capitalism promised this to compete with the Soviet Union and leftism, claiming that it could enfranchise the working and middle class moreso than the left. these ideals themselves of enfranchising everyone are very valuable and still hold strongly to very many people despite often times narratives among the broad left trending towards rejection of consumerism.

    Vaporwave doesn’t just grab All of consumer culture, but rather draws on aspects of it in addition to other cultural influences both high and low, It more suggests that there are beautiful parts of consumerism, and that we do value these images despite the fact that cultural gatekeepers have labelled them inauthentic and fake, which represents one of the liberatory aspects of the internet and stuff like outsider art that allows for more variety and nuance in entertainment as opposed to having it be filtered by a few individuals, i think alot of people into these kinds of music can relate to not really feeling alot of music and culture in the 2000s- early 2010s before finding these kinds of music, and for many people who primarily appreciate the music for the aesthetics rather than statements, finding aesthetics that you can enjoy and relate to and immerse yourself in is a really great experience

    Instead of dismissing the popular art of the past, as traditional rock and underground critics did, vaporwave (and other associated genres and stuff coming out of it cause i think theres a general growing movement for music that has qualities similar to vaporwave,) looks at the certain art and aspects of that art that had been dismissed, recontextualizing it into something surreal and otherworldly. A large part of vaporwave is putting you into another world. The “Glitches” often thrown in, i would say that calling them ‘fractures in the perfect society” is too big of a jump, the glitches are there to produce the effect of listening on a vhs or tape that is skipping, which is to give you the feel that you are consuming some kind of lost surreal content, and in effect a lost world that we can discover and recreate an idealized version of, especially as virtual reality becomes more prominent, making it a kind of new entertainment. I think vaporwave and the general movement of music like this is perfectly compatible with a kind of politics that doesn’t just criticize, but rather advocates for a certain vision of society, which i think would be some form of automated luxury socialism/communism

  2. Jerry Shirts
    Posted August 24, 2016 at 11:33 pm | Permalink

    If vaporware is the mirror then “retro” synthwave is the the reflection come to life and run amok. Artists like Megadrive, Feddy Cougar and Run Vaylor are using repurposed tones to lay out a distinctly dystopian future/present of eternal night, human/android hybrids and hyper-urbanisim.

  3. keencaption
    Posted August 23, 2016 at 4:29 pm | Permalink

    Good article

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