Vaporwave was the perfect cultural movement for our generation, and in a flash it was gone.
Music subcultures rarely expand beyond the small sphere of influence they originally occupy, but vaporwave managed to outgrow its surroundings and catapult itself into mainstream popularity, only to disappear shortly afterwards. Vaporwave was never meant to become a cultural phenomenon. Instead, it succeeded off the back of anti-consumerist ideas rather than sheer nostalgia and inevitably collapsed when the movement fell victim to the same commercialism it was originally meant to critique.
Vaporwave’s origins can be tied to Chuck Person's Eccojams Vol. 1 (typically referred to as Eccojams), released by prolific electronic artist Oneohtrix Point Never under the pseudonym Chuck Person. The title serves a dual purpose, referencing both the Sega Mega Drive game Ecco the Dolphin and style of music Lopatin coined as “echo jams,” created by looping samples of pop songs from past decades (primarily the 80s) obscured by vocal effects and time distortion ad infinitum. Lopatin would revisit this formula the following year with Replica, a brooding, ominous album that abandoned any lighthearted tone from Eccojams in favor of a haunting atmosphere. It is this album that I’ll Try Living Like This most closely resembles; while much of Vaporwave revolved around escapism and pop culture artifacts, both Replica and I’ll Try Living Like This created claustrophobic, distorted versions of reality to trap the listener within.
Lopatin never intended to inspire a larger movement, but his blueprint was too promising for future artists to pass up. The first album considered part of the mainstream vaporwave movement was Macintosh Plus’s Floral Shoppe. It gathered a surprising cult following online, larger than the relatively under the radar releases from Lopatin and James Ferraro that preceded it. The album established many of the genre’s trademark characteristics and balanced consumerist imagery with distinctly modern and subversive production styles. One writer for Esquire singles out the song “リサフランク420 //現代のコンピュー” to highlight its influence, stating:
The song features a Diana Ross track, ‘It's Your Move,’ chopped and slowed to an awkwardly relentless zombie shuffle. The track is disassembled and then put back together, brought back from the dead with all of the slickness, the ‘product’ completely sucked out of it. And somehow it sounds even more sensual, and certainly more fragile, than the original.
Vaporwave as a genre has attracted considerable criticism, mainly through accusations of being derivative or uninspired. If the main conventions of the genre have remained largely untouched in the years that followed, it seems easy to reduce vaporwave to an imitative art rather than a transformative one; anyone can sample old pop music, slow it down, and package it as their own, but implying this process is all there is to vaporwave would be greatly reductive. Sampling in music is a legitimate artform, and to deny that would discredit countless revolutionary producers. Vaporwave is about creating a specific mood through samples, and while the end product will always indebt itself to its influences, the best vaporwave releases develop beyond them, using samples to create an entirely separate environment.
The malls are the soon-to-be ghost towns
Anti-capitalist (specifically anti-consumerist) themes in vaporwave are as central to the genre as pastel aesthetics or chopped-up 80s samples. As Simon Reynolds described in Retromania: Pop’s Addiction to its Own Past, the style of music birthed by Eccojams “relate[s] to cultural memory and the buried utopianism within capitalist commodities, especially those related to consumer technology in the computing and audio-video entertainment area.” Pop culture is a somewhat recursive being; it feeds off itself, occasionally birthing new movements or trends through the worship of previous ones, frequently celebrating its own past successes.
Vaporwave is not a cultural movement, but rather a countercultural one, so its appropriation of 80s-00s advertisements and “mall culture” are not meant to be celebratory. For the generation coming of age in the 10s-20s, they are likely old enough to watch the malls near them slowly close down, but not old enough to have fond memories of spending time there. Malls hold special significance to this generation, as they represent promises of a lost childhood never experienced.
Vaporwave is not the only example of malls being used in this regard either. Youtuber Contrapoints discussed how the rise of the “dead mall” represents a kind of transformation from Gothic Horror of the past, as well as a symbolic death of the 20th century tech boom and economic idealism. Videos of photographers traveling through abandoned malls have become a form of internet age haunted house stories, with these monuments to consumerism replacing the spacious, upper-class mansions of old. One commenter describes their personal interpretation of the collapse of shopping malls:
I think it is still hitting people with slow motion shock that the 20th century is really over. If you personally remember and experienced the excitement of the 80s when high end malls opened, it is so hard to connect that to what now exists, post recession, post urban change, post internet shopping. In the 80s, this looked like the start of a big new world of wealth for everyone. In fact, it was the last gasp of 20th century general prosperity.
There emerged a gradually expanding divide between real-life malls and “mall culture,” the aesthetic used as part of the visual trends of vaporwave. I personally grew up next to a mall in Citrus Park, FL that contained some of my better childhood memories. I still go back every so often when I’m on break, but the experience isn’t quite the same. It seems less crowded every time I visit, and the stores change every so often, almost as if in a desperate attempt to halt the inevitable. About a year ago, I noticed multiple images of the movie theater within the mall gained popularity online as part of the pastel-neon vaporwave aesthetic. Commenters were celebrating its design, and mentioning how much they wanted to visit, but to me it wasn’t anything special. As of winter break, the mall itself is still struggling, but the movie theater remains popular, perhaps helped in part by its ability to benefit from the resurgence of “mall culture” sparked by vaporwave.
Nothing you like will remain untouched. And it will get further and further monetized into meaninglessness. This isn't just our problem in our idiotic bloodsport. You're fucked too.
It’s hard to pinpoint one specific moment that marked the “death” of vaporwave. Its decline was gradual yet inevitable. The first step was likely the simplification of the genre’s defining characteristics; creating an immersive landscape through artifacts from pop culture became longer and longer samples of pop songs with fewer and fewer changes. The vaporwave aesthetic became “A E S T H E T I C,” a memetic phenomenon easily reproduced with a “Miami Vice” color palette, Japanese text, tile patterns, and early 2000s CGI. The genre’s most popular album cover spawned countless parodies of its own, dooming the genre even further into self-worship. None of this helped to repair vaporwave’s already fragile reputation, but celebrities and corporations viewed the establishment of these concrete design choices as something they could profit off of. MTV and Tumblr were the first to cash in, with the former providing the largest audience vaporwave had ever reached at a point where it was already dying. If the looks and appeal of a counter-cultural movement become co-opted by mainstream culture, the movement becomes meaningless.
Late-stage vaporwave still produced a number of interesting, well-made albums that managed to differentiate themselves from the crowd. 2814, a collaboration between HKE and telepath, created a landmark achievement with 新しい日の誕生, an album focusing more on ambiance and background noise than pop samples that managed to create perhaps the most evocative and immersive landscape within the whole genre. Released in the same year was death’s dynamic shroud’s I’ll Try Living Like This, a surreal, urban nightmare that flips much of the genre’s stereotyping on its head. Both were released in 2015 in the midst of vaporwave’s rapidly increasing popularity. In some ways, the genre’s removal from popular culture has allowed for some of vaporwave’s more inventive and experimental albums to emerge over the past few years. No longer under the gaze of cultural arbiters or internet culture as the “next big thing,” those who continue to produce music in the genre have helped vaporwave stay afloat.
The second part of this series will address in greater depth my favorite album from the genre: I’ll Try Living Like This by death’s dynamic shroud.
Ethan Hall is frequent contributor to The Weekly Cad.