Music/Features

A brief history of Vaporwave

Jul 10, 2017

A look at the rise (and predicted fall) of Vaporwave.

Vaporwave, the vaguely named electronic subgenre, first hit the mainstream (and I say that loosely) in the early 2010s. Pioneered by artists like Ramona Xavier (of Vektroid and Macintosh Plus, among other pseudeonyms), the genre takes heavy influence from 80s Italian disco and chillwave, and relies heavily on its aesthetic to send the message across.

Born and raised on the internet, Vaporwave is a microgenre which then gave birth to several others—such as hardvapor—and encouraged some different offshoots: seapunk, for one, the Tumblr aesthetic that was all the rage in 2011. The music itself sounds almost like elevator music; it’s hardly EDM, but obviously inspired by it. Vaporwave is almost a meme in and of itself. The way it’s made seems simple enough—easy listening tracks are layered with heavy samples taken from a variety of genres, mostly lounge music and R&B, but the base of the music itself draws a lot of inspiration from smooth jazz and other easy-listening type songs.

Vaporwave is essentially background music; tunes to play in your bedroom while getting ready. It’s not exactly comedown music, but it’s close. It’s not made for heavy listening, but it’s heavily listened to; wave speaks to electronic music lovers who aren’t always in search of the drop.

In 2012, wave experienced a surge in popularity but the music wasn’t all fans were interested in. wave’s aesthetic is deeply ingrained in its culture, giving fans who couldn’t quite fit into the healthgoth craze a use for their Adidas caps.

Heavily characterized by its aesthetic, wave is known for its glitch art graphics, 80s and 90s internet-inspired imagery laden with Renaissance-era statues; it uses cyberpunk imagery, Japanese characters, plants (specifically, aloe, ferns, and palms), sad faces (think Yung Lean), olden internet age emoticons, the colours pink and turquoise, water imagery,  and, of course, gifs of those big, bulky computers you used to have in your “family computer room” that ran at the speed of a turtle, made that horrible, screeching dial-up sound, and eventually died a slow and painful death when you pushed it too far with one too many Limewire downloads or Runescape installs.

Vaporwave’s aesthetic is  nostalgic—perhaps longing for a simpler time, when all you knew were the ABBA records your father played and all you wore were OshKosh overalls. This nostalgia goes hand in hand with an almost surreal design aspect, taking all these specific images and blending them into a collage to create a pink-and-blue, half-emo, half-neon eclectic piece of artwork to accompany each album release.

The cornerstone of wave music is the album Floral Shoppe, produced by Vektroid under the alias Macintosh Plus. A quick Google search for the term brings up the album in full on Youtube—a popular place to upload wave albums in full, since the visual aspect allows for some creative aesthetic work to be added to the Muzak-style tunes.

Another wave veteran, Blank Banshee, the mysterious, nameless, Canadian producer, became a household name within the subculture, with whole Facebook groups spinning off from the vapor crowd and becoming Blank Banshee talk forums. Blank Banshee Blankposting (of which I am a member), for example, has 3,818 active members and encourages any and all Blank Banshee-related posts. Since Blank Banshee merch is no longer available and hard copies of 0 and 1 are impossible to find (save for the fan-made, bootleg versions, Blank Banshee has, to my knowledge, only released music online), fans create their own merch and show it off on the page. When I attended the Blank Banshee concert in Toronto in April, I took a few videos and shared them in the group to great excitement, as the tour was the first of its kind and only hit up a few select Canadian cities.

Though Blank Banshee’s music branches away from the typical Italian disco, easy listening style wave has become known for, the trap and deep synth and overall, and quite frankly, incredible sampling and mixing of his beats have helped move wave into a new, albeit different direction, and to grow the fanbase further.

Vaporwave is simple—the culture is welcoming, although, to outsiders, it might appear difficult to understand. Each group I join on Facebook is more than willing to have a new member, and all posts are met with excitement (in wave, that means “sad” reacts on Facebook), and I have turned to wave groups on more than one occasion to find somebody to hit up a concert with.

Vaporwave producers tend to be mostly nameless and faceless (like Blank Banshee), releasing albums for free on the internet, which is a key part of wave culture that keeps it pure. Still, it’s slowly dying.

Despite the release of Blank Banshee’s MEGA last October, an album that, to me, is some of his best work yet, the genre simply isn’t as popular online as it was a few years ago, as its memefication stage is done. It’s already gone viral. In one of the groups I frequent, a user asks alongside a photograph of a Roman sculpture in front of the pink-and-blue sky, if wave is dead. Helpful Facebook user Tylertyler Valleyvalley responds: “It feels dead, but the aesthetics movement has moved on visually, and wave has gone towards WAVE musically. But Vaporwave as a specific style just… Doesn’t feel like it had any steam left.”

Valleyvalley provides an easy-to-follow explanation as to where wave music had gone. It does, of course, seem unlikely that a genre that came to be through the internet and got most of its steam there (despite being rejected by most mainstream music publications for its spin-offs or alternatives) would really push past its initial welcome. And maybe we’ll see something of wave in the future. Maybe it will it will make its return a decade from now, perhaps revisiting the original Ital-disco feel, and it will remind us of a time long gone. But I agree with him—aesthetically, wave’s Look has moved beyond what it originally represented, and can now be found on every art student in any large city.  Its current aesthetic has moved, and, sonically, it just doesn’t sound the same anymore. It’s trappier, and it’s harder; certainly not worse, but not at all what it originally was with Flower Shoppe.

All good things come to an end. Although we still have our die-hards and the private Facebook groups remain reasonably active, especially Blank Banshee-related ones, it seems the future of wave isn’t really meant to grow offline.

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