When the 80s ended it left a legacy that would reverberate through the ages to come. Bold neon colours, hot summer days, heavy synthesizers set to the first videogames to hit the mainstream market… A time parents lament over, and the decennium that produced the original 90s kids. Arguably, it is the most defined decennium this world has ever known, its graphics being recognised as typical 80s, something the 50s, 60s, 70s and 00s all lack: a defined set of imagery that makes the decade what it is. But the 80s have been left behind.
In 2019, we live in an age that is defined by the smartphone, the slim-fit suits and the lack of extreme colours. We live in what people in the 80s would call the future. Perhaps too optimistically, they saw a Neon Utopia through the lens of the media at the time. With the synth music of Jean Michelle Jarre, Vangelis, and the intruder drums on ‘In The Air Tonight’, all set to the scene of Miami in golden light; Blade Runner’s Cyberpunk dystopia; Michael Jackson’s Smooth Criminal movie; it created a visual image that is hard to erase from pop culture, being parodied and honoured ever since the decade passed.
While reflecting on this era, the future of the past was more exciting than our bleak future of today. Sure, there were social problems; in the wake of the Cold War causing its share of problems, making it hard to believe they had it better back then. However, after 9/11, the war on terror, the migrant crisis and global warming threats, it seems that our future is not as filled with neon purple and synthesizers; rather barren wastelands as far as the eye could see.
In today’s world we blame the past for this future, we blame our structures and our politics; capitalism, corruption and faulty politicians have brought us here. Yet, amidst all this noise, there is still this glowing future of a neon purple city with flying cars and holographic images, just not in the real world.
When we look for this lost future, we find it in an online micro-genre of music: vaporwave. For the five of you reading this and knowing what I’m talking about, this word should evoke the thought of pink and turquoise colours with a Greek bust looking pained while the droning reverberating beat of Diana Ross’ It’s Your Move loops for 7 minutes in slow-mo. For the others that read this (that don’t feel the warm feeling of nostalgia for a time that they’ve never been part of), this genre uses samples from older songs to create its own reality with an ironic tone to it, indulging itself in hyper consumerism, corporate capitalism and the “ironic” liking of kitschy 80s design and colour schemes. It is not original and does not do anything new, it slows down music and adds reverberation to it ad infinitum. Vaporwave is both a style and a music genre, both leaning heavily on one another.
The predominant neon colour palette, with its strong pink and turquoise, combined with palm trees and eternal sunsets make the perpetual repetition of a simple 4-on-the-floor beat so much more nostalgic, whereas the loosely combined imagery becomes a coherent story of typical 80s things. A Greek bust, flamingos, an orange sun, Windows ’95, floppy disks: all these things are the 80s (and 90s). All this, however, is also tongue in cheek. The music is over-sampled, crunched and reverberated indefinitely, while the images do not go beyond the limit things people associate with the 80s. It’s a meme, it’s ironic.
But for an ironic genre, I love it.
Just as much as I love the 80s as a decade, vaporwave brings things to the modern age. Always wanted to feel as if you’re part of Akira’s neo-Tokyo, or Miami Vice’s nightlife? Vaporwave makes it feel real, so to get started, the genre has a few hits that I think you should know about. Teenage Pregnancy by Blank Banshee, Enjoy Yourself by Saint Pepsi, Macintosh Plus’ リサフランク420 / 現代のコンピュ, and 恢复 by 2 1 8 4. These songs come up most of the time when one starts to look for Vaporwave. However, like the iceberg is vaster under the surface, so is the Vaporwave genre and its offspring. While slowed down tracks can easily be seen as the go-to stereotype, Vaporwave branches out into the subgenres of Synthwave, Retrofunk, Mallsoft, Hardvapour and others such as Seapunk or lofi hiphop.
All have some connection to Vaporwave and all are beautiful in their own right. HOME with his magnificent Resonance, painting the word ‘nostalgia’ on the beat of a 4-chord masterpiece, easily demonstrates the power of Synthwave, and Miami Nights 1984 perfects the 80s sound far beyond the 80s ever could. Hardvapour is a response to the more mellow and easy listening of Vaporwave and taps into house and dubstep samples to form the basis for its choruses. While Mallsoft, a personal favourite, creates an ode to shopping centres of the 80s and 90s, using sounds of real-life shopping centres and jingles from old cassette tapes to suspend the listener in a blissful world of capitalism, hyper consumerism, and fake Roman fountains.
While Mallsoft, a personal favourite, creates an ode to shopping centres of the 80s and 90s, using sounds of real-life shopping centres and jingles from old cassette tapes to suspend the listener in a blissful world of capitalism, hyper consumerism, and fake Roman fountains. V A P O R W A V E, Steff Nagel
Yet, all these tracks and subgenres are again only scratching the surface. Dig deeper and find that once you go on a Vaporwave adventure on YouTube (the best way of going about it), you’ll soon be greeted by other phenomenal pieces of music: actual obscure 80s tracks ranging from Italo Disco to long lost Japanese mall cassettes made for a specific store in Tokyo in 1987. You’ll find a treasure trove full of City Pop, an 80s genre that the Japanese were fond of, using English and Japanese sentences to create songs to the best of synthesizer sounds. Once you fall into this pit of obscure music, it’s hard not to get lost.
All this brings me to Derrida’s ‘hauntology’, which I cannot do full justice, but I’ll try to make it applicable to the case of vaporwave. In its basics, it’s a temporal, historical and ontological disjunction. In layman’s terms: it’s the persistence of the past. When imagery doesn’t want to die, such as the graphics of the 80s and 90s, and its sounds from old-time synthesizers and cassette loops, we witness hauntology. Our modern society has reached an impasse, and with the future seemingly bleak, we look back and find hail in that what was, constructing a future that never could be which in itself is a failure of our real future.
I want to share this adventure because I believe that our world is so deeply ingrained in politics, divisive questions, fear and fake news, that an escape from this reality seems almost impossible. I offer you a world in which times were simpler, where people still have huge shoulder fillings, when it was cool to wear bright neon colours. A world that never truly was, a past that we can only reminisce about. Vaporwave makes you feel as if you were on Miami Beach in 1986. Indulging in nostalgia for a time you never witnessed. I want to end this article with the clearest example of this feeling within the vaporwave genre: 猫 シ Corp., News at 11.
This album places itself an hour before the 9/11 attacks, and by the time side A of the album ends, 9/11 as we know it never happened, the news never comes. Leaving us with a side B that plays tunes from the 90s Weather Channel Report, creating a reality in which we still live in a past future, untouched by tragedy, forever present in a time we can never return to.
I guess I’ll go for a stroll on the beach…
…while a boom-box in the distance plays It’s Your Move in slow-mo.
For further “reading”: