No, vaporwave is not linked to those Vine videos of pimply teenagers making smoke rings with a shisha. Vaporwave is a micro-genre derived from the electronic scene, which emerged in the early 2010s. Yeah, so what? Lots of electro subgenres have been coming out for years. Except that vaporwave is not only a modern satirical take on capitalism, it’s also one of the only genres that was born, thrived and died online.
So what is vaporwave? At it’s heart it’s a reinterpretation of 80s and 90s generic music such as elevator muzak, infomercial music or advert jingles. By adapting and reworking corporate stock music to make it beautiful, vaporwave directly pokes at the genericity and vapidity of excessive consumerism. This music is often blended with internet imagery stemming from glitch art and the cyber punk movement.
Like most niche movements, vaporwave artists were often anonymous, internet savvy individuals working under a pseudonym or as part of an artistic collective. Vaporwave started as a variant of chillwave music, which enjoyed a bigger mainstream presence in the media and was pioneered by producers and artists such as James Ferraro and Ariel Pink. The chillwave revival of happy retro-pop culture encouraged disillusioned artists to counteract the movement by creating their own ironic take on chillwave. They went on to build a strong audience on sites such as Reddit, 4chan and other imageboard websites. However, despite a short-lived period of success in 2012 the micro-genre, like many others (witchhouse and seapunk to name but a few), gradually fizzled out as people moved on.
The padre of all vaporwave artists
With it’s Tumblr-based aesthetics and repetitive loops that subtly lash out at consumer culture and technology, vaporwave’s dystopian vision is a relic of the days when internet art was still edgy and had meaning.
Fun fact: Vaporwave encouraged another lightening sub-genre called the Simpsonwave. This micro-genre consists of videos of VHS extracts from the American show The Simpsons set to ethereal vaporwave music. The effect is often hypnotic, surreal and, weirdly enough, soothing.