No, vaporwave is not the music people play in the background while they vape, not that it couldn’t work. 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 its 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 cyberpunk movement.
Some early examples include Far Side Virtual and Floral Shoppe. These collections both came out in 2013.
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.
A meme or a work of art—call it what you will, but there’s no denying that a lot of people are living for this emerging music. Here’s why:
Whether in music, art, and even fashion, vaporwave is making its mark in history. The aesthetic has crawled its way everywhere, inspiring everything from internet memes to streetwear. To outsiders, the vaporwave aesthetic may seem like a collection of random details—Japanese characters, electric imagery, sandy beaches—but really, it’s an ode to the 80s and 90s. The creative play of vintage elements like VHS tapes, PC graphics, and archaic logos is what makes this subgenre stand out.
Here’s a glimpse of vaporwave making its influence felt in today’s fashion.
This video tutorial takes it up a notch by showing how the vaporwave aesthetic can be applied to home design.
Virtually anyone can freely express themselves using vaporwave—even those who weren’t even alive yet in the ‘80s. In fact, the majority of vaporwave artists are in their 20s: some examples are Yung Bae, Skylar Spence, Vektroid, and Luke Laurila.
During the 1980s, the consumerist culture was at its all-time high. Vaporwave art and music revisit this period by utilizing TV commercials, advertisements, and corporate logos to create parodies and memes.
Vaporwave artists and musicians would be the first to tell you that borrowing and repurposing other people’s art is totally fine. The goal of the genre is to take other people’s finished pieces and do whatever is necessary to improve or repurpose the art.
With its 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.