What vaporwave says about music in our time
A few weeks ago, when I first heard Macintosh Plus’ Floral Shoppe, the heavens opened and I saw visions of what music means in the twenty-first century.
The form of the album is a giant assemblage of samples which all sound vaguely like they came from the eighties. I can’t recognize any specific pieces in the muddle1, but there is a definite vibe going on here. The samples evoke all kinds of 80s music, from radio hits to film and TV soundtracks. So, what is going on here? This record was made in 2011 and is the type specimen of vaporwave, which I’d actually never heard of before, but which is extremely well-represented on YouTube and Spotify playlists.2 What kind of music is this anyway? The samples are chopped up and glitched to the point of being nothing at all like the songs they originally came from; they get slowed down, sped up, drenched in reverb, delay, the telephone-voice EQ effect, etc., etc. Entirely new compositions, in fact, have been made from these samples.
I love sample-based music. In my teenage years, I would get excited about the Dies Irae quote in the “Witches’ Sabbath” part of Berlioz’s Symphonie Fantastique, John Oswald’s Grayfolded was one of my favorite albums, and I would play two CDs at the same time just to hear how they would combine. Some people might not enjoy music that is made entirely of parts of other people’s music, and I understand that; but for me, that kind of thing is candy for my ears, so I was already primed to like Floral Shoppe.
However—being the weird kind of music snob that I was, I did not listen to a lot of 80s music. Most of what I listened to as a teenager was classical music, progressive rock, and ambient; the most “80s” album I can remember liking was Remain in Light. The music sampled on Floral Shoppe is part of the memory landscape of my childhood, but not in a major way; it’s just there, in the background.
But really, should I be taking this music seriously at all? Is it worth anything as music, or is vaporwave “an ambiguous or satirical take on consumer capitalism and pop culture”, as claimed by Wikipedia? Everything I can find online says that vaporwave is all about nostalgia—for the 80s, mostly, or for Japan, or for shopping at malls, or for hanging out at hotel pools after shopping at malls in the 80s—but it all seems a very performative sort of nostalgia.3 This aesthetic—is it serious? I don’t know, but it doesn’t really matter. Here at RUINS we believe that an artwork can still be appreciated outside its original context. All the kids might be snickering to each other about Floral Shoppe, but so what—I like it, unironically.
Also: what is with the extreme proliferation of subgenres and microgenres swirling around the vaporwave aesthetic? Vaporwave itself is, supposedly, a child of chillwave; chillwave is, as far as I can gather, just like vaporwave except it’s real musicians instead of samples. Then there’s—
—Darkwave (like vaporwave, except the samples are not as happy-sounding);
—Dreampunk (darkwave, except it’s more ambient /spacey);
—Retrowave (even more overtly 80s-ish than vaporwave);
—Dreamwave (like retrowave, but more upbeat / optimistic);
—Future funk (extremely sugary dance music with unintelligible vocals, this stuff will rot your mind);
—Vaporfunk (like vaporwave, but with samples of 70s funk instead of 80s easy listening songs);
—Cloud rap (vaporwave or retrowave with rapping on top);
—Mallsoft (vaporwave but an order of magnitude more so—indistinguishable from elevator music);
—Memewave (a satirical self-referential sendup of vaporwave—the irony is now two layers thick. I’m not making this up);
—-Simpsonwave (YouTube videos of vaporwave tracks paired with heavily edited clips from The Simpsons— this is really a thing! I’m not just making this up!)
. . . And even more that I can’t bother to list.4 We’re almost at the point where every person who makes music will be their own genre. Remember when David Bowie released Young Americans in 1975 and called it “plastic soul”? If he did that today, the genre would have gotten a serious write-up in Pitchfork, and its own Wikipedia page; at the time, everyone knew it was just a kind of rock. Why can’t we think like that anymore?
The popularity of vaporwave music like Floral Shoppe raises the question of what music even means in the twenty-first century. Isn’t music supposed to be about technical skill, virtuosity, and compositional aptitude? Well . . . for a very long time, music in Eurocentric cultures has been about those things, but never exclusively. There has always been a current of musical thinking that focused on the sound of the music—its timbral quality. Why else would people have invented those weird horns from the Renaissance if not to display their unique sounds?
The big cultural shakeup which happened at the beginning of the twentieth century touched music just as much as it did the visual arts. The compositional problems propounded by Bach reached their final, logical end in the music of Schoenberg; after him, composers began to wonder if there were any problems left to solve. The late twentieth century saw the rise of such techniques as minimalism, which is basically a throwing out of every compositional element except the most fundamental, and maximalism, which is just the opposite.
But there are many serious composers who have abandoned the compositional aesthetic of problem-solving and instead focused on the sounds their performers could produce. Composers such as George Crumb and Tōru Takemitsu stretched the timbral possibilities of their instruments, and at the same time pushed the performer’s virtuosity to the limit, demanding hitherto-impossible feats from the musicians.
Of course, once recording technology was embraced by musicians, this process became even easier. Performers were unnecessary; now, any possible sound could be created or modified in the studio. With easily-accessible freeware like Audacity taking the recording studio into anyone’s living room, this became even easier.
All of this is reducing music to this essential virtue: music as a cabinet of curiosities. For the performer, the complicatedness of late-twentieth-century composed music makes it exciting; but for the listener, who doesn’t know how difficult it is to perform, all that is experienced is “those are some cool sounds.” And . . . isn’t that enough?
In our current times, the act of musical composition has been transformed into the collecting of a cabinet of curiosities. Is this a rejection of skill, of virtuosity? Or a putting aside of something that wasn’t really important anyway?
It’s fitting that this album is called Floral Shoppe. A floral shop is also a kind of cabinet of curiosities. Flowers are useful for nothing other than to be looked at—their existence is their own justification. Flowers exist to be seen and smelled, nothing more. You can’t make anything out of them; you can eat many of them but people rarely ever do, and they aren’t nutritious anyway.
Similarly, music only exists to be heard. I would posit that the whole endeavor, from Bach to Schoenberg, of a music which exists on the printed page as much as it does in the ear was a regrettable distraction from the real purpose of music. Of the scripture passages which mention music, one of my favorites is in Psalm 150: “Praise Him with crashing cymbals, praise Him with loud cymbals.” Notice there is no mention of harmoniousness or melody, or even rhythm – the cymbals, which are already an unpitched instrument, are invoked only for their timbral qualities. How do you offer praise to God with a cymbal? By hitting it really hard.
That is the whole point of Floral Shoppe, and vaporwave music in general—an invitation to enjoy the sound combinations, the timbral qualities, of specific snippets of prerecorded music. In the twenty-first century, “Give ear to these interesting sounds” is the prevailing compositional style, and that is enough; nothing more is absolutely necessary.
It’s worth noting that vaporwave is as much a visual aesthetic as a musical style. The visuals are so clichéd that even a machine can copy them—Wombo has a “Synthwave” filter, which does a good job of capturing the key signifiers.
It’s the magenta-and-blue color scheme that does it—here’s the same “vaporwave sunset, palm trees” prompt with (L to R) Wombo’s “Steampunk”, “Surreal”, “No Style”, and “Death” filters.
This visual style is almost a parody of itself. Here’s a vaporwave image generator.
OK, OK, one more: here’s a cool retrowave text generator.
For example: look at the comments on this YouTube mix—these people might all be serious, or they might not.