So, it's 2016 and we are pretty far out from the genesis of rock 'n' roll in the '50s. Since then, pop music has become a mainstay genre that has evolved many times through the decades and descending from that are many sub-genres of music aimed at targeting specific audiences. None, though, could be as oddly specific or as spot-on as vaporwave. This semi-obscure music genre has gained popularity in recent years and for interesting reason.
Vaporwave parodies pop music, specifically older styles from the '80s. Through the use of sampling and computer made music, vaporwave pushes music to some interesting places. It combines popular or obscure songs from the '80s with a commercial or lounge jazz sound. What you get is a very meta piece of music that not only asks you to take it how it is, but also consider what it was made from and what those musical materials mean. It's almost as if aliens were asked to make an example of human music and for reference were given stock corporate music, some not-very-popular '80s pop songs and elevator music all on worn-out cassettes and CDs with scratches on them. It's pretty bizarre and hard to explain, so below is a video of a popular vaporwave song.
Moving on, I'm specifically going to focus on the album "Floral Shoppe" by Macintosh Plus. It's one of the more popular vaporwave albums and the best example of the potential of the genre. It's a good place to start, though, as just the artist name and album cover give us an interesting idea of what this genre is about.
First off, the fact that the artist's name is Macintosh Plus is an obvious throwback to the popular Apple computer line from the '80s and our first introduction into the commercial themes. The album artwork itself is a conjuration of imagery meant to give a mindset of what this music represents. There is a focus on older technology. The word "MAC" next to the Japanese text evokes the idea of innovative tech products from Japan. Under it, the image of New York is another throwback to old tech. The pixelated image quality and the presence of the Wold Trade Center is there to remind us of something we would find on an old computer before the turn of the century. Dominating the left side of the cover is a marble sculpture which juxtaposes the pixelated art, checkerboard pattern and Japanese text. The sculpture itself, which would be popularly considered as art, is placed next to graphics that stem from the creation of consumer culture. Taking old computer graphics and putting it next to the sculpture is challenging you to consider: what is art? The computer graphics are a result of hundreds of years of human progress and were made by artists for commercial purposes. It isn't the traditional idea of art but falls in the definition, yet as a society we do not praise it like the sculpture. What you get is an image that's a bit hard to understand without listening to the music, but it's totally what this entire genre is about.
Now switch out the re-use of old graphics with the re-use of old music: pop songs, lounge music, synthesizers, etc. Taking all this and re-contextualizing it into something new is the bare bones of vaporwave. This isn't a recent development in music, artists have sampled older material for decades, but what vaporwave does and specifically this album is very interesting. "Floral Shoppe" makes the sampled music sound older.
The "Floral Shoppe" song "Lisa Frank 420/ Modern Computing" samples music from this Diana Ross song. If you listen to just the first few seconds of both, the similarity is pretty clear. Instead of taking the Diana Ross song and remixing it into something new (maybe a modern dance remix or something) the melody gets slowed down. There is even probably a filter that makes it sound grainier and the result is this song that is reminiscent of popular music trends of the '80s/'90s. The song sounds as if it came out of an old TV commercial and that is totally the point. It's oddly nostalgic and hypnotic.
The first song in the album "Booting" has skips in the music that you would find on scratched CDs. Instead, though, it uses those skips to further the song and create rhythm. The album is filled with these sort of things. It takes old sounds or music ideas birthed from consumer culture and re-contextualizes them out of the music computing limitations of the time.
Many are quick to judge vaporwave as it being a "joke". Not that the music is bad, but it itself is a joke. I really disagree with this statement. Behind the memes and aesthetic, vaporwave wants you to seriously consider what has been forgotten. The "consumer culture" music, the music that was made for advertisements and corporate videos that have been forgotten, are remembered here. The music is sincere and there are some beautiful songs in this album.
Jonathan Dean of Tiny Mix Tapes put it best, "['Floral Shoppe' is] one of the best single documents of the vaporwave scene yet, a series of estranged but soulful manipulations of found audio that carefully constructs its own meditative headspace through the careful accretion of defamiliarized memory triggers." Vaporwave is innovative and unique. It'll probably never be mainstream, but it is definitely the best example of postmodern music yet.