-Skin of culture,
surface of memory
In the 2010s a music genre called vaporwave  emerged from the depths of pop culture forming an integral part of today’s online culture. Albums of the genre are mainly based on looped samples taken from 1980s and 1990s pop songs, TV programs, commercials, muzak , smooth jazz or computer game soundtracks. The samples used are first distorted, slowed down, compressed, or manipulated in other ways. In terms of art history, they can be understood as readymades  and the finished songs as musical collages. Vaporwave as a musical genre has already been examined , only taking partial account of the accompanying visual material. This article will therefore try to develop its theses partially based on the visuals of the genre.
Before the reader dives into the cultural analysis of vaporwave with us, we recommend to check out the following outstanding albums and mixes related to the genre:
Hiroshi Yoshimura, Soundscape 1 surround (1986). Yoshimura can be considered as one of the forerunners of vaporwave. Building on repetition he already created a sound that resembles contemporary vaporwave. Listening to Soundscape 1 we are reminded of the genre's roots in spiritual and ambient music.
Chuck Person, Eccojams Vol. 1 (2010). With his notorius record Daniel Lopatin started the vaporwave genre, making use of heavy distorted samples from 80's popsongs. The album remains to be one of the most philosophically consistent albums and never fails to convince of the ontological confusion of our times.
Macintosh Plus, FLORAL SHOPPE (2011). With the vaporwave anthem リサフランク420 / 現代のコンピュー the album became the focal point of the vaporwave genre. It features heavy deconstructions of 80's popsongs alternating with easy listening songs only making use of looping.
James Ferraro, Far Side Virtual (2011). James Ferraro breaks with the early nostalgia emphasis of the genre and ironically presents us with BigTech's vision of an infantilized utopia, devoid of negative emotion.
HKE & t e l e p a t h, Birth of a New Day (2015). The album works with sample-based sheets of sound evoking images of endless dystopian cities – this could be Rem Koolhaases favorite.
Spliff radio, NEON PALM MALL (2016). Compiling simple loop-based vaporwave tracks the mix stays within the bondaries of popmusic. The visuals perfectly illustrate the conundrum of the supposed opposites of criticism and nostalgia in vaporwave.
Investigation of Vaporwave's aesthetics
The covers of vaporwave albums show a distinct aesthetic including varying imagery from 80s and 90s commercials, homevideos, multinational tech brands, greek sculpture and geometry or Japanese culture. The diverse composition of images can only be understood considering its origins. Vaporwave collages are digital assemblages of images taken from popular online culture. Adam Downer in his often cited review on the Macintosh Plus  album FLORAL SHOPPE comments poignantly “as though it was the internet spitting back what we’ve been feeding into it“.
Vaporwave plays with the superficial serenity of consumers whilst paradoxically criticizing consumption culture at the same time.  It offers us a valuable reflection on the internet as a medium and its effect on a consumption culture that is partially shifting from physical status symbol orientation to consumption of online content. Others have noted that vaporwave has strong connotations to our relationship with cultural memory  or that the genre might be a reaction to sensory fatigue caused by overstimulation in contemporary culture.  In this article I will mainly try to locate vaporwave within the cultural conditions of postmodernism and its successor metamodernism. The genre does not correspond well to textual, grammatical, or teleological interpretation (classical hermeneutics), abstains from fictional narratives, and questions authentic experience. Do these aesthetics therefore only function as a postmodern practice, merely deconstructing consumer society or do they offer a roadmap towards a critical constructive stance? The article cautiously argues that vaporwave, in accordance with wider social developments, advocates for new soft forms of identity and narrative and can therefore be read in terms of metamodernism.  Specifically, the genre aims dialectically at the fusion of criticism with sincere emotion and advocates for the strengthening of the public domain. 
Preliminary thoughts on materiality
An obvious theme in vaporwave is the emphasis on recently outdated technology, its distinct low-quality features (lo-fi) and glitches. This indirectly stands in tradition with the modern project of honesty towards materiality and the disclosure of the partially fictitious character of art. The accentuation of glitches presents them as historic events similar to the recipient's own experience with disruptions in media consumption. The pre-internet failures of the outdated technology therefore evoke nostalgia. At the same time these manipulations are applied in irony and so repeatedly, that the audience is reminded of their artificiality – vaporwave constantly undermines its own nostalgic illusions. A real nostalgic act, such as the usage of an old music device, could not accomplish the desired effect that lies beyond plain nostalgia.
In keeping with the dichotomy of romanticism and industrialization, vaporwave can be read as a reaction to the ongoing digitalization. If art reflects its environment, vaporwave does so by mirroring the internet’s inherent laws. Paradoxically vaporwave is articulated within the internet which is at the same time the very object of its reflections. The incoherence of the used imagery points at the underlying structural emptiness of vaporwave which stems from the materiality of the internet. The latter consists of myriads of neural-like connections, transmitting information in an idiosyncratic realm devoid of real spatiality or location. Analogous to vaporwave, the same contradictions can be felt in 3D infrastructures. Emerging from this structural void, vaporwave collages appear to be made by impassive algorithms reconstructing the ruins of long-gone online culture bubbles. Vaporwave as an art form of online culture therefore again confirms that we have created a new virtual habitat that has its own history and heritage.
Identity after postmodernism
Alongside the crumbling of traditional institutions and their grand narratives we have observed the delegitimization of fixed identities.  Personal identity has been deconstructed as a performance, leading to its dissolution or fragmentation. Today we witness the rise and fall of shortly lived identities, offered like products on the scrollbar of Instagram. Consumers are expected to assume identities and accompanying narratives on the go. The subsequent ego-fragmentation does obviously not lead to an epidemic of schizophrenia but to a heightened level of responsibility to curate identity and its relation to one’s life stories. Evidently, the construction of lasting coherent types of identity has become difficult in the postmodern era of reflexivity, deconstruction and irony.
Vaporwave focuses heavily on the 80s lifestyle as it is still allowed to operate on comparatively fixed identities and narratives. The nostalgic look back is an attempt to remember or relearn the mechanics of authentic identity. Methodically, vaporwave makes use of postmodern practices such as the omission of authorship, the deconstruction of identities and narratives, and the disclosure of hyperreal conditions. The following paragraphs aim to show that the goal is nonetheless to overcome today's ego fragmentation while conforming with the findings of postmodern logic.
First, let’s look at vaporwave’s attitude towards moral and legal authorship. It is common practice for vaporwave artists to use multiple pseudonyms that are ironic by nature such as Chuck Person, Macintosh Plus, Blank Banshee, Hong Kong Express. This practice originally stems from French postmodern philosophy and the concept of the “death of the author”.Vaporwave is very much in alignment with this (post-) structuralist concept as the adapted samples don’t allow a clear determination of authorship. The effect of this dissolution of the author is such that the recipient cannot rely on or identify with an author or protagonist but rather finds himself as the sole actor. The displacement of the author therefore creates, as others have called it, an alienation  or better an isolation of the recipient.
This specific usage of aliases or pseudonyms has also been contextualized with the negation of traditional ownership  and calls for a short digression and copyright law: It needs to be noted that sampling and mashup are still delicate practices in terms of copyright. It is unclear to which extend they are in accordance with the fair use or the de minimis doctrines in common law  or comparable European concepts of free use.  For now, it needs to be assumed that the usage of longer excerpts of recordings – as is common in vaporwave – is not permitted under most copyright regimes. A reason for optimism in this regard is the revision draft for the German Act on Copyright and Related Rights that includes the right to create pastiche (namely: “Remix, Meme, GIF, Mashup, Fan Art, Fan Fiction, Cover odor Sampling”) and rights to the non-commercial usage in the context of user generated content.
With the above-mentioned isolation of the recipient in mind we will now examine vaporwave’s inherent narrative – a narrative that does not play out in fantasy but in reality. Sometimes the central trope is apparent. This is the case with visuals that accompany vaporwave compilations on social media. These images show people in situations of leisure such as playing arcade games  or smoking ; they also depict private goods or show private rooms. The portrayal of private life points at the experience of intimate privacy. The narrative therefore tries to turn the recipient’s attention to their current experience of solitude. The narrative does not take place in the imagination but is applied to the recipient's life. They are encouraged to adopt critical narrative strands and integrate them into the wider narrative of postmodern life. Vaporwave is therefore an art form that supports individuation from consumption society. With the same intent, vaporwave undercuts immersion by distorting the material, hindering the recipient from naively consuming the music samples. Using glitches, the recipient’s attention gets focused on a disruptive event that normally would evoke a reaction from the listener – for example bumping a CD player that is jammed. With this intervention, the soothing effect of the commercial content is stalled and the listener`s attention is again turned to the experience of being an annoyed consumer, possibly fostering further reflection on consumption. This concept of identity is based on a new form of individualism encompassing reflection on the social condition, in particular the increasing isolation in a digitized world.
In a third postmodern move, vaporwave reminds us of the prevalent hyperreality of today’s affairs. By portraying the technology of mass entertainment as well as commercial images designed to produce social realities  such as upper middle-class life, vaporwave confronts us with second- and third-order simulacra. To elaborate: Second-order simulacra are copies that replace existing templates (via mass media technology), third-order simulacra are apparent copies without real templates (social realities). In this regard, the internet is a condensed and updated version. It exists not just as the sum of pictures and narratives but as an entire realm of simulation. With respect to the relation between this dense virtuality and physical reality, vaporwave confronts us with the gaze of the virtual onto the real.  This is not just a poetic phrase but represents an actual reality as today´s algorithms are actively analyzing our consumption behavior. It remains questionable if vaporwave is capable of delivering more than just a representation of these matters. However, its playful attitude may indicate strategies on how to face the adversities of the 21st century.
At first glance vaporwave appears to be a purely postmodern art form. There are reasons however to understand the genre as an intermediate phenomenon which takes part in post- and metamodernism. The latter is commonly understood as a cultural shift towards a new soft ontological and ethical certainty. It involves very different concepts such as the recognition of sincere and authentic emotion, the return to historicity, and the advocation of political engagement. Basically a consequence to the postmodern dissolution of narratives, metamodernism expresses a longing for the establishment of constructive values. As presented in the paragraphs above, the genre makes wide use of postmodern methodology but aims ultimately at the formation of an individualistic identity within deconstruction. The specific usage of imagery also evokes further associations with metamodern strategies. Firstly, whilst criticizing consumer culture, it also allows the audience to enjoy the appropriated content and secondly, it communicates certain affiliations to liberal political thought.
In regards to the taboo enjoyment of commercial content we first have to consider that art – among other things – also serves to escape from reality. As a classic reference we shall recall Nitsche´s „Truth is ugly, we have art to not be destroyed by truth.” Recently, Massimo Mariani made similar remarks in that „[art] takes shape not to imitate or explain reality, but, on the contrary, to distance itself from it“. The imagery of vaporwave doubles down on escapism by displaying sedating commercial content and further adding nostalgic effects. Whilst it criticizes consumption culture and provokes the recipient’s self-awareness in this regard, it also enables the taboo enjoyment of the content  – an attempt to dialectically merge the classic notions of realism and illusionism. In this regard one can recall older works of criticism that are entangled with enjoyment but remained somewhat oblivious about it. Take for example Debord´s 1973 film adaptation of La societe du spectacle which elaborates verbally on consumption culture whilst presenting its most potent imagery. Furthermore, we may remember Adorno´s remarks on 60s anti-war songs exposing the inherent commodification of war and its atrocities. This is not to say that vaporwave neglects criticism. It rather knowingly appropriates corporate aesthetics with the goal of undermining its hegemony. The aesthetics are disconnected from their function as advertisement allowing the narrative of middle-class life to be enjoyed from a distance. The critic becomes Ulysses listening to songs of sirens. This does not at all correlate with the one-dimensional postmodern denunciation of consumption but rather indicates a strategy on how to overcome its fatalistic connotations.
Due to its dependence on nostalgia and technology, it has been concluded that vaporwave is devoid of political aspiration and solely mourns a dystopian technical indifference. Nonetheless we may learn from art history that the display of indifference  does not necessarily coincide with social or political despair or disinterest. Vaporwave collages repeatedly use images of ancient Greek sculpture, architecture or geometry, displaying an affinity with the aesthetic and philosophical concepts of neoclassicism and consequently the enlightenment. Its indifference could therefore be reinterpreted as the dignified indifference that Winckelmann and Schiller celebrated in Greek sculpture such as the Belvedere Torso. As recently pondered by Ranciere, the expression of indifference in Greek art is to be acknowledged as a visual representation of democratic liberty and liberal rights. These concepts also correspond heavily with the idea of the internet as a grassroots democracy, mapped out in manifests such as the Declaration of the Independence of Cyberspace by John Perry Barlow. It is therefore possible to read vaporwave as a portrayal of the aspirations for the autonomy of online culture as part of a larger project of political renewal.
In summary, vaporwave confronts us overtly with today’s challenges of hyperreality while at the same time offering artistic strategies of criticism and escapism. As cracks in the logic of modernity continue to be addressed, we observe a rising global online culture and advocate for the protection of the expressions of its avant garde artists.
Originally the term vaporwave describes software that is publicly announced but never released.
Muzak is commercial music for elevators, shopping malls etc.
The genre is self-aware of this categorization as exemplifiable by the album title Chromatic readymades from yourself by VANITAS命死.
Notably and with an extensive bibliography Grafton Tanner, Babbling Corpse, Vaporwave and the Commodification of Ghosts (Hants: Zero Books, 2015).
Macintosh Plus is one of the many aliases of Ramona Andra Xavier.
Electric City (Bob Downes), Review of the Macintosh Plus album Floral Shoppe for sputnik music (2011), https://www.sputnikmusic.com/review/61016/Macintosh-Plus-Floral-Shoppe/.
Sharon Shembri, Digital consumers as cultural curators: the irony of Vaporwave, Arts and the Market, 7(3) p. 197.
For example, Andrew Whelan, “Do You Have a Moment to talk About Vaporwave?” Technology, Memory, and Critique in the Writing on an Online Music Scene, in: Tofalvy et alia, eds., Popular Music, Technology, and the Changing Media Ecosystem (Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2020), p. 188.
Grafton Tanner, Babbling Corpse, pp. 63-4.
Others use terms such as post-postmodernism; see for example Ross Cole, Vaporwave Aesthetics: Internet Nostalgia and the Utopian Impulse, ASAP/Journal, 5(2), p. 297. These heuristic labels merely describe the postmodern endeavor in its turn to the question of how to act after the criticism of societies institutions.
Sharon Shembri, Arts and the Market, 7(1) p. 193.
Grafton Tanner, Babbling Corpse, pp. 10-1.
Born & Haworth, "Mixing It: Digital Ethnography and Online Research Methods--A Tale of Two Global Digital Music Genres", in: Hjorth et alia, eds., The Routledge Companion to Digital Ethnography (New York: Routledge, 2017), p. 79.
This is indicated by the lyrics of the song B4 on the album Eccojam Vol. 1 by Chuck Person (Daniel Lopatin): „There is nobody here“. The album is commonly considered to be the first work in vaporwave style.
Jean-François Lyotard, La condition postmoderne: rapport sur le savoir (Paris: Les Éditions de Minuit, 1979).
Also other fields are working on the (re-)construction of cohesive meaning. See for example, the well-meant attempt by Graham Harman, Arts and Objects (Cambridge: Polity Press, 2020) to reconcile the autonomy of art with postmodern relationalism.
Roland Barthes, La mort de l'auteur, in: Essais Critique IV. Le Bruissement de la Langue (Paris: Éditions du Seuil 1984), p. 65.
Adam Harper, Vaporwave is Dead, Long Live Vaporwave! in: Cook & Ingalls & Tripett, eds., The Cambridge Companion to Music in Digital Culture (Cambridge: Cambridge Press, 2019), p. 121.
Sharon Shembri, Arts and the Market, 7(1), p. 195.
Samuel Cameron, An Economic Approach to the Plagiarism of Music (Cham: Springer Nature Switzerland AG, 2020), p. 80 argues in favor of the application of fair use due to vaporwave’s critical and ironic character.
For example, Section 24 subsection 2 of the German Act on Copyright and Related Rights reads: “[Free use] shall not apply to the use of a musical work in which a melody is recognizably taken from the work and used as the basis for a new work. In its recent decision C476/17 the Court of Justice of the European Union has been restrictive confirming that „sample [must be] unrecognizable to the ear in that new work“.
Entwurf eines Gesetzes zur Anpassung des Urheberrechts an die Erfordernisse des digitalen Binnenmarktes, p. 2, 97.
Wasting time, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=IzajV-gi0mQ.
After midnight, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lQYbSI9dgUA.
Remember summer days, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UJsUpeXK6Jo.
Grafton Tanner, Babbling Corpse, p. 10.
Evolution by Daniel Oliva Barbero is licensed under a Creative Commons Reconocimiento 4.0 Internacional License.