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What is vaporwave? Here’s everything you need to know about the viral music genre

By Malavika Pradeep

Mar 14, 2021

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90s nostalgia is a key element in various aesthetics and subcultures. But what if an internet-born music genre revives tracks lost in the Windows 95 era and distorts them to a degree that is both recognisable yet remarkably different from its roots? Welcome to vaporwave, a viral music genre evoking nostalgia for an era that never truly existed yet feels eerily familiar.

What is vaporwave?

Vaporwave music takes samples from the 80s and 90s Muzak, late-night infomercials, loungy elevator tunes and shopping mall music to later chop, scramble and pitch them to a point that is distinct yet unrecognisable. Eerie and dazzling, vaporwave is said to echo the sounds of a ‘synthetic underworld’ also known as the internet.

Vaporwave draws inspiration from the 90s but depicts the era in a futuristic setting. The internet-born and internet-existing genre is heavily populated by users who frequent 4Chan, Tumblr and Reddit forums. Many vaporwave artists use aliases to disguise their identities—a practice made easier given its digital context.

One of the most popular vaporwave albums is Floral Shoppe by Vektroid. One track, ‘Lisa Frank 420’, collected over 40.5 million YouTube views before it was taken down due to copyright claims made by Sony. Oneohtrix Point Never is another well-known vaporwave musician. His album Eccojams Vol 1 is credited with pioneering the genre itself. The artist has also collaborated with The Weeknd, whose recent Super Bowl show, with its cyborg choir, neon cityscape and levitating brand names, is deemed the “most mainstream manifestation of vaporwave yet.”

When did vaporwave first appear?

Vaporwave arrived on the internet’s music scene in 2009, and since then the genre has been repeatedly written off and declared obsolete. Unlike seapunk and chillwave, vaporwave continued to evolve. Google searches for the term peaked in 2017 and have remained steady ever since.

Various music forums describe vaporwave as the “chillwave for Marxists” given the fact that the genre is often aligned with anarchy and anti-capitalism. The genre mocks highbrow culture and is deeply rooted in DIY culture. Even its name is a spoof of the term “vaporware,” which refers to non-existent products that are promoted and marketed without ever actually being produced to keep competitors at bay.

The music genre also has a lot in common with punk. “Vaporwave is similar to punk in its low barrier of entry,” said George Clanton, a vaporwave artist in an interview with Document. “You don’t have to know how to play an instrument to make it. If you have a computer, you can open up an mp3 you stole from YouTube and start manipulating it with your mouse. Boom, you just made your first vaporwave track.”

What is vaporwave’s visual aesthetics?

Simultaneously lurid and obscure, vaporwave’s visual aesthetics can be summed up as “ecstatic exhaustion.” Think of an empty shopping mall with loungy elevator music, a swimming pool with pale pink walls or glitchy, neon-dipped streets ripped off a Japanese anime. The artworks related to the genre are dominated by palm trees, dolphins, pink and blue neon lights, synthetic sunsets, Greek busts and tech logos from the late 70s to early 00s.

Vaporwave is also synonymous with corporate imagery. Some of the most common brand names and logos associated with this aspect of the genre are Coca-Cola, Microsoft Windows, Macintosh Plus, PlayStation, Arizona Iced Tea and Fiji Water. Drug depictions, altered realities and glitches are also featured in the community’s artwork.

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Vaporwave overall offers an aesthetic visual and sound experience that delights fans. The genre has also been credited with a number of sub-genres with new ones emerging ever so often. Some of the most pivotal ones are:

Eccojams

Eccojams are usually made from a single short loop of the source material. Featuring samples from the 70s, 80s and 90s, the sub-genre is distinct for its use of smothering effects like reverb and echo. Being one of the earliest sub-genres of vaporwave, eccojams were popularised by Oneohtrix Point Never with his album Eccojams Vol 1.

Future Funk

Termed vaporwave’s ‘happy-go-lucky’ sibling, future funk (also known as vaporboogie) takes samples from disco tracks produced in the 70s and 80s, and distorts them into groovy music. The sub-genre draws inspiration from French House and features looped GIFs of classic Japanese animes like Sailor Moon and Urusei Yatsura.

Mallsoft

Mallsoft (also known as mallwave) is a sub-genre magnifying vaporwave’s lounge references. It seeks to elicit nostalgia using shopping mall imagery and remixed soft-rock muzak one might hear in a mall. Mallsoft depicts the concept of these centres as large, soulless spaces of consumerism with directionless and echo-heavy tunes.

Vapornoise

Vapornoise music is subjected to a greater degree of chopping and manipulation than in classic vaporwave, with bursts of noise and static dispersed between verses, choruses and sound clips. The sub-genre, born in 2013, tends to emphasise hisses, static and post-industrial noises. Vapornoise is often confused with vaporgoth—a similar genre but with different goals and aesthetics.

Simpsonwave

Simpsonwave is a sub-aesthetic of vaporwave that emerged in 2015, characterised by its use of imagery from the iconic cartoon The Simpsons. The aesthetic was made popular by YouTuber Lucien Hughe and features videos mixing vaporwave music with clips from the American television series. Edited with VHS-esque distortion effects and surreal visuals, the video-based aesthetic is one of vaporwave’s most viral sub-genres.