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

By Malavika Pradeep

Updated Jan 22, 2024 at 12:20 PM

Reading time: 7 minutes

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 music?

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 Super Bowl show in 2021, 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.”

The fall of vaporwave

The very question, “What caused the fall of vaporwave?” would make the most authentic purveyors of the genre giddy. Why? Because it implies that the masses believe vaporwave is gone. And if there is one entity vaporwave wants zero attention from, it’s the masses.

Vaporwave was born to live between the cracks of our consciousness. A certain level of rejection is part of what gives life to vaporwave, meaning, if you acknowledge it too much, you ruin it. The underground vaporwave community (which is an oxymoron) understands that if major players in media start shining their exploitative light on vaporwave songs or vaporwave style, its real fans will abandon the genre.

So, in the same way a speakeasy bar might spread the rumour of its own closure to thin the hoards showing up at its door, the vaporwave community might love for you to believe it’s ‘dead’. And in some ways, it is, but in some ways, it never can be. Read on.

The original vaporwave fans (millennials) would have been in their mid to late twenties when vaporwave first became ‘a thing’. That’s the exact age when you start to realise the utopian visions of adulthood you held in childhood will never come to be. But, you’re still young enough to feel the very (very) faint heartbeat of what’s left of youthful, feverish hopefulness. The numbing but satisfying space in between those two realities is where vaporwave lives.

Now, consider how the first life cycle of vaporwave looked and sounded. It was characterised by iconic images and songs of the 80s and 90s—the exact time when millennials would’ve been children. It’s why that very demographic connected strongly to the genre at the exact moment in history it came into existence. Vaporwave is meant to encapsulate the eerie sense of having just missed something spectacular that never existed. Images from the 80s through the 90s represented exactly that for millennials in the early 2000s.

Here’s the thing: millennials are nearing, if not in middle age now, past the point of having stars in their eyes and clouds in their heads. Instead, they have mortgages and brokerage accounts. Whether it’s sad or simple evolution, the original fanbase of the original vaporwave has aged out of the right mindset for enjoying the genre. That doesn’t mean the current 20-somethings (Gen Z) can’t appreciate vaporwave. But, the prototypical looks and sounds of vaporwave don’t resonate with Gen Z like they did with millennials in the early 2000s.

Vaporwave is supposed to make you miss something just beyond a hill that isn’t even really there. AriZona Iced Tea and misshapen marijuana nugs—some of the first vaporwave images—don’t represent things just beyond a hill for Gen Z. Those images are over several hills for today’s young adults. So if vaporwave, as we know it, doesn’t (and cannot) elicit its intended emotion from any living age group today, is it really vaporwave? At its core, what makes it vaporwave is that haunting yet pacifying feeling it once created for young millennials. And now, most millennials are too advanced in age to access that feeling.

Hold on. Didn’t we begin this section by implying that vaporwave is still alive? We did. And it is. Consider this: for any music or imagery to call itself vaporwave, it must create a certain state of emotion. That’s the crux of this peculiar art. It’s as much of a message as it is a sound or an image. So, it doesn’t have to be characterised by photos from the 80s or 90s, does it? It doesn’t have to contain dreamy sunsets and harsh neon symbols. That’s just the particular combination of attributes that worked for its original audience base when it came out.

Truly, as long as there are creations that dissect and reveal the manipulative forces vying for control over our consciousness and finances—those that unmask the deceptive allure of consumerism, which pretends to be bright and hopeful while preying on the dormant awareness of the youth—then, in essence, isn’t that the heart of vaporwave? Given the persistent nature of such influences and the images and sounds they evoke, vaporwave will always find relevance. It may evolve in appearance, but its essence will endure.

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 vaporwave genre’s most common brand names and logos associated with this aspect 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 vaporwave subgenres 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.

Vaporwave’s influence on modern culture

Just because the sounds and sights of the original vaporwave no longer speak to the genre’s intended audience in the same way doesn’t mean remnants of it aren’t still with us. They’re pretty much everywhere right now—they’re just free of much substance.

In the same way Woodstock fashion has become the aesthetic for Coachella goers who will never understand the social messaging attached to their flower crowns, vaporwave has permeated the mainstream culture and is consumed by the masses who don’t necessarily ‘get it’. It’s devolved and been diluted into just an aesthetic, but a very popular one at that.

Simply look at Adidas’ Original is Never Finished campaign with its glitchy imagery and purple and pink colorscape. Look at the neon flowers covering the hoodies and vests in Champion’s current collection. Turn on the newest Nintendo Switch, and you’ll be greeted with flashing hues that characterise vaporwave. Don’t even get us started on the entire backdrop to the Barbie movie being vaporwave, with squiggly/GIF-like graphics and blush pink horizons (but props to the movie since it is about how life isn’t all it’s cracked up to be, which is the essence of vaporwave). If you were thinking that each of these brands had their heyday in the 80s and 90s, you’d be correct.

In a twisted (or brilliantly self-aware) attempt to recapture the people who loved them way back when, the iconic brands of a millennials’ childhood are integrating vaporwave into their advertising.

Corporate brands are using the aesthetic of a genre that existed to criticise them to bring back the customers who championed that genre. Whether they’re mindlessly participating in their own self-satire or evil geniuses, these brands are onto something. Millennial consumerism among Adidas, Champion, and Nintendo Switch is up. Maybe it all just speaks to millennials’ primal connection to the original vaporwave aesthetic—it soothes us, no matter where we see it. Even when we see it in a commercial for one of the very corporations vaporwave was designed to subvert.

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