On few occasions have I heard term ‘Vaporwave’ being used to describe these distorted `80s and `90s inspired visuals and a form of electronic music, although until now I have never engaged in investigation to find out exactly what vaporwave is. One day, I stumbled upon and checked a Youtube video, mostly attracted by an exaggerated pastel colors and a head of a statue of Lenin in the thumbnail. It was a slowed down version of a Russian pop song, with an introit of similarly modified Rhianna song. The sound completely mesmerized me and made me repeat the video great many times. I tried very hard to identify the underlying source of amazement. The only term I could come up with to describe it was dissonant nostalgia. Lithuania, the country that I was born in, gained independence from Soviet Union in the early `90s, at the brink of collapse of said communist country. Aftermath of the soviet regime was still very much felt for the rest of the decade in the newly formed country. I was no stranger to Russian pop music, although I always felt a specific revulsion towards it. Generational wounds left during the soviet occupation made me, and many people around me, reject everything that was connected to Russian heritage. Yet there were just as many people who even after the horrors of Soviet Union embraced aspects of Russian culture. Pop music was one of them. Thus it did not escape my perception, since I would hear it in school, streets and even public transport. I do not remember it fondly – far from it. And I would probably never listen to it voluntarily. Yet the slowed down version of this very style of music enchanted me. I believe it is because it’s familiar enough to bring me back to my childhood (although not a very happy one), yet different enough to avoid being rejected altogether. Oddly distorted sound of it also adopts a mocking feature of the original piece that justifies me listening to it without causing a cognitive dissonance of listening and enjoying the song that was brought by a regime that devastated my country.
From that moment on I began investigating vaporwave as an artistic and ideological movement. I am not going to explain what vaporwave is exactly. There is a lot of extremely thorough introduction material around the internet, analyzing the music theory of vaporwave by a very talented musician Adam Neely and exploring the origins and history of vaporwave by wosX, who is a producer himself and will be mentioned again.
What intrigued me further in this genre of music was a vast number of subgenres that branched off of the niche genre. I could easily compare it with heavy metal with its plethora of styles, ranging from galloping heroic tales of power metal to all engulfing dread and slow disintegration of funeral doom metal. The main difference between subgenres of heavy metal and vaporwave is the span of time in witch this genre’s genealogy came to being. I would consider Black Sabbath’s first album Black Sabbath released in 1970 to be the Big Bang of heavy metal universe. It makes this genre of music almost 50 years old. On one hand, most of the main metal subgenres that we have today took around 30 years to form, roughly speaking. The accurate number here does not matter that much.
Vaporwave, on the other hand, has been alive (or is it dead?.. Sorry, I could not resist) for a bit more than 6 years (starting from 2010). It is almost 10 times younger than heavy metal. Despite that, the number of subgenres of vaporwave is staggering, and it took maybe 5 years for all of them to emerge. This phenomenon is clearly worth exploring. Such acceleration could be a symptom of internet origins. For the majority of its existence, vaporwave has not been materialized and stayed in the boundaries of world wide web in digital format. Internet acted as a test tube of incubation for this specific genre of music and lead to an accelerated evolution of its sound, helped by widespread accessibility and social media. Humble beginnings in terms of artistic effort made vaporwave very accessible for music producers and easy to experiment with. Exponential growth in complexity and abandonment of simple methods of stealing a piece of music and slowing it down made vaporwave stand on its own two feet as a serious electronic music genre, rather than a parody and a platform for memes.
My journey through a galore of vaporwave’s children brought me to hardvapour, one of the more recent subgenres. It initially hit me closer to home compared to previous experiments with corporate muzak and `80s soul. It was everything that vaporwave was not – dark, gritty, drowning in post-communistic dread and relatively fast (in vaporwave’s standards). Yet the essence of music clearly stemmed from its 2010 origins, although vaporwave community did not react very fondly to this spin on the genre. Mainly because of one of the central figures in hardvapour – the aforementioned wosX and his controversial Twitter feed that, allegedly, antagonized the vaporwave community.
WosX is also the producer of hardvapor anthem End of World Rave that introduced me to the subgenre. Claims that harvapour is an instrument for ridicule and the whole outfit is just means for trolling are contradictory in a sense that the origin of vaporwave was to mock the soulless elevator music and many faults of capitalism using imagery and samples from these very sources.
Thus this accusation from vaporwave community, which is based on sarcastic arts movement, towards hardvapour and wosX for being sarcastic seems inconsistent. Sarcastic or not, I tried to listen to hardvapor without any underlying presuppositions and social contexts and I enjoyed it. Only later did I investigate the surrounding controversy and the phenomenon of wosX himself. Even if he tried to deliberately ridicule vaporwave as a genre and created an antithesis to it, it is a damn good antithesis.
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