Did Vaporwave Die and Who Killed It?


Adan Kohnhorst

To understand and answer the question "Is vaporwave dead?”, we must first look at its source of origin. The genre has been largely defined by its own fleeting nature, building homes in esoteric corners of Soundcloud and Bandcamp, shrouded in Japanese characters and A E S T H E T I C S.

Vaporwave has been described as the first style of music free of a geographic home, having been birthed directly out of the anonymous and omnipresent womb of the internet. The music is driven by a grab bag of diverse influences and some recurring themes include but aren’t limited to: cynicism toward consumer culture, 1990s nostalgia and computer technology, cyber-dystopian unease, and East Asian iconography. It’s the product of a generation of '90s kids who arrived at adulthood just in time to see the world burning down around them on screen, every day.

The music relies on layered samples of '90s pop, R&B, and elevator music slowed down past recognition, to achieve its eerie, anachronistic vibe. The music is calming, but also somehow distinctly unnerving. A sense of being lost in space pervades.

But, what’s more important than the technicalities of the genre’s composition is its overall presence as a cultural artifact. The coupling of the unique electronic genre with an equally unique visual culture has allowed vaporwave to catch hold of social interest.

When early vaporwave acts began to appear, people struggled to answer what it all meant. Though there were some earlier precedents, vaporwave’s identity as a subgenre was cemented with the release of the album Floral Shoppe by the artist Macintosh Plus (an alias of the electronic artist Vektroid).

Floral Shoppe (pictured) by Macintosh Plus is credited as the genesis of the vaporwave genre.

Macintosh Plus is responsible for defining much of vaporwave’s audio and visual aesthetic territories, and also for creating the genre’s quintessential song, リサフランク420 / 現代のコンピュー (often shortened to simply “420” or “Macintosh 420”). If you’ve heard only one vaporwave track, it’s almost certainly this one. It features a mind-numbing use of a Diana Ross sample, slowed down beyond recognition and layered ad absurdum. The sample, 1984’s “It’s Your Move”, is recontextualized, transformed into what come across as distinctly distorting lyrics (“It’s all in your head”, “We’re running out of time”, etc.).

Generally speaking, anonymity and the sense of not being rooted in place or time have been held as trademark tenets of vaporwave production. The music is mostly consumed on Soundcloud, YouTube, or other streaming sites as part of playlists, rather than by fans of specific artists. Stylistic elements like the frequent use of Japanese characters, or spaces in between each letter of a phrase, further obstruct the process of finding individual vaporwave tracks. This is ostensibly an extension of the genre’s theme of anti-consumerism.

It’s also another reason why Macintosh Plus’ album is so important in the vaporwave conversation. The album’s identifying track, “Macintosh 420”  was the first unique vaporwave product to reach a mass audience. To seal the deal, it’s also painfully catchy and memorable. These two traits allowed “Macintosh 420” to become the catalyst for a much more recent--and arguably distressing--phenomenon: the meme-ification of vaporwave.

Being a genre whose identity is so deeply entrenched in “Internet”, whose aesthetic is so intentionally cut-and-paste, and whose listenership is so unanimously millennial - it was only a matter of time before vaporwave became fodder for the global meme bonfire. The heavy-handed 1990s imagery is immediately nostalgic to anyone who grew up in that time, a demographic that also constitutes essentially the entirety of the meme-generating population. Vaporwave meme pages and accounts began to spring up on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram in the ongoing pursuit of likes and social media capital.

This is how vaporwave fell into the hands of a mainstream audience. The genre, which at its conception had so forcefully represented a niche rebellion against the status quo, had become that which it hated most. As greater numbers of casual admirers began to get involved in vaporwave, many members of its original community became cynical with the trajectory the genre was taking, giving birth to the ominous phrase, “Vaporwave is Dead.”

The phrase seems to have taken on a life of its own, floating in and out through different corners of message boards and videos, vaporwave or otherwise, but most interesting is the reclamation of the phrase by the original community. It’s now commonplace for vaporwave content-distributing groups to make use of the phrase, and the artist Sandtimer released a successful electronic album in 2015 with the title, “Vaporwave is Dead.”

The introduction of vaporwave to the mainstream coincided with related movements in hip hop, the most recognizable of these being Yung Lean and the sadboys movement. Though musically dissimilar, Yung Lean’s work deals with much of the same subject matter, and incorporates distinct elements from vaporwave’s visual architecture (most notably in the music video for his song “Hurt”). Following Yung Lean, other artists began to take influence from his visual identity, and the “cut-and-paste” or “glitch” look started appearing in videos from A$AP Mob’s  “Yamborghini High” to Lil Yachty’s “1 NIGHT.” Meanwhile, vaporwave content continues to gradually usurp and impact much of meme and internet culture.

Perhaps the best answer to the question “is vaporwave dead?” comes from a humble Reddit post in r/vaporwave, titled “Vaporwave is dead”, submitted on February 3, 2015. In it, the user bobtheghost33 asks:

“What do you make of this statement? As a relative newcomer to this scene I get discouraged when I read comments saying I missed the whole thing. I think there is still creativity to be found in vaporwave, even though, as far as internet phenomena go, at four years old it's ancient.”

To which the user xploeris responds:

“Vaporwave has always been dead. That was the whole point.”