FEEL THE VAPOR

If you’re not familiar with the musical genre Vaporwave, you probably don’t have anything to worry about. It’s not necessarily a “real thing.” This musical phenomenon brought on through the minds of mostly amateur producers on their various digital audio workstations has become sort of a meme on some parts of the internet. For a brief example, if you’d like one, I suggest that you watch/ listen to this:

This is probably the most popular (in a very subjective sense of the word) Vaporwave track around right now. But nobody would really be surprized if after experiencing the vapor you are still left wondering what exactly you just listened to or looked at. The heart of (and joke of) the whole genre is centered on “aesthetic,” often stylized A E S T H E T I C. Much of vaporwave is actually supposedly based on anti-consumerist ideals and uses imagery and soundbites from “easy listening” or muzak from the late 80s early 90s in a distorted fashion to expose its artificiality or lead listeners to think about things in a new light. The material that these artists edit and distort is often pulled from similar sources, notably roman sculpture, early digital art, advertisements and japanese characters. The latter two are interesting to examine. Colonialism, like consumerism, is one of the tennants adopted by many “imperialistic” nations, like the US, France, and UK, thus one begins to see connections to be found between these two things. Through colonialism and its derivative forms, we see the integration of the principles of the colonizing nation into the consciousness of the nation being colonized. Japan is certainly an example of the products of American colonialism. Both Japan and South Korea are the two east asian nations that the west sees as the most “civilized” i.e. western i.e. similar to “us,” and less like countries like China or North Korea (“them”). This is alrgely because of our military history with these two countries. Japan was invaded and partially destroyed during WWII, and occupation forces remained there for many years after as the US so graciously helped build the country in our image. South Korea was an area of interest to us once the threat of communism began to spread, and was our ally/ protectorate during the Korean War. We similarly have provided aid to them since to create a buffer with the hostile communist forces in the north. It is for this reason that these nations have developped to be more similar to the west; we have made them that way.

So back to the topic at hand: Vaporwave. Most of those producing this music are American, so their use of katakana is appropriation in its own right, but with a certain purpose in mind. As previously stated, this music was made as a sort of reaction to the hyper-consumerism that some see in the west today, so in order to point out the artificiality of all this, material from these countries that we have effectively colonized is used to show the extent to which this was taken. Especailly by showing footage of what previous decades were like, we as a modern audience are made even more aware of the surreal nature surrounding these advertisements. And while we are not necessarily in a position to judge, we get from this a sense of the artificiality: Is this “real” asian culture?

Another example here illustrates this point. SAINT PEPSI or as he is now know, Skylar Spence, has compiled snippets of japanese television ads in this music video (and yes, if anyone is aware of this, this is technically “Future Funk,” but is nonetheless a sort of subgenre of Vaporwave). Amid the majority of japanese faces, we also see many white ones. This really overtly shows the idealization of western culture. In thses advertisements, people are sold not only clothes, but a certain lifestyle: that of white westerners.

The semi-colonization of these nations is something that we generally take for granted, or perhaps fail to notice because of its convenience; because of the military origins of these pseudocolonies mean that we have two democratic allies halfway across the globe that are economically some of the most influential countries in the area, aside, or course, from China. And while these modern musical genres may not be taken seriously by many (myself included) it is certainly important to consider the significance of their message: while our life may be good, there are negative implications of producing so much that is in reality empty.

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2 Comments

  1. Michael, this was awesome to read (mainly because I love being introduced to new music).

    In fact, I’m glad you brought this topic up because I have something to add here: there is a new trend in rap that must be derived from vaporwave, as it borrows a lot of that genre’s qualities and weird intricacies.

    Yung Lean is a rapper who is most associated with this new trend. Just look at his music videos for Ginseng Strip 2002, Hurt and Gatorade: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vrQWhFysPKY and https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=stgrSjynPKs and https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=u24e43iW9KE

    Across the board, production value is low, and the videos are littered with weird color effects and other graphics that may not be immediately pleasing to the eye. Moreover, the Ginseng Strip 2002 video even has Asian letters flash at some points, while the Hurt video includes many images of Asian culture (Pokémon and other forms of entertainment).

    What is the appeal here? Is it just because it is so weird? Are we really to believe that we are properly experiencing other cultures here? Because the product itself is not so great: apart from the catchy instrumentals, the rapping is mumbled and really easy to forget. Maybe the videos are compensating for the lack of an attractive style?

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  2. Great post, Michael! This was very fun to read, especially since it introduces a genre of music that is foreign to me. Also, it was interesting how you brought up the colonization of Asian countries. When one typically thinks of colonization, small nations such as Caribbean, Central American, and African countries are usually the focus of study. This is probably because colonization has left their culture, land, and economy in ruins. But this example is unique because Japan usually does not draw much sympathy in this subject because of their success, and the fact that they were once considered a world superpower.

    Listening to these examples of music reminded me of a mix of EDM, indie rock, with an Asian influence. It is a perfect example of Western culture pulling tidbits of non-western cultures and distorting it into a form of art, while taking full credit for the creation.

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