Vaporwave is an aesthetic.
It can be found in music, art, and fashion. Some have even gone as far as to christen it the aesthetic, as it incorporates elements of the past, present, and the future. And while a few have stood up and proclaimed that “Vaporware is dead!” it appears that this unique art form is very much alive and here to stay.
Since its emergence in 2011, Vaporwave has developed from a niche musical genre and art form into a rapidly growing cultural aesthetic. Below are several of the key tenets of the Vaporwave style:
On the face of it, the Vaporwave aesthetic appears to be a retro art movement focused on media from the 1980s through the early 2000s. Indeed, many Vaporwave artists utilize graphics, sound samples, and visuals from this era.
However, one could just as easily argue that the aesthetic is equally interested in other time periods from the past. For instance, Greco-Roman busts commonly show up in Vaporwave artwork. As a result, it is better to say that Vaporwave’s style is concerned with recontextualizing the past in some way, whether that is through 1980s advertising imagery or ancient marble sculptures.
Along with its attention to the past, Vaporwave incorporates imagery, sounds, and other media from Japan and East Asia. Often these are retro in nature, although this is not always the case. Sometimes it is as simple as utilizing Japanese characters in the title of a song or integrating them into a graphical design.
It has been argued that Vaporwave’s focus on various cultures reveals it to be the first truly global aesthetic. Rather than emanating from any one country or culture, the style has been developed by artists all over the world who connect through the web to share their ideas.
One of the defining features of Vaporwave music is how it samples songs, slows these down, and loops them for an eerie, droning effect. Even as new Vaporwave artists move away from manipulating sampled music, they are retaining deep, bassy sounds and vocals to evoke the mood of something slowed.
Slowed music can be disconcerting to listeners. Nevertheless, many tout this as one of the most enjoyable parts of Vaporwave. Low, murky tunes have an oddly soothing effect which provide the feeling of a distant, blurred memory. When paired with retro imagery, this can have a truly powerful effect.
The Vaporwave aesthetic often relies upon 2D and 3D computer generated graphics. Often these are geometric in nature, pixelated, or appear to have been created by an early personal computer. Sometimes they are purposefully distorted or glitched to give the impression of television static or a VHS tape with tracking issues.
Additionally, obsolete electronics, software, and computer systems are commonly seen in Vaporwave art. The Windows 95 logo and boxy 1980s PCs are known to be particularly popular with Vaporwave artists and musicians.
Advertisements, corporate logos, and television commercials are frequently referenced in Vaporwave creations. Many believe this to believe a critique of consumerist culture, which reached previously unseen heights during the 1980s.
Others, however, interpret the Vaporwave aesthetic as one which finds art in the media typically discarded by society like ads. Indeed, some have compared the sound of Vaporwave music to muzak–the ubiquitous nondescript background music frequently played in stores.
This line of thought has led to the recognition of a Vaporwave sub-genre of music called Mallsoft. Mallsoft takes the Vaporwave aesthetic and adds to it heavy reverb and ambient noise meant to conjure the feeling of walking through a spacious mall.
Vaporwave art is strikingly colorful. Yet, its color palette tends to fall into one of two categories. The first is bright and pastel, using blue, pink, green, and turquoise. Scenes of palm-lined beaches by the ocean can be observed as well as sterile office parks or malls dotted with potted plants.
The second is darker, almost black, and highlighted with lines of pink, green, and purple. Typically, this color palette is used to describe city scenes at dusk or in the dead of the night. Neon signs break through the darkness and provide scenes with vibrate color.
Building upon retro imagery and nighttime landscapes filled neon signs, a few Vaporwave artists have been taking the genre in a more cinematic direction. Their goal is to tell a story through the art form. In this way, the core principles of the Vaporwave aesthetic are used to move one emotionally and guide them through imagined experiences or landscapes.
As art movements go, Vaporwave is quite young. What it is now will likely continue to change and evolve as more people are exposed to it and as they add their own ideas to its fascinating aesthetic.