The folks over at Dummy offered their own theory back in 2012. It’s largely a mix of tired lines forecasting the immanent decline of capitalism, consumerism, and corporate culture. But to be fair, there’s something to it. The decision to integrate kitsch sounds and stock graphics into the mix that is vaporwave may very well have started out as a critique of capitalism, if not to the degree that Dummy seems to think. Vaporwave artists are often sarcastic in their embrace of the meaningless nonsense produced as a byproduct of marketing. Early artists like Fatima Al Qadiri and James Ferraro definitely seem to have some critical theory behind what they’re doing.
But I’m not buying a lot of it. Let’s try out a simpler theory and see if it works. What if vaporwave is just a manifestation of some sort of self-aware, extreme nostalgia? Sure, all the Japanese language and script might be some sort of comment on globalization, but what if, for example, it’s just millennials recreating a childhood in which Japan was a major cultural force?
Now we’re getting to my own theory of what vaporwave means: maybe it’s just millennials trying to preserve and celebrate the odd moment the grew up in. Yeah, the early 90s Windows commercials and pastel designs are silly and vapid, but they’re also comforting in a strange way. We were the first generation to really grow up completely immersed in 24-hour television, with computers as a daily part of life, with endless media just a click away – surely that had an effect.
This theory – that aesthetic enjoyment and nostalgia are what’s driving vaporwave – is further bolstered by the direction vaporwave has taken since 2012. It’s no longer a smattering of artists making targeted critiques; it’s a webwide free for all, in which any old tech, any kitschy design, any dated anime is free game. Less and less of the challenging, difficult proto-vaporwave work is being made, while vaporwave spin-off genres like Future Funk and Vaportrap are slowly taking over portions of the web. Go to any vaporwave forum, and you see people sharing original vaporwave-esque music from the early 90s, not to mock it, not to warp it for some theoretical project, but to genuinely enjoy it. It doesn’t have to mean anything, and it often doesn’t. But it’s fun. It’s familiar. It’s the stuff that played in the background as we followed our parents around the mall. It’s the stuff we heard when we loaded up the dial-up and made man’s early steps into the digital frontier (with parent’s permission, of course). People have a lot of high ideas about what vaporwave means, but maybe that’s missing the point of vaporwave: it doesn’t really mean anything, and that’s why it’s special.
M. Nolan Gray (01/27/2015)