I had a hard time defining what an aesthetic was on it’s own, so I looked to the internet and other people I knew for help. Webster dictionary defined aesthetic as “concerned with beauty or the appreciation of beauty.”, but I wanted to look at what people found beautiful and what forms of art were considered beautiful. I turned to Google image search, to no doubt show me the aesthetic artistic works of great artists like Bernini and Picasso. I expected Velazquez’s “Las Meninas”, but instead was shown a sculpture of “Venus of Milo”, shown with a random floating pole and some extremely serene but saturated waves. I came across the same feeling of wonder and amazement that those who have only achieved true enlightenment can feel, along with the overwhelming sense of confusion. If this was the highest form of aesthetic art that google could show me, I was afraid and confused. The vibrant, neon photos with palm trees and Japanese kanji that I can’t translate drew me in, and I set about pursuing this higher aesthetic in my search for beauty.
Turns out, it’s vaporwave. The video below was one of the first things that showed up when I searched for similar images. You don’t have to listen to all of it, but I’d recommend playing it quietly in the background for a while.
But what’s so special about Diana Ross’ 80’s hit “It’s Your Move” slowed down 70%? リサフランク420 / 現代のコンピュー by MACINTOSH PLUS seems boring and uninspired at first glance, and I suddenly felt like I knew exactly what Plato meant when he called art “a cheap imitation of reality”. I decided to start my descent into vaporwave culture.
Vaporwave apparently began as a subgenre of plunderphonics, a type of music made by taking existing audio and sound samples and altering them to fit into a new “song”. For those of you who ever had a keyboard as a kid – remember when you’d set the sound setting to the random drum beats and whistles and you’d press all the keys at once? That’s exactly what plunderphonics sounds like. Vaporwave is mostly characterised by slow, drawn out synth sounds paired with samples from the 80s and 90s – mostly things from commercials or iconic things like the AOL Dial-Up screech. I put on a couple playlists while reading articles on vaporwave, and it eventually grew on me. The music at first seemed bland and a cheap way to remix a song, but I realized that that’s almost the point.
Vaporwave invokes the feel of synth-pop and consumerist culture of the 80s, and what us in the modern age expect the 80’s to be. Traditional 80’s aesthetics and sounds are turned around completely, with each music artist putting their own personal philosophy of vaporwave into the tracks that they make. The synth-pop sound has been smudged and drawn out, paired with a slow reverb and choppy beats, like if elevator music had a cool cousin. The music videos of the 80s focusing on capitalism and the decadence of consumerist life are turned on their heads in vaporwave renditions as an ironic critique of modern culture and overspending. The globalization and modern manufactured dollar-store nostalgia seems to be one of the things that makes vaporwave what it is – a counterculture to the obsession over 80’s and 90’s kids and a mockery of consumerism. Vaporwave turns the visuals and sound of capitalism – the dings and beeps of dial-up devices, the flashy neon lights used in advertising, and the tacky songs used in commercials into samples to give a hypnotic and and nostalgic tone. There’s no set limits of what the genre can cover, which is part of the magic – boxing it in, making vaporwave a cookie-cutter sound package would ruin the commentary and identity behind it. Vaporwave is the beautiful aesthetic music smoothie of synth-pop, techno, smooth jazz, and J-Pop. The genre of vaporwave plays upon everything that was promised by consumerism – like that $9 Fiji water was going to solve everything that was going wrong in the world.
Vaporwave reminded me of modern art and the arguments against it – that anyone can create “modern art” – that it’s tasteless and art has now just been reduced to a blank white painting selling for $1000 cowering under the shadow of The Greats™. I never found what was beautiful to other people, but I found the beauty and art in something I didn’t expect. Beauty doesn’t have to be in the pained expression of a painting, or the ways that a marble sculpture can seem almost too real. Vaporwave isn’t obviously considered traditional art, but the beauty is that out of the mess that of consumerism, a counterculture was born out of 80’s samples and upbeat chill synth music. Like a shooting star in our capitalist sky, vaporwave rose to internet fame in the form of memes, and died out just as quickly.