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MUSIC / Everything Old is Regrooved Again: Vaporwave Aesthetics / Kent Macaskill

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Forgive me, but I’m not sure if this was an actual commercial or a fever dream. I seem to remember a TV spot from some computer company (perhaps Apple) that showed people from all over the world jamming together online sometime around 2005 or 2006. There was, let’s say, a young cellist in Hong Kong, playing with an acoustic guitarist in Idaho with a Kenyan pianist, with someone doing something gamelan-like from Indonesia. 2006 was when the interconnectivity of Web 2.0 started becoming commonplace. Whether this specific commercial exists or not, I’m sure we can all draw on some similar murky memory in our media-saturated brains of a commercial that showed creative people in the arts collaborating together online in a way that was not possible before, but now was the new reality, and this new reality was indeed here and brought to you by and mediated through a new, kinder, bolder organic and intimate type of corporation. This, and other commercials like it, announced that creativity now had no limits. And, I wholly embraced the message. It was a new, daring age. And, we were about to be treated to the innovative music of unheard sounds spawned in the age where geography posed no limits to collaboration. I imagined a revolution not unlike the birth of rock’n’roll way back when in Memphis or Mississippi or some corner of the American south. I was excited.

Flash forward to the present day. We struggle to find the promise of the Web 2.0 interconnected age as it enters its awkward adolescence. Where is the novelty promised by the removal of geographical boundaries to collaboration? If someone from 1965 were to arrive in 1985, he or she would be quite shocked by the music they heard. Imagine someone listening to a hardcore album from the 80's if you only previously defined loud and wild by the standards of Elvis Presley and Chuck Berry. Or listening to rap, hip hop, techno, new wave, etc. from the mid-80s.

Please contrast this with someone who made a 20 year jump from 1999 to listen to the music of 2019. This listener would not be shocked. They may not even notice anything awry or even that 20 years had passed. Music from 1999 sounds a lot like music from 2019. It’s not as if there have been no great new songs. There has. But there has been few if any new genres created that would startle the listener or give cues to the specific time period as ‘2019’. Late philosopher Mark Fisher said it best when he says that

 thirty years ago “should sound ancient” … Think about what thirty years means — or what it used to mean. That’s the difference between pre-rock’n’roll 50s and post-punk.” [1]

We are stuck in time; it’s a permanent present. Though Fisher said being stuck in time applies to all current popular arts culture generally but for the moment, let’s stick with music for the moment.

One genre that has emerged post-2006 has been vaporwave. Focusing on this specific genre further illustrates the lack of novelty, of ‘newness’, in music. Vaporwave, for the unfamiliar, often samples wholesale from those soothing music genres popular in the 1980s and 1990s. These genres such as city pop, muzak, R&B, and lounge music seemed to define a comfortable capitalism that did not yet quite attain the self-awareness to realize it was neoliberalism. On the production side, these samples from the 80s and 90s are given a genre-defining treatment that includes manipulating the tracks by skewering the time signatures, equalizing out bass and treble, creating sudden stop/starts, saturating in reverb as well as other techniques to create a hazy, dreamlike and, to my ears, slightly sinister sound. Admittedly, I quite like the genre. To me, vaporwave sounded like it was a new but minor musical revolution when I first heard it. But, on closer examination, it defines our cultural position that we find ourselves in — stuck in time. 

Vaporwave celebrates the lack of musical imagination defining our supposedly daring, connected age by not creating any new musical ideas outside the particular package, in this case the production values, that it wraps the tracks in. It is a rehashing or recycling of old ideas. To explain this, Mark Fisher borrows from French philosopher Jacques Derrida’s concept of Hauntology and gives it a more interesting cultural explanatory role by saying that both our past and our dreams of lost futures — futures which were never realized — haunt our current reality. 30 to 40 years ago, we were much more concerned to imagine a future that differed radically from the past — think of old sci-fi but also musical experimentation. There was a boldness to imagine a future where humanity itself would be altered as well as the landscape with it. These futures are now lost to us, never realized on our time line. Yet, they haunt us through music like vaporwave and through the intrinsic feeling we have for a radically different future that gives life to these creations and the audiences that embrace them.

I love Fisher’s analysis and it helped me conceive of things I felt yet was unable to articulate before finding his work. Feelings are more primal and exist before linguistics but conceptualization of emotions into language allows them to come into sharper focus. But, I believe the appeal of vaporwave and hauntological music (a bit wider genre of which vaporwave is a part) is not just from the void of lost futures and the feeling that we are stuck in time but also from a sharp nostalgia. Since we are stuck in time and are therefore incapable of moving into the future, we must look to the past in our age because there is a void at present when we look to the future. Earlier societies could look both ways to escape the suffocating present — they could enjoy an idealized past but also imagine and play with what an idealized future might look like. It was fantasy but somewhat healthy, perhaps necessary and very human. We do not get that option. We can only mine the past.

This nostalgia is two-pronged. In one way, it’s the simple looking at the past for escape which it shares with all eras. But, because, the connected age has primed our dopamine system leading our brain to seek endless novelty, we can’t satiate our nostalgia by turning into the oldies station - such a move would have worked in the past — nostalgia for its own sake didn’t necessarily require a dopamine fix. But, dopamine requires newness. So, now, our dopamine addicted brains must repackage the old into the new. In this case, it is the production values of vaporwave twerking the knobs on our old melodies and familiar song structures just enough to give us the same old thing (oldies as our nostalgia fix) in new clothes (vaporwave aesthetics as our dopamine fix). Perhaps it’s like reheating an album in the microwave. It’s served hot, giving the illusion of freshness but the microwave has warped the grooves in the process.

Ariel Pink, one of the musicians usually seen as the epitome of musical hauntology, creates music that sounds like hits from the 70s and 80s played through a ham radio reaching a signal from a past that is content to stay in the dustbin of history. Here the haunting of the hauntology is not seen primarily as a lost future. Rather, it is nostalgia for the feeling of genuine newness that you used to be able to experience. It is the feeling that you would get when you could turn on the radio and be genuinely surprised by the sounds coming from it. Or, the feeling that you would get when the song defined a particular fleeting moment of time (the summer of love in 67, the punk anger at the malaise of the late 70s) rather than a sound setting anchor and freezing time.

So this leads me back to the disappointment I expressed at the beginning of this essay. Is the internet to blame for being stuck in the present? Mark Fisher seemed to think it was the result of neoliberalism forcing the profit principle on all aspects of life. Artists no longer have the social benefits systems that allow them to live financially while exploring their work in art. Artists must produce commercially viable product and that is best done within already existing genres. Likewise, government investment in the arts has been cut drastically allowing non-commercial art forms to suffer. But, also, perhaps this hyper connectivity was never really great for the arts in the first place. When everything is available online and it is so easy to put your material out there, nothing really stands out. Genres usually emerge out of actual geographic communities — think punk in bankrupt, decaying New York in the mid-70s. Geographic boundaries allow for variety in music just as geographical boundaries allow for diversity in evolution. Boundaries allow distinction to incubate.

Also, there may be a psychological barrier that the connected world of the internet has placed on us. The internet perhaps has caused some to check their most extreme creative impulses. Being an outcast in a small town was somewhat bearable and there was a certain pride in it; becoming a potential meme that others can mock and immortalize due to creative excess or indulgence may be more than some can bear so they unconsciously curb their craziest impulses. Perhaps.


[1] http://rhizome.org/editorial/2011/may/18/hauntology/


Kent Macaskill has work published by Oxford University Press and in the American Review of Canadian Studies. He is an MA in philosophy and currently resides in Japan where he teaches in the public school system.