Digital Punk: Vaporwave as a Subversive Internet Subculture
The increasing prominence of internet communication has brought new ways for culture to spread and develop. Communities form themselves online around specific interests and art forms, and many subcultures have even originated on the internet. One of those is vaporwave; primarily a musical genre which, as I will argue in this paper, is an example of the emergence of internet subcultures; one with clear political implications. Through a semiotic approach based on Dick Hebdige’s notion of subversive subculture, I will examine the ways in which the internet and other technology are being used here to form a largely unmediated, authentic subculture; and more specifically, to appropriate signs of ordinary mass culture and use them to express authentic, subversive feelings. Using several examples of vaporwave albums and their accompanying visual art and online platforms, I will look at how vaporwave practices such subversion, both in its content and in its media.
Vaporwave is a musical genre as well as an art movement that developed on internet forums and media, emerging around 2010. In different ways, this movement is based on pronounced subversive principles. The first sign of this is in the name’s etymology: It alludes to a computer-industry term, ‘vaporware’, which denotes a product that is promoted but never released; sometimes as deliberate false advertising. From here it can also be linked to Marx’s metaphor of capitalism in which “all that is solid melts into air” (Harper). The name is thus clearly critique of the capitalist market-system as being ‘empty’ and unfulfilling. This attitude is expressed within the genre in several ways, first and foremost through the content of the music: Vaporwave can be seen as a category of plunderphonics; a musical technique in which the artist takes existing music and manipulates it through digital editing, sampling it, and thereby appropriating it into their own work. In vaporwave, this typically consist of sounds such as elevator music, music from commercials, dialogue from television and film, video game music, 80s soul and funk, grocery store music, weather report music, or sounds from corporate life. What most of them they have in common is that they are typical signs of mass culture and of consumerism. These are then edited in many different ways: Slowed down or changed in pitch, augmented with synths or other ambient sounds, and often an electronic drum beat is added. One typical example of such a vaporwave album is REDEFINING THE WORKPLACE by an artist called INTERNET CLUB: Firstly, its artwork shows a generic office building complex. The songs (with titles like “SYNERGIZE” and “EFFICIENT OFFICE 2K12”) sample generic ‘elevator music’ and edit it in such a way that it becomes ethereal and dreamy. It takes sounds, jargon, and imagery of the marketing world, examples of banal mass culture, and turns them into an authentic, dreamlike fantasy. A different example is UNLIMITED DREAM COMPANY by Amun Dragoon: This album takes similar sounds—tacky music from, for example, malls and television ads—and mixes it with imagery of exotic cultures and different times: Depicting Japanese texts and futuristic architecture on its cover art, and having song titles such as “Forest of the Ancient Traveler.” This is then reflected in edited samples: They are turned into nostalgic, meditative, outlandish music. Midnight Television, by an artist of the same name, is an example of another important aspect of many of these albums: expressing loneliness and alienation as a consequence of mass culture. As the title suggests, it uses samples of midnight television shows and commercials and distorts them into melancholic soundscapes. This is again echoed in the album artwork, which depicts a minimalistic, empty neon road over black. The signs of commercial television are thus used here to criticize and oppose the system they are part of. In these examples, the uniform, mass-cultural objects are thus made to express exact opposite sentiments: e.g. individual feelings and affect; fantasy, alienation, loneliness, and exotic longing. The banal, mass-cultural objects are “magically appropriated; ‘stolen’ … and made to carry ‘secret’ meanings: meanings which express, in code, a form of resistance to the order which guarantees their continued subordination” (Hebdige 439). Here it becomes apparent that vaporwave is not just a musical genre but also a subculture in the way it employs a particular style to subvert the dominant ideology: Vaporwave forms the “connotative codes” of malls, television, and graphic interfaces into its own style; to contradict the consumerist meanings into individualistic ones, thereby opposing and subverting the supposed uniformity of mass culture, i.e. dominant capitalist ideologies—It allows them to express their personal voice in spite of mass culture.
This same style appears in the visual aesthetic that is associated with the music: A typical example is the cover art of the ‘classic’ vaporwave album Floral Shoppe by Macintosh Plus (see fig. 1). Many vaporwave albums use exactly this kind of imagery: (digital) collages depicting classical busts, retro graphic design, saturated colors, surreal cityscapes, Japanese texts, and objects of mass culture such as office buildings, electronic devices, and cars. Just like in the music, signs of mass culture (in this case graphic design) are used here in a collage with dreamy landscapes and ancient art; i.e., in an ‘alien’ context, to express an embracement of—and a longing for—other times and other cultures. They then signify the exact opposite of banalness and uniformity of mass consumerist culture. This way, the objects “become signs of forbidden identity, sources of value” (Hebdige 431). Through both sound and imagery, vaporwave is thus a subversive subculture as Hebdige describes it: it makes use of style as “gestures, movements toward a speech which offends the ‘silent majority’, which challenges the principle of unity and cohesion (439).” What offends and challenges here is this radical expression of authenticity within the sign-system of objects like graphic designs and mall-music.
It is not only through the content of the work that vaporwave is subversive: The fact that the subculture is almost completely based in digital technology is of great relevance. Their critical stance toward mass consumerist culture does not mean they completely abstain from it. In fact, its members are heavily involved in the culture industry: There are for example record labels such as Dream Catalogue, devoted to the release of “dream music” which includes vaporwave (“About”, Dream Catalogue). This also goes together with the sale of vaporwave-style merchandize. And after all, the internet itself is not outside the realm of consumerism. But just like the banal mass-market sounds and images used in the artworks themselves, these capitalist venues and technologies are ‘exploited’ by the vaporwave artists for their subversive causes: They present a counter voice to hegemonic powers, “expressed obliquely, in style” (Hebdige 439). Precisely in the uniformity of the internet, this individualistic style “challenges the principle of unity and cohesion (Hebdige 439).” The fact that many of the creators of vaporwave publish it anonymously only adds to this: it does not matter who they are, since the message of authenticity is contained in their work: it is human expression within the faceless system, using it to reclaim their individuality. The style of vaporwave appears here as the kind of subversive “maps of meaning” which “obscurely re-present the very contradictions they are designed to resolve or conceal” (Hebdige 439-440). Moreover, despite the power relations involved with technology, the internet could be seen here as being a place of “sign-communities”; and style appears at the level of signs, because “sign-community … is not a uniform body” (Hebdige 439). Traditional power structures are subverted here through technological media. So both in medium and content, vaporwave makes use of objects from mass culture to subvert it.
It is the internet, for that matter, which enables the creation (through music editing software) and expression (through the internet) of vaporwave; and to form the community in the first place, where mainstream media did not offer the possibility. One of the communities in which vaporwave developed was Reddit: An online news and entertainment network which has no editors, so that anyone can share and vote on content (“Vaporwave”, Reddit). These kinds of platforms enabled the publishing of music without the mediation of power-dependent record labels. Moreover, the publishing on the internet also often means the fans can discover and listen to it for free. The internet has thus allowed the genre to develop in a nontraditional way; one that is not as dependent on factors such as capital and material equipment. This also means that the artists have no ‘roots’ in the sense most traditional artists do, since the genre developed on the rootless internet. This means that the artists do not have to be associated with, or completely dependent on, any particular country or institution: One can instead take part in different cultural communities and be more of an independent individual, rather than being based in a specific community.
Vaporwave is thus a recent example of using hegemonic cultural ideology to create a culture of one’s own, and to present a counter voice to it, using banal mass culture in various way to change their signs’ meanings into an expression of authentic and genuine feelings. Internet and other technology are used here to practice art in new ways, undermining traditional roads, and thus challenging traditional power structures.
“About.” Dream Catalogue. Dream Catalogue, n.d. Web. 25 Mar. 2016. <http://dreamcatalogue.net/about/>.
Amun Dragoon. UNLIMITED DREAM COMPANY. Amun Dragoon, 2012. Web.
Harper, Adam. “Comment: Vaporwave and the pop-art of the virtual plaza.” Dummy. Dummy Mag., 12 July 2016. Web. 25 Mar. 2016. <http://dummymag.com/features/adam-harper-vaporwave>.
Hebdige, Dick. “Subculture and Style.” The Cultural Studies Reader. Ed. Simon During. London: Routledge, 1993. 429-440. Web.
INTERNET CLUB. REDEFINING THE WORKPLACE. INTERNET CLUB, 2016. Web.
Midnight Television. Midnight Television. Beer on the Rug, 2011. Web.
“Vaporwave.” Reddit. Reddit, 2013. Web. 25 Mar. 2016. <http://reddit.com/r/Vaporwave/>.