I believe that the word is a portmanteau inspired in-part by ‘vaporware’, the name for unfinished computer software which is no longer being continued and the genre ‘chillwave’, an internet music genre pioneered a few years back by acts like Washed Out and Toro Y Moi. Chillwave focuses on evoking ‘chilled out’, laid back sounds alongside the warm, nostalgic feelings of basking in sunshine, long summers, holidays, smiles and watching the sunset.
Where Chillwave focused on warmth, Vaporwave has what I feel is a stronger focus on the strange, creepy aesthetic of late 80s corporate audiovisuals. Vaporwave artists tend to be quite ironic, they play with imagery like clip-art and blurry, fuzzy stock photography in their artwork and make use of unicode and Japanese characters in their titles and artist names to really confuse search engines and listeners.
I’ve noticed that Vaporwave artists can take their qualities really quite seriously too, some will entirely disappear from the internet within months of releasing something, with only traces of their work left in the wake of broken links and missing social media pages - a comment perhaps on the fast pace of culture in discarding the old to make way for the new. Many vaporwave artists ‘release’ their work for free or via Bandcamp’s ‘Pay what you like’ model.
This was perhaps one of the first Vaporwave tracks I stumbled across - ‘ＤＯＮＴ/ BＥ/ 正方形’ by ‘H B O ・゜゜・．’ . The song samples a sleazy bassline and synth-chords from some unknown production, there is also an underlying sense of poor quality and the kind of degradation that you might hear while trying to play an old VHS tape which has been re-recorded over and over again.
Saint Pepsi is probably one of the most successful cross-over artists in the genre, this video for his song ‘Private Caller’ focuses on the strange visuals of late-80s television adverts. I think that there is something warm about the sound and the imagery here. The music itself is interesting as an example of vapor because we can clearly hear that it is sampled from another song, but that the looping of the sample is broken in some way, it doesn’t sit quite right and isn’t entirely comfortable listening.
Charlie Song’s ‘B 4 Sure’ is an example of how Japanese influences are used in vaporwave. For me, I grew up with something of a romanic notion of Japan as a progressive, forward-thinking, futuristic nation. Perhaps it was the time-period, or the rise of Japanese culture and technology in the West. As a child, I played a lot of video games which I later realised were all mostly Japanese in origin, even as an adult I find this kind of imagery nostalgic, that it harks back to a past where the image of the future could be bought with a fancy new VHS player and was far more optimistic than the reality of our 21st century world. There’s a lot of romanticism for Japanese visuals and quirkiness in Vaporwave too, which is something I imagine draws myself and others to it.
I feel that Vaporwave is perfectly fitting for our time. We live in a digital future where the remnants of our past are all but superseded by technological replacements - not even the book is safe anymore from digital replacement.
Vaporwave may be uncomfortable listening, but it is our search for nostalgia in the information-age, where almost anything is available at our fingertips.
Our HD, 1080p 60fps, high-resolution Retina displays show us that the future is here right now, but vaporwave artists scour and search for pieces of an unclaimed past that nobody wanted to remember from old VHS tapes and vinyl records. The sound is unsettling and slightly cheesy but there is an analogue warmth to be found amongst the sampled and slowed 80s elevator music and 90s early-hours infomercials, the kind you might have accidentally stumbled upon when you awoke at 4am and turned the TV on in the dark in 1993.
マクロスMACROSS 82-99 provides a perfect example of vaporwave in this short mixtape.
Incidentally, here is an interesting video I found which shows this degradation of picture and sound on VHS tapes when recording over them several times from the same source.