Vaporwave: A Genre That Goes Forward by Moving Backwards

Neon lights accent the various billboards and signs around the city. Hits from the likes of Chicago, Lionel Ritchie, and Steve Winwood softly streaming from multiple speakers all around with electric guitars blazing, a drum kit faintly pulsing, and an electronic keyboard acting as the leading performer in the piece. As you continue walking, you detect the passing smell of a woman’s perfume. Was that the scent of Calvin Klein’s Obsession or perhaps, it was Yves Saint’s Laurent Opium?

It’s hard to believe it’s been 30 years since these sights, smells, and sounds from the heart of the 80s were part of our lifestyles. Once the 90s brought in grunge rock, modern fashion, and less dramatic design styles, it was expected that we would ultimately forget the 80s or have our children grumble how old-fashion and tedious that decade was. That isn’t the case with Vaporwave: a new genre that has brought back the sounds and feel of a retro decade.

What is Vaporwave?

Vaporwave is a “microgenre” of electronic music that has been around since the early 10s. The genre samples varied music genres like smooth jazz, elevator music, R&B, and lounge music from the 80s and 90s. “Artists” take pieces of a previously released song and either contour, change the tempo, chop it up, or add other efforts to make a new tune. Most of the songs are composed of samples, either looped in a particular sequence or where bits and pieces are patched together to create a unified composition.

Song titles are about the early days of computing, pop icons of the 80s and 90s, or are sometimes written in Japanese. It isn’t precisely understood why composers use Japanese in titles. Maybe they want to reflect on the decade where Japan was in a state of luxury as the economy was booming and the citizens possessed fat paychecks. They didn’t have to worry about running out of cash. Instead, always spending their Sunday afternoons casual driving somewhere out in the country.

The Composition of Vaporwave

I mentioned above that Vaporwave is a microgenre. It evolved from its parent genre: Chillwave. Unlike its child, Chillwave is more “modern” for today’s listeners. Of all the Chillwave songs I came across, they make use of contemporary synthesized sounds and technology. It doesn’t make the listener undergo nostalgic and yearnful. Instead, Chillwave relaxes, soothes, and calms the soul with its melancholy melodies.

Vaporwave tries to relax and soothe the soul in a way where the listener reminiscences about the long-forgotten past. There are several ways to create a piece in this genre. One preferred approach is to slow down the tempo of a song to distort the singer’s voice, if present, as well as lower the pitch. One example is CVLTVRΣ‘s song “Surfing Atarashii Borauza za”. This artist creates his songs from ebbing the tempo of the 1986 song “Mystical Composer” sung by actress and former pop idol Momoko Kikuchi. “Mystical Composer’s tempo rate is at 210 BPM, while “Surfling Atarashii Borawaza za” clocks in at 74 BPM. A thirty-five percent difference in speed.

The original song: “Mystical Composer”
“Surfing Atarashii Borauza za”

To Sample or Not to Sample?

Another way that Vaporwave artists produce their songs is by cutting pieces from already released songs or even audio from interviews, new programs, and TV shows. Then placing the audio in a loop for it to play over and over or placing critical elements over a melody to create a purpose. One example of looping is 18 Carat Affair’s “New Appeal”. The artist loops a ten-second melody from the opening of Kajagoogoo’s “Too Shy”. Meanwhile, an example of extracting audio snippets can be found in Guillaume Jambel’s “Liberty TV”.

“New Appeal”

Not all songs in the Vaporwave genre are created purely from samples. Fans of the electronica genre have pointed out that Especia’s “Kurukana” and “No1 Sweeper” is a Vaporwave-like tune. Especia is one of my favorite Japanese idol groups from this decade as they experimented with genres like city pop, Eurobeat, and synthpop. “Kurukana” feels like a mix between city pop and vaporwave. True, it doesn’t possess the distorted values that a typical Vaporwave song has, but it does contain that melancholic, synthpop feeling to it

My Take on Vaporwave

How did I get introduced to Vaporwave? The answer is simple: Youtube. Not kidding. I discovered Vaporwave by stumbling on the “Dead Mall” series by Dan Bell. This series focuses on malls in the US that are on the verge of death. These places are filled with shuttered storefronts, faded decorations, depleted number of mall-goers, and not enough love from management. As malls are synonymous with the 80s American pop culture, Bell uses various Vaporwave pieces to draw the viewers into reminiscence and nostalgia as his camera strolls through the dead malls’ passageways.

I often found Vaporwave to be a fascinating genre as it invents the old-aged pop music wheel once more. Artists in this genre find creative ways to reinvent styles that one hasn’t listened to for over 30 years. It is a chance for younger listeners, who have been attentive to today’s EDM style, to discover, experience, and enjoy the sounds from the past mixed with today’s electronica styles.

George Clanton’s “Never Late Again” is one of many Vaporwave songs that could appeal to the EDM crowd. It is a piece that is danceable, light, and has that pop-like sound. I love how Clanton makes use of snippets of an 80s-sounding tune, faded synthesizers, and duck-like squeaking melody. This tune is a genuine example of Vaporwave as it mixes new sounds with old ones while preserving the ambivalent and nostalgic traits.

In Conclusion

Vaporwave may only appeal to specific taste buds as the genre is more indies than mainstream. It is a proper art genre as it creates new musical landscapes by blending the new with the old in creative yet distinct ways. Take a ride on the musical DeLorean and try out Vaporwave as it is refreshing while remaining nostalgic.

What do you think of vaporwave? What characteristics of the genre appeals to you? Did you like any of the songs above? Let me know in the comments below