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A kind of Hauntology musical genre rooted in 80s American pop rather than 70s British folk-rock and library synth music.

Involves a lot of slowed down versions of 80s soul and TV music.

Quora Answer : What art movement is vaporwave a part of?

Feb 1, 2020

There are different ways to think about this.

The rather boring old fashioned way to think about it is that it's basically just a kind of "pop art" of the kind that's been made since the 1960s. Lots of visual references to pop and commercial culture. Focus on luscious attractive colours and feelings.

A second way to think about it is that it's an online art, visually with lots of artefacts borrowed from older, low resolution images, animated gifs and glitches etc. So it's "web art" or possibly "glitch art" of a kind that appeared in the 90s. Perhaps even a high-tech "folk art" (think of how people decorated their home pages in the 90s)

I'm more interested and affected by vaporwave musically, so I tend to think of it more as a musical phenomenon.

So one very obvious reference is to early 80s "plunderphonics" musics that collaged together a lot existing recordings. It's that kind of "sample based" music.

Pushing further in that line, I think it's quite interesting to speculate that vaporwave is actually a kind of "hip-hop". Hip-hop is what took the more theoretical "plunderphonic" aesthetic and turned it into a mainstream cultural phenomenon. By building mainstream hits on appropriated breaks and samples. And vaporwave uses a lot of tools and techniques from hip-hop. It's basically just mainstream pop and smooth jazz that's been "chopped and screwed", a technique that came out of the Houston hip-hop scene.

I like to tell a story which says that hip-hop is basically the continuation of jazz. Despite some superficial differences, it's what jazz evolved into. Much as birds are what dinosaurs evolved into. If you really want to push for a radical and controversial theory, you could argue that vaporwave is then what hip-hop evolved into, with contemporary mumbling rappers / autotuned crooners, as effectively a sub-category of the vaporwave trippy, so-laidback-its-nausiating aesthetic. (I'm not sure I can make this second part of the story plausible yet, but it's a mentally stimulating exercise to try)

Finally, there are close parallels between vaporwave and the British genre "hauntology" even though the references and sounds are quite different. Hauntology has a more explicitly intellectual theory built around it : we are haunted by the lost futures that were excluded on the way here. Hauntology can reference everything from the 1930s ball-rooms of The Shining (see The Caretaker) to the electronica of 1970s public service films, to brutalist architecture, to folk-rock and 17th century witches. (Witch house is a US equivalent with less cosy English nostalgia and political theory attached)

All of these fit into what Simon Reynolds calls "Retromania" which is a condition of contemporary music he diagnosed a few years ago that can be summed up as a failure to believe in the future. Musicians are no longer excited about what we will discover and develop in the future. All they can do is mine the recent past for overlooked, forgotten obscurities, and try to create their "new ideas" out of them.

I think there's a lot to be said for this kind of analysis. But I'd like to take it slightly further.

Art is driven by technology.

And technologically you can argue that there are three massive waves or trends in the world going on from the late 20th century to now.

recording, and the accessibility of almost everything that's been done, at a couple of clicks of a mouse.

a world-wide network enabling almost instant communication of ideas and discoveries to masses.

the "social" aspect of this network that makes us obsessed with how we present and represent ourselves to the world through social media, selfies etc.

All of contemporary art (and indeed contemporary culture, politics etc.) is driven by, responding to, at the intersection of these trends

From recording, yes we get access to the wealth of the world's existing visual and musical culture. There is so much to explore and learn from. But at the same time it makes forgetting almost impossible. We can longer "forget". All we can do is create new, distorted memories of things that we are all half aware of.

On the global network, our artistic creations are in intense and vicious competition for attention with artistic creations from around the world. Artists have to be simultaneously more bold and radical to attract attention, while also being familiar and easily assimilable enough to find quick and easy purchase in the minds of any potential audience. Art today is flying off in more directions exploring more extremes and obscure niches, while simultaneously feeling like all cultures are being boiled up and distilled down to a lowest-common denominator mush. The feel of much popular music and culture is the feeling of that paradox.

Finally, from the social network we are increasingly concerned with our performance and performativity. We've moved from "expressing ourselves" because expression is some kind of Freudian release from internalized oppression, to "representing ourselves" because without being acknowledged in the semi-public sphere, we become no-one. Given a new camera, older people start taking photos of things they see, outside themselves ... capturing memories, communicating experiences. Younger people start photographing themselves, working on refining and improving the image they are presenting.

Artists are the same ... pop music has moved from a genre where artists sang and told stories about other people and other events, to a genre where artists increasingly talk about themselves. How they are, how they want to be.

What's all this got to do with vaporwave?

Well, there is no separating vaporwave out from contemporary hip-hop / pop music. Vaporwave is part of that confluence of artistic reactions to the three technological trends : it is about neither pure nostalgia, nor pure satire, nor pure learning from history. It's about producing invented memories, fake news and fake history. We find freedom from the past not through forgetting it but through misrepresenting it.

It's about juggling the need for art to differentiate us in a world of mass-information, where everyone can have access to everything immediately. We play with fast memes and in-jokes and niche cultural references; trying to protect our small spaces from "mainstream appropriation". But using the most bland and mainstream music of the past. Vaporwave is a dramatic performance of the struggle to find and create difference in a world of homogeneity.

Finally, while less overtly "self representing" than, say hip-hop and contemporary pop, it's designed for a world of self-presenters (and self-as-curators). GIFs are an art-work invented to make maximum impact and grab maximum attention in the social media feeds like Facebook and Twitter and on picture sites like 4-Chan. That's the format, big, bright, colourful, movement. Lush and luxurious. It's native to social feeds.

I'm guessing that future curators and art theorists are going to look back and see Vaporwave as one of the quintessential exemplars of the "movement" which is 2010s art, as defined by the three trends I described above.

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