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Meme music: An abridged history of vaporwave

 – Photo by Wikimedia

The history of vaporware is the history of many different musical styles combining to form an entirely new art form. Like all forms of art, it has its detractors and appreciators, and like all art, it takes inspiration from its predecessors. While its original purpose was to serve as a meme, its influence and impact have stretched far beyond its intended origins.

Vaporwave is heavily influenced by 1980s mood and lounge music and is reminiscent of what you would hear entering an elevator in the 1980s. One of the first music genres created entirely from the internet, elements of smooth jazz, funk, R&B and elevator music can be heard throughout different songs. 

Vaporwave as a genre is unique in the way its aesthetic is concretely rooted within its music. Common characteristics of vaporwave music videos include glitch art graphics, Greek statues imposed onto a colorful background, Roman busts, 80s and 90s subculture references, tropical landscapes and Windows 95 computer imagery that have been purposefully distorted in order to create a visual experience while listening to it. The aesthetic is surrealism with a modern twist, past and present melding to form a strange kaleidoscope of ideas which, somehow, fit together.

Vaporwave is ambient, unconventional and could only flourish in the present internet culture of memes and viral hits. The first vaporwave songs were originally posted to online platforms such as Tumblr and Reddit in 2010. Electronic artist Oneohtrix Point Never’s (OPN) “Chuck Person’s Eccojams Vol. 1” is widely considered to be the first-ever vaporwave album. 

His creative process was simple: take an obscure sample from 80s jazz hits, slow the sample down considerably, flip and pitch shift it and repeat the same sample with chords throughout the entire song. He released Ecojam 1 as a mixtape online and consequently developed a cult following on the internet. 

While OPN was a pioneer in the creation of vaporwave, the artist who truly put vaporwave on the main stage was Ramona Xavier, an electronic musician from Portland, Oregon. She popularized vaporware in late 2011 when she released her only studio album under the name Macintosh Plus, titled "Floral Shoppe," which takes sampling close to Madlib-esque level. 

Throughout the album, conventionally fundamental elements of music such as time signatures and tempo are never constant, and musical phrases are distorted to the point where the listener can barely distinguish lyrics from ambient noise. The album’s appeal comes in its nostalgia — you feel as though you’ve heard certain aspects of these melodies before, but they are manipulated in such a way that they are refreshing and interesting. 

The crown jewel of the album — the song that truly defined vaporwave as a genre — was Macintosh Plus’s 7-minute magnum opus to nostalgia titled “リサフランク420 / 現代のコンピュ” which roughly translates in English to “Computing of Lisa Frank 420//Contemporary.” It is a collage of all of the elements that make vaporwave so distinctive: the obscure, reverb-filled sample of Diana Ross’ 1984 pop hit titled “It’s Your Move,” the cover art depicting a Roman bust staring blankly into the distance and the drums that give the track a solid tempo that you’d listen to on an elevator on your way to the fifth floor.

But, vaporwave’s cultural impact did not stop with the release of “Floral Shoppe.” The single and album helped broaden vaporwave’s impact and introduced the internet to the sound of a new era. Its introduction to the mainstream has created many different sub-genres inspired by vaporwave: Both future funk and hardvapour are musical genres that maintain their own cult following, and producers look to vaporwave tracks for samples and unconventional musical ideas. 

While vaporwave is not as universally known or celebrated the way pop or rap music is, its fans are devoted wholeheartedly to the aesthetic and impact that it has on their life. Whether it will continue to remain a staple of pop culture is yet to be seen, but one thing is certain: Vaporwave’s impact and influence will be remembered and discussed for years to come.

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