Written by Leah Park
On one of my perusals through social media, I came across a viral video that depicted a character from The Simpsons teaching a self-defense class. However, instead of playing the dialogue of the scene, the clip played a funky pop song called “Selfish High Heels” by Yung Bae. The song was vaguely familiar. I was intrigued and immediately went on a search for music similar to the genre of this clip. Eventually, I came across a whole plethora of artists creating works in a subculture known as “vaporwave,” where commercials of young adults in the 80s were edited into music that played the sounds of edited 80s music. In fact, one such vaporwave video caught the attention of my father and uncle, as they had both seen that same commercial on the television almost forty years ago in South Korea. These videos and songs are plentiful on Youtube, Soundcloud, Spotify, or anywhere you look on the web. The songs themselves have thousands to millions of views, and comments below are all different iterations of “Remember when music was good?” The massive amount of attention these videos receive demonstrates that the modern mass audience is still on the lookout for media that reminds them of the past. The reason why can be summed up with the critical soft spot of this current generation: nostalgia.
Nostalgia used here refers to “a feeling of pleasure and also slight sadness when you think about things that happened in the past” that is evoked by visual and auditory media. The use of modern nostalgia was, at first, most majorly present in both art and music subcultures especially during the rise of internet culture and social media (from roughly the 1990s to present day). Vaporwave, often stylized as “V A P O R W A V E,” is one of the many subcultures that have arisen from this quest for nostalgia. This movement was largely inspired and preceded by John Oswald’s coined term “plunderphonics,” an art movement that was based off of piracy. By using other artists’ music, the nostalgia artist modifying this music can both elicit the emotions that the song evoked in its original use, and also modify it to mean something new. In vaporwave, this modified music not only sardonically hearkens back to the consumer-culture of the 80s and 90s but also invokes a nostalgic sound that resonates with its listener. As stated before, none of this would have been possible without the open media nature of the internet and social media. As Adam Neely points out in his video on the music theory of vaporwave, the “Wild West” nature of the internet made it easier for vaporwave artists to obtain the files and data of artwork they would then anonymously remake and share without any legal trouble. Back in the days when vaporwave was “plunderphonics,” there was no such thing as anonymity on the internet, so music was easier to pin down on their creators. Now it is harder for situations such as John Oswald’s great CD burning in Canada to repeat itself. The rise in popularity of vaporwave meant that “nostalgia” culture largely hinges on how artists could, essentially, get away with piracy.
This pattern is one explanation as to why “meme” culture and social media sites such as TikTok are so popular—their “trends” are easy to recognize.
Defining vaporwave is risky business because the movement itself is a reaction to the increasingly copyrighted and capitalistic nature of the world. However, we can generally say that Vaporwave is a music subculture that arose in the 2010s as a criticism of capitalism, seen in the sheer amount of vaporwave artists using edited clips from commercials from the early 80s or 90s in their music videos. The songs themselves are reminiscent of the early days of the internet by using sound samples from various early internet programs, including the “You got mail!” soundbite, K-Mart elevator music samples, and many, many more. Many artists from vaporwave also “borrowed” songs from major artists, editing and slowing down voices from popular singers in the 80s and 90s to create new works. Look to what is widely considered the “national anthem” of vaporwave to see how Diana Ross’s vocals were edited to make something new. When scrolling through comments for vaporwave posts or even when considering the original song that was sampled, one can often see comments referring to an era when “music was good,” when things were better. In fact, these comments can usually be seen on any track not currently on the “Top Hot Tracks” list trending on Youtube.
Going back to the “soft spot” of this generation, this weakness for nostalgia can largely be attributed to the rise of the internet and the efficiency of sharing media. Due to the internet and the amount of daily media consumption that an internet user can achieve in a short span of time, it has become easier to share content from past time periods with those people across the world. Users can find other users who have consumed similar media—perhaps as far back as in childhood—and together they can celebrate and remember those days with the media as a conduit. Not only do we create communities where nostalgia-seeking is encouraged in this way, the shorter and shorter amount of time required to produce and consume mass amounts of media leads to users seeking things that are familiar and easy to digest. This pattern is one explanation as to why “meme” culture and social media sites such as TikTok are so popular—their “trends” are easy to recognize. This is what drew me to the funky, familiar elements of “Selfish High Heels” and pulled me down the deep rabbit hole of vaporwave subculture.
Vaporwave largely capitalizes on this search for familiarity and has found relatively large success. Many vaporwave artists are now able to tour internationally, finding a loyal following through social media. But vaporwave artists aren’t the only ones profiting from nostalgia seekers—ironically, big corporations, despite low quality productions and poor critical reception, have chased the nostalgia dollar with a rising number of remakes and sequels. I myself have fallen prey to these schemes. I have vivid memories of seeing the theatrical release of Disney’s live-action Beauty and the Beast released in 2017 and enjoying the familiar story beats I had grown up with in the animated film—until I realized afterwards that I had merely fallen prey to the nostalgia bait of Disney. The appeal of familiarity has also bled into popular music, as seen with the rising popularity of heavy audio sampling. If an audience is already familiar with and invested in with certain elements, then there will be a greater possibility of them coming to see these familiar tales again. In the end, audiences will always be more invested in familiar artwork instead of making the effort to create new bonds to new ones. Thus, as the internet grows, so too will the popularity of nostalgia.
Further V A P O R W A V E: