Here’s what we know. Vaporwave is a form of appropriation art. Its major exponents — INTERNET CLUB, New Dreams Ltd., Computer Dreams, Lasership Stereo,VΞRACOM — all tend to work with glossy corporate mood music, dredged from the nether regions of the internet, which they then reframe (sometimes obviously looped, pitched, and screwed; sometimes not) in an intriguingly ambivalent gesture between endorsement and critique. Sometimes the effect is genuinely sublime. Often it remains vacant and grotesque. But in either case, the act of repetition and recontextualization produces an ontological shift: what started off sounding a hell of a lot like muzak turns out to be about it instead. The banal is imbued with a kind of ironic distance, and it is this distance that gives vaporwave its peculiar critical function: its “aboutness.”
That’s step one. In step two, vaporwave isn’t just “about” muzak or the acoustic experience of capital. It doesn’t just stage a moment of either approval or condemnation. In step two, what vaporwave is “about” is precisely the impossibility of the critical task itself. What it stages is the profound ambiguity of the music it takes as its source material: that moment when you catch yourself humming along to a pan-pipe cover of Billie Jean as you wait to be connected to the call center, and, to your horror, you notice your own pleasure. In one of the first pieces to attempt to theorize the genre, Adam Harper wondered whether vaporwave involved “a critique of capitalism or a capitulation to it?” His answer: “Both and neither.” Undecidable.
In this respect, vaporwave is doing nothing more than dramatizing a logic that we have already seen play out in reverse. It is the product of a culture, in other words, in which the music/muzak distinction has already collapsed. It was as long ago as 1984 that the Muzak corporation first started using original artists’ material to lubricate the exchange of capital. Since then, it hasn’t looked back. Today, it offers “multi-sensory branding solutions” for everything from retail outlets to restaurants, healthcare, and finance. Muzak’s website trumpets the fact that the corporation experienced “unprecedented growth in the first decade of the new millennium.” From a catalogue of nearly three million songs, “more than 100 million people hear Muzak programs each day.” The “indie electronic” playlist, for instance, offers a diverse daily diet of “electronic-based music drawing from house, techno, IDM, indie pop, downtempo and other styles from the club and lounge scene.” “Artists include: Fever Ray, Cut Copy, Junior Boys, Matthew Dear.” The Pop Underground hasn’t been underground for a long time now. Today, it’s simply the soundtrack to a different kind of shopping experience.
One way of thinking about vaporwave then is as a response to the death of canned music: an act of mourning as much as celebration, and a dramatic demonstration of the fact that the music/muzak distinction has always been unstable at a time when it’s less stable than ever before.
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