In the present world of cultural nostalgia, idealized consumerism and online immediacy, the internet has self-represented itself in the dualism between being both catalyzer and disparager of capitalism. Whilst on one hand offering a platform for the business expansion of multinational enterprises, through the creation of new sales and marketing channels that allow industries to maximize the scope of their activities, online media has on the other hand, provided an incubator for cultural and artistic activism that criticizes the aesthetics and obsessions of contemporary capitalistic society.
On the vanguard of such movement’s one finds vaporwave, an internet-born subcultural music genre that offers critique and satire to the commodification of modern life and nostalgia, through its appropriation and manipulation of 80’s pop and Muzak music. Canadian producer Blank Banshee’s second album Blank Banshee 1 (2013), while blending sonic elements of hip-hop production, is one of the many examples of the genre’s creative criticism of the corporatization of the western world.
The aim of this essay is to analyze the emergence of vaporwave and contextualize the genre within postmodernism. It shall firstly provide an overview of the genre’s characteristics and background, and it will subsequently examine the political and social messages that the associated artists are trying to convey, relating these to the conceptual framework of postmodern theory.
Due to the internet subcultural origins and anonymity of the genre, it is difficult to assess an accurate starting date for the emergence of vaporwave (Tanner, 2015, p. 12). There is however common consensus in the music press, that Daniel Lopatin’s and James Ferraro’s records Chuck Person’s Eccojams Vol. 1 (2010) and Far Side Virtual (2011), are respectively, the first works to display the characteristics that are frequently associated with the genre (Beauchamp, 2016). The former two albums sample iconic 80’s and 90’s pop songs and Muzak commercial background music, and transform the original tracks through electronic music techniques such as pitch transposition, compression, slowing down the tempo, and looping. Unlike other sample-based electronic music genres however, vaporwave is moreover characterized by abrupt and odd editing, and the display of artificial glitches in the production process.
The previously described sonic traits of the genre manifest the variety of cultural meanings that producers such as Lopatin and Ferraro try to convey. Firstly, the use of oddly truncated sample loops that may consequently result in noticeable audio glitches, can be interpreted as an intentional subversion of the invisibility and sleekness of contemporary mass-consumed pop productions (Reynolds, 2011, p. 314). This aspect highlights an initial evidence of vaporwave’s criticism of culture industries and consumerism.
Secondly, the genre’s critique is also perceivable in its artists’ choice of source material. By sampling, manipulating, defragmenting and satirizing pop music from the 80’s and 90’s, decades which are associated with the widespread of neo-liberal free market ideology and the resulting romanticization of unfettered consumerism, vaporwave offers a critical evaluation of nostalgia and pop culture’s capitalistic idealization of the past (Tanner, 2015, pp. 33-35).
Furthermore, the genre’s use of exhaustive repetition of individual song fragments, can be interrelated to “automaticity and loss of control” (Margulis, 2014, p. 84), which together with the previously mentioned abundance of intentional glitches in vaporwave tracks, can symbolize malfunctions in technology (Sangild, 2004, pp. 258-259).
It can be hence intimated that vaporwave attempts to emphasize western society’s dependence on the normalcy of the omnipresent electronic media, by challenging the listener to experience anomalies that juxtapose the familiarity and stability of modern consumptions of both technology and pop music. Grafton Tanner further illustrates this point:
Vaporwave’s content and meaning does not only reside in its musicality. The majority of the genre’s works are often accompanied by visual aesthetics that complement and enhance the DE-contextualization and defragmentation achieved through its sonic elements. As an example, one of the genre’s pioneering records Floral Shoppe (2011) by Macintosh Plus, features cover art displaying a roman bust over a chest board with pixelated pictures of a city skyline as background. These visual objects exposed arbitrarily on the cover of Floral Shoppe (2011) provide trademarks for vaporwave’s iconography, as the haphazardness and surrealism of the genre’s aesthetics combine elements of late 1990’s computer graphics and web design, with classical sculpture, tropical landscapes and Japanese culture (Beauchamp, 2016).
The preoccupation with the aesthetic element of vaporwave is addressed by one of the genre’s best-known producers, Hong Kong Express, in an interview in 2014:
“While the music has to stand alone and be good first off,
I would say that aesthetic is everything in vaporwave and just as important as the music. It is the combination of both image and music that creates the weird,
surrealistic and dream-like vibe that vaporwave is known for.” (Thomas, 2014)
Postmodernism in Vaporwave
The previous brief analysis of vaporwave’s content and meaning can serve as a foundation to showcase the variety of links between the genre and postmodern theory. Postmodernism has been defined in multiple ways by different 20th century cultural theorists, in accordance to a variety of contexts (Storey, 1997, p. 188).
Metanarratives & Simulation
The first major link can be attributed to the definition given by Jean-François Lyotard, which comprehends postmodernism as “incredulity toward metanarratives” (Lyotard, 1979). Lyotard associates the postmodern condition to a rejection of overarching systems that try to find homogenizing stories for the explanation of universal truth (Storey, 1997, p. 191).
Notwithstanding the absence of an explicit characterization of capitalism as the last metanarrative in the work of Lyotard, vaporwave can in this context be considered an artistic manifestation of postmodern art, due to its subversion of capitalistic ideology through the sonic defragmentation of mass-consumed popular music.
Additionally, a further association between vaporwave and postmodern theory can be drawn from Jean Baudrillard’s definition of postmodernism as a culture of the ‘simulacrum’. According to John Storey’s assessment of Baudrillard’s work, the postmodern era typifies a time where the “distinction between the original and the copy has been destroyed” (Storey, 1997, p. 193), whilst Baudrillard coins the term simulation as “the generation by models of a real without origins or reality: a hyperreal” (Baudrillard, 1983, p. 2).
Hyperreality and the dichotomy between reality and copy, are common themes in the sonic and visual aesthetics of Vaporwave. Not only is this aspect evident in the iconography of Blank Banshee’s film hexalogy, as shall be examined posteriorly, but moreover, vaporwave artists intend to scrutinize the hyperrealism of online media and consumerism.
As an example, producer Robin Burnett claims that his work under the pseudonym Internet Club intents to portray society’s entrance into a state of hyperrealism via the “generation of ideals […] through commodities” (Harper, 2012).
Pastiche & the Commodification of Nostalgia
The major correlation between postmodern theory and vaporwave however, can be traced to Frederic Jameson’s definition of postmodernism as a culture that is determined by “the complacent play of historical allusion” (Jameson, 1988). According to Jameson, postmodernism is marked by the artistic style of pastiche, quotations and “cultural production born out of previous culture production” (Storey, 1997, p. 198).
Consequently, it can be upheld, that vaporwave artists, by sampling, compiling and manipulating original songs, and creating new content through the appropriation of pre-existing commercial music, fully embrace the use of creative techniques that are predominant in Jameson’s definition of postmodernism.
Nonetheless, what is paradoxical about vaporwave as postmodern art, is that despite using the artistic methods that are criticized by Jameson, the genre aims at producing pastiche that undermines the commodification of culture and the past (Tanner, 2015, p. 33), elements of contemporaneity that are also disparaged by the cultural theorist.
The latter argues that postmodernism is the cultural dominant of multinational capitalism and his critique of the ‘nostalgia film’ reflects the consequential cultural obsession with reminiscence of the past in present-day artistic productions, a fixation which never translates into a real portrayal, but instead a stereotyped representation, or a Baudrillardian simulation, of the past (Storey, 1997, pp. 198-199).
Correspondingly, vaporwave exposes the effect capitalism has over artistic production, whilst criticizing the same Jamesonian notion, that under the latter system, the past is commodified into a false representation of itself. Evidence of the means through which vaporwave criticizes capitalistic nostalgia can be found, as has been mentioned earlier, firstly in its defragmentation and manipulation of 80’s music, and secondly, in its visual aesthetics, which are often heavily composed of pink and blue colors, a tonal reference to tropical 80’s graphic design, as exemplified in the artwork of American TV series of the decade, such as Miami Vice.
Nonetheless, just like the sonic twist on the past of pop music, 80’s visual iconography is similarly critically decontextualized by the genre, through the amalgamation of the latter with arbitrary objects of different eras and backgrounds: classical sculpture, computer graphics, Japanese culture, etc. (Tanner, 2015, p. 43).
The final Jamesonian argument that can be interrelated to vaporwave, and which synopsizes the present section of the essay, states that, “Aesthetic production […] has become integrated into commodity production generally…” (Jameson, 1984, p. 56) and postmodernism “replicates and reinforces the logic of consumer capitalism” (Jameson, 1985, p. 125). What can be concluded from the previous analysis nevertheless, is that vaporwave, despite being an expression of postmodern art, resists and opposes the commodification of culture and aesthetic production, instead of reinforcing its logic.
Linda Hutcheon contests Jameson’s argument by affirming that postmodern art “exploits its ‘insider’ position in order to begin subversion from within, to talk to consumers in a capitalistic society in a way that will get us where we live, so to speak.” (Hutcheon, 1993). Vaporwave therefore, succeeds as a critique of capitalism by voicing its discontent, exercising the creative techniques disposed by postmodernism.
Blank Banshee & the Blank Banshee 1 Film Hexalogy
Blank Banshee is acknowledged for introducing elements of trap, a subgenre of contemporary hip-hop, to the classic vaporwave sound and iconography. The producer’s music combines the previously enumerated vaporwave sampling techniques and source materials with beat-making and sound synthesis that are associated to trap music (Chandler, 2016).
The introduction of hip-hop production into vaporwave may be interpreted as a striking juxtaposition towards the genre’s DE-contextualization of history in pursuance of a critique of the capitalistic commodification of history, as defined by Jameson. Andrew Goodwin argues that sampling as a means of postmodern expression can manifest objectives that deviate from historic DE-contextualization (Goodwin, 1991, p. 174), as is the latter case in vaporwave.
Critiquing Jameson’s position, Goodwin claims that it is essential to underline “the historicizing function of sampling technologies in contemporary pop” and that additionally “it has often been overlooked that the “quoting’ of sounds and styles acts to historicize contemporary culture” (Goodwin, 1991, p. 175). According to John Storey, hip-hop music evidentiates Goodwin’s argument, because with its roots in audio sampling, the genre attempts to historicize and document, and not decontextualize, in this case African American, history (Storey, 1997, p. 204).
Nonetheless, despite the juxtaposition of Blank Banshee’s music being intriguing within the framework of vaporwave’s meaning, an aspect which provides room for future research, it may only be considered speculative in the analysis of this essay, as firstly, both Goodwin’s and Storey’s references of hip-hip may appear outdated, if one considers the vast development of the genre in the 21st century, and secondly, because analyzers of the genre consider the trap element of Blank Banshee’s music an attempt to make vaporwave more sonically appealing (Beauchamp, 2016).
Blank Banshee 1 Film Hexalogy
What associates Blank Banshee’s work with postmodernism is the critique of hyperrealism and capitalism contained in the “Blank Banshee 1” film hexalogy (Blank Banshee, 2013).
In the sequence of six films created by the artist to accompany six corresponding tracks of his record Blank Banshee 1 (2013), the audience is submitted to a surrealistic journey through different environments displaying the characteristic arbitrary objects and computer-generated tropical sceneries of vaporwave’s aesthetics. The sequence of tracks played throughout the series begins with Blank Banshee’s distinctive vaportrap sound, then slowly morphs into the classic sonic experimentalism of the vaporwave genre, and finally returns back to the producer’s appealing approach to vaporwave.
The hexalogy initiates with the film B:/ Infinite Login [1/6] (Blank Banshee, 2013), in which the beginning of the immersion into Blank Banshee’s constructed world, is started in its first scene, where the shot is zoomed into the screen of a laptop computer that is initially located on top of a desk in a minimalistically decorated room. Once inside the virtual world, the shot enters a building that is surrealistically constructed out of elements of Wikipedia logos. Physically entering the computer’s environment, may hence metaphorize an individual’s journey through internet’s hyperreality and overabundance of information.
Under the same interpretation, the clips exhibit more metaphors that exemplify Baudrillard’s theory of simulation. Throughout the films’ constant motion, the audience perspective passes several times through inter-dimensional portals composed of either Windows or iPad screens. The internet is connoted by Blank Banshee as hyperreality, since window’s can on one hand represent passages in, or into, the real world, and iPads may on the other hand, represent passages into hyperreality: a model of the “real without origins or reality” (Baudrillard, 1983, p. 2).
Blank Banshee nevertheless, illustrates Storey’s argument that under postmodernism, the “distinction between the original and the copy has been destroyed” (Storey, 1997, p. 193), by making every passage apart from the last, lead into new computer-generated simulations of reality. The audience is thus constantly immersed into new baudrillardian simulacrums, or new ‘infinite logins’ into the online world.
The series of films is critical of unfettered capitalism by showing amongst the many corporate logos that are unintelligibly flashed by abrupt video editing, the presence of a fictitious corporation in the films’ surrealistic environment: Doldrum Corp. (Blank Banshee, 2013). The use of the word ‘Doldrum’ for a corporation’s name might infer criticism towards cultural commodification, which is implicit in the word’s meaning. Blank Banshee may be voicing his discontent, by implying that multinational capitalism is stagnating and depressing contemporary creative production.
It can be observed that the flashing of random objects and corporate logos throughout the hexalogy is often synchronized with the rhythm of Blank Banshee’s music, an aspect which further subliminally manipulates the viewer, whilst alluding to the oversaturation of online media with commercial manipulation of images created by ubiquitous marketing. Mike Featherstone defines this concept as “aestheticization of everyday life”, which is namely the “rapid flow of signs and images which saturate the fabric of everyday life” (Featherstone, 2007).
Corporate marketing and cultural saturation overflow individuals with desires and anxieties for needless consumption, by trapping these in the addiction to online media and the pretense that there should be blind faith in capitalism (Tanner, 2015, p. 48). Blank Banshee’s film series subverts capitalistic ideology, by directing the viewer into a hyperreal experience to show the oppression that the latter is submitted to under the cultural dominance of capitalism. This direction evidentiates Blank Banshee’s use of the means of postmodern expression, which respectively substantiates the previously analyzed argument in (Hutcheon, 1993).
The analytical interpretation of Blank Banshee’s hexalogy of music videos, served as case study of a vaporwave producer that despite distancing himself from the genre’s core sonic characteristics, by paradoxically introducing elements of hip-hop production into the sound of vaporwave, is a disparager of the consumerist anxiety induced by multinational capitalism and contemporaneity’s submersion into a state of hyperreality. The interpretation of the meanings behind the surrealism of the sequence of films, depicts Blank Banshee’s and vaporwave’s critique of capitalism and the resulting commodification of art, history and culture.
Blank Banshee’s artistic work elucidates the major questions imposed by vaporwave and postmodern theory. Is western society trapped in an endless unescapable loop of simulations of reality? Is the commodification of art and our cultural past extinguishing meaning and originality in artistic production? Is our emotional liberation through consumerism and nostalgia, a false pretense imposed by multinational capitalism? These questions do not offer easy responses, but the future development of vaporwave and Blank Banshee’s work, may offer additional means of artistic expression, for further reflections in the search for the right answers.