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.
Let’s call this the “conceptual dimension” of vaporwave. Every one of Will Burnett’s offerings so far as INTERNET CLUB can be understood along precisely these lines. VANISHING VISION is no exception. All the ingredients are here: the canned riffs (“BY DESIGN”), the godawful chintzy metallophones (“ZONES”), the surprisingly serene (“RENDERS”), and the strangely compelling (“PACIFIC”). If VANISHING VISION actually is muzak, then it’s also “about” it, and finally the music/muzak distinction starts to dissolve and you’re left with this experience of profound ambiguity, of “both and neither,” an overwhelming sense of the critical apparatus you know and love in the process of collapse.
That’s one way to read the album. I’d like to suggest another: one that, instead of emphasizing its “conceptual” dimensions, focuses on its “materialism” instead: a nascent form of “digi-materialism” to be precise. According to this reading, VANISHING VISION isn’t “about” muzak at all. Muzak was simply the medium Burnett happened to be working in when he made it. Here’s Will on his website, discussing the artistic process for his various different musical personae:
datavis: i just improvise stuff on synth while recording it
ECCO UNLIMITED: samples or synth stuff chopped up and effected into hell then recorded onto a really awful radioshack tape recorder then recorded back in on a really awful Vietnamese walkman rip-off with bad batteries and a loose headphone jack
internet club: i go through youtube looking for videos based on a vibe i decide on. once i have some material i throw them through a video to mp3 converter and fuck with them in audacity and Ableton Live. sometimes i’ll also put them through tape or a process similar to the ECCO UNLIMITED process (such as with “FOREVER” and “NO MORE MONO” on DELUXE)
What’s interesting about this way of conceiving the creative process is how shallow it seems — banal, even Warholian. That’s not intended as a criticism. It’s simply an acknowledgment of the fact that whatever genuine depth or conceptual interest there is in VANISHING VISION, or vaporwave more generally, might be more the effect of a material practice — the act of surfing YouTube and then “fucking around” a bit in a software package — than something more fully preconceived.
Once you start thinking of vaporwave in this way, other interesting questions start to present themselves. What material conditions make it possible, for instance? Well, the internet obviously (hence “INTERNET CLUB”) — the MP3, YouTube. But also, and crucially, the ready availability of the raw material guys like Burnett are working with. Why is this stuff so accessible on YouTube, for instance? Because no copyright owner would ever bother pursuing legal action in relation to it. Now that muzak is obsolete as a genre, the copyright in it is simply not worth protecting. In other words, it is at precisely the same moment muzak became worthless as capital when it became valuable artistically. No sooner had it ceased to function as mood music than it presented itself as a possible medium.
Then there’s Ableton. One obvious reason why vaporwave makes such extensive use of looping, interruption, pitch- and tempo-shifting, and so little else is that software packages like Ableton makes these techniques so easy. Again, not a criticism. Just an acknowledgment of the fact that, as a genre, vaporwave is not one that especially privileges technique. Its practitioners are more interested in exploring the possibilities afforded by existing software presets than developing new ones.
So where does that leave us? With the possibility that the “conceptual” reading of vaporwave puts the cart before the horse. If an album like VANISHING VISION is political, if it seems to have something to “say” — “about” muzak, the acoustic experience of capitalism, or even the critical project itself — that may be at least as much the result of a series of material contingencies than any overt “conceptual” agenda on the artist’s part, a kind of happy coincidence to be explained and developed ex post facto.
An even more important result of vaporwave in this light is that it gives its practitioners an obvious out. How many albums like this can a guy like Burnett really release before the method exhausts itself, before vaporwave begins to seem like a dead end? The answer: probably not many. For instance, New Dreams Ltd. (the umbrella moniker of 情報デスクVIRTUAL, Macintosh Plus, Laserdisc Visions, etc.) has just announced its impending retirement. But if vaporwave is less a “genre” than a result of the equation method + medium =, if it doesn’t so much have a sound as a standard modus operandi, then several obvious possibilities present themselves. What if the same or similar methods were applied to different source material? And what if those methods were adapted slightly?
My sense is that these are conclusions Burnett has already arrived at. He has already explored interesting new methodoligical territory as ECCO UNLIMITED, and his latest release as INTERNET CLUB, entitled PURE TRANCE, seems to signal a move away from light-muzak to something a little harder, a little more HD, a little more… well… “trance,” by way of source material. In fact, word on the street is (and by street here, I mean YouTube) that his next album under the moniker may be his last. INTERNET CLUB, he says, IS #EVOLVING. In other words, vaporwave may turn out to be short-lived in its current form, but I get the feeling its practitioners have plenty more to offer yet.