Given that vaporwave is a genre feeding on the mechanics of capitalism, applying market research tools to the microgenre seems to be a fitting idea. When we think of a trend curve (early recognition, followed by rising popularity and entry into the mainstream, then a peak of hype and subsequent obsolescence), the vaporwave movement must be somewhere around the saturation point, at least judging by releases like JU4N’s Vaporware.
I still believe strongly in the microgenre’s critical potential; Computer Dreams’ and, especially, INTERNET CLUB’s mischief with cyberutopian visions, the instant satisfaction sold by advertising, and hyperconnected overload had a refreshingly sardonic, punk attitude. But when genres begin to crystallize and become more coherently defined, turning into a checklist of attributes rather than a vague concept linking disparate phenomena into a thoughtform, byproducts become inevitable. Vaporware is one of them. Even the painfully literal title is an unfortunate choice — imagine an emergent rock band naming their album Guitar Music — and it heralds equally clumsy, unsubtly direct content.
JU4N (Juan Cisneros, previously frequenting space-synth nebulas as VC Childkraft), appears to be a microgenre latecomer. He’s not the only one: recent months brought us Public Service Broadcasting’s clumsy take on hauntology, which leads to the conclusion that 2013 is The Year of Catching Up. Vaporware has much in common with PSB’s Inform-Educate-Entertain: both releases sound as if they were made counter-intuitively, recreated following a second-hand account. This strategy can be successful (as in the case of Australian bands, who, fascinated by written reports of the rise of punk and new wave, tried to play the music without having heard the original artists) — but here, even though all the necessary ingredients are included, the results fail to convince. Public Service Broadcasting remove the specter from hauntology; JU4N turns clinical, spa-and-business-plaza-tronica into commonplace ambient with a retro touch. At first glance, this seems to be a way out of the infinite sample/loop trap that vaporwave set itself: Vaporware is free from advertising references and contains no trace of chopped-and-screwed 1980s radio pop. But instead, we get a diluted version of Kuedo’s Severant.
The start of the album, especially “Universal Texture,” bodes badly, resembling as it does the most tenuous and justly-forgotten moments of emotronica; more plainly said, it sounds like mùm. The synth-dense “Angel Cop/Black Market Exotica,” with its Blade Runner-esque atmosphere and Japanese dialogue samples, could actually be interesting were it not for the fact that Kuedo released an entire album comprised of similar (and superior) compositions. This awareness leaves the listener with an unpleasant sensation of déjà vu. Revivalist electronic music from the recent past has accustomed us to a vision of the retro-future as a world where ruthless technocrats count their billions while listening to digitized Kenny G. “Last Night in Cyberia” is Vaporware’s best example: combining a lazy, New Age/smooth jazz melody with the dry clatter of guns, it inadvertently brings the image of Patrick Bateman to mind.
The bandwagon phenomenon is usually driven by purely commercial intent: labels and producers notice, often too late, that there is a certain musical movement that can be monetized — hence, they invest in artists who meet the hallmarks of the style but are transparently copycats (think Flowered Up and other explicitly “baggy” bands of the early 1990s). JU4N, or Public Service Broadcasting, follow this mechanism, but in the non-commercial manner of fanfiction; the amateur spin-off of a popular book or film, usually in the sci-fi or fantasy genre. Vaporware thus becomes the sonic equivalent of fanfic: a heavy-handed, awkward variation on the primary source (ironic, given that a good number of vaporwave and related releases are “bedroom creativity” in the first place). If anything, JU4N’s album is worth assessing in order to determine how certain tropes become ingrained in the collective imagination — e.g., the future’s correlation with Japanese design — yet in keeping with the original meaning of its title (software announced but never released), Vaporware remains an unfulfilled promise.