It doesn’t matter whether or not you think you’ve heard “vaporwave” before. Trust me, you have — in hotel lobbies, in the opening sequence of a training video, over the phone waiting for a customer service representative. These so-called vaporwave artists, a crop of sample-based producers that includes New Dreams Ltd., INTERNET CLUB, Computer Dreams, MJ Linckoln, Lasership Stereo, VΞRACOM, and others, are appropriating wholesale from the 20th-century garbage dump, oftentimes corporate stock music and by-the-numbers mood music, non-satirical pastiche originally designed for utility (as requisite intro/transition music, as mere signifiers of commodified emotion, etc.). Drawing from a tradition of musical appropriation that extends back decades but rooting itself in the aesthetics and techniques of both DJ Screw’s chopped-and-screwed mixtapes and Daniel Lopatin’s eccojams (as Chuck Person), these artists are foregrounding what was initially intended to play in the background, appropriating musics that are acts of appropriations themselves, attuning our ears to sounds we rarely take seriously in the first place.
While it’s tempting to locate their shared attributes and insert them into a totalizing whole, there are many variations within this mode of music-making that make this task possible only by foregoing the details. Alone, New Dreams Ltd., the overarching moniker of an anonymous entity who goes by many (Laserdisc Visions, Macintosh Plus, Tanning Salon, Vektroid, etc.), is stylistically all over the place, from eccojams and new age to screw and future beats. Its latest release, 札幌コンテンポラリー (“Contemporary Sapporo”) as 情報デスクVIRTUAL (“Virtual Information Desk”), is its most daring yet, an exhausting 25-track, 70-minute session of early-morning seminar jams, staff-meeting jingles, and pre-boarding lounge tunes that take appropriation into new realms. Part two of the heavily-processed pop/R&B eccojams of New Dreams Ltd. Initiation Tape but more aesthetically in line with both Midi Dungeon (as esc 不在) and the latter half of Floral Shoppe (Macintosh Plus), the album is described by the artist as both “a brief glimpse into the new possibilities of international communication” and “a parody of American hypercontextualization of e-Asia circa 1995.”
Parody and appropriation often go hand in hand, but the appropriation here is so ridiculously extensive you might mistake these recontextualizations as a reframing of the synthetic pop products of past in order to uncover their supposed innate value. But whether or not these songs are considered “good” to begin with is quickly brushed aside by the training-video aesthetics of opening track “WELCOME 2 SHOP@HOME NETW☯RK LLC #WEEDBREAK #ROLL_UP_THEM_BLUNTS_FOR_2K12,” a track so cheesy and so bad that, even when reframed, it’s cheesy and bad. Or, at the very least, forgettable and inconsequential. This indifference to taste is flaunted throughout the album — on the mid-level hotel restaurant jazz of “札幌地下鉄・・・「ENTERING FLIGHT MUSEUM」” and “HOTEL TAIWAN WELC☯MES U,” on the new age presets of “PRISM CORP不可能な生き物” and “M A X I FERRARI ~ レーススラム,” on the crisp adult-contemporary flows of “MARBLE白鳥” and “HEALING 海岸で昼寝MY LAST TEARS” — to the point where this direct and, importantly, chosen confrontation with the bland becomes a large part of the sensually jarring, hyperreality-by-proxy experience that is listening to 札幌コンテンポラリー.
It doesn’t help that, unlike previous efforts, the appropriations here are largely untouched. Screw techniques are occasionally applied (pitch changes on “風船ガムBUBBLEGUM,” tempo shifts in “ODYSSEUSこう岩寺「OUTDOOR MALL」,” glitches in “iMYSTIQUE エジプト航空「EDU,” loops in “街へSAPPORO NiGHTS BRINGiN IT BACC ✔✔✔ #WEEDBREAK”), but they’re often either seamless or lost in the mystifying haze emitted from these otherwise mind-numbing songs. Some tracks, like “PRISM CORP不可能な生き物” and “☆ANGELBIRTH☆” don’t even seem manipulated at all. The unpredictability and sparseness of these effects contribute in large part to the music’s aura: rather than overtly aestheticizing with common screw methods like down-pitching vocals or adjusting tempos, the mostly instrumental music exists largely on its own signifying terms. Which becomes doubly puzzling, since the tracks seem originally designed to evoke a single feel, emotion, or attitude. This isn’t a case where the artist is so cool that it can appropriate un-cool sounds and, in turn, become even cooler; there doesn’t appear to be any aspiration toward coolness or the redefinition thereof (cf. the perpetually dorky romance jazz of “TUSCANY背筋に対して「NEO SPA」”). In fact, identity itself plays a backseat role: 情報デスクVIRTUAL is as anonymous as the musicians who wrote and performed the anonymous originals. By appropriating such unidentifiable tracks and only minimally handling them, 情報デスクVIRTUAL isn’t “making the music its own,” but ensuring that the music remains no one’s to call their own. This approach adds value to the music while extending the anonymity, a unification of individual facelessness with a pseudo-globalism that’s bizarrely yet appropriately exaggerated in the imagery, in the song titles, in the music.
And yet, I’d be short-changing the album if I were to ignore its aesthetic elements. For all the seeming detachment and distancing strategies, 札幌コンテンポラリー is still an emotionally complex listen. Sure, the tones, the melodies, and the rhythms are all telling me not to listen, with my brain paradoxically knee-jerk reacting to the overwhelming easy-listening aesthetic — and admittedly, at 70 minutes in length, the commitment to its caricature of mass media is like an endurance test for those willing to give into its persistence. But the repetition of these empty, lifeless songs is oddly seductive, evincing a drudgery and tedium that would be difficult to replicate with traditional forms of music-making, a somewhat uncanny feeling given the often upbeat quality of a lot of the samples (and proof that the 21st-century artist is more concerned with symbols than notes). And while the dread is extended even further with overtly life-sucking tracks like “‘GEAR UP’ 4 FLIGHTシアトルズベスト,” “T E S T A R O S S A interLude ~ iNTELLiMAX RELEASE GROUP PRESENTS,” and “HB☯ PORN,” it’s also offset by occasional moments of surrealism (“iMYSTIQUE エジプト航空「EDU」,” “街へSAPPORO NiGHTS BRINGiN IT BACC ✔✔✔ #WEEDBREAK”) and transcendence (“7 WONDERS OF THE iNTERNET FT WIND☯WS 97「GEOMETRIC HEADDRESS」” “「GOODNIGHT BLESS YOU」つかの間のSPIRIT”). In fact, over time, everything from the sequencing to the fade-ins contribute to a hallucinogenic, dream-like fantasia.
I wouldn’t elect to listen to these songs in just about any other context, but that’s not to say that 情報デスクVIRTUAL rescued them from the dump and is now showcasing their “true” essence, or that the tracks alone would’ve been enough to engender similar reactions if given a fair shot. While vaporwave might have that effect elsewhere, I still don’t give a shit about the source material on this album, and there’s nothing intrinsic in this music, here or elsewhere, that leads to a defined listener response. It’s the total experience — the conflicted listens, the negotiation of taste, the perceptual confusion — that’s noteworthy, an outward extension that, when coupled with its overall aesthetic approach, makes it impossible not to read politically. I mean, is this stuff a critique of capitalism? Is it a way of expressing the shortcomings of technology? Is it an attempt to reclaim the spaces in which this otherwise insufferable music is normally played? Maybe. Maybe not. Probably. Who knows. While this music’s relationship to capitalism is certainly worthy of investigation, the value of 札幌コンテンポラリー shouldn’t hinge solely on the degree to which we deem it transgressive or subversive or resistant. Intentionally or not, what 情報デスクVIRTUAL is playing with is perception, taste, time, degradation, hierarchy, the instability of identity, the impermanence of technology, the prejudices of memory, the fine line between production and reproduction, the cultural constructions that need a screw or exaggeration to be exposed as such. Indeed, 情報デスクVIRTUAL is playing with, if not expanding, what it means to aestheticize in the age of appropriation, and it’s doing it, not by speaking the language, but by actually becoming the language itself, and it’s broadcasting tonight’s beautiful sunset live and direct from New Tokyo.