Beautiful and Haunted - Deconstructing Vaporwave Aesthetics
By Magdalen Rose
Just what is and what is not considered Vaporwave is a topic of much debate. But it is generally agreed that vaporwave is a microgenre of electronic music that inspired an art style. This aesthetic spread all the way from internet memes to streetwear. It’s an umbrella term from which dozens of smaller genres branched off including mallsoft, chillwave, future funk, plunderphonics, and vaportrap to name a few. Some of the most famous examples being FLORAL SHOPPE - 02 リサフランク420 - 現代のコンピュー by MACHINTOSH PLUS and Chuck Persons Ecco Jams Vol. 1.
Vaporwave has an undeniable visual style but pinning down what exactly that style is can be difficult. From the outside, vaporwave can look like a fever dream of electric colors, Japanese characters, 90’s nostalgia, and sandy beaches. Even those with only tangential knowledge of the genre can feel oddly drawn to the beautiful collage of imagery. Some still insist that vaporwave is entirely ironic. But musicians and artists deeply entrenched in the genre will give a different answer.
The blending of imagery isn’t random, it’s undeniably evocative of the 80s and 90s aesthetics. It embraces a washed-out low fidelity look, retro-style anime, and low poly 3D graphics long since discarded to the recycling bin of history. But underneath the sparkles and irony, much of vaporwave aesthetics feels haunted and sad. The word “vaporwave” itself comes from the word “vaporware”, software that is promised by developers only to vanish without a trace.
Space Adventure by Mizucat
The media of the 80s-90s gave us an image of a future vibrant with color, with problems of the past solved by technology. It promised a gleaming world brimming with possibilities, where capitalism is overwhelming, but in an exciting way, like going to the mall with your birthday money. This is the future, on some level, many expected to enjoy. Vaporwave aficionado Pad Chennington, in his video Vaporwave & 9/11: A Nostalgic Connection, pointed out that the cutoff for vaporwave nostalgia seems to be 2001. And points to the attacks on September 11th, 2001 as the catalyst that ended the era. At first glance, this might seem strange. But for many Millennials coming of age in the early 2000s, September 11th felt like an ending in a hazy and undefinable way. An end to childhood innocence and the beginning of a political era most of us were too young to understand. Leading us dismally into a new chapter of history, sadly looking back at our hopes for a vibrant future- now dashed.
Vaporwave is a fusion of nostalgia and grief. It’s a requiem for a future that never arrived. As the future became the present, we found that consumerism feels hollow, the beaches polluted, and technology we hoped would solve all our problems has only brought about new ones. It’s no surprise that the genre invites escapism.
Leon F Seltzer Ph.D. describes nostalgia as “the wistful presence of absence” which fits the feeling of vaporwave very well. Vaporwave aesthetics are many people’s nostalgia and memories washed together, which is why it can be so hard to define. It’s been described as romantic loneliness and “a feeling of loss for a childhood you never had”. Regardless of how to define it, the aesthetics of vaporwave are beautiful and haunted. And as long as the future continues to look bleak, vaporwave will always have an audience.
Written by guest writer Magdalen Rose
Check out her Youtube to learn more about vaporware!