To say that 2016 was the year of the alt-right, which in many ways it indisputably was, is synonymous with calling it the year of the cargo cult. The alt-right’s emergence into public consciousness was facilitated by the internet—a platform that was developed by tech-utopia leftist baby boomers—and which communicates in the meme-heavy patois of hipster irony. Slacker internet culture seemed antithetical to reactionary politics for the simple reason that anyone who took themselves or their ideas too seriously was liable to be trolled. Having a coherent agenda, whatever the political content, felt like a liability.
And yet suddenly there were actual racists on Reddit successfully aping the deft Judo throws of internet trolling. Unlike the Melanesian millenarians who built airports out of sticks to harness the power of technologically advanced civilizations, the alt-right cargo cult was actually succeeding. Their fake airplanes were achieving liftoff, and they were striking the most complicated ironic rhetorical postures with an alarming ease. They had the dankest memes. They were even listening to vaporwave.
If you’ve never heard of vaporwave, don’t worry, esotericism is half the point. And vaporwave is dead anyway. Or, at least according to the knotty logic of the genre, it was born directly into an underground afterlife. After all, the music could never allow itself to actually achieve the very commercial success that it critiqued. Vaporwave’s dreamy assemblages of smooth jazz, elevator music, lounge, and R&B, all distended and chopped and looped, have the eerily ethereal texture of a dream. It’s what the subconscious of a mall might sound like. It’s the soundtrack to a hypnagogic reverie of a future that never happened. And at 2:00 or 3:00 in the morning, maybe with the aid of Sprite and codeine, an album like Floral Shoppe by Macintosh Plus might sound like it’s broadcasting the coordinates to the exact location where 20th-century utopian aspirations collapse into a burned-out nostalgia.
I wouldn’t go so far as to say that once you’ve heard one vaporwave song you’ve heard them all, but the truth isn’t too far off. The gauzy, recycled echoes of smooth jazz playing in an empty mall only allow for so much variation. Whatever pleasure I get from listening to the music is predicated more on being on the inside of a kind of sad, nostalgic joke, than on the music actually being all that compelling. One of the original artifacts of the genre, the album Chuck Person’s Eccojams Vol. 1, was released in 2010 by established electronic artist Daniel Lopatin, working under the pseudonym Chuck Person. The pseudonym makes sense because the album is such a departure from Lopatin’s other more polished and complex mainstream work. Slowing down ’80s pop music—such as Toto’s “Africa,” in a chopped and screwed style, muffled by echo (hence the title), and distended by repetition—the album sounds like it was created in someone’s bedroom. And it probably was. In many regards, vaporwave is like punk music. Almost anyone can make it, and its significance comes as much from what it means as from how it sounds.
In the same way that punk can trace its “No Future” lineage from the dystopian fixations of Dadaism, vaporwave is itself preoccupied with political failure and social anomie. A visual counterpoint might be ruin porn: photos of abandoned malls overrun with weeds and fauna. Escalators rusted to a halt. Giant skylights collapsed under feet of snow. Dead potted ferns browning in an abandoned food court. The consumer paradise of postwar America decaying into heaps of broken images and a collage of muffled sounds. But unlike punk, which channeled the raw energy of dissatisfaction into a kind of heated praxis, vaporwave wallows in its sense of loss. Punk’s sneer hid a wounded sincerity, but vaporwave’s sense of irony runs cover for a deep lassitude, an acquiescence.
This combination of sophistication and petulance makes fertile ground for semi-intentional misreadings and odd appropriations. When composer John Oswald coined the term Plunderphonics in his 1985 essay “Plunderphonics, or Audio Piracy as a Compositional Prerogative,” the concept of creating sound collages out of sampled bits of songs and noise had been around for decades. What was new was that everyday people had access to technology to create remixes and collages themselves—anyone could be a composer. As Oswald writes, “After decades of being the passive recipients of music in packages, listeners now have the means to assemble their own choices, to separate pleasures from the filler.”
Pleasure, sure, but it was also a creative consumption. People now had the power to express themselves by reordering the bric-a-brac of commodified culture on their home computers, to alter the meaning of a song by changing its context, and to recreate pop culture according to their own idiosyncratic vision. Seen in this light, when sub-genres like fashwave and Trumpwave started showing up in the far-flung recesses of the internet, it shouldn’t really have taken anyone by surprise. Radical, liberal, and progressive politics don’t have sole ownership over the technological tools of our civilization, and irony is always politically vague. To claim that a music predicated upon democratic appropriation somehow got appropriated itself is to miss the point: vaporwave’s main appeal as craft, and its greatest weakness as political statement, was its open-source ambiguity.
This ambiguity was cultivated in a figurative isolation. Vaporwave was the first musical genre to live its entire life from birth to death completely online. You wouldn’t go to a vaporwave show; you would listen with earbuds. It’s only fitting that the soundtrack to nostalgic anomie was created by and for people alone on their computers at 3:00 in the morning—the secret lives of sad young Americans mediated by routers and laptop screens. Unsurprisingly, it’s the exact same isolated petri dish that the alt-right was grown in. The alt-right subreddits and forums on sites like the Daily Stormer are like weird magnets, gathering together the most random and isolated people to form their own online societies. Or, another way to look at it, is that these sites (and more generally the internet itself) splinter dissatisfied people—both alt-righters and vaporwave enthusiasts—from the forced heterogeneity of off-line life and into their own odd, isolated, homogeneous digital tribes. New School professor Dominic Pettman calls the internet’s tendency to force us into narrow micro-experiences “hypermodulation.” Hypermodulation gave rise to vaporwave. It’s also why the alt-right seemed to spring up fully-formed overnight. The internet doesn’t coalesce us into a larger unified community, but splinters us apart into tiny ironic dystopias.
The currency that moves freely between online groups is the meme: visual tropes which disseminate quickly and are slightly revised as they circulate. Pepe the Frog, for instance, now the alt-right’s ubiquitous cartoon Internet icon, originally began as a fairly innocuous, if vague, meme about a sad frog. The frog transformed into a smug anti-Semite as it changed digital hands. The same thing happened with the memes of vaporwave. The visual component of vaporwave, called “Aesthetics” or “A E S T H E T I C S,” is as important to the genre as bell bottoms were to disco or the mohawk to punk. The A E S T H E T I C S of vaporwave are fairly unified and self-explanatory: potted ferns, Greco-Roman busts, digital skylines, and late-20th-century graphics: the visual language of long dead consumer aspirations.
Of course, one person’s dystopia is another’s lost paradise, and, as any cultural studies undergrad can tell you, these public symbols themselves are empty signifiers, decontextualized and waiting to be used to create meaning. Which is exactly what the alt-right has done in its appropriation of vaporwave. As was written in Vice,
Fashwave’s visuals, circulated on Twitter and 4chan, are just as essential as its music. Typical vaporwave pop-art—such as Windows 95 logos, Japanese characters, and Greco-Roman statues sprinkled on pastel or neon backgrounds—mingles with Nazi iconography, like Hitler in a Hawaiian shirt. At the same time, the neon-lit cityscapes of synthwave visuals are populated with red-eyed cyborg death squads.
For fashwave, the retrofuturism invoked in the sounds and symbols of Vaporwave is more an aspiration than a failed promise.
You might wonder what the difference actually is between the sounds of fashwave and vaporwave. There isn’t much of one to speak of. In the alt-right’s wholesale appropriation of ironic internet micro-experiences, the battle lies not in improving or even radically changing the music itself, but in outflanking your enemy with irony. Here the prophetic power of Richard Rorty and his decades-old prediction—proffered during the heat of last century’s culture wars and recently making the rounds in social media, of an eventual societal return to “jocular contempt” for women—captures only half of the truth. Rorty also said that a highly developed ironic sense complemented things like solidarity and community by deepening our self-knowledge. The alt-right’s recent exploits would seem to complicate that claim. Irony isn’t just a tool for leftist postmodern scholars anymore.
The question of irony is always, who is being fooled? The ancient Greek concepts of eiron (the one in on it) and alazon (the one who isn’t) are helpful, but only in a limited sense. We understand that originally with vaporwave, consumers and corporations were the alazon and producers and fans were the eiron. But then that changed, and another layer of irony was added when the alt-right came on the scene. The eiron became the alazon. That the roles were able to switch so quickly is startling. It’s a disturbing shift which perfectly expresses the political weakness of irony: nothing ironic is fixed, especially on the internet. The German Romantic Schlegel defined irony as a “permanent parekbasis,” or theatrical aside to the audience. But that supposes that the audience and cast are set firm in their roles. What happens, as often does on the internet, when personas and roles are being developed and disposed of at breakneck speed? What sort of music would be a cure for irony, and where would we find it? Surely it will be something like the opposite of vaporwave: sincere. Specific. Offline. Live.