Vaporwave and Punk Rock: Opposite Aesthetics, Similar Goals

By Ethan Bloomfield, Contributor

Anarchy is a complicated idea. Generally, when one thinks of anarchy, they think of burning buildings, burly men with mohawks, motorcycles, and lawlessness only seen on the silver screen. While this is anarchy, the real definition of the word according to Merriam-Webster is simply “an absence of government.” Why does any of this matter? Why am I telling you any of this? 

Some of the cornerstones of DIY music include anarchy, an absence of authority and independent control. Far from the reaches of Sony Music Group, there lies a wealth of music waiting to be discovered, from genres you’ve never heard of, albums and songs beyond your wildest imagination. The independent music scene is home to some of the most diverse, experimental and eclectic range of sound available. It is also home to a variety of opinion, ranging to reflecting on a capitalist and consumerist society. 

What better a genre is there to comment on consumerism than the loud, mouthy and outwardly-anarchical punk scene? The punk stylings are the very foundations of the public perception of the average anti-capitalist: spiked leather, spiked hair, and a menacing glare to boot. Anarchy was always part of the aesthetic, whether that be in the mosh pit, in the instrumentation or in the economy. Look no further than Jeff Rosenstock’s 2020 surprise album NO DREAM.

NO DREAM is an interesting look at the aging punk of the 2010s. This is the millennial that never had the means to succeed due to a dying economy and a lack of empathy from the ones in power. Far from the days of The Clash, this more grounded approach to punk storytelling feels extra … hopeless. “So I scour the internet for a new pair of Nikes … Stinkin’ rich hypocrite / No it’s not gonna bring no happiness” is the kind of attitude that the listener is treated with. Jeff knows that more shoes, clothes and material wealth at least dulls the pain as he also writes, “Chasing bliss is only numbing it”. This running never addresses the real issue: a lack of fulfillment from simply feeding into the cycles of injustice that unchecked capitalism has wrought. In the title track “N O D R E A M,” Jeff goes so far as to say point blank “The only framework capitalism can thrive in is dystopia” in an angry tirade halfway through the song, lamenting “What can we do?” 

Punk and its subgenres are, if anything, direct. Whether that be a similar hopelessness in AJJ’s folk punk “People Who Can Eat People are the Luckiest People in the World” or PUP’s angry “Scorpion Hill”, a song that attacks the structures that enable and justify poverty. Punk music tends to get the point across effectively. It is, after all, a very popular genre of music ever since the glory days of the 1980s. Hyperconsumerism, unchecked capitalism and all of the manufactured feelings of advertisements and brands are thrown out the window with the punk philosophy, but consider this: what if they weren’t? What if, instead, the tropes of hyperconsumerism weren’t rejected, but hyperbolized to a point of meaninglessness? What would that sound like? Enter the world of vaporwave. 

Vaporwave started in 2010 with Chuck Person’s Eccojams Vol. 1. Ever since, numerous subgenres have sprouted like Mallsoft, Future Funk, Vaportrap, and many more. Since 2010, it has become extremely popular in the online music community, sprouting subreddits, discussion boards and even physical vinyl and cassette runs. I want to give special attention to the description in the r/vaporwave subreddit. It reads in full: “Global capitalism is nearly there. At the end of the world there will only be liquid advertisement and gaseous desire. Sublimated from our bodies, our untethered senses will endlessly ride escalators through pristine artificial environments, more and less than human, drugged-up and drugged down, catalysed, consuming and consumed by a relentlessly rich economy of sensory information, valued by the pixel. The Virtual Plaza welcomes you, and you will welcome it too.”

While this is an admittedly dramatic description of the vapor aesthetic, at its core, it is the driving force of the genre. Capitalism, consumerism, and ’80s and ’90s nostalgia litter the vapor scene wherever one chooses to look. Notable examples of this are the Luxury Elite and Saint Pepsi collaboration album Late Night Delight, the 猫 シ Corp mallsoft records Palm Mall and Palm Mall Mars, and arguably the most important vaporwave album ever made, Floral Shoppe by Macintosh Plus, an alias of Vektroid. What do all these albums have in common and what do they achieve?

A simple look at the cover art of any of these records would be enough to inform the average music fan: Japanese script, shots of shopping centers or old television commercials, bright colors, synthetic environments and a generally ethereal or disjointed presentation. Even when far from the advertisement hellscape of the signalwave subgenre (music almost entirely comprised of samples and sound bytes from commercials and other ads – see Dream Sequins by Nmesh for an example), vaporwave still critiques the aesthetic that late ’80s hyperconsumerism created. The lush synth chords and chopped, looped voice samples that are home on many vapor albums are but a happy mask that is put on to cover the ugly face of a dystopian capitalist future. 

While vaporwave was born of the internet and a retrofuturist revival, punk music was born of the ever-fought revolt against the mainstream. There is something to be said about how polar of opposites these two genres are. While one is the mainstream of a time passed and a time yet experienced, the other is the knee-jerk reaction of those who reject that mainstream. Still, the same cold feelings toward the societies these musicians inhabit come through in a big way, even if through completely opposite avenues. 

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