分析: Additional Thoughts Concerning the Vapour and the MiniDisc

So a good while back, I had some things to say about a certain scene and a certain format. It did not take long for things to develop to where we are now.

As I write this, the first International MiniDisc Day is wrapping up nicely. Twenty-eight labels participated, issuing fifty-four releases and lowering the bank balances and available credit of a hundred or so people. In less than two years, 150 releases have been issued on MD at one time or another (and yes, my album was one of them). And I’m sure some Japanese merchants are both amused and bemused of random orders made on new MD stock to make these releases. Not bad at all for a format considered a “failure”.

I’ll admit I am pleased to be on the ground floor as both a witness and a participant of this endeavour. But at the same time, there is also something to be said about seeing a second life emerging. In fact, that was what I hoping for with the resurgence of the MD and it seems to be happening, little by little. Granted, there is a long way to go before you have some record shoppe having a dedicated MD section. And I wouldn’t hold my breath for Sony convincing the other Big Music avenues to issue suddenly the latest chart dweller onto that format. But if I haven’t said this before, I say it first here now: I like it when success is achieved on one’s own terms. So by that standard, it has already succeeded and then some.

I have not changed much in my initial thoughts concerning the format. As a format in of itself, it really does combine the best of both the physical and the digital. And in relation to vapour, it really does encapsulate the spirit of the scene with its combination of looking back at the past and looking elsewhere at other futures and possibilities. But I will say that it does do something else that has become apparent now but what I had hoped would occur. That is it demonstrates how one can actually achieve something instead of just longing for it or dreaming about it. This whole resurgence occurred because enough people wanted to see this happen and made it happen. No permission was asked (and it probably wouldn’t have been granted anyway). This is how art happens.

分析: Happy Birthday, VW or How We Learned to Stop Dreaming and See for Real All the Castles in the Sky

A certain valedictorian and a certain discussion has made the case that the scene called vaporwave began on 19 July 2009 with the upload of this video. This would later be considered B4 on this album, which would serve as a key cornerstone for what would be an art scene that would accomplish in mere years what has taken decades to achieve in popular or hybrid music forms and perhaps even centuries in high art forms. After going through “death” after “death” after “death”, the scene has not only survived but is beginning to expand even more with one big show just around the corner and another big one coming soon and I’m sure more things down the road.

Instead of trying to tell more of the larger story of the scene’s first decade, I thought it would be best to explain more about how I came onto the scene, first as a listener and then as an artist in my own right. After all, the secondary title of this includes the words “personal examination”.

As it tends to be the case with me, what seems like an “out of nowhere” move could actually be traced back to some well-planted seeds that would in turn sprout into something more in time. This has certainly been the case with my music career, both overall and in specific areas. So while I say that it was late 2017 when I began the dive into the vapour, you really have to start with my first effort at music making.

I knew I wanted to make my own music for as long as I could remember. I particularly wanted to make music that sounds like the music that I like. I would have to wait until college when I could begin pursuing it. That was when I had acquired the instruments, the computer, and a class that provided the necessary tools for home computer-based music production. I would also work at WCWM, which would not only expose me to many artists I wouldn’t have heard otherwise, but also would show me that it would be tough sell. And this was in that post-Napster but “just-about-to-happen” iTunes moment as well … let alone before Bandcamp and Soundcloud and Spotify. But even with that potential doubt, I would learn the tools and develop my voice.

It was 2006 when something clicked in me on how to make music under a name I could stand behind. It occurred when I listened to the entirety of Cocteau Twins and their sound – as well as dream pop in general from what I heard – felt like something I could use as a starting point for other things. Thus, I started The Spangle Maker. While dealing with an assortment of personal changes and trials, I would make two EPs, an LP and would compile all the digital singles released in the span of five years.

Then 2009 happened. But it wasn’t 19 July that would be significant for me. I literally began the new year with a long drive from one metropolitan area where I spent nearly two decades growing up to another where I had barely any familiar connections. The transition was not as smooth as I would have liked it to have happen. Setbacks led to more setbacks led to more setbacks (and I was already down by some other scars accrued prior to 2009). Thus was the beginning of a long depression period.

This led to a shift in creative focus away from music. Part of it was also being drawn to and thinking that film-making was a better path for me, personally, creatively and professionally. But I was also getting disillusioned with the state of music in general. Even though I had little to no interest in what was occurring within “Big Music”, I conclude that there was no point in me continuing if this was going to be the prevailing norm. So for almost a decade, I ruled out making music for any kind of public.

Of course, this didn’t mean I stopped listening to new music, even though I did not buy/venture as much as in other years. One of these purchases was back in September 2013 when Oneohtrix Point Never’s R Plus Seven was released via Warp Records. I personally have been a fan of the label since end of high school/beginning of college and when I saw it, I was intrigued by what it could be. I was treated to a familiar sound palette but executed in a new way. Sure, this sounds like using the GM sound bank off of any MIDI-equipped … anything. And yes, this does sound like it could come from a particular time. But it doesn’t have to be nor does it really. It’s not returning to a point in time; it’s just drawing upon one time as just another colour. I enjoyed the world the music created and it was one of those points of comfort during several trying times. Without me knowing it, this was the first key seed that would eventually sprout forth the vapour for me.

Over the next four years, I would do day-jobs (sometimes have them, sometimes not), work on film projects and go through on-off periods of anxiety/depression. There would be some simple recordings where I would sketch out an idea that could lead to something, but at least it would be just something to keep me going. I would keep my eyes open for music and every now and then, I would see something referencing “vaporwave”. I was fully aware of the on-off 1980s nostalgia gaze, but I didn’t quite connect the two. After all, while they share some aesthetics, I don’t think you could consider this film to be “vaporwave” (maybe proto?). I saw a few reviews from The Needle Drop mentioning this but I just noted it and moved on with my life, never listening to it.

There were a few YouTube channels that had used some vaporwave. One in particular used – what I would find out later – Saint Pepsi’s “Enjoy Yourself”. Not knowing anything more, I enjoyed listening to that song. In time, I picked up a few others from Blank Banshee. Finally, in late 2017, I saw a few videos trying to describe what this scene was all about, including wosX’s (now deleted) survey of the scene. This was the jumpstart that started – what was then – a dedicated effort to play six years or so of catch-up

Between those sources plus the Vaporwave Essentials Guides (and there are a few more where that came from) and whatever Vapor Memory uploaded as recommendations, I started my own random and circuitous journey through the realm of vapour. I even kept a listening diary of the different albums I had heard. As I was listening to these different albums, I was impressed with the diversity of sound as well as the dedicated talent. The music matched my normal sensibilities effortlessly and I loved the imagination and daring a lot of these releases had. I will admit that as I’ve listened to the popular highlights, I probably saved myself from hearing the other 90% or so. But if I liked something, I would definitely make every effort to get it for myself, which meant Bandcamp was very active for me.

As I was listening to this music – and even began to reach out to these artists – it was clear that this was not just a scene where I was just a mere observer. Furthermore, I could see that there was no reason for me not to be a part of this. After all, I still had the equipment (never had to liquidate it for cash) and I definitely had the know-how to make whatever I wanted. And that was the other attractive aspect. I wasn’t going to make the umpteenth version of Floral Shoppe or be a second [insert favourite artist from the scene here]. I didn’t have to retread the same grounds others have. If anything, it was a chance to add my own spin. Another way I put this was that it wasn’t so much I had to tailor myself to vapour, vapour was tailoring to me. So vapour did what nothing else before could: it gave me my music-making mojo back.

So, I declared a new moniker and got to work making my first album of new material in almost ten years (The Rose of Al Basrah was September 2009; The Singles Vol. 1 would be released in May 2011, but that brought together all the singles I put out then). After some thinking and brainstorming, it was very clear that the first album was to be called Reincarnated Resurrection. I even had a concept for the artwork already in place. Because I had some material that I thought was strong and could make a good first appearance, I only had to finalize the existing material and create from scratch a few new ones. And, creating a nice full circle, I was able to work with someone whom I met when I first settled in Massachusetts. I made the album available on 31 August 2018 (what would be a year before 100% Electronicon).

In addition, I was also networking in the scene, both as an artist and a fan. I got to meet Emmanuel Hoachlander, the guy behind Ohm-N-I and who runs Section 9 Tapes. As we got along very well, he wanted to put the album out on cassette (and later, MiniDisc would be an option). I would continue to work on new material and engage in the scene online whenever I could. In time, some other opportunities presented itself and that should make my future prospects better. It will be a while until the next follow-up but I will still keep a presence going with a remix or a compilation appearance or being featured on a track or two. And I write here as well (which is slowly getting more noticed … as I shared this more).

All in all, it’s incredible to think that this little hybrid of an old piece of VHS ephemera married with a personal plunderphonics experiment would create one of the most creative and engaging music movements to fill the interwebz. Call it vaporwave. Call it millennial punk. Call it post-electronic. Call it “chillwave for Marxists” or “smooth jazz for millennials” [this guy’s words]. Call it simply vapour [also this guy’s words]. There may be nobody here, but that doesn’t mean something is not there.

分析: Goodbye Vaporwave/Vapour, Hello Post-Electronic

Just today, I was involved in a Twitter discussion with the “Prom King” himself (in reality, Ryan DeRobertis; in the past [and perhaps present] Saint Pepsi; also can be known as Skylar Spence).

He was talking about the “post-rock” label and went on to give a nice shout-out to Talk Talk’s Spirit of Eden. He was clarifying how those albums may not be obviously post-rock but it is still there, particularly in how it approaches dynamics. Between the two of us, we elaborated on this and concluded that the foundation of something does not always anticipate the movement it creates, and yet is still a foundation. I jokingly added that if you consider vaporwave’s “foundational tripytch” – Eccojams Vol. 1, Far Side Virtual, Floral Shoppe – they don’t anticipate everything that would become vaporwave.

This got me thinking even more about the ever-present problem of “what the hell to call this thing” (old habits die hard, I guess). While I hold that vapour has a certain elegance, I am also thinking about it is about time we use “post-electronic” to describe not just the scene now, but also vaporwave in its entirety and even “distant off-shoots” (like synthwave).

I know there’s a certain eye-roll that comes with calling everything “post”. And it’s probably even more ridiculous to use it here because it is fundamentally still electronic in nature. But this scene has plenty in common with the other “post” scenes. First and foremost, it is all about expanding possibilities, rather than restricting them. It often happens when a certain style feels stale, route, uninteresting. In this particular case, I cannot help but sense that what was being done back in 2012 or so was in part a reaction to what was happening (and what would continue to happen) in the Big Music scene, particularly with electronic styles.

When I’m thinking “electronic” here, I am thinking of what was first popular and understood beginning in the 1980s and through the 1990s. It started with experimentation – whether it was in instruments used or arrangements or execution – but then it would develop into something familiar, usually right away. Once it gets to the familiar phase, then it tends to stay that way and it becomes stale. What needs to happen is an eagerness to break away from the familiar. This is not necessarily “reinventing the wheel” but it can be as simple as returning to sounds that were around but were maybe not as popular or caught on. From there, you can develop it even more.

In the end, I like it when music opens up instead of closes down. What you call it is irrelevant in the end.

分析: Vapour as (Aural) Therapy

For the record, I do have more ideas brewing in the thought-pot and I would like to write about other related topics. However, something occurred recently where I think/feel serves as a nice addendum to what I had written previously.

For a while, I’ve seen this article floating about on various feeds. The first thing I have to do is make it clear that the music evoking shopping centers is called “mallsoft” and not “mallwave”. Other than that technicality, it hits on the main ideas as to its development and appeal. It’s a typical intro piece to the world of vapour.

I chimed in on a discussion surrounding this article naturally. First and foremost, I try to take every opportunity to some tasteful shilling. But, of course, this is a scene where I am most certainly a seasoned listener as well as a seasoned musician. So I offered my own thoughts on it: acknowledging the nostalgia vibe, the “late stage capitalism critiques” (which I do want to cover in a future article … and it is in progress), personally noting a similarity between our generation and our parents in rehashing nostalgia in the market. But it was this last point I wrote that lead to this article:

But personally, I think what lies at the heart of the scene is a desire to understand and even come to terms with the world we have now. I think our generation was naively informed at best and lied to at worst about what the future may hold. This art movement is a way to confront that for ourselves and hopefully move on from it.

This is a supplement to the notion that listeners and creators alike are returning to a state of mind more than just a mere point in time. That assertion in of itself implies that the art, both its creation and admiration/consumption, is inherently therapeutic. Thus, the art movement is a therapy and for a particular generation. After all, taking command of the past is what can help us move toward a better future.

分析: The Deep Heart of Vapour

A few days ago, I was listening to Night Swim. As I was watching what I presumed to be an upload of a very limited VHS tape version, I was thinking back to the time when [adult swim] was the thing to watch if hanging out in the college dorm. Soon, I boarded the involuntary memory train as the music and the images continued forward. It’s an unusual madeleine for sure but it occurred to me more than ever why this scene was born, died, reborn, died a second time, third reborn, etc.

The surface explanation as to the appeal of vapour/VW is “evoking nostalgia”. While to come extent true, it does not really explain why people either obsessively listen to it on a daily basis or why people go out of their way to make their own or sometimes both. After all, every generation for as long as those who can remember and recall has had its waxing nostalgic phase. Hell, part of the 1990s had this fascination with the 1960s as the Boomer generation reached its own mid-life crisis. (The difference here is that many of them were either in senior management or executive level and thus could translate their frustration into product & profit. We are not so fortunate and thus we have to make do with vaporwave.). Above all, mere nostalgia does not take into account how it has evolved away from mere 1980s regurgitation and ventured into many other sonic realms (and hopefully more to come). Yet it still remains vapour.

I think what lies at the deep heart of the scene is returning not so much to some point in time, but rather to a state of mind. When I was taking a night swim (not literally mind you), I remembered what it was like – and more importantly what I was like – in college. I was passionate, driven, self-assured, eager and comfortable with things. This was when everything seemed fresh and new. There was not that cynicism and bitterness that comes during adulthood (and this generation has experienced various forms of this probably more than any other). Yes, I had downturns before and even during college, but it was nothing like what would happen afterwards. The mindset I have adopted and accrued after at least a decade of disappointment and resentment is not one I asked for, nor sought to acquire. Realizing this now, I am working to dismantle it and rebuild it anew. The vapour is aiding in that endeavour.

If there’s one recurring idea you have heard from me at this point, it’s that there’s nothing new under the sun. Repentance is a classic aim. Using art as a means of repentance is just as classic. Hell, I would imagine that what drove us to draw on cave walls or scratch something on the dirt is a desire not just to mimic what we see, but to see deeper than the surface. Maybe we could make real what we imagine in ourselves and thus change what is inside and/or around us. That desire is no different now than it was back in the 18th century with Roccoco or the beginning of the 20th century with the advent of fantasy. It’s just the circumstances and the means have changed.

分析: The Danger and the Opportunity

It was John F. Kennedy who famously (and quite erroneously) observed that the word “crisis” in Chinese consists of characters meaning “danger” and “opportunity”.  (And this was not the only non-English language faux pas he would commit).  Yet, crises do provide the latter as much as they do the former.  The vapour scene is facing such a crisis.

This year has seen some takedowns due to the sword of Damocles that has characterized the scene from the onset: sampling and claims of copyright infringement.  This is nothing new to the scene but this year saw some high profile changes.  The first one was the take-down from YouTube of Macintosh Plus’s “リサフランク420 / 現代のコンピュー”, which had accumulated some 40.5 million views.  More recently, haircuts for men had to take down his entire discography due to a cease and desist letter received (unclear if it came from a publisher, a writer, a record label, etc.) and announced he will return to music-making, though sample-free.  Some artists and labels followed suit either anticipating receiving similar responses or actually receiving them.  The most recent and high profile of all is Corp. who announced via Facebook that in addition to launching his own proper record label, he would make sample-free music.

As someone who has worked to make his own music for more than a decade now, my own views and attitudes have been added, refined, modified, reaffirmed and gone through all matter of revisions.  I have friends, colleagues, and peers who have a broad range of views concerning intellectual property from “It’s important to keep it at all costs” to “It’s a fucking sham and should be disregarded outright”.  I know for sure that it will continue to change over the years after publishing this.  All the same, it’s time to place some markers as to continue the discussion as it were.

First off, I think it is important for artists to create their own respective work and have a stake in how their works are to be presented and shared with the larger public.  At the same time, I think there is a difference between protecting your own work from infringement and using a copyright to claim authority over someone else’s artistic expression.  Art works best when there is both freedom to express as well as a mutual respect for others’ expressions.

In regards to the vapour scene, I do think that most of the works that take the plunderphonics approach, which is famous for confronting the assumptions concerning intellectual property, creativity, originality, identity, etc., is ultimately transformative.  After all, while it’s an “open secret” that the aforementioned “リサフランク420 / 現代のコンピュー” uses Diana Ross’s performance of “It’s Your Move”, I don’t mistake the former for the latter.  And even when I do recognize the source of something, I think of it as a quotation that can bring another dimension to understanding the original or take it to another place that was beyond its original construction.

(That said, I also think the process of clearing samples should be more efficient and more – ahem – clear.  I understand that it all depends on the copyright holder.  But more transparency and clarity for expectations can be helpful as to avoid traversing a legal minefield.)

However, like the bad yet popular linguistic observation, I do see this move away from the plunderphonics to something more original as not only welcome addition but also an inevitable one.  While there are certainly artists who still employ the plunderphonics approach and continue to do some creative things with it, there’s only so much you can do with the pre-existing material, especially the ones that vapour insists on using. The reason why vapour has continued to “last” beyond its initial burst is its ability to change and adapt and grow.  Even a scene that exists in part to maintain a particular time period (or a time range usually), remaining stagnant and static is a guaranteed way of ending it.

Also, in the larger story of art (certainly Western art), following prior examples and precedents are just the first step taken in developing one’s artistic voice.  Sure you start off copying Beethoven’s symphonies or painting like Michelangelo or sounding like your post-punk contemporaries like Siouxsie and the Banshees, but sooner or later you take the reins and start making works that reflect much more your own sensibilities, interests, experiences, ideas, etc.  Everyone starts off sounding like their influences.  But even then, you are not your influences and that becomes more apparent the more you create.  For a lot of these artists who are making the move away from utilizing samples, it is an opportunity for personal and artistic growth.

In conclusion, I still see the vapour scene as an art movement more than anything.  Yes, there is a particular origin to it that is and should be remembered.  However, I do think it was always meant to be more of a starting point and not the end goal.  If there’s an end goal to achieve, it’s to make art that’s honest, sincere, genuine and meaningful, certainly in strong contrast to what has passed for it.  Fellow artists, excelsior.

分析: The Vapour and the MiniDisc

The vapour/vw scene began almost exclusively within the digital domain, using either Bandcamp, Soundcloud, YouTube or any other available means to share these sonic creations.  However, it also took on a physical form – based on artist and label affiliation – and it was the audio cassette.  It was argued at the time that if it were to take on a physical form, the cassette would be perfect as it is cheap to make, easy to distribute as well as customize, fits with the temporal aesthetic (the 1980s was pretty much the era of the cassette) and has a compatible fidelity.  Later on, the next format it took on was the vinyl record as both artists and labels were getting ambitious and the means were more in reach.  Both vinyl and cassettes are enjoying a much wider rebirth/renaissance, even as digital downloads are declining and the subscription service is becoming the new norm for distributing and consuming music.

And yet, there is another possible format emerging from the horizon.  During the weekend of Cassette Store Day 2018 (of all times), two vapour labels, My Pet Flamingo and Section 9 Tapes, released Flamingo Funk Volume 1 and プラネットネオ東京 respectively on a format that officially died around the time vaporwave was emerging.  It was the MiniDisc.

I will not bore you with the history and the details of the format in general. In fact, the best single resource for everything MD can be found here. There are also a couple of nice personal appreciations of the format: 1 2. And, of course, there’s the detailed summary of sorts.

The MiniDisc has the potential to be the signature physical format for the vapour scene.  It combines the reliability and clarity of a compact disc (or any optical drive) with the durability, portability and versatility of the compact audio cassette.  There is the digital nature that is retained upon duplication.  Like both vinyl and cassette, there is the ability to create uniquely designed objects on the part of artists/labels (and if the listener missed out on the MD runs, it is possible to “make your own” using a blank MD).  For the moment, it is actually easier to get a decent to excellent player, either portable or home use, second hand as well as blank MDs.

Beyond its physical qualities, the MD is the most compatible to the spirit of vapour.  The MiniDisc was a format unique to the 1990s and continued into the 2000s (even when other digital music players entered and exited the market), whereas both the cassette and the vinyl have existed before that decade.  While the format has been active in the worldwide market for a little over twenty years, it was deemed – and remembered – as a failed/dead format in the United States.  If there is a scene that can appreciate things like “lost opportunities” or “what could have been”, it would be a scene that is already in that period of time anyway.  Creating vapour albums on MD can simultaneously create an alternate past (reliving the 1990s again) and an alternate future (expanding your listening format options).  And maybe with enough attention and interest, vapour/vw can bring back the MD in a way that other independent scenes maintained and resurrected the vinyl and the cassette in the late 2000s/early 2010s.

And so … another avenue is open and thus proving not only that vaporwave isn’t dead but has the ability to bring new life into unexpected things.

分析: WTH is Vaporwave?

First off, I apologize for the long gap of silence.  In my defence, I did state early on that I was interested in quality over quantity and thus I want to make sure what is written is not only worthy of me but also for you.  Also, I have been busy at work with my own venture into the vapour.  However, because it has been a while (and it happens to be my birthday today), I wanted to mark the occasion with something.  And this has been something I’ve been thinking about during that gap and before.

From what I can glean on various discussion groups, the scene is still active but also not entirely sure of itself.  Furthermore, the scene is gathering more attention from those outside of it due to some solid titles and artists behind it.  Plus I sense there is a contingent who longs for the early days of the scene, a recursive irony if ever there was one.  All of these conflicting situations bring up the classic question once again: what the hell is vaporwave?

I’ve thought about this not just as a listener, but now as a full-on artist (who is also using this as an opportunity to return to an art form I had thought I would never demonstrate publicly like I did once).  But this isn’t just for me; it is also for the sake of both growing and sustaining the scene to its fullest potential.  After all, it has survived “numerous deaths” and “outlived” earlier Internet-born efforts (though ask yourself honestly: was “witch-house” or “sea-punk” ever going to be long-standing style, let alone a widely popular one?).

In logic, there are two conditions that determine the validity of either a statement or an argument: necessary and sufficient.  Necessary means it is absolutely vital to whether something is true/false or valid/invalid.  Sufficient means it can add to the validity but does not require it.  Whenever I hear something with the qualifier of “essential” or “crucial” or, yes, “necessary”, I think if this really holds water or not.  Vapour/vaporwave (or alternatively “vw” as another shorthand/umbrella term) has definitely spawned numerous assertions about what is necessary to that term.  And while this is ultimately my take on it and I’m no less or more authoritative on the subject, I will nonetheless make my case.

Quick and dirty (plus this can be fodder for future writings), here are the common ones.

“Vaporwave must about the 1980s and 1990s” – I would say that is sufficient but necessary.  After all, it started as a fascination with that time period and a lot of its musical and visual elements owe to those decades.  However, it doesn’t have to evoke that time period as others have for sure (Eccojams uses the late 1960s and parts of the 1970s also.).  Furthermore, synth-wave has also evoked that period, the 1980s for sure, but may or may not be considered vaporwave also.

“Vaporwave must be about nostalgia” – This is also very sufficient.  But I think you can broader than that but still keep it.

“Vaporwave must be about criticizing late-stage capitalism/corporatist culture/consumerist culture” – This is most definitely not necessary.  The one that seems to have started this idea indirectly was James Ferraro through Far Side Virtual.  And yes, others have picked up on this and developed that notion.  However, there are plenty of albums that have zero to do with any kind of critique whatsoever.  Also, not everyone follows the same political philosophy/ideology or economic school (spoilers: I sure as hell don’t).

“Vaporwave is just a joke” – This really irks me as it can be used as a broad brush-off.  Plus it undermines the genuine hard work that many artists have made by simply declaring that “it’s just for the lulz”.  And I am not against having fun either (plenty of good examples of this).  But I think for it to have endured the way it has, it has to be more than just LOL.

There are more I could list for sure (and certainly more than can be expanded) but I want to keep this on point.  Here are the two essential and necessary components to vapour, which I consider the better umbrella term than vaporwave (and vaporwave can be defined further from what I state here).

The first one is a musical foundation built on mood.  Of course, mood plays a role in other styles, genres or conventions.  But here, the mood is the starting point upon which everything else is built.  In this way, it is wide open for the creator to pursue any means of executing that style.  Three-minute techno bursts?  Fine.  Thirty-minute ambient drones?  Fine too.  You can even use traditional structures like the “verse-chorus”.  But it is not necessary.  What is ultimately necessary is the mood.  And this mood can be anything from a longing for a particular moment in the past (real or imagined), a moment in the future (real or imagined), a particular place (real or imagined) or even just a mood.

The second one is a fierce independence.  With two arguable exceptions, no one who works in the scene is under contract to an established company.  Everyone is, more or less, doing it for themselves and releasing it themselves or with a partnership with someone else.  Those two exceptions – Skylar Spence (once Saint Pepsi) and Oneohtrix Point Never – may be signed artists (Carpark and Warp respectively) but they are far from any of the Big Media fixtures for sure.  (And yes, it can be argued that they themselves do not consider themselves to be “vaporwave”.  Can be expounded for sure later but I think my original point still stands.).  With this independence, the choices are up to the artists as well as all rewards and debts.  With that kind of freedom, anything is more possible than ever.  And without that inhibition or fear, more chances can be seized and thus more interesting results can be achieved.  Basically, it’s a combined DIY and DGAF attitude that drives making this music.

What the hell is vaporwave?  Music with mood made with independence.  It is an art movement that for the beginning of this century could be the kind of creative catalyst that Surrealists were for the last one (and that was a century also known for numerous art ventures).  But I think, more importantly, it is one of those avenues that encourage people to make art instead of just merely making something.

分析: Vapour Can Be the New Rock

[First and foremost, I know there was a long delay between posts here.  Life makes its own demands, including working on making my own vapour (hint, hint).  Furthermore, when I began this project – like I do with most projects – my personal aim is quality rather than quantity.  I can imagine you can appreciate this aim when it’s easy to be prolifically lazy.]

When I first got into listening to vapour, one observation that was made was it could be understood as a punk movement.  This made sense to me immediately as someone who knows something of the punk scene from both the US and the UK.  Both punk and vapour arose during a period of economic low, contentious politics and general disillusionment, especially amongst the youth.  Amongst those youths were eager and ambitious creative types who decided to do something about this and end up charting their own destinies, making music that was exciting, challenging, visceral and, above all, honest.  It was not just one colour either.  Sure many were inspired by a few bands like The Velvet Underground (the proto-punk if you will), the New York Dolls or the Sex Pistols.  But the immediate progeny ended up covering a large sonic ground, whether it was the straight-forward rock sound to synthesizer-driven sound and everything in between.  It was music made on their own terms with support coming from the strength of their music and the eagerness of their loyal fanbase.  If you want to do it, you just do it.  The only thing really stopping this is you.

Right now, vapour seems to me to be in somewhat of a plateau state (though it is still quite big and I’m still exploring it whenever I can).  However, I know this is just me and I think there is still potential to be unearthed here.  What will certainly make it shrink, whither and die is if that relentless creative spark is gone.  Boundaries should be challenged, pushed and perhaps even broken.  One should not rest on one’s laurels or be merely complacent with a safe and sure bet.  After all, this is what is happening in music sold to – and I would add foisted upon – a massive audience right now.  In fact, I would imagine that one of the draws artists have toward listening to and even making vapour is a desire to hear something different.  That should never go away from the scene if the scene should still be relevant.  In fact, I anticipate that the great payoff will be that vapour will become the main form of popular music like what rock was for a prior generation.

The reason why I keep using the word “vapour” (or vapor if you still like American spellings) instead of vaporwave is historical precedent.  In the late 1940s in the United States, you had an emerging sound born out of various music from those of African descent – blues, jazz, boogie-woogie, gospel – with some folk traditions like country/western from that same region.  In due time, it was named rock and roll.  As it spread – and yes, that’s a whole story in of itself – others were inspired by that sound and took it new directions.  In fact, across the Atlantic, there were youths who went “straight to the source” as opposed to emulating a “racial knockoff” and this became the “British invasion” of the early sixties.  As more artists were inspired by other artists and people were continuously reacting to many things, music and otherwise, rock and roll would recede more and more and would be just known as simply rock.  This is apparent now when you notice you have artists like Radiohead or Nine Inch Nails that can be called “rock” and yet have little to nothing to do with sounding like Chuck Berry or Little Richard and the like.  And the same thing with vapour as there are plenty of artists now who have very little to do with say “Chuck Person” or Vektroid as Macintosh Plus.  So, like how wosX supposedly advocated for one time on reddit, just drop the “wave” and make it just “vapour”.

Continuing on that line, it’s easy to see the parallels between vapour and rock.  The Chuck Person and James Ferraro and Macintosh Plus are akin to that “rock and roll” sound where it was born out of previous musical traditions, mostly in the experimental and electronic realm.  Each of them had their own end goals as well as employing different means to achieve that sound.  But as others heard these works, it became its own scene for sure.  And it did not take long either for artists to emerge because of that sound or who would be embraced by the scene as they were like that sound.  Aspects of the previous works were retained or expanded or even outright replaced.  Nowadays, and most likely due to the assortment of practical considerations, the plunderphonics aspect does not play as big of a role in the current crop of vapour than it did in the beginning.  Another defining aspect of vaporwave is the use of a certain aesthetic palette, which again is not played up too much (unless you wanted to make a joke still).  Even the aspect of 1980s nostalgia is not so much front and centre anymore as it was in the beginning.  And yet, they were informed in some way by what was made between 2010 and 2012 or so.

Notice that the title is “Vapour Can Be the New Rock” and not “Vapour Is The New Rock”.  It is not quite there yet.  For starters, the audience for this is still quite small.  And as irritating as it could be for the seasoned veterans, vapour still has to be described to people who never heard of it.  However, it is steadily growing in its own way and more people are tuning into what has been happening for the past six years or so (give or take), especially since there are plenty of avenues to do it.  It is important to remember that as the audience grows, that same creative drive should still inform the art, no matter what choices are being made (i.e. either going “classic vaporwave” or doing something entirely different).  And finally, avoid as much as one can creating warring factions, especially on grounds of “sonic purity” (“this is not a e s t h e t i c enough”) or “longstanding loyalty” (“I was here long before you came to the party”).  In the end, vapour can be the new rock.

分析: Vapour as Populist Electronica

As stated in the introduction to this blog, the goal is to explore and examine the music phenomenon known as vaporwave (or as I and someone else of note like to call just “vapour”).  I knew from the onset that I would have more to say than just review releases that have been around for a while longer before I joined the party, so to speak.  Here, I want to venture into a little bit about what vapour is and perhaps also what it could be.

As I was listening to various releases based on an assortment of recommendations (my ongoing ventures can be found here), a lot of what I was hearing was very familiar to me.  For starters, I was actually born in the 1980s and was very aware of this particular “a e s t h e t i c”‘s origins.  But I also became interested in electronic music through much of my life and especially when I was in college.   (And yes, growing up when I did I’m sure influenced me in that direction.)  I am not claiming to know everything about every artist who made electronic music, but I am very aware of some key moments and there are certain artists that are, at the very least, very familiar.  For instance, one artist that made a considerable impact on me was Autechre.  I could hear something akin to their generative synthesis textures or their earlier efforts (especially in collaboration with Darrell Fitton) in HKE’s Omnia.  2814, to me, still sounds like a legitimate successor to The Future Sound of London, especially their renown albums, Lifeforms and Dead Cities.  And while vapour likes to bask in nostalgia, Boards of Canada was best known for tapping that sentiment (though more 1970s than 1980s) well before vaporwave was even a word, let alone a music style.  Whether these associations with past artists were intentional or not on the part of the artists, the important takeaway was these were current artists standing on the shoulders of their electronic giants.  Yet it was no empty callback or flat homage.  There is a freshness to what is being made where it seems new, even if it also seems familiar.

There is nothing about vapour in of itself that’s entirely new.  I’ve mentioned before plunderphonics and the concept of using previously recorded music as a basis for new music has been around for decades now.  Even then, it is just the concept of musical quotation but using technology instead.  The sounds and styles are familiar if you have even a faint awareness of the electronic music scene from the 1970s onward.  Exploring the themes of memory or living is also not that new.  However, there is something that not only makes vapour distinct from anything that came before it but also makes vapour an important game changer in how we make and share music.

Music making and electronic music, in particular, has expanded to even more people.

Fundamentally, this is also nothing new.  In fact, the long history of music – most certainly in the Western European tradition (and from what I faintly remember, this has been the case in other parts of the world where there are clear social hierarchies) – has had a spectrum with music as an elite and rarified art form (practiced by a select few) and music as a popular art form (practiced by many).  Both sides have always been present, there have been swings of emphasis where one is given more prominence than the other.  The shift from elite to popular more often occurs when there is a greater access to means of music making, such as certain instruments being more affordable than before.  The other effect of this is as more people are making their own music, the creative possibilities also increase and there are new combinations and variations that arise from this.  This can be refreshing if there is a period of stagnation due to music being made by so few, often with very specific parameters.  Music is able to evolve and change as more people make and react to what is being heard.

Electronic music went through a similar evolution.  In the beginning, it was practised by a few, due in part by the scarcity of technology (it was either just new or had only been around for a short time), but also in large part to how unusual and unexplored it was.  After all, the idea of using machines to make ostensibly music, which really, in the end, is sound organised by humans, was unheard of, so to speak.  You had your individual pioneers like Pierre Schaeffer and Pierre Henry or key institutions like the (then) Columbia-Princeton Electronic Music Center and IRCAM.  Then as more people caught wind of the sonic possibilities, they were incorporated into other works.  After all, you had at one point the most popular performing group in the world making a work akin to those musique concrete composers for many to hear.  At the same time, the technology improved so you could create sounds that didn’t involve taking up a lot of space.  More people making sounds, more people responding, more people making even more sounds.  Now, it’s the point where this kind of music making is even more readily available than ever before, even if you didn’t intend to pursue it.

While music making, in general, has expanded to more people over the last century, the means of distributing it to a larger audience quickly and efficiently has been a rarified form.  If you wanted to get your music heard to a lot of people, you had to get to the means to distribute it.  The distribution is selective for a number of reasons, but even if you get it through to them, there is no guarantee that it will create a return.  Similarly, making music often involves some economic support, either related or not at all related to what you are trying to make.  Sometimes, your publisher or later a record label can provide that support, but only if you make the art and it is financially successful.

But in 2007, a company was founded that changed everything.  What Bandcamp did was made the distribution of music accessible *and* presentable.  Yes, you could distribute files on your own through a shared network and hope that it would be passed on to more and more people.  But with Bandcamp, you could upload your music, tweak the ready-made template to your liking, share the link and anyone can access that music right then and there.  There is little to no intermediary at work here.  The control is in the hands of the creator and it is available at any time.  Thus you have something of immediacy here in availability and response.  Plus, you have a professional presentation already there.

Many with a creative drive and imagination have taken this opportunity and thus were able to make and distribute music on their own terms.  A new path could now be laid with freedom, independence and potential success, all owned and maintained by the creator.  No longer one has to go the demo to recording contract route, which has historically been fiercely critiqued (and funny enough, he’s even celebrated the Internet as a solution to the problem).  An artist can chart his own destiny.

This also has made anything possible.  While it’s easy to imitate what Vektroid did back in 2011, the ones who are in it for the long haul have been relentlessly creative, never resting on laurels and always finding ways to push the boundaries of what vapour can be.  This relentless pursuit of creative expression makes it seem as if there is no limit to what is possible.  Sure everyone starts with some aspect of vapour, whether it’s the 1980s/1990s throwback, the artwork, the nods to current Japanese culture, or that elusive hypnagogic effect.  But eventually, it can grow and change to become something else entirely and everyone who follows this is nicely rewarded in the pursuit.

I chose “populist electronica” to describe this tendency in contrast to what can be called “academic electronica” back in its beginning when a few artists, usually through some organization, making this music with what was available (or newly invented) or “commercial electronica” when it was in a market but its reach was related to who could bank it.  The technology to make the music and the means to distribute is now open to anyone who wants to make it.  And if you choose to participate in it, what you make and what you make next is all up to you.  Or, to use a popular lyric amongst the vapour types: “It’s all in your hands.  It’s your move.”