The vaporwave template has generally orbited to a broad but simple premise. The actual content varies, but the proverbial “aesthetic” remains the same – nostalgic, kitschy, far-removed yet completely familiar. These eccentricities can take many forms, sometimes with a political undertone, and others purely waxing affection for bygone eras and experiencing them turned on their sides.
As vaporwave continues to build a following, several “sub” sub-genres have been identified and pored out of a niche that was once seen as fairly straightforward, if more than meets the eye, and a proper fleshing-out has been underway. Respect for vaporwave as an art form is understandably polarizing, and even in its short lifespan has had the very definition of “music” put up under scrutiny by various enthusiasts and detractors alike. Its influence has no doubt spread, and whether you like it or not, it has a lot to say.
Though vaporwave albums have a tendency to jump from several seemingly unrelated genres – such as jazzy lounge atmospherics to upbeat Japanese supermarket jingles – the best artists maintain a consistent theme or general flavor, often in spite of the genre’s eclectic nature. Though these “aesthetics” have been recently given more encompassing terms to categorize vaporwave’s nuances, with distinctions between what compromises “mallsoft” and “futurevisions” having been drawn. Evidenced by this, vaporwave has garnered a following that interprets it with a notable degree of seriousness, which some may have scoffed at during its infancy.
Like any genre you’re bound to find cheap imitators – those solely impassioned with the motivation to make vaporwave for the sake of making vaporwave. But on the other end of the spectrum, there are the rare artists that, like the greats of any other style of music, make you genuinely feel something, and capitalize on the genre’s strengths to fashion something truly effective as a piece of art, as ambiguous as it may be. This can be a dry and subtle revelation – as it was for me when I first uncovered Summer Paradise by Architecture in Tokyo.
And dry it was. On the first playthrough, Summer Paradise struck me as fairly bland when stacked up to the other artists I was falling in love with at the time, such as Ventla and Kodak Cameo. After a few more listens, the rather petite album was starting to drive into my headspace with its off-kilter brand of catchiness, and after a full day of “シナジーUNLIMITED” rattling in my head, it actually manifested as something disturbing. Everything about Summer Paradise was fairly characteristic of vaporwave, but it was dished out to decidedly eerier results, impressive considering the genre’s already running track record of evoking discomfort.
This was a little different though. No, this was very much like similar-sounding records, but something was off. Referencing the chart wherein vaporwave is given its aforementioned sub-subgenres, it can be labeled as a cross between what’s called “Faux-Utopian” and “Hypnagogic Drift”. In a nutshell, its music that evokes a sense of the “perfect world” utopian ambitions of commercials and companies in the 80s and 90s, tinged in a decidedly darker, emptier, and almost aimless aesthetic. The resulting sound is the prospect of beauty if it had discolored and died, like a dead leaf falling off a tree. Optimistic, but somewhere falling short of serving its intended purpose – a lost cause. Off-tones are a staple in the realm of ecco-jams and dystopian imagery, but here it stands in the void of an empty goal – a theme song for a commercial whose content was never decided on – missing scenes in the corporate image. These sketches leave an invariably desolate feeling in the listener, and though it can take some digestion and meditation to pick up on, are genuinely saddening. Somewhere during the process, the inorganic and corporate sound became tinged with real human emotion, and the dichotomy makes for a highly discomforting feeling of discard and dejection. For the first time, you’re actually feeling sympathy for the songs themselves, whose tapes have been tossed out the window to fade in the sun and be forgotten forever, in favor of tracks wielding greater financial merit, with no artistic value weighed whatsoever.
This only becomes all the more tragic with its double-edged atmosphere. Melancholy though it may be, it was nonetheless designed to be quite the opposite, evident by the constant pandering to the theme of exaggerated bliss via product satisfaction. As such, Summer Paradise can be interpreted in a wholly opposite light entirely – not unlike Boards of Canada’s emotionally gray Geogaddi. In typical vaporwave fashion, each of the song titles alludes to a jovial activity such as surfing eternally, riding waves, or feeling the caress of the ocean breeze, and the music attempts to go just as deep. Though vocally barren on the large, characteristic vocals downpitched and warped to the point of illegibility periodically chime in to chant the sounds of summer bliss and heatwave memories in essence alone – what they’re actually stating is anyone’s guess. This is all done with a conservative usage of chopping and screwing, much like eccojams but too ambient and drifting to qualify as such, lending the music just the right amount of repetitive hypnotism and cracked song structuring. Summer Paradise really does sound like an advertisement for the titular program, being sugar-coated in daydreamy delights like a campaign for a spa resort in the throes of 1980s bravado. Subtly so, this small, seemingly dime-a-dozen release melts into something truly surreal – familiar, but heartbreakingly nihilistic.
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For the subgenre chart mentioned in the review:
Also essential if the genre intrigues you: