100% ElectroniCON: The artists of the internet's most aesthetic, introverted music genre are actually gathering IRL.
Like most 21st century music genres, the term vaporwave was first used to describe the indescribable: Chuck Person’s Eccojams Vol. 1 and James Ferraro’s Far Side Virtual. Music made by slowing down, chopping up, and repackaging classic pop tunes, audio commercials, and elevator muzak into something velvety and euphoric. Think of the sound your laptop makes when it’s choking on software, then add ambient street noise and ’80s dance tones and imagine you’re eating ramen in a Takashimaya food court at 2am. Along with Macintosh Plus’s Floral Shoppe, Eccojams and FSV are considered pioneering works within the vaporwave cannon.
Since vaporwave arrived on the scene in 2009, the genre has been written off and declared dead many times. But unlike chillwave (its hipsterfied cousin that died shortly after the first season of Portlandia) vaporwave has continued to evolve. Today the musical genre contains a vast ecosystem of artists who are very serious about it. According to Google, searches for the word “vaporwave” peaked in 2017 (approximately eight years after the term was first coined) and have remained steady ever since. Earlier this month, Luxury Elite’s 2015 album World Class was the best-selling release across all formats and genres on Bandcamp. It’s not the first vaporwave album to hold that title this year.
On August 31 the largest in-person gathering of vaporwave artists will take place at Brooklyn venue Elsewhere. A day-long festival called 100% ElectroniCON will bring together a decade’s worth of musicians, who until now, have primarily remained online. Hosting the event is George Clanton, whose label 100% Electronica boasts a roster of modern vaporwave artists including Equip, S U R F I N G, and Satin Sheets as well as his own projects George Clanton and ESPRIT 空想.
The in-person gathering of vaporwave artists is a rare event. The genre has long been associated with anonymity and internet culture, existing mostly in a virtual world populated heavily by gamers, YouTubers, and those who post on 4Chan, Tumblr, and Reddit forums. Many artists use aliases to disguise their identities; some, like vaporwave pioneer Vektroid, have multiple online personas. Chuck Person, whose real name is Daniel Lopitan, is perhaps the most popular example. His music as Oneohtrix Point Never is widely revered and has been championed by mainstream music critics, while Chuck Person is considered significant mostly within the annals of vaporwave.
“How far can music evolve before it outgrows a tagline? Does genre even matter anymore?”
According to Clanton, the event in Brooklyn is indicative of where vaporwave is headed. “With 100% certainty I can say we are going to see a big jump in artists performing live for the first time,” he tells Document. Clanton’s own shows are already major events for vapor-heads. Earlier this year he played back-to-back sold-out shows in New York with S U R F I N G, Satin Sheets, and Negative Gemini. With ElectroniCON, Clanton says he’s just giving fans more of what they want. “We aim to please that audience with their first-ever large-scale gathering,” he says enthusiastically. ElectroniCON will feature 20-plus artists with varying degrees of separation to the genre, including vaporwave legends like Saint Pepsi and Telepath. The afterparty will feature a DJ set from the vaporwave community’s most beloved YouTuber Pad Chennington.
But before people like Clanton started marketing vaporwave (he just had a pop-up shop in Los Angeles) and profiting off of its cult popularity, it was said that the vaporwave community subscribed to a political ideology that is at odds with how Clanton and his fans have embraced capitalism. In online forums and on YouTube, the music has been called chillwave for Marxists, a notion that’s been amplified in the press. In 2013 Vice’s Michelle Lhooq claimed that vaporwave had a “deliberate affiliation with technocapitalism driven by a subversive political objective: undermining the iron grip of global capitalism by exposing the alienating emptiness underneath its uncanny sheen.” The sampling of pop songs like Diana Ross’ “It’s Your Move” on Macintosh Plus’s “リサフランク420 / 現代のコンピュー,” the use of images of marble floors, shopping malls, Classical Greek busts, and Japanese song titles were believed to be a critique of consumer capitalism. In 2014 the London Contemporary Music Festival had an entire day dedicated to “Marxist Chillwave.” The description of the event read, “Music and global capitalism: for the artists featured in this programme, the interlacing of these two themes has been a central concern.”
It’s easy to see how this theory took shape. Vaporwave has a lot in common with punk, a genre often aligned with anarchy and anti-capitalism. Like punk, it’s relatively easy and cheap to make, it’s unapologetically derivative (vaporwave is usually based on a pre-existing song), and often deliberately mocks highbrow culture. It’s also heavily rooted in DIY culture. “Vaporwave is similar to punk in its low barrier of entry,” says Clanton. “You don’t have to know how to play an instrument to make it. If you have a computer, you can open up an mp3 you stole from YouTube and start manipulating it with your mouse. Boom, you just made your first vaporwave track.”
But like the many subcultures that derived from punk—and vaporwave should be considered one of those—not all artists subscribe to the same ideology. And while the seed might have been planted by a handful of artists with the intent of drawing attention to capitalism’s many flaws, the genre has expanded to include artists like Clanton, FM Skyline, and Equip, who pay homage (a form of nostalgia) to the genre by including Japanese script, fauxtopian imagery, and post-internet and technocapitalist themes in their work, but remain apathetic to politics being a part of it.
Clanton doesn’t think vaporwave and Marxism are intertwined. “For me, and the majority of listeners, it’s about the sound and the feeling,” he says. “There has been an attempt by some book-learnin’ types to argue vaporwave is some kind of statement on consumerism, with many paragraphs of meandering ideas to back it up. From where I’m standing, it seems like they’re reaching to make some of the more boring artists of the genre more interesting.”
His view aligns with other artists Document spoke to, all of whom are playing ElectroniCON on August 31. Chicago-based musician Equip (real name Kevin Hein) says, “I think, like all music, some is political, some isn’t.” When asked if he thinks the press has overanalyzed the genre, he says, “I think the ‘vapor critiquing capitalism’ thing was a bit overblown, a bit overanalyzed.” John Zobele, who makes music as chris††† and runs his own vaporwave label Business Casual (circa 2013), is more theoretical. “While many may think of the entire genre as one big critique of capitalist consumer culture, it’s so much more than that,” he says. “There are so many different concepts and stories that have been told since Floral Shoppe. If everyone making vaporwave today was on the same page politically, the genre would be a boring echochamber.”
‘The in-person gathering of vaporwave artists is a rare event. The genre has long been associated with anonymity and internet culture, existing mostly in a virtual world.”
Today the music is being taken in all sorts of different directions, both in-line with Marxist theory and completely distant from it. “I think we seem to be on a path where being unique is appreciated more and more,” says Clanton, whose own music shows a nostalgic interest in ’90s indie rock, shoegaze, and rave music. “Heavy sampling is going out of fashion and original compositions are given extra points for effort these days. No one wants their favorite genre to die, and innovation is welcomed,” he says.
“In the spirit of chopping up and repackaging old ideas for a new generation, it’s a lot more fun to be ahead of the curve in vaporwave than to be 10 years late to the chillwave party, or 30 years late on shoegaze.”
But there’s a debate about that, too. How far can music evolve before it outgrows a tagline? Does genre even matter anymore? The use of samples seems to be where many vaporwave purists draw the line. “I’m of the mindset that samples are the backbone of the genre,” says Zobele, who has an album titled frasierwave that was made using samples of Michael Jackson’s “Thriller” and Kate Bush’s “The Sensual World,” among others. (“Much cheaper than going to a therapist and more relaxing than a champagne bubble bath,” reads one review on Bandcamp.) “Having original composition is just fine,” he says. “[But] entirely original works I feel aren’t true to the original plunderphonic roots.”
One artist on the ElectroniCON lineup that defies Zobele’s definition of vaporwave is Negative Gemini (real name Lindsey French.) French helps Clanton run 100% Electronica and has released two albums and several EPs on the label. While her music is often acknowledged as vaporwave, French says that it only has “textures and sounds derived from that genre,” so it’s not entirely vaporwave. “My music also draws influences from house, breaks and pop music in general,” she says.
“Vaporwave has a lot in common with punk, a genre often aligned with anarchy and anti-capitalism. Like punk, it’s relatively easy and cheap to make, it’s unapologetically derivative.”
New Zealand artist Satin Sheets (real name Ben Pogson), who released his album St. Francis on 100% Electronica, makes music completely devoid of samples. (It’s also apparently good to fuck to.) Hein also considers Equip to be an example of the logic that vaporwave doesn’t have to be sample-based. “When I started the project, my goal was to compose ‘original’ vaporwave, without relying on sampling other music,” he says. “Equip was 100% influenced by sample-based vaporwave artists, I studied their production techniques and applied them to my original compositions to get as close as I could to that sound.”
“To combat the notion that vaporwave must be made by sampling, I recently made some Chuck Person-style ‘eccojams’ by sampling my own tracks from my upcoming LP,” Hein adds.
Like Negative Gemini, Equip and Satin Sheets’ music is attached to the genre because of the feelings of nostalgia that flow through it, rather than because of the way it’s made or its political leanings.
Clanton believes the reason that so many artists are adopting new techniques is because a lot of early vaporwave tropes have been played out. He notes that nostalgia seems to be what’s holding the genre together. “Vaporwave today has little resemblance to what it used to be,” he says. “The common thread seems to be a warped nostalgia. Today I think about vaporwave as being whatever the subculture is listening to and collecting.”
Fans have been encouraged to wear their 100% Electronica-branded gear to ElectroniCON for a group photo. It’ll probably be remembered as an iconic moment by those in attendance, but perhaps it’s also a little ironic given the genre’s early association with Marxism. Or maybe it’s all a joke about consumer culture after all. Clanton says he named his label 100% Electronica because he used to see the word thrown around a lot when he was younger, but that no one ever knew what it meant. “So to me, calling something 100% Electronica is a little bit funny,” he says. “Plus it looks good on a T-shirt.” Perhaps no one cares that the genre is now identified by a ubiquitous Thrasher-style logo.