It’s always fun to look back at a decade’s distinct visual style and compare it to the present, but it also serves an important purpose. American anthropologist Clifford Geertz once proposed that a culture was made up of a “historically transmitted pattern of meanings embodied in symbols … by means of which men communicate, perpetuate, and develop knowledge about and attitudes toward life.” His essay that discusses this explores cultural expression through symbol systems in the context of religion, but it applies just as well to the study of aesthetics.
What sets us apart from every other animal looking at a faux-chic wallpaper — Geertz would say — is our ability to immediately recognize it as an ’80s look. Period style provides a snapshot of an era, from which we can gauge the circumstances of its world. Designers will soon pair the waning 2010s with an artistic movement. If the function of a decade’s aesthetic is to reflect the pervading attitude of the times, then I predict the 2010s’ definitive style will be Vaporwave.
Culture is reactionary. An Italian architect, Ettore Satsass, founded a design firm called the Memphis Group in 1981. Their twisted style was created to go against what was considered acceptable interior decor. MTV adopted this experimental presentation when they debuted the same year, and went on to define the look of the decade. Designers of the ’90s started dipping their toes into digital design, toying with typeface and layouts in ways never before possible. The 2000s took advantage of these new technologies and welcomed an optimistic future of flashy clothes, computer-generated blob art and lens flare. As for the current decade …
“Nostalgia is so last century,” Steven Heller wrote in a 2009 article, trying to peg the dominant fashion of the Aughts. He couldn’t have been more wrong. Whether you’re a baby boomer complaining about the death of traditional American values or a tail-end millennial still getting used to adulthood, the 2010s carry with them a yearning for simpler times.
Countless franchises from the ’80s and ’90s have been rebooted, and shows like “Stranger Things” capitalize on childhood memories. With social media and the internet taking an omnipresent position in our lives, a sense of authentic personality and privacy has been lost. The only place they seem to exist is the past. This is particularly resonant with children born in the 1990s, a generation barely old enough to remember when a Game Boy was the most sophisticated machine in their house — and the last that ever will. These ideas form the essence of Vaporwave.
This burgeoning underground aesthetic originated when Daniel Lopatin — under the pseudonym Chuck Person — released “Eccojams Vol. 1” online. This album consists entirely of electronically modified pop songs from the last 30 years. It was intended as a joke, but producer James Ferraro later published a similar project called “Far Side Virtual,” which drew inspiration from a growing internet culture. What made the music into a legitimate genre was Ramona Xavier’s “Floral Shoppe,” a late 2011 collection of degraded ’80s jingles looping over and over. Tracks were titled in a foreign language, usually Japanese.
The genre got its name from related concepts. “Vapor” comes from the business slang “vaporwear,” which is a product announced but never released, and a Marxist term describing the ever-shifting ideals of capitalism. Since early Vaporwave producers like Infinity Frequencies relied on botched beats and empty elevator music, the genre became a critique of soulless consumerism in modern society. That is, until 2012 albums embraced consumerist ideals by incorporating old commercials and advertisements.
It wouldn’t be for another few years that the sound and objective of the genre would significantly change, leading many to write it off as a meme. This is largely how Vaporwave attained its visuals. It’s characterized by outdated graphic design depicting empty cyberspace in pastel neon colors. The only inhabitants of this space are often Greek sculptures, foreign typefaces and an intentionally snobbish “A E S T H E T I C” label. This harkens back to a 1910s style called “Found Art,” where random objects from the past are included in projects to recontextualize their meaning in the present day.
New artists revitalized interest in Vaporwave by the mid-2010s, more intent on eliciting an emotional response than providing social commentary, but the appeal continues to be the obscure nature of the movement.
Many Vaporwave artists reject a corporate label by staying anonymous, like producer Eco Virtual. “In a world where nothing is private, it is refreshing to find something that feels like it was found in the dumpster of a thrift shop,” Eco Virtual said in an interview. “Where it does not matter where it came from or who made it, but rather that it takes you elsewhere, somewhere distant from reality.” Remixes of old music have since been replaced by original albums, and popular subcategories like Future Funk and Mallsoft reinvent the genre to this day.
An aesthetic doesn’t need to be mainstream to define a decade’s look. The Memphis Group style never left MTV. It just needs to fit the cultural zeitgeist. Vaporwave jives with the 2010s because of its emphasis on nostalgia and lack of identity, invoking a distant past fondly remembered that may or may not have ever existed. You read it here first. God knows what the 2020s will have in store.