Opinion: Musings on 2010s aesthetic

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.


Seth Jans

Seth is an entertainment critic for the Tacoma Ledger, majoring in arts, media, and culture. He looks forward to seeing many more movies in theaters while struggling to find a job.