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Cold-Pressed: The Emergence of Vaporwave

Opinion | March 3, 2016

The ‘90s. A time of sporting jelly heels, popping in Biggie’s cassette, and forgetting about the fear of computers invading homes across the nation. Many would probably also like to forget this decade, but the recent cultural phenomenon called Vaporwave has resurrected the era and all of its glory. Vaporwave, as defined by knowyourmeme.com, is “a musical genre inspired by electronic dance music (EDM), New Age music and the indie dance genres chillwave and seapunk.” It also incorporates smooth jazz and “elevator music” from the ‘80s, which is altered and synthesized into discomforting yet somehow palatable songs.

But Vaporwave, like many other musical genres, has morphed into an entire lifestyle whose followers adhere to specific aesthetic guidelines. Generally, there is a focus on ‘90s technology visuals (like Microsoft logos), Japanese characters, neon colors, and striking juxtapositions incorporating Roman statues. And as mentioned before, there is a huge fascination regarding the “Jazz” cup, with its iconic blue and purple zig-zag design that almost every amusement park and shopping mall carried. Simply put, Vaporwave is really about nostalgia. Its followers understand and enjoy the irony in obsessing over dated technology and wearing outdated flashy fashion, but more so appreciate the endearing nature of early technology and its clunky silliness. Sentimental sadness combined with foreboding feelings about the growth of technology, then, also seems important to Vaporwave. Wearing a shirt sporting an ancient Mac desktop, Michelangelo, and endless binary grids definitely connotes getting lost in some sort of cyber trash time warp. And who wouldn’t be sad about that?

Speaking of sadness, I’ve come to notice the intersections of many different internet aesthetics and the communities they seem to build around each other. The “sad boi” movement of Yung Lean and bucket hats is arguably just as mournful as Vaporwave. The healthgoth and sportsgoth movements, much like Vaporwave’s focus on brands like Microsoft, revere all Nike or Adidas apparel mixed with classic goth elements. It seems like a new aesthetic pops up every day, and platforms like Instagram continually drive their rapid growth. For example, one of my friends was discussing Vaporwave so I showed her my high school friend’s Instagram account who partakes in Vaporwave culture. Not only did she already know my friend, she recognized her boyfriend and his brother as major players in the Vaporwave online world. These niche cultural movements have created a medium through which people can rapidly gain popularity online by dedicating one’s social media presence to a trending aesthetic.

It is also important to consider some of the more implicit messages within these trends. For example, some people at Tufts and other similar institutions who adhere to the sportsgoth culture also identify as progressive liberals. But what does it mean to wear Nike and Adidas—two huge corporations that routinely exploit their workers—while also denouncing American capitalism? Vaporwave and Sadboi culture both play off an inherent depressed quality, which seems rather brazen when considering those who struggle with actual mental illnesses.

Generally, these trends seem to be like all other fads—they gain traction quickly, are somewhat arbitrary in their success, and are fleeting in their popularity. Now it’s Vaporwave, but some people say it’s “beach goth” next. Concert festivals like Coachella have recently created an aesthetic centered around appropriating native and tribal apparel such as feathered head dresses. Horojuku girls in the music American media, White people wearing bindis: the flux never seems to end. But I think it’s important to remain critical of each movement, as considering their nuanced cultural implications allows individuals to be wiser in understanding what messages their clothes and lifestyle are expressing to others.