Vaporwave is an electronic music sub-genre and art movement that originated in the early 2010s and spread over the next half of the decade among various Internet communities. It is characterized by a nostalgic or surrealist fascination with entertainment, technology and advertising of the 1980s and 1990s, and styles of both corporate and popular music such as lounge music, smooth jazz and elevator music. Vaporwave music is interpreted as a critique or reflection on consumer capitalism and popular culture. Its name alludes to vaporware, a term for products, typically computer software or hardware, which are announced but never released.
The visual style of vaporwave (as seen on album covers and music videos) is commonly referred to as aesthetics (often stylized as “ＡＥＳＴＨＥＴＩＣＳ“, with fullwidth characters). The style often involves classical sculpture, web design, surrealism, low-poly computer renderings, glitch art, VHS recordings, cassette tapes, Japanese art and cyberpunk tropes.
Vaporwave has been interpreted as “a degrading of commercial music” in an attempt to “reveal the false promises of capitalism”. Music writer Adam Harper of Dummy Mag describes vaporwave as “ironic and satirical or truly accelerationist”, noting that the name itself was both a nod to vaporware, a name for products that are introduced but never released, and the idea of libidinal energy being subjected to relentless sublimation under capitalism.
Critic Simon Reynolds has characterized Daniel Lopatin’s Chuck Person project as “relat[ing] to cultural memory and the buried utopianism within capitalist commodities, especially those related to consumer technology in the computing and audio/video entertainment area”. Jouhou Desuku Virtual (情報デスクVIRTUAL, “Virtual Information Desk”), an alias of Vektroid, describes her 2012 album Sapporo Contemporary (札幌コンテンポラリー?, “Contemporary Sapporo”) as “a brief glimpse into the new possibilities of international communication” and “a parody of American hypercontextualization of e-Asia circa 1995”.
Music educator Grafton Tanner wrote in his 2016 book Babbling Corpse: Vaporwave and the Commodification of Ghosts, “vaporwave is one artistic style that seeks to rearrange our relationship with electronic media by forcing us to recognize the unfamiliarity of ubiquitous technology.” He later wrote, “vaporwave is the music of ‘non-times’ and ‘non-places’ because it is skeptical of what consumer culture has done to time and space”. In his review of Hologram Plaza by Disconscious, an album of the mallsoft subgenre of vaporwave, Dylan Kilby of Sunbleach Media stated that “[t]he origins of mallsoft lie in the earliest explorations of vaporwave, where the concept of malls as large, soulless spaces of consumerism were evoked in some practitioner’s utilization of vaporwave as a means for exploring the social ramifications of capitalism and globalization”, and said that such an approach “has largely petered out in the last few years in favor of pure sonic exploration/expression”.
Speaking on the adoption of a vaporwave and seapunk-inspired rebrand by MTV International, Jordan Pearson of Motherboard, Vice‘s technology website, noted how “the cynical impulse that animated vaporwave and its associated Tumblr-based aesthetics is co-opted and erased on both sides—where its source material originates and where it lives”.