“Listening as means of remodeling one’s drudgery.”
There’s a choice phrase, from Herta Herzog’s 1941 study of daytime radio dramas and their effects on listeners. Trying to ferret out the uses and gratifications of all that programmed escapism, Herzog identified three reasons why people tuned in to formulaic soaps: for the “emotional release,” for life-adjustment “recipes” and my favorite above. I made special note of that one because it resonated with the uses and grats of my own daily habit — listening to music — and I was reminded of it again recently as I plumbed a recent subgenre called vaporwave. Here, I thought, is a good example of the other side of Herzog’s equation: musicians making music as a means of remodeling the drudgery they hear around them.
Vaporwave is a niche of a niche of electronic music featuring compositions comprised of at least a majority of other, sampled musics — clips from advertising, infomercials, video games, New Age, telephone holds, lots of that sonic wallpaper mass-produced and sold for use in various commercial environments. The artists borrow the sounds, distort them in various ways and reassemble them — “chopping that up, pitching it down, and scrambling it to the point where you’ve got saxophone goo dripping out of a cheap plastic valve” (1). It’s the equivalent of making visual art with collages of stock photography. And the name, “vapor” — got it? These artists are filtering the air we breathe (sonically speaking), sniffing out intriguing vapors, sense-memory flavors and added capitalist impurities. (Reminds me of this intriguing video, explaining the probability that every human has inhaled the same molecules that, say, Einstein exhaled when he first discovered his paradigm-shifting equation.)
The genealogies of electronic music develop faster than a rabbit’s extended family and, like mayflies, the subgenres are pretty much dead by the time they have a name. Vaporwave’s parentage includes hypnagogic pop (a similar collage aesthetic but concentrating mostly on samples from the ’70s and ’80s, complete with tape hiss) and seapunk (ditto, only leaning toward ’90s R&B samples and inordinate amounts of dolphin imagery). The etymology of the latter is important, because there actually is something of a punk intention in many of these artists: to pierce the commercial veil, to craft something noticeable out of that which was meant to be camouflaged, to foreground the background. (In that, the vaporwave network also is connected to older sampling groups with distinctly social objectives, such as Consolidated and Negativland. I would also claim a once- or twice-removed lineage to Mannheim Steamroller and other ’80s acts that gave the New Age classification its bad reputation, for both the music and the cheesy futuristic album art.) They remodel sonic drudgery into something more aesthetically pleasing or possibly intellectually arresting.
The line between foreground and background is tricky with music. Companies like Muzak (recently bought out and expanded to a full-range “multi-sensory branding” service, including customized smells) have spent decades walking that line, mastering the science of crafting music that’s there but not there, and many competitors now exist — “mysterious and often nameless entities that lurk the Internet, often behind a pseudo-corporate name or web façade, and whose music is typically free to download through Mediafire, Last FM, Soundcloud or Bandcamp” (2). They assist the needs of businesses in banishing silence from commercial environments — the lobby, the parking lot, the gas pump, the queue, etc. — and inadvertently provide the raw materials for vaporwave junk artists. There are even services cropping up online, from Focus@will (which I’ve found useful during thesis writing) to Coffitivity, streaming inoffensive, inconspicuous instrumentals — veritable Pandoras of pabulum. But everyone uses music for their own purposes, and all music has its uses.
James Ferraro has a new album this fall, which is what started me rambling about all this. He’s the Chet Baker of modern electronic music — an artist graced with a heady, natural sense of cool, who skews familiar sounds to add auras of sadness and danger. Like Baker he also, judging by his last album (“Sushi”) and some recently released tastes of the new one (“NYC, Hell 3:00 AM,” above), has begun singing on his tracks even though that may not be the best idea. His breakthrough record, 2011’s “Far Side Virtual,” epitomizes vaporwave; its remixed ad bumpers, newscast themes and Windows noises are at once eerily familiar — it’s like reclining in a patio lounger inside a beautiful, comfy mall — and insanely tuneful. “Far Side Virtual” is the far slope of music’s uncanny valley: instilled with a recognizable spirit, but still a little creepy. In an interview with The Wire, Ferraro called it “an opera for our consumption civilization.” Operatic recycling and regurgitation, certainly. Accelerationist, maybe. Definitely great.
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I'm THOMAS CONNER, Ph.D. in Communication (Science Studies) and culture journalist.